Inspiring Athletes

Inspiring Athletes

A conversation with NASCAR driver Michael McDowell

posted by Chad Bonham
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Michael McDowell (Photo by Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Michael McDowell (Photo by Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Michael McDowell has been quietly building confidence and a solid résumé over the past seven years. It hasn’t been the easiest transition for the former open wheel racer and road course specialist, but his determination to make a permanent home in NASCAR and stronger desire to have a larger impact within the garage has driven him right to the edge of a significant breakthrough.

Earlier this year, Inspiring Athletes caught up with NASCAR Sprint Cup driver McDowell who talked about the group of Christian drivers that he leads, the unique spiritual makeup of the sport and the benefit of working for several Christian owners throughout his career:

Chad Bonham: As a group of young drivers trying to live for God within the context of the NASCAR garage, how does the larger group work together to help an individual who might be facing challenges?

Michael McDowell: Our relationships go way beyond the racetrack and the Bible study. We all do life together—especially me and Trevor and Blake and Josh and a handful of other guys. When Blake was going through some sponsorship issues, he was calling us and asking us what we thought about it. You just walk through those things with them and give them someone to lean on and give them good advice.

Bonham: What is the atmosphere like in the garage as a group of outspoken Christians?

McDowell: If you look at other places in the world, we’ve got it easy in NASCAR. There’s no persecution here. We were having a Bible study in the RV lot and there were about 10 of us guys just walking around with our Bibles and no one cared what we were doing. There’s always going to be trials but it’s just how you get through them. God doesn’t waste any of them. Every trial is an opportunity to upgrade your character. It’s just part of our growth and part of who we are. God is good even when the circumstances aren’t. God is still good.

Bonham: Has your journey through NASCAR been a little smoother because of your opportunity to drive for several Christian owners like Joe Gibbs, Phil Parsons and Randy MacDonald?

Michael McDowell in the #95 K-LOVE Ford (Photo by Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Michael McDowell in the #95 K-LOVE Ford (Photo by Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)

McDowell: Yeah, this is a really cool sport. For me, I’m not just trying to drive for Christian teams. That’s not my goal. But it is nice. After 2008, I struggled in the Cup Series and it didn’t work out for Michael Waltrip Racing. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. My commitment to living out my faith became intensified. Before 2009 started, my prayer was really, “God I don’t know if you want me to be in racing or not, but whatever I do, it’s going to be with a mindset of living out my faith and being outspoken about it.” I’ve just been fortunate to work with people that are likeminded. But it’s easy in this sport because there are a lot of people in this sport like that. It’s definitely cool and you learn a lot from those experiences. You go from a team like Randy MacDonald’s, which had no money, and then I get to go race for Joe Gibbs. I’ve had some success over there and I’ve had some great runs. I’ve come close to winning races a couple times. I’m very thankful for that opportunity. This sport is crazy. There are so many ups and downs. If your faith is determined by your circumstances, it’s never going to work.

Michael McDowell wrote the forward to the 2014 book release Faith in the Fast Lane. Check that out along with the incredible story of “How NASCAR Found Jesus.”

You can also keep up with Michael McDowell’s career by visiting his official website HERE.

 

Kevin Durant wins first career NBA MVP Award

posted by Chad Bonham
Kevin Durant, 2014 NBA MVP (Photo courtesy of NBA)

Kevin Durant, 2014 NBA MVP (Photo courtesy of NBA)

On Tuesday, Kevin Durant won his first career NBA Most Valuable Player award. His acceptance speech has quickly become the source of great inspiration across the country. Durant is truly a unique soul in a league where the biggest names rarely display such authentic humility.

I’ve had the chance to interview Durant a couple of times over the past few seasons. In this composite of those conversations, he gives credit to spiritual leaders such as his mother and his former teammate (and current Connecticut head coach) Kevin Ollie for leading him down the right path and talks about his desire to honor God in everything he does:

Chad Bonham: What did you take away from the 2012 NBA Finals? Did you appreciate the accomplishment of dethroning the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals or were you mostly disappointed that you fell short against the Miami Heat?

Kevin Durant: You can’t take that stuff for granted. People play in this league for 15 years and never make it to the Finals. We did it with a bunch of young guys. It was a great experience for us. We really enjoyed going through that. It was really fun.

Bonham: How have you grown as a leader since coming so close to an NBA championship?

Durant: Experience is the best teacher. I’ve been through a lot—going to the Olympics, going to the Finals, having a lot of good games and having a lot of bad games. It’s a rollercoaster ride and I’m just happy I’m a part of it. If it was easy, then everybody could do it. I’ve learned so much about myself and about my game, and I just keep growing every single year. It’s fun that I get to live out my dream every single day. It’s a blessing. I can’t lose sight of that and I’ve just got to keep pushing.

