Sidebar: Inspiration

I have been in London this last week for the World Para Taekwondo Championships, 7th edition.  It was attended by 59 participating countries.  It has two disciplines competed: sparring for those with various arm impairments, including those with no arms at all; and there are Taekwondo form competitions for those with Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy.

I had four major takeaways:

Rwanda players are incredible in Taekwondo!  Rwanda’s journey in Para Taekwondo has been very short with only having competed on two occasions in the past seven months.  In fact our six Para Taekwondo players only began their official training in March of this year, just three weeks before their first event, the 2nd Africa Para Taekwondo Open.  There, they were competing against fifteen nations from Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa.  We were able to host that event here in Kigali, Rwanda. Out of those players we actually won six medals and bizarrely the championship trophy!  Even with those great results, I must admit that I doubted the possibility of such success in the World Championships, especially in the overwhelming grandeur of London for those that had never left Rwanda!  Instead, five of our six players all made it to the quarter finals.  To get there, they defeated players from Russia, South Korea, England, and other powerhouse countries.  Then to my great surprise and delight, our only female player, Consolee, became Rwanda’s first ever World Champion in any sport.  As well we won a bronze medal.  What can I say, except that, truly, Rwanda’s great sport is Taekwondo!

People without hands and arms inspire me.

Meet Dejana Backo.  She is a champion from Serbia. Not only did she win a silver medal at the World Championships this year, but she is truly a great champion of life!  She was born with no arms but that does not stop her from living.  Beyond being an elite world athlete, she has a designer line of clothes and is an internationally renowned artist!  She does all of this with her feet!  She is an amazingly beautiful young woman who not only has overcome her disability, but has now achieved much more in life with two limbs than most could with four!

Para Taekwondo Competitors are Heroes and Heroines!

Retired US Army Major Anthony Smith is a great hero and, as well, Taekwondo Champion.  I had the privilege of first meeting him in Kigali this April where he won a medal in Para Taekwondo for the US national team.  I liked him from the beginning.  He can be tough and raw, but he is passionate about life, as well he should be after an event in Iraq that should have killed him several times over.  Nicknamed A-train it takes more than an rocket propelled grenade to put this good man down.  As his unit in Iraq came under fire, he paused to force them into a bunker as they hesitated.  In that moment he was shot through with an RPG!  He should have died.  It took out his hip, kidney, and lower half of his right arm.  He stood there, surprised, and instead of taking it lying down, he picked up his weapon with his only remaining arm and returned fire.  He then was shot five more times.  He should have died.  He did finally go horizontal and when the medics came they thought him deceased and bagged him.  Forty-five minutes later they happened to notice his bag rising and falling with breathing.  He should have died.  Shocked they popped open his body bag and gave him a transfusion, of the wrong blood type!  He should have died.  They got him to Germany and, after many months in a coma for healing, he woke up to live as never before!  He is a Master of martial arts and teaches at his club, an avid one armed golfer, a preacher, and lives his life to the fullest.  Truly, you have to ask yourself, upon meeting he who should be dead but is so full of life, when you are going to start truly living!

Joy of competing expressed by those with Down Syndrome destroys me.

These young men have unquenchable joy and are limitless in encouragement.  They won the gold and silver medals at this world championships and are from Honduras and El Salvador.  I watched with tears them compete against, cheer for, and celebrate each other with the emotions and passion for sport of twenty men!  I watched until I bowed my head, ashamed that I live my life with pettiness and jealousy.  Yet, I was inspired by them to live as they do, loving deeply and rejoicing greatly!

This is the best of everything that sport could ever be and should always strive to be.  This is Para Taekwondo.

I didn’t want to do this Part 2 – Being

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One of my great fears in coming to Africa was that my children would not have the opportunities to develop as I had growing up in the USA.  One thing, of many, that I have learned about God, though, is that He specializes in not just overcoming fears but more importantly in giving fullness and abundance to our lives.

Sports had been such a huge part of my development.  The learning of perseverance through pain, teamwork, discipline, overcoming loss, winning with humility, and the courage to take the field or run the race were so instrumental in teaching me authentic manhood.  How could we live in the bush of Togo, West Africa, raising our four sons and persist without sports, without the opportunity to teach the great lessons of life within the context of training and competing?

P1010420When our oldest son was seven, we had our first sport camp for our kids.  It was pretty simple, just introducing them to football, basketball, baseball, and soccer.  More importantly, it was a building of faithful character through sport.  Whereas my development in sport had not been with spiritual intention, it now seemed such a natural extension; to take the lessons of sport and apply them spiritually to life itself.

The good was obvious and I wanted to delve more deeply into it.

