Running gets meaning after emptiness

Running gets meaning after emptiness

Olympic track and field athlete Nick Willis has achieved a great deal of success and notoriety as an elite-level athlete. Nick won a silver medal for his native New Zealand in the 1500-meter race at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But it almost didn’t happen.

“With about 400 meters to go, I thought the race was over; I had no chance,” remembers Nick. “I was in 11th place and thought there was no way to get to the front; there were too many guys to overcome. Then with about 300 meters left, a gap opened, and I was able to sneak through capitalize on it.”

Nick worked his way to the front of the pack and held on to his third-place position and a bronze medal by .04 seconds. Eight months later, race winner Rashid Ramzi was disqualified for failing a drug test. Ramzi was stripped of his gold medal, and Nick was elevated to the silver-medal position.

He didn’t let the circumstances surrounding his performance detract from the experience.

“I thought I had my very best race in my career to that point,” he says. “I had a genuine joy that could never be taken away because I had done my best. God allowed me to experienced more joy than most men ever do.”

All of the accolades and celebrity that followed were not what kept Nick motivated as he competed in his second Olympic Games in London.

“Before I embraced my understanding of God and actually formed a relationship with Him, my whole motivation for becoming a great athlete was to be significant to my peers and to get the recognition of being in the newspapers and being somebody important,” Nick says.

“Once I understood who I was in God, and how He created me to love me for who I am and not for what I do, that freed me from a lot of those empty, non-sustaining motives for doing my sport. I realized what an awesome privilege that God chose to give me the ability me to put my legs one in front of the other faster than most people in the world. I cannot be more thankful for this privilege. Now my motivation for doing my best is out of a thankful heart.”

Nick says his search for significance began when he was a young child. When he was four years old, his mother died after battling cancer.

“In my childhood and youth, I had a huge longing for significance and belonging because I didn’t have that nucleus of a family like other kids did,” says Nick. “I had a lot of jealousy and angry bitterness toward God for letting my mom die.”

Nick says sports filled that void for him.

“I found that I was good at several activities, and it gave me a sense of significance,” he said. “It gratified my need to be a part of and be recognized by our community, but I was never really satisfied. It was never enough.”

Willis accepted a scholarship offer to run at the University of Michigan partly so he could continue to fulfill that need of being significant and important.

During his freshman year in Ann Arbor, Nick was experiencing a good deal of success athletically and academically. He was very popular among his peers. But after some deep introspection, he realized his mother would not be proud of his actions.

“I was climbing to the top of the mountain but was climbing on a lot of people’s backs to get there. I suddenly realized the emptiness and longing I was trying to fill,” Nick says.

“Everything I was doing, I was doing out of a selfish pursuit to fulfill myself, and I wasn’t helping anyone else along the way. That left me with a real sense of loneliness.”

Growing up, Nick said he and his family attended church but had not been to church in close to eight years.

“I wanted to get back to how my family raised me, and I wanted to get back to God,” he says. “When I went back to New Zealand that summer, I went to church, not because I knew who God was or because I wanted to spend time with Him; I wanted to spend time with my family. I knew being part the church experience was part of that.”

After his visit, Nick’s brother, Steve, decided to help out. He reached out to a kicker on the Wolverine football team whose blog he had come across on the internet. The American football player mentioned he was involved in a Christian organization called Athletes in Action.

“He e-mailed this guy and asked him to invite me to Athletes in Action,” Nick recalls. He did contact Nick and invited him to the weekly group Bible study.

“I had never met him,” Nick said. “But when I opened the door, I could feel a real sense of caring and love. He genuinely cared for me in a totally different way; that was a really exciting thing.”

As he became more active in AIA, Nick saw those he considered to be leaders within the athletic department and on campus in a different light.

“They didn’t have to be staunch and tough in order to gain respect, but they were carrying respect because they cared about people. They had a different sort of charisma,” he says of the difference in his fellow athletes. “I realized God wasn’t just some kind of ‘out there’ being that somehow on Sunday you could connect with at church. God was living inside these men and changing them from inside out, making them these very loving, caring people because they carry the Spirit of God inside them.”

Nick acknowledged that those other athletes had something he wanted: a personal relationship with Christ.

“In October 2003, I asked God if He could live inside my heart and change me, stop me from worrying about my status or my significance but allow Him to be significant through me,” says Nick. “Slowly but surely, He has allowed me to stop thinking about myself so much and has replaced (my attitude) with a caring for those around me. He saved me from the terribly empty, lonely, depressed lifestyle I was living.”

Nick’s relationship with Christ has altered the reason he competes so hard. No longer is winning an Olympic gold medal and earning the adulation of millions of fans at the heart of his competing — Nick is running to bring honor and glory to God.

“My motivation isn’t to earn God’s favor but to run out of gratitude and thankfulness for being given the unique privilege to do this,” said Nick. “The freeing side of that is whether I win or finish second or eighth or don’t even get to run that season because of injury, God doesn’t care about the actual result for me. He cares that I am thankful for whatever opportunity I have been given and try my best. He wants me to do well for my sake, but He knows what He has in mind and what is best for me.”

Nick is convinced that God’s plan and purpose is best for him, no matter what happens in his future competitions.

Nick draws a parallel between his situation and the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3. Though the three Hebrew captives were faced with being thrown into a fiery furnace for not bowing to a golden statue of the king, they still refused.

“They believed God would deliver them from the furnace,” Nick recounts. “They said, ‘And if he chooses not to deliver us, we still will not bow to the idol.’ That’s how I approach every race, but especially the Olympics. God could do anything He wants.

If He wants to bless me with a gold medal, I will give Him honor and glory. But if I don’t win, I will still choose to honor Him. A gold medal wouldn’t be for me anyway; it would be because He has a bigger plan in mind for me.”
By Tommy Young, AIA Communications Photos by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport: Top, Nick Willis (center) leads the pack in the 1,500 at the IAAF Championships in Daegu in 2011. Bottom, Willis wins a 2009 mile race in Arkansas at the Tyson Invitational.

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