I grew up attending Catholic schools. My parents were Catholic and the faith was a part of my life as long as I can remember. But when I think about the people I looked up to, they had nothing to do with the faith. The thing they had in common was they were athletes. There was Olympian Tim Broe, who hailed from my hometown. I had a poster of him in my room growing up. There was Alan Webb, who broke the American record for the mile when I was in 6th grade. There was one personal hero that stood above the rest… Steve Prefontaine.
At 21, he shattered the American 5k record and qualified for the Munich Olympics. Prefontaine garnered attention, which few track athletes ever get, because of his aggressive racing style. Most of his rivals would compete conservatively, waiting for an opportunity to take the lead in the final moments. Pre, as his fans called him, chose to go all out from the start of the race. “I am going to work so that it's a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I'm the only one that can win it” he said once.
He loved to compete, he loved to dig deep, to push his limits. Pre wanted to win so badly that he refused to quit in the face of any obstacle. As a college freshman, Pre gashed his foot 6 days before the NCAA national track championships. He still won the 5k. “I'm not afraid of losing,” he once said. “But if I do, I want it to be a good race. I'm an artist, a performer. I want people to appreciate the way I run.”
My point in going on about Pre, a hotshot athlete who had his faults, is he represented something I did not see in the Catholic Church growing up. Pre embodied grit to me. He embodied what it meant to push yourself to the absolute limit of what you’re capable of. Pre’s example gave me permission to chase after my limits as an athlete and a person.
Meanwhile in the Catholic Church it was a different story- vague homilies by uninspired priests; people who claimed they were Catholic but didn’t bother to show up for mass on Sundays (the minimum expectation); Catholics who didn’t seemed bothered by breaking the rules of their faith. Frankly, I didn’t see gusty, tough people in the Church. From my perspective, I saw the Church as made up of soft individuals.
I’m not saying this to suggest that this is the case for all, or even for many of the people in the Church. But the experience of my upbringing was Catholics typically going as far as it was convenient. Anything that called for real change, challenge, or discomfort was not embraced. Pre demonstrated what I saw lacking the in the local Church: If you’re going to do something, give everything you’ve got.
This was best illustrated when he raced the 5K at the Olympics. Pre took the lead with a mile left, laying a blistering pace. 2 laps to go Pre was passed by several runners, he fought back to the lead. In the final lap Pre is passed again. He doesn’t back down but goes for the lead again. In the final stretch the toll of leading the last mile shows as Pre fades from the two leaders. Barely 20 meters from the finish he is passed by another runner and finishes 4th… the first spot without a medal.
Even though Prefontaine walked away without a medal, it is still my favorite race of all time. I get chills watching it because I see someone who refused to give anything less than his best. And to me, that means Steve Prefontaine was as free as you can be. Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom is not doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Giving our absolute best with our God-given talents is at least part of what we “ought” to do.
Steve Prefontaine was far from perfect, but his example on the track is something I want to challenge my Christian brothers and sisters to imitate. Life is hard, being a Christian is hard. But if you’re going to do it, be all in. And be all in everyday, from start to finish. The Christian life shouldn’t be something we take seriously when we retire or “get near the end.” That’s what Pre’s rivals did, saving themselves for the finish. Instead we should give everything we have in every moment of life. What if you leaned into every challenge in your marriage like Pre leaned into every lap with fearlessness? What if you responded to every temptation the way Pre responded to being passed, refusing to give up? What if you actually dared to discover what your were capable of instead of hiding in security? You might not get a medal for it. Just like Pre didn’t get a medal for his best. But you don’t need one. Your triumph is in giving your best, and offering it to God.
Brothers and sisters, I hope you take this to heart so one day someone can be inspired by you like I was by Prefontaine. I hope you wake up and renew that daily desire to give your all. I hope you learn to disdain “just getting by.” I hope you draw close to Christ and discover what you’re made of in the process. You’re made out of greatness, because you’re made in God’s image. Let’s strive for that greatness. All day. Everyday.