Sporting honours comes a poor second to golden relationships, says Shannon
Track and field athlete Shannon Winant found that every aspect of his life and sport improved when he stopped focusing on personal gain.
Today, he is thrilled to be building up and training with South Africa's Olympic-calibre athletes.
Shannon confesses that he "lived for sport" and gained confidence, discipline and determination as he competed in track and field from first grade.
While there were many positive results from sport, he admits, "As I became more talented sports became part of my identity and everything became about my own gain."
Shannon's group of friends loved sports as much as he did but as he watched them he noticed they behaved differently to him.
"They were brighter and more joyful, so I wanted to see why," Shannon recalls.
As these friends attended a church youth group, Shannon began going as well. As a 13-year-old he recalls his enjoyment of the activities and devotional talks, and even attended one Friday without his friends. On that night he knew he needed to ask for God's forgiveness and let God change his heart.
"The youth pastor asked if there was anything holding us back from fully giving our lives to Jesus Christ. I felt God tugging on my heart, and as soon as I raised my hand I felt the weight of the world release from my shoulders.
"I prayed, 'Lord Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for my sins, and raising on the third day. I am a sinner and the only way to God the Father is by you. You are my Lord, my God and Saviour. I love you."
From then on, Shannon wanted to follow Jesus, but in competitions he admits he was focused on himself rather than God and others.
"I gave God a little shout out," Shannon says, "but the only reason I worked hard was for my own gain: to be better than everyone else."
He also recalls that when his performance dropped "I had a really poor attitude that led to a major downfall for me."
This downfall came after he was accepted into Whitworth University in Spokane, USA where he became the fastest on that team and had almost achieved "All-American" honours before he was humbled by a foot fracture and a severe knee injury in successive years.
After two months working to repair his knee, he recalls expecting to jump really far at his first meet.
"My body was not ready to jump that far and I landed my worst result for every jump. I was so angry at myself and jealous of my teammates who were healthy. I was not being a good teammate and I was not honouring God."
One of Shannon's teammates, Emmanual Bofa, a two-time NCAA DIII National Champion, offered him some advice.
"Emman said, 'God makes it pretty simple for us: love God and love others', which is Jesus' summary of His Ten Commandments" (see Mark chapter 12, verses 30-31).
"Life and athletics is not about us," Emman added, "it is about spreading the love of God to all you come across, and using the talents that God has blessed you with to do so."
Shannon recalls, "As I talked with Emman, it felt like God was taking out my old heart and giving me a new one". Shannon then prayed to ask God to change his attitude.
At the following day's practice, Shannon remembers, "I felt so much weight was off my shoulders. A week later I jumped three feet further. My body had not strengthened that much in seven days, it was about my perspective."
From then on, Shannon says he worked his hardest on the track and loved and supported both teammates and competitors "as much as I could".
Shannon's commitment to his team led to becoming team captain in his third year at university. "I had an amazing year as I put teammates before myself, loving them and loving God through my sport."
Wanting to go abroad to tell others about God through his sport, Shannon gained an internship an international Christian sports ministry called Athletics in Action.
"I was placed on a track and field team at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Here God created relationships with Olympic calibre athletes that will last a lifetime."
One of South Africa's strongest prospects for the 2016 Summer Olympics is long jumper Rush, who is one of these friends. Before his break at the end of 2013, Shannon remembers, "Rush said to me, 'You have [taught] me a lot and I am so blessed for that. You gave me the most blessed gift in the whole wide world [the Bible].'
Seeing the changes in his teammates, Shannon says, "I feel it is God's appointed task to tell South Africans who have never experienced the love of God."
Being a staff member of AIA South Africa is a "dream come true", says Shannon, who graduated with a marketing degree from Whitworth University in 2013.
"I love Jesus with all of my heart. For me, Life is about using my gifts and abilities to spread the love of Christ.
"I have experienced team unity issues, car troubles, and very dangerous car-jacking situations, but God calls us to be thankful in these situations. The will of God is to give thanks in all circumstances, according to 1 Thessalonians 5, verse 18." •