Bonham: What is the foundation of your strong faith?

Durant: It comes from my family. I went to a Christian school. I was always intrigued simply about how we got here. Why do we do the things we do? Who made us like this? My mom always sat me down and talked to me and I have spiritual teachers that help me out. I’m not perfect at all by any means. I’ve got a long way to go to become closer to the Lord but hopefully I can continue to stay on the path. I might take a few steps forward and take a couple steps back and take some steps forward, but I want to get better.

Bonham: Talk about how Kevin Ollie influenced you when he played in Oklahoma City.

Durant: He’s unbelievable. He got everybody going (to chapel) and wanting to learn more. I was just one of the guys who was trying to follow his lead. He was a big teacher in helping me do that and making me feel more comfortable in my faith around other people and being able to pray for other people and pray out loud and things like that; take those baby steps. I’ve been trying to do a better job.

Bonham: Are you encouraged to see a greater number of Christians—guys like Derek Fisher, John Salmons, Kyle Korver, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Luke Ridnour—becoming more vocal about their faith?

Durant: It’s unbelievable to know. It’s good to see other people walk with the Lord too. We do so much in this league. A lot of people don’t know how they got these gifts and how they’re portraying them on the floor. It’s always good to let people know where all this stuff came from. To see other players in the league doing the same thing is a joy.

Bonham: People always talk about how down-to-earth you are. What’s your secret to staying humble in a world where it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype of fortune and fame?

Durant: It’s tough man. I can’t lie. I can’t lie about that. But I always kind of pinch myself and say that any day this can be gone. In the Bible, (it says) the Lord exalts humility and that’s one thing I try to be all the time—when I’m talking in front of people or when people tell me I’m great, I (remind myself that I) can always be better. I always work on what I have now. I’ve just got to be thankful to the Lord for what the gifts He’s given me. My gift back to Him is to always be humble and to always try to work as hard as I can. I’ve got to continue to be that way. I know that if I try to get a big head, my mom is going to do a great job of bringing me back down to size. I have the best of both worlds with the coaches we have here and my parents and my family doing it back at home. I’m in pretty good hands.

A conversation with two-time Olympic bobsleigh athlete Elana Meyers

posted by Chad Bonham

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Elana Meyers was born into an Episcopalian family that later became Lutheran. More recently, she was baptized in a Baptist church. She’s also been known to attend non-denominational services. So Meyers really isn’t sure how to label her Christian faith.

But the two-time Olympian and 2010 bronze medalist does know that she is first and foremost a follower of Christ. For Meyers, that means doing things a little differently within her highly competitive sport.

In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Meyers talks about how her original path to the Olympics didn’t quite work out, what it means to serve others within her sport, and how fellow believers on the team bring added strength and support to her efforts on the ice:

Chad Bonham: Tell me about your athletic history and how that led you to bobsledding.

Elana Meyers: I grew up in Douglasville, Georgia. My father played football for the Atlanta Falcons. We lived a bunch of places when I was younger. I was born in California. We lived in Chicago for a little bit and finally we ended up in Georgia. I grew up playing softball and at the age of nine I decided I was going to be an Olympian. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. I thought it might be in a warm summer sport like softball, but I played a variety of sports growing up—basketball, soccer and track. I really didn’t care. I just wanted to be an Olympian.

I played softball at George Washington University and then I played professionally for the Mid-Michigan Ice. I had a couple of tryouts with the US Olympic Team but I don’t know if I have a word to describe how bad one of the tryouts was. It was the worst tryout in the history of tryouts. It was that bad. So I totally bombed it and thought my chances of being an Olympian were over. However, my parents had seen bobsledding on TV in 2002 while I was still in the college and they told me I should try it. At the time, I still thought I was going to be an Olympic softball player. But later, when I retired from softball in 2007, I decided to give bobsled a try. I emailed the coach and got invited to Lake Placid for a tryout and I never left.

Bonham: In 2010 you were the brakeman but this time around you’re the driver (with teammate Lauryn Williams). What are the major differences between those two positions?

Meyers: I like to compare the two to a quarterback and a lineman. Being a brakeman is very physical and success is mostly determined by how fast you can push a sled for about 30 meters. Your position is won or lost by the hundredths of seconds you are faster than another individual. It’s like the lineman who is there mostly for their athleticism and physicality. The driver, like the quarterback, possesses a unique skill that takes a lot longer to learn.

Bonham: Bobsledding seems to have become a diverse sport here in the United States.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Meyers: Yeah, no one really grows up competing in the bobsled. You have to be 16 years old before you can even drive one. And there are really only two places in the country where you can bobsled—Park City, Utah, and