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Rising from a fall

Q&A | A broken neck changed Timothy Dalrymple's life, and helped make him the young Christian leader he is today

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Since our Q&A's are usually with older people of great distinction, last July I asked readers to nominate for interviews some articulate, conservative evangelicals under the age of 40 or so. One result: our cover story. Another result is this article. Timothy Dalrymple, a Patheos website editor, is a future leader who impressed us so much that he now does some writing for WORLD.

Below are parts of his fascinating biography: Dalrymple, now age 34, was the NCAA's top-ranked gymnast as a sophomore at Stanford until a broken neck ended his career. In God's providence, that disaster opened up opportunities for him to deepen his faith and also earn a Ph.D. at Harvard.

As a child you spent a lot of time looking up at the ceiling and wondering about life and death. It took me about an hour or two to fall asleep. I had a philosophical bent and spent a lot of time thinking about all sorts of ultimate questions, especially the question of whether there is some sort of existence beyond death. I don't know which one I found more terrifying, that there would be some existence or that there would not.

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What helped you to grow your faith-and get to sleep? The example of my father, not only a pastor but a genuinely loving, faithful, righteous person, helped. I saw in his life something undeniably true that I couldn't explain away.

When you were 8 years old you started gymnastics. I was flipping around the house and my parents decided that I'd better learn how to do it right. At 15 I won National Championships for the first time. Then I went to Stanford and was training for the Olympics.

How did you break your neck? I was on the high bar and doing a triple back-flip dismount-I was supposed to be doing that. I didn't have enough rotation and landed partway on my back and partway on my head. It loaded up a lot of pressure on two vertebrae. It felt like a balloon of hot water had burst in my neck. Strangely, it didn't hurt too much at the beginning. I checked to make sure I could move all my extremities, and I could, so I jumped back up on the bar. I ended up going to the floor exercise and doing tumbling, which puts a lot of pressure on your spine.

You were competing with a broken neck. I competed on the first event. The pain was getting pretty bad at that point, so I decided to step out. Later I went to the hospital and asked for an X-ray. The doctors started looking at the X-ray, then ran in and yelled, "Sit up straight! Look straight ahead! Don't move!" They ran out and sent in the X-ray tech, who was cute. I kept trying to get her phone number. Little did I know that they'd actually sent her to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn't do anything.

Did you get her phone number? I did, and we ended up dating, but it never went anywhere. I always thought that would have been a nice meeting story.

Then the doctors came back . . . They said, "You have a serious injury. You need to be admitted to the hospital right away." I stood and went for my backpack. They said, "No no no." They put me in a wheelchair and put me in the hospital. Before I really knew what was happening, a whole surgery team was drilling a metal band into my skull. Then they told me that I'd broken my neck.

You suddenly had a lot of time freed up for theological studies. The doctors were astonished that I wasn't paralyzed. I felt that God was going to use this in a way to refine me. I'm now grateful for what happened to me-there's no doubt in my mind that He's used it to build my character. It also freed up time for me to get involved in the Christian fellowship at Stanford, to go on missions trips to East Asia, to pursue my passion for God in a way that I hadn't been able to.

Your ministry experiences included preaching in the state prison in Trenton, N.J. It was call-and-response, preaching to about 200 very large men in a maximum-security prison: Most of them were in for murder of some kind. Over three years I got to know some of them well and learned about the transformational power of the gospel. Here's a story: One prisoner, as a child, had taken care of his mother when she was dying of AIDS. Then he grew up and got married. They had a child, but all the while he was having an affair. At a time when AIDS was not well understood, he discovered that the woman he'd been having the affair with had acquired AIDS.

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