With the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games scheduled for July 27, we're looking forward to the stories of human gracefulness and God's grace that will emerge. Here are quick looks at five past American Olympians who displayed both.
Mary Lou Retton
Mary Lou Retton was 16 years old in 1984 when she twice landed a perfect 10 in the vault to become the first American woman to win Olympic gold in all-around gymnastics. She had grown up in a Christian home, but last month told me she didn't get serious about her faith "until my mid-20s when I had my first child. That's when it really hit me." Today Retton is busy raising four daughters-three are gymnasts-and traveling as a motivational speaker. She calls her faith in Christ "the core of who I am" and speaks of it extensively in her speeches: "I think that's why [God] had me win, to put me on a different platform."
An adolescent growth spurt ended Laura Wilkinson's dreams of becoming the next Mary Lou Retton, but she found platform diving at age 15 after setting out to find a sport in which she could train for the Olympics. Eight years later, Wilkinson won Olympic gold despite recovering from a broken foot: "God gives you different gifts and talents, and when you have the opportunity to do that for a living it doesn't feel like work. I was using the gifts He gave me, so it felt like worship." Today Wilkinson, a mom and motivational speaker, runs the Laura Wilkinson Foundation.
The 1992 Olympics was the first in which professional basketball players could compete, and the U.S. team had an average winning margin of 44 points in its undefeated run to Olympic gold in Barcelona. Robinson helped the United States to another gold medal finish in 1996, in the midst of a Hall of Fame NBA career that included two championships and a most valuable player award. Robinson professed Christ in 1991, and his subsequent charity work led the NBA to name its Community Assist Award after him. He's invested parts of his last decade-and more than $10 million-in The Carver Academy, a San Antonio charter school he founded.
After discovering weight lifting at age 18, Anderson was soon using automobile axles for bars and iron wagon wheels for weights in his home gym. Anderson went to the 1956 Melbourne Games as a heavy favorite, but a 104-degree fever made it seem he would miss the competition. On his final lift, weak and exhausted from sickness, Anderson told God, "I want to be part of Your kingdom." He hoisted 414½ pounds overhead to secure the gold medal, then spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen that he couldn't live a day without Jesus. He and his wife Glenda founded the Paul Anderson Youth Home, which has helped to change the lives of more than 1,200 young men since 1961. Anderson died in 1994, but the Home continues to operate.
Zamperini earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team as a runner at age 19. He gained 12 pounds on the ship that carried the team to Europe-"all the food was free"-and finished eighth in the 5,000 meters. Seven years later, Zamperini survived seven weeks adrift at sea after the Japanese shot down his plane, and then spent two years in brutal Japanese captivity. He returned home to a hero's welcome in 1945 but descended into alcoholism until he professed Christ at a Billy Graham crusade (see "We had adversities," Dec. 18, 2010). He has spent the rest of his life-he's now 95-as a motivational speaker. Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 biography of him, Unbroken, was a New York Times bestseller.