Religion big part of all sports for many athletes, including gymnasts

BRENT MILLER

Religion. The mere utterance of the word sparks controversy. However, religion is a big part of some people's lives.

Penn State Women's Gymnastics Team


From the sign of the cross that certain baseball players make before stepping in the batter's box, to a football player taking a knee after scoring a touchdown, for many athletes at all levels, religion and sport go hand-in-hand.

"I think religious faith gives athletes an edge in the sense that they believe that everything happens for a reason and they are going to be protected," Penn State women's gymnastics coach Steve Shephard said. "They are doing it for a higher cause and it can enhance their experience."

Professional athletes tend to garner the spotlight when it comes to religion. For example, when "Neon" Deion Sanders was a Dallas Cowboy, religion played an important role in his life. He would always point to the sky and openly display his religious beliefs by thanking God for everything he had. Sanders' display of his faith is probably the most prominent I have seen in sport.

NASCAR drivers are another group of athletes that tend to put a high emphasis on religion and the display of it to the public. All of the drivers attend a church service before a race and even before they start their engines, a member of the clergy conducts a prayer on national television to help guide the drivers through a safe race.

While some athletes such as Sanders like to display their religion to the public, others feel comfortable by just keeping religion a private issue and that is perfectly fine.

"Sports and religion are parallel," Penn State women's gymnastics assistant coach Jessica Bastardi said. "Personally I think religion is a private thing, although I have no problem with outward displays of belief."

When people see athletes exhibiting their religion, it makes them think about it more.

With that in mind, a combination of private and open displays of religion can be found in college sports. Before the start of the Big Ten Championship meet this season, the Penn State women's gymnastics team came together and prayed.

"I think it is a good idea because people take it as an opportunity to either pray or take a moment to reflect on what is coming up," freshman Jennifer Orlando said. "It is nice to be in that group and all together."

While none of the gymnasts were forced to participate in this prayer, they all still came together as one to clear their minds and be thankful to God for what abilities they were granted. This being only the second team prayer this season, the other coming before the start of the Super Six Challenge, I thought it was nice to have a group of college athletes being brought together by prayer. Furthermore, the co-captains of the team, Leslie Bair and Kelly Streicher, always have a prayer before every meet to prepare themselves for the competition and put their minds in the right place.

"It is not something that you pray to I hope I win, I hope we beat every other team, you pray to ease your mind and get you in your element," Streicher said. "For me it makes me feel calm, makes me feel like I am not alone and I have help."

With the co-captains praying before every meet, it sets a good example for the Penn State program. Their prayers this season have emphasized health, as the Lions had been struck down by injuries the previous year.

"I know that the reason I am here is because God has given me a gift to be where I am today," Bair said. "I know I am not the most talented gymnast, but He has brought so much to me through this experience."

All of this comes at a time when religion is not allowed in public schools, people attempt to take religion out of the pledge of allegiance, and even controversial issues of people having qualms with the words, "God Bless America." However, with the current war going on, religion is becoming more open, at least in the sense of seeing the words, "God Bless America" and "God Bless Our Troops."

So then why is religion such a controversial topic in society? The world should take a step back and look at the athletes. If they are setting an example by openly displaying their religious faith, then a little prayer in school would not hurt. Moreover, that 10-second prayer might mean the world to someone.

"A lot of stuff does not make sense without it," Bair said. "When everything is going crazy it is like an exit and it brings me back to where I need to be."

All in all, religion is a daily part of some people's lives and if they want to display it, then they should be able to without causing a ruckus to society. With that in mind, religion played an important role for the Penn State women's gymnastics team this year and probably will in the years to come.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brent Miller. "Religion big part of all sports for many athletes, including gymnasts." The Collegian (April 9, 2003).

The Collegian is published independently by students of Penn State. This article reprinted with permission from Brent Miller and The Collegian.

THE AUTHOR

Brent Miller is a junior majoring in journalism and a Collegian women's gymnastics writer. His e-mail address is bdm170@psu.edu.

Copyright © 2003 The Collegian


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