Inspiring Athletes

Inspiring Athletes

A conversation with four-time Olympic snowboarder Kelly Clark

posted by Chad Bonham

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014When an 18-year old Kelly Clark won the snowboarding gold medal at the 2002 Olympics Games in Salt Lake City, the action sports world was literally at her feet. And while the next few years brought unprecedented success, Clark struggled with insecurity, loneliness and depression. She was empty inside and didn’t know how to fill the void in her heart.

But everything changed 10 years ago when she prayed to accept Jesus as her Savior. Now, the four-time Olympian, three-time Olympic medalist and five-time Winter X Games gold medalist has found true purpose in life and greater freedom in the pipe.

In this Inspiring Athletes conversation, Clark talks about how she found Christ, how her faith inspires creativity, and how she wants her platform to be a blessing to others:

Chad Bonham: Tell me about your spiritual journey.

Kelly Clark: Snowboarding was everything that I knew. That’s what I did and I poured everything I had into it. I thought that being successful and achieving my goals would go hand-in-hand with being happy. But by the time I was 18 years old, I had achieved everything that was in my heart to do and at the same time I wasn’t finding the fulfillment I was expecting to get from it. All of the experiences were incredible and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but it wasn’t fulfilling me. I went through the motions for a few more years, but I was looking for something more. When I was 20, I was contemplating quitting. I was at the first event of the season and I overhead a conversation between two girls. One told the other, “God still loves you,” and that caught my attention. Later that day, I caught up with the girl and asked her what she meant. Before then, I’d never really thought about God. But there was an undeniable stirring in me and I couldn’t ignore it. I thought being a Christian was about following rules and going to church and being good all the time, but this girl helped me understand that it’s about having a relationship with God. That was where things shifted for me.

Bonham: After winning the gold in 2002, how did your new faith in God help you deal with the disappointment of finishing fourth at the 2006 Games?

Clark: By then, my identity had started to shift. Before that, my identity was in snowboarding. That’s how people knew me and that’s how I knew myself. That’s where I got a lot of my self worth. That began to shift and I started to understand that I didn’t get my worth from people or from the things that I did. It was from Christ. If I hadn’t had that shift in my life, I think my world would have come crumbling down.

Bonham: You’ve been on tear since the last Olympics with four straight Winter X Games gold medals in the super pipe event. Can you explain what has spurred on the recent success?

Clark: These have been the most successful years I’ve ever had. I’ve been placing well in the contests but more importantly I’ve been enjoying them. I think those two things go hand-in-hand.

Bonham: Snowboarding is known as a youth-driven sport, so how have you been able to stay relevant for so long?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Clark: It’s funny. I competed against a 13-year old girl at the Winter X Games. I looked down at her birth date and it said 2000. I was like, “Huh, I wonder if she even knows what Y2K is?” But I guess I’ve just been able to build a foundation. The foundational skills of snowboarding are what pay off in the long run. That’s something I’ve been able to build over time and that’s benefited me a lot. With my age and looking at my career, perhaps I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. I’m not trying to snowboard for other people anymore. That just kind of comes with age and growing up. That’s helped me a lot. Some of that started right after the last Olympics (in Vancouver). I was having a conversation with one of my teammates and she asked me, “Aren’t you so glad it’s over? We don’t have to compete anymore.” I thought that was a strange comment but in that moment I realized that I was doing it for the right reasons. I wasn’t looking at the Olympics to define me. I wasn’t to arrive somewhere by performing well in a contest. So after those Games, I continued to compete that season and the year after that. I really had the goal of being intentional. I didn’t want to do big tricks because it was an X Games final or an Olympics final. I wanted to call my own shots. I started to do that and I started to have more fun than I ever knew I could have.

Bonham: The last time we talked, you spoke of how you found a greater sense of freedom in the sport when you first entered into a relationship with Christ. Is this recent success a continued expression of that defining moment in your life?

