Identity Gives Olympians Freedom to Fail

Identity Gives Olympians Freedom to Fail

In a world that bombards athletes with messages of who they are or who they should be, Olympians Laurie Hernandez, Kelly Clark and Lauryn Williams have learned to find their identities outside their sports.

Athletes, especially those on a large stage, face the dilemma of where to find identity — are they just athletes who get worth from their success in competition, or are they something more?

Sixteen-year-old Laurie Hernandez, one of the United States’ rising female gymnasts, felt the pressure to succeed early in her competitive career.

“So I realized a couple of years ago during all my competitions, ‘Wow, this is really scary. There are all these big lights. There’s a lot of pressure, and I need to hit my routines.’ I think that was just too much stress for me to handle,” she remembers.

Laurie chose at that point to trust God with her dreams because she knew she couldn’t succeed on her own.

Now she believes God daily shapes her into who He wants her to be. For her, that looks like helping teammates or posting Bible verses on Instagram or Twitter. Her favorite verse, Proverbs 31:25, says, “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”

Many athletes feel pressured to prove themselves by their performance, and snowboarder Kelly Clark was no different when she first became a Christian. Kelly had defined herself by snowboarding — she only knew herself as “Kelly Clark, pro-snowboarder.”

But when Kelly realized she has worth apart from her performance, she was able to see snowboarding as a gift, not a burden to prove herself.

“In coming to know that I was significant apart from what I did, I began to develop that identity in the Lord,” she says. “It’s actually been the most freeing thing for my snowboarding and for my career. Because it’s no longer something I have to do, it becomes something that I get to do.”

When Kelly feels herself trying to seek her identity in her performance, she turns to the Bible and community to remember where her worth is really found.

“Getting in the Word is really helpful in being able to remind yourself of who God says you are,” Kelly says. “Getting around people who value you for who you are instead of what you do is super important too.”

The knowledge that her worth doesn’t depend on how well she competes gives former sprinter and bobsled athlete Lauryn Williams the freedom to give it her all and still come up short. Her father’s words at her first Olympics cemented this idea for Lauryn.

“One of the things my father said before the finals was, ‘You know it doesn't matter what happens out there tomorrow, that I love you no matter what, and that you’ve already made us so proud. Don't put the pressure on yourself to feel like you have to do this for us. We are proud of you no matter what,’” she recalls.

Where other people could have seen silver as “first loser,” Lauryn was able to see her success because her identity wasn’t wrapped up in her performance.

“I think that’s what really helped me get to that line, take the deep breath and and go for gold and come just a little bit short, but really be able to appreciate and celebrate that silver medal at age 20.”

The risk of failure doesn’t hurt Laurie, Kelly or Lauryn because they have all found that their significance will never come from sports, even in the highest level of competition in the world.

“I think the great athletes, we have to take risks, we have to lay it on the line,” Kelly says. “We get in those situations where we have to go for it. If your identity’s not wrapped up in it, you can dream big and fail and you’re okay.”

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