A couple of years later my initiatives to give opportunity to my sons to enjoy and grow through sports spilled over into our community.  We had an unused soccer field near our house and after I received permission from local authorities, I cut out a baseball field.  That year, titanium bats had been removed from high school baseball and friends in the US promptly had sent two teams worth of equipment to us in Togo.  We bribed the local kids that for every month of baseball they gave me, I would give them two months of soccer.  And, thus it began.

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A short while later, we started Taekwondo for our sons and myself.  This quickly became inclusive of our neighborhood friends.  Bible study and prayer very naturally integrated into the sports and the impact of the training, competing, and studying affected our sons and all other participants deeply.

Little did I know what God  had in store for us in our transition from Togo to Rwanda.

I Corinthians 9:25  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown  that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

 

I didn’t want to do this Part 1b – Becoming

Friday the 13th of June, 1997, I turned in badge and keys to the district manager and resigned as an area director of Wal Mart.  It was time to pack our container, say goodbye to our families and, along with our two young sons, fly to Togo, Africa, our future home for the coming several years.  We had become missionaries heading to a new life in Africa.  How ironic after my bold declarations of nine years before that I would never be a missionary and would absolutely never by a missionary in Africa.  What in the world would have led us to such a risky and somewhat bizarre change in our lives?

A tribute to my wife – Louise

All who know her love her.  She is undoubtedly the most talented woman I have ever met.  She is a fine artist, a gifted seamstress and designer, a graphic designer, a professional photographer, an exceptional teacher, an amazing wife to me and mother to our four sons, and a deep lover of God.  She is truly a beautiful woman.  She had married me assuming I would be a physician and an Olympian.  After the injury, though, I had assessed my direction and realized I would make a proper physician but would likely be a poor husband and father while doing so.  She was in a solid career in advertising but was supportive as I transitioned out of grad school and a future in medicine to working in retail for Wal Mart.  She knew what I did not.  We were destined for missions in Africa.  So, in 1993, while on a visit to Memphis, she dined with some future missionaries heading to Togo in West Africa and confided in them, unbeknownst to myself, that we as well had some interest in missions one day.

Three years later in 1996, many things had changed.  I had become successful in my new career and had matured considerably, by God’s grace.  Nothing like walking into a 200,000 square foot Wal Mart with 600 employess and 20,000 visitors a week; being handed the keys and wished good luck, to grow you up a bit.  We had moved to the beautiful small town of Remington, Virginia and were part of a vibrant church in Warrenton.  Over the previous years my faith had taken hold and permeated most of my life (would love to say all but am trying to be honest!).  Our preacher quit and I began, alongside my 80 hours or so with WM.  After five months of dueling works, a businessman and his wife took us out for a meal, looked across the table and asked, “Why don’t you quit what you are doing and do what God has called you to do?”  With a start, we said, “Excuse me?”.  He then said, “Why don’t you quit Wal Mart and go to Africa and be the missionaries that God has called you to be?”  We wept, right there in Jerry’s Pizza.  It was time.

Two days later, we were encouraged to call a missionary who was home on furlough from Togo, West Africa.  I did and brought him up to date.  He then asked if I was sitting down.  I was.  He then informed me that since Louise had visited them three years prior he and another teammate had been praying for us daily that we would quit our jobs in the US and come to Africa as missionaries.  We wept.

How could God love me that much that he was so patient to “wrestle” with me for those previous eight years?  Amazing.  Just call me Israel (one who wrestles with God), bum hip and all.

Later, just before leaving for Africa, someone approached me and remarked how great our faith must be.  Immediately I responded that with all that God had shown us, and even with a repeated “calling” after eight years and all the answered prayers, it would be a greater show of disbelief in God to stay in the US than a show of belief to go.

1st Sidebar – My greatest victory in the Marathon was a DNF (did not finish)

A turning point occurred in December of 1991.  I had trained more than 140 miles per week for the previous nine months.  I had raced over thirty races in the preceding year winning many of them and racing faster with each contest.  I was ready to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials and possibly the Olympics themselves.  I had only taken one break in the previous ten months, my honeymoon in July.  That week I only ran eighty miles as I would daily sneak out early in the morning while my bride still slept and get my twelve milers in.  Yeah, what a swell guy I was.  All this while taking a fourteen hour per semester graduate load and having a full time corporate exercise scientist job.  Lucky for Louise, my wife, to marry such a relaxed and balanced guy (cough, cough)!

Once in August, after dragging her to yet another race and trying to explain away the obsession as the focus of elite sport, I made a declaration.  “If God didn’t want me to race in the Olympics, then I would get injured, let’s leave it to Him”, I said.  