Clark: I think so. It’s definitely got to be a daily thing. There’s no formula to walking with God. There’s no formula to having success as an athlete. It’s about relationships and it’s a daily thing. You’ve got to revisit things and you’ve got to be willing to work on things all the time. You’ve got to fight for that connection with God all the time no matter what you’re going through in life. I’m growing up. I’m maturing. But I definitely think that the backbone of this is the freedom and creativity I have without the fear of failing. If I fail, what’s going to happen? Nothing. I’m not looking for my self-worth in the sport.

Bonham: What are some of the stabilizing forces that help you to maintain that desire to stay in a relationship with Christ?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Clark: People ask a lot about how I can be a believer in a culture that perhaps is counter cultural to what you believe in. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m able to be in this culture and in this industry and fruitful because I don’t look to my circumstances to determine what I believe to be true about God. I don’t look to my situation to determine what choices I make. I’ve developed a good sense of values and beliefs. That’s my reality. No matter where I am, God is still good. No matter where I am, nothing is impossible. It’s those sort of principles that really anchor me. Over this past four years, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of not compartmentalizing my life. I take my core values and I live them out at home like I would in my snowboarding like I would at church with my friends. I’m willing to explore what that’s supposed to look like. I want to be intentional. I want it to show up in my life every day. I really try to live out my values and be consistent. Another things that has helped has been staying connected to a community of believers. It’s important to be around others that share your beliefs and share your values and people that can encourage you. We’re not meant to do it on our own. We’re meant to do life with God and with each other. I’ve been fortunate to have friends that are willing to invest in me even on the days when I’m not able to invest back into them. I’m thankful for people that have that selfless attitude and have helped me become a successful person and a successful athlete.

Bonham: Has having a platform within the snowboarding culture been a burden, a blessing or, at different times, both of those things?

Clark: I’ve always lived a life where what you see if what you get. I’ve never wanted to live two different lifestyles. The initial transition for me was perhaps the most difficult. It wasn’t easy communicating what I believed and what my values were. Establishing that as a young adult was interesting. I was 20 years old when I got saved. But now I’m more comfortable with my beliefs and with who I am. I honestly don’t think about it that much. I just try to live my life and I try to love people. I try to love God well and I try to love people well. Those are my main objectives.

Bonham: And that keeps it from becoming a burden.

Clark: Yeah, one of my approaches with my community, my friends, the companies I represent, has been to take the attitude of what I bring instead of what I can get. What can I give? Instead of thinking about building up my image or building up my brand or building up my career, I’ve turned it and taken the approach of focusing on what I can give instead of what I can get. It’s been a very enjoyable process for me. That’s more of a heart position that I’ve taken. It’s been one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.

Bonham: Have you had opportunities to speak other athletes’ lives like that one that spoke into your life 10 years ago?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Clark: I feel like there is great purpose in a lot of my endeavors. I’ve seen God in the middle of them. I’ve seen Him be faithful in those things. But I strongly believe in that saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” That’s been my goal and objective—to love people well. That’s something I can bring to this community. As I’ve been open with my faith, there’s a consistency that almost disarms people. They know what they’re going to get when they see me. They know what they’re going to get when they talk to me. If there ever is a need or if anyone’s hurting, I’m the person they come to because they know what they’re going to get. They know I’ll pray for them. They know I’ll encourage them. It’s amazing that I get to be there for people. I’m sure I’ll hear later on how God was working in it all, but for me, it’s really about loving people well.

Bonham: What does being a four-time Olympian mean to you?

Clark: I never planned to be at the height of my career when I was 30 years old and going to my fourth Olympics. I watched the 1998 Olympics when I was 14 years old. That’s what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I might have a shot at three Olympics max. This is way beyond the parameters of what I set out to do. Right before they named the (2014) team, I stepped back and I allowed myself to realize what I had accomplished. I got overwhelmed and the tears came pretty quickly. It’s an honor to represent my country again and to represent my sport to the world and to hold it down for all those 30-year old athletes out there.

Follow Kelly Clark and Team USA by clicking HERE.

Photo Credit: NBC Olympics/USOC

A conversation with Heisman Trophy winner and former NBA star Charlie Ward

posted by Chad Bonham
Charlie Ward posing with the Heisman Trophy.

