Jack Toholke always dreamed of standing in front of his family and friends after winning gold for Australia in the Olympics; but he attained a far more valuable prize.
Whilst watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Jack was amazed by the athletes. "From then on, my dream was to go to the Olympics to represent Australia, and win a gold medal," says Jack. "I didn't care what sport I competed in as long as I got to put on the 'Green and Gold'.
"I realised, after watching the London Olympics in 2012, that in order to make my dream a reality I would need to train... hard," Jack emphasises. This started a long, intensive search to find a sport at which he excelled. Over the next couple of years he tried running the 400m, then 1500m and even javelin, but nothing worked out.
For the first time since he had watched the Beijing Olympics Jack felt discouraged about his Olympic dream.
However, his chance of being an Olympian was not over. In mid-2015 Jack was listening to the radio when he heard a woman speak about the "South Australian Sports Institute" or SASI. She spoke about their Talent Search Campaign where they looked for athletes who could potentially become professional rowers. Applicants would be examined on their strength, height, weight, vertical jump and arm span.
A week or so after the testing Jack received a letter in the mail, "As I opened it, I thought that if I was accepted, my life would take on a much greater meaning. I opened the letter... and I was accepted. I was over the moon with excitement! I imagined the day when all my family and friends would be sitting in a grandstand watching me win Gold for Australia," Jack remembers.
However, Jack's parents encouraged him to postpone his dream for one year, to enable him to finish his Year 12 studies. This did not stop him dreaming of Olympic success, even creating his own training programme, in the hope of using it to help him apply for the rowing programme the following year.
Jack's life was now full of big plans and goals, "I was consumed daily by these dreams," he says. "I thought that even if I just got into the Olympic team, my life would be worth more."
Suddenly there was no room in Jack's life for the God He had known and believed in from childhood. He no longer desired to read his Bible or spend any time praying.
Years earlier at the age of six, Jack knew he needed a saviour. "I realised I was a sinner and that I needed Jesus to forgive me. So I asked Jesus to come into my life and to wash me clean from my sin. I don't remember much in terms of my spiritual life, except going to church and reading the Bible," says Jack.
It wasn't until one night in August 2016 that Jack realised where his priorities should lie. "Our family had a movie night and we watched 'God's Not Dead'. It was about a university student who is forced to state that God is dead to his lecturer. However he stood up for his faith and refused to say so," says Jack.
"This movie spoke to me on how I should be living my life," Jack acknowledges. "Towards the end of the movie, I broke down and wept, I thought what am I doing? My life is so short compared to eternity and all I want is a chunk of metal hanging around my neck; a prize that will not last.
"There were people in my life who did not know the saving grace of Jesus. I realised that it was way more important to speak to them about Him than go to the Olympics."
A change of mindset for this young once-aspiring athlete was not easy. "I struggled with my desire to become an athlete until December 2016 when I decided enough was enough," Jack admits.
Tired of fighting his passions, Jack decided to surrender his life totally to Jesus, asking Him to do whatever He wanted with his life.
Jack now has a prize much more valuable than a gold medal at the Olympics. "My life now has more meaning. Why? Jesus is the reason. I don't have to reach a certain level or standard for Him to love me. I can now call God 'Father'. What more could I possibly want?" Jack states happily.
One of Jack's favourite verses is Philippians 3:8: "What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ."
Jack is thankful to God for his renewed faith and continues to grow more each day as a Christian.
In July 2017 he travelled to South Africa with the Impact Africa mission team. He saw this as a great opportunity and challenge for him to have more boldness in sharing his renewed faith with those who don't know Jesus. Jack will return to Africa in 2018 and is looking forward to other opportunities elsewhere.•