I had no idea, He would take me so seriously!  It was the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.  A flat and fast course with cool December air and usually no wind.  My wife had gone on ahead finishing up an advertising job in that area while I made the trek mid-week.  As I was driving through West Memphis, Tennessee on that rainy Wednesday night on my way to the race, an 18 wheeler (large lorry for my international friends) struck my car and crushed it against a cement wall while traveling at 60 mph.  He drug my car for more than 800 yards before it was so disabled it broke free and he continued on his way never knowing until the police caught him several hours later.   

During the accident, instead of considering the danger to my life, my relationship with God, or the loss of our vehicle, I was consumed with thoughts of affected performance in my race on Saturday.  I felt a little off physically in my left hip, but we have since learned that my pain tolerance is a bit wacked from all the years of sports and racing, so I didn’t really pay attention to it.  

On raceday, I took off, feeling fairly good and helped set the pace with the lead group for the first five miles or so.  It was my wife’s home town, so her family were all out with encouraging signs with “Barcelona or Bust” (Barcelona, Spain was the host for the 1992 Olympics).  They didn’t see me again until the 10th mile.  In the interim, God and I had a conversation as the previously unknown crack in the head of my femur continued to widen and bring my racing and Olympic hopes to a grinding halt.  The wreck had done me in.  Amazing that I walked away from that accident with my life.  Miraculous that I had walked away with just a small fracture in my left hip.  I pulled off the course at mile ten, got in the van with the family and simply said, “Well, He has spoken, and I guess the Olympics aren’t to be.”  I was devastated, but, He had a plan to heal that too.  He was redirecting me.  I had been so consumed with what I desired, that my pursuits had become gods unto themselves that I worshipped daily.  It was in this loss, and the redirecting, that I won.  I was not yet ready to go to Africa as a missionary, but I was ready to choose Him over me.

Mark 8:32-34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

About the healing.  Eleven years afterwards, in Togo, West Africa, during our misson team’s training session, our team was encouraging each other.  It came someone’s turn to encourage me.  In this moment they talked of my determination and persistence and I expressed guilt and remorse that sometimes this “gift” from God had led me beyond His will to pursue my own desires.  I gave the example of my career in racing while accidentally expressing deep remorse and loss.  Other teammates spoke up to ask where I had been injured.  I said, “In my left hip.”  They then spoke of a couple in Arizona that had been praying for the Togolese people, who even though they did not know me, had, while praying seen me lying on the ground and God call out my name, touching me on the left hip and saying, “You are healed.”  I wept deeply as the remorse, loss, and guilt washed away and was replace by His peace.  I was then left in wondrous awe of such deep love that He would use an, unknown to me, couple in Arizona, to speak healing over me.

Grace and Peace

About a coach…

 

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Martin racing for Ted Lloyd at Harding University in the 80’s

 

A word about a coach …  not just any coach, but a Hall of Fame coach and US Track and Field Board Member and my coach for five years.

I had the notorious distinction of being the one athlete in his more than 40 year coaching career to make him the angriest, on three or maybe four occasions no less.  He has the distinction of making the greatest impact on me.

There is always a turning point, hopefully, sooner than later.  Mine occurred during February of my junior year.  I struggled, as many athletes do in their transition from high school to university, to win.  I dreamed of winning and even trained hard enough to win, but I was a head case and mentally would implode at the prospect of winning often drifting not so slowly from 1st to somewhere in the top ten at the least sign of a challenge.  I hated it and loathed myself for it.

One training day during an 8 mile run we were asked to run the middle five at a pace that was just a bit uncomfortable, almost racing.  I ran mine on our cross country course.  Somewhere, hidden in the adjacent stands of the baseball complex was my wonderful coach, the famous Ted Lloyd.  He had a sneaking suspicion I was faster than I thought.  So, on this five miles of training I floated along unassuming and crossed the “line” only to look up and see his hulking 6’3″ 220+ frame storming across the field right at me.  Nowhere to hide, nowhere (else) to run to we met in the middle, the five inches he had on me seemed to grow to ten.  Looking down at me he asked what I thought my time was.  I responded that I had no idea and he informed me that I set a new personal record by three full minutes and almost beat the course record on a training run.  He then proceeded to stab me in the chest (proverbially) with his foot long index finger and informed me that I will finally begin winning when I get tired of losing.  Then he stormed off never to mention the incident again.  I promptly began winning.

What changed?  He changed me.  He changed my faith.  I began to believe that it was possible to do well and be victorious not in just running but more importantly in life.

That’s what coaches do.  They stretch, prod, push, pull, mold, and mentor the athlete or player convincing them they can do and be more.  We need coaches, desperately, who can do this, all the while for a higher purpose and calling.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 1Co 9:24-26

I praise God for Coach Ted Lloyd. He helped me to get that crown that lasts forever, he developed me through sport.