Charlie Ward posing with the Heisman Trophy.

Before there was Jameis Winston, there was another dual-threat quarterback at Florida State named Charlie Ward. It was 20 years ago when Ward won the Heisman Trophy and then led the Seminoles to its first national championship. Since Winston is likely destined for the NFL, that’s where the comparisons stop. Ward was surprisingly passed over in the 1994 NFL Draft.

That turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the three-sport athlete. Later that summer, he was a first-round draft pick in the NBA Draft and spent a productive 11 years in the league with the New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Most recently, Ward spent the last six seasons as the head football coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston before resigning this past December.

In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Ward talks about why he went to Florida State, how he navigated the tricky nature of being a three-sport athlete, and how adversity prepared him for big time college sports and the NBA:

Chad Bonham: What weighed in to your decision to go to Florida State?

CharlieWard_FSU1Charlie Ward: My decision on where to go to college was based on two things. First, I wanted to be close to home so I could be around my family and those who supported me in high school. Secondly, it was about Coach Bowden. I was attracted to his leadership, his integrity and his history of allowing guys to play two sports. I trusted his judgment and I trusted his heart because he had a heart for God. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Bonham: As a three-sport athlete, how did you approach your college and professional careers?

Ward: I graduated from college in December and had the option of playing Major League Baseball because the New York Yankees had drafted me. I also had the option of playing in the NFL and I had the option to play in the NBA. All of those were great options until April when one option was taken away. I didn’t get selected in the NFL draft. I had committed my time and efforts to my college basketball teammates. I decided to play basketball instead of concentrating on the NFL draft. God honored my commitment to my teammates by giving me an opportunity to play in the NBA. Looking back, when the NFL Draft passed and I didn’t get selected, I wasn’t down and disappointed like others in my house were. I knew that it wasn’t part of God’s plan for my life to go that direction. So I worked very hard for the NBA Draft and God blessed me the opportunity there.

Bonham: What helped you develop the drive and discipline to play three sports in high school and college?

Ward: I’ve always believed that when you have goals, you need to write them down and make them plain. Then, you’re able to see them and better understand what you need to do to accomplish those goals. More importantly, it takes prayer and fasting. Those things are important in finding what God has in store for your life. For me, a lot of that started back in high school. I wanted to make sure that every step of my life was pushing towards that dream. With every rep I did, I wasn’t saying, “I’m going to make it to the pros.” I was doing those things for right now. Everything I did in school had an effect on that moment. That “right now” attitude is what pushed me to get where I am now. I didn’t know 20 years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing now. But I was preparing myself then by going through those different experiences.

Bonham: You had some adversity as a teenager. How did you deal with it and how did it change your attitude about sports and school?

Ward: When I was in ninth grade, my dream was to play in the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. But then I suffered a knee injury. Because of that injury, my relationship with Christ got stronger. That was part of my journey. Secondly, I started to focus more on academics. When I had my physical capabilities taken away, I realized I needed to pay better attention to that part of my life. I had been told to be well-rounded and to have something to fall back on, but that didn’t click until my injury.

Bonham: What were some of the keys to your success at Florida State and then in the NBA?

CharlieWard_Knicks Ward: One of the biggest keys is being around godly wisdom. For me, it came down to being able to trust the people that I was going to be around and who was going to be leading me. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know but I just had to prepare myself for the moment when God’s plan was finally revealed. I didn’t know we were going to win the national championship but I was fortunate to be in that position and I took advantage of it. I didn’t know I was going to win the Heisman Trophy. It was my goal. It was the goal of every kid, but I didn’t know it was going to happen. I just put myself in that position by working hard. A lot of times we don’t know what’s going to happen. We just need to have faith that God is going to give us the direction that we’re going to take. Sometimes you have to face adversity and fail in order for you get to where God is taking you. We might end up depending on ourselves too much and we need to learn to depend on Him.

Bonham: Your coaching journey has been pretty interesting—starting out in the NBA and most recently coaching football at a small private high school. What led to those career moves?

Ward: Stan Van Gundy gave me a chance to be on his staff with the Rockets. I’d never considered being a coach before that. I didn’t think that was part of God’s plan for my life. But I really started to enjoy it. Then I had the opportunity to coach JV basketball at Westbury Christian here in Houston before taking over as the head football coach there. As I reflect back on my life, it starts to make better sense to me. I had grown up around a coach. I was an athlete, so I was being coached all the time. And during my career, I was the quarterback and the point guard, which are extra coaches on the field or the court. I didn’t realize it, but God had been preparing me my whole life to be a coach. Coaching at a small school has been a blessing. It’s not about how much money you make. It’s about how you can have an effect on somebody’s life for Christ.

A conversation with New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday

posted by Chad Bonham
Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (photo courtesy of NBA Media Central)

Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (photo courtesy of NBA Media Central)

It’s been an interesting year for New Orleans point guard Jrue Holiday. After a breakout season in Philadelphia, he was surprisingly traded to the newly renamed Pelicans right after the NBA Draft. Five days earlier, he married longtime girlfriend and fellow former UCLA athlete Lauren Cheney who, as a member of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team, just happens to be an elite athlete in her own right.

Earlier this season, Inspiring Athletes had a chance to catch up with Holiday who talked about moving to New Orleans, being coached by Monty Williams (who shares the same Christian faith) and how he balances a 90-game NBA schedule with marriage to an equally busy sports star.

Chad Bonham: What was your initial reaction when you were sent to New Orleans in the sign-and-trade deal with Philadelphia?

Jrue Holiday: I was shocked. It was unexpected. But it literally took me about a minute after they named off the guys on the team and I was good. I think it was a blessing in disguise.

Bonham: Did you much about Coach Williams before you got to New Orleans?

Jrue Holiday: I knew that he was a good coach. He’s worked with some of the best point guards in this league. I just thought coming here was a blessing.

Bonham: What can you learn from the example that he has set as a Christian coach and someone who has a solid marriage despite the demands of this sport?

Jrue Holiday: He’s gotten through things because of his faith and that’s how I get through things too—leaning on my wife and leaning on God. You can get through anything with God.

Bonham: How has your relationship with your wife been good for you?

Jrue Holiday: My wife has helped me with a lot of things. She’s also got me to like a lot of different things like sushi. I never would have tried that if it weren’t for her. I also went to Hillsong (Church) in New York for the first time with her. It’s fun to experience new things with the person you love.

Bonham: How are you learning to balance between each others conflicting schedules?

Jrue Holiday: That’s where faith comes in. I’ve struggled more with being away from her. She keeps me strong. Being away from her means I have to stay in the Word and to stay strong throughout the season.

Bonham: How do you approach the opportunity that comes with a platform as big as being a starter in the NBA?

Holiday: I try to take it and leave it in God’s hands. I try to do what He wants me to do and come out here and perform the best I can for my teammates. That’s my responsibility. This is a tough league. Outside of basketball, the lifestyle is tough—the travel. Honestly, I think that responsibility is pretty tough but I don’t believe that God gives us anything we can’t handle.

Bonham: What is your leadership style? Are you a vocal encourager or someone who prefers to lead by example?

Holiday: I think I lead by example. I don’t talk much. I talk when it’s needed, but I just go out there and play hard every day and do it the right way.

Bonham: So in that regard, I suppose you could say the NBA locker room is more like a family?

Holiday: For sure. We’re on the road sometimes for five days at a time. We go out to eat together. We’ll go to the movies. It really is like family.

A conversation with tennis legend Michael Chang

posted by Chad Bonham

MichaelChang1With the 2013 U.S. Open heading into its final weekend, it seems appropriate to check in with one of America’s great tennis champions. It’s been a decade since Michael Chang competed amongst tennis’ elite, but his impact on the sport has never subsided.

From his upbringing as the son of Chinese immigrants to his small stature, Chang defied the odds every time he stepped foot on a tennis court. In addition to his remarkable 1989 win in Paris at the record-breaking age of 17, he earned 34 combined singles titles and was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Off the court, Chang has founded the Chang Family Foundation and the Christian Sports League, both based in Southern California. He is also an active participant in the ATP Legends Tour. In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Chang talks about his unique upbringing, his famous run at the 1989 French Open and how being an outspoken Christian is more difficult in the tennis world:

Bonham: How was your entry into the tennis world different than most other players?

Chang: I started playing when I was seven years old, but my mom was the first one to get the family interested in tennis. My dad picked it up after that and we’d watch him play in quite a few company tournaments. From there it turned into a family affair. I would play on weekends and then I started playing in some junior tournaments. Before we knew it, I was playing in national tournaments and that just took it to a whole new level. I’d never thought about turning professional or anything like that. If anything, my mom and dad were thinking that maybe it would be nice for my brother Carl and I to get a college scholarship or something.

Bonham: Why did you deal with so much skepticism early on in your career?

Chang: I wasn’t the biggest guy out on the tour. I was 5-9 in shoes and I got quite a bit of criticism when I first came out and turned professional. One of my biggest critics was Arthur Ashe. He was someone who I greatly respected as both a tennis player and a humanitarian. He, along with other people, criticized me for turning pro. At the time, it wasn’t the normal route to go. I turned pro a little before my 16th birthday. The normal route was to go to college and play at least a year or two there and then turn pro. But I had an opportunity to turn pro earlier because I had done really well in the juniors. As a 15-year old, I won the biggest national 18-and-under junior title in the United States. The winner gets a wildcard into the U.S. Open. I had the opportunity for a six-week period of time to play in four professional events as an amateur. I lost in the first round of one tournament. I lost in the second round of the U.S. Open. I got to the semifinals of another tournament and I won a Challenger event. I went from being unranked to being ranked 163rd in the world after just four tournaments. After those results, we started thinking about going pro. I got a letter from Arthur Ashe telling me what a big mistake that I was making. He thought I was too small. He said my serve wasn’t strong enough. We took that with a grain of salt and thought about the decision as a family and decided it was time for me to turn professional. That was one of the biggest criticisms I had to deal with before I even turned pro and at the time I wasn’t even a believer yet. It was not a good confidence builder for someone who was a great tennis champion to tell you weren’t good enough to play professional tennis yet. But once I got out there and started to play well, all of those criticisms started to take a back seat.

Bonham: Did you face any difficulties as one of the few outspoken Christians of your era?

Chang: I didn’t have any of my fellow players ever come up to me and give me a hard time for being a Christian. If anything, I think they actually respected me for it. But it was difficult because throughout my 16 years on tour, I probably could count on one hand how many Christian tennis players I actually came across. I’m not sure if that has to do with tennis being a very individual sport or whether it has to do with the players being on the younger side. I mean, golf is an individual sport, but they have Bible studies every week. So from that regard, it was difficult. What made it easier was that I always had at least one member of my family traveling with me which provided a great deal of fellowship and also an opportunity to pray together, to learn together and to grow together. I didn’t get a chance to go to church as much as I would have liked but I feel that God understood my situation. My Sundays were usually spent playing in a final or traveling to my next destination. But through listening to sermons and listening to music and fellowshipping with whoever was with me, God really taught us a great deal as a family about Him and who He is and what our purpose was out there on the tennis court.

Bonham: Talk about the interesting relationship you’ve had with Andre Agassi over the years and some of his surprising criticisms of you.

MichaelChang4Chang: A few years ago there was a GQ article written about Andre Agassi. Somehow, he made some references to my Christian faith and he talked about what joke it was for me to practice abstinence until I got married. Understandably, in a men’s magazine, they’re going to jump all over that. They printed everything that Andre said. When the article came out, people would ask me how I felt about it. I would just explain to them that it was part of my Christian faith and it was part of my promise to my future wife. I was able to respond in a way that allowed me to turn a negative criticism into a positive opportunity to share my faith. I ended up getting a letter from Andre about a month later. He wanted to apologize for saying those things and committed to being more careful with his words in the future. Unfortunately, his book came out and he ripped me again for my faith and for thanking the Lord when I won.

Bonham: Your 1989 French Open third round match against Ivan Lendl (that paved the way to the title) is perhaps the most famous of your career. What transpired that day?

Chang: Sometimes people look at that situation and they just see a match, but in many instances it was a lot more than that. It was an incredible life lesson from the aspect of perseverance and not quitting. The French Open wasn’t about Michael Chang winning it at 17. The French Open was really about God wanting a young Chinese boy to win a championship and put smiles on Chinese people’s faces around the world when they didn’t have much to smile about.

The match with Lendl is evidence of what God can do and (evidence of) His power. Certainly, being 17 I was not expected to win and I wasn’t expected to come back from two sets to love down and to do it against Lendl who was a three-time French Open champion. But God has His funny ways of showing His power and He has His funny ways of allowing the weak things of the world to shame the strong and allowing the ordinary things of the world to become extraordinary. One of those times was during that match.

The fifth set, I was dealing with the cramps that were fairly severe at certain points if I were to slide really hard for go up really hard for a shot. When it was 2-1, I thought about quitting. I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. I’d get a lot of pats on the back in the locker room and the press would say, “Great valiant effort, but bad luck that you lost.” And I thought, “You know, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” I mean, I wasn’t supposed to win under those circumstances anyway.

So I actually started walking towards the chair umpire and I got to about the service line and the Spirit just totally convicted me. It was interesting because, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Michael, what are you doing?” And I thought to myself, “Well, I’m going to default this match.” So the Spirit convicted me by kind of saying, “Michael, you’ve got to understand that the winning and the losing has never been your job to take care of. The winning and losing has always been God’s job to take care of. But your job has always been to go out there and compete and give one hundred percent.”

So I said, “Alright Lord. I’ll try to try to finish this match.” My primary goal was then finishing the match and not to worry about winning and losing and to trust Him for all of that. But I still knew I probably wasn’t going to win.

I started concentrating point by point. If I had opportunities to go for a winner, I would smack a winner and go for it. Then all of the sudden I started winning points and points started turning into games and before I knew it I had won the match. I go back sometimes and I look at that videotape and even after I’m done looking at it, I still can’t understand or comprehend how that match was won.

Bonham: When you credited Jesus for the ability to persevere, you took a lot of heat from the international press. Were you prepared for what followed?

Chang: My next three matches were played under conditions that I’ve ever experienced in my career. I’ve never had crowds literally boo me. When I walked onto the court and warmed up, they weren’t just rooting for my opponent, they were actually rooting against me. It was a really strange feeling and it happened the last three matches.

Bonham: How did that impact your relationship with the French fans beyond that tournament?

MichaelChang2The subsequent years I went back to Paris after the French Open, I was greeted with boos and jeers. I called my dad after one of the matches and I said, “You know what dad, I don’t even want to come back to Paris and play again.” It just wasn’t fun anymore. It was the only place in the world where that was happening. I was sick and tired of it. And then my dad said, “You know what Michael? The Lord hasn’t called you to just play in the places where people love you and support you and treat you good. The Lord called you to be a tennis player because you’re a witness for Christ. It doesn’t matter what kind of response you get. What’s important is how you respond to it.”

That really got my attention. Up to that point, I was so frustrated with the Parisian crowds. I would play my match and then bolt off the court. I didn’t want to deal with it. My dad challenged me to look at it from a different perspective. He challenged me to be Christ-like in my attitude. Over the next few years, the crowds began to change. I don’t know what happened. I still talked about my faith. I still talked about the Lord. I still signed my autographs “Jesus loves you.” I still did all those things, but I did it with a better attitude.

The last five years of my career, every time I went to Paris, they treated me like I was French. It was unbelievable. They would cheer for me as if I was one of their own. I got the royal treatment when I went to Paris. That happened because my dad challenged me and the Lord worked on my heart to have a different attitude toward the criticism that came my way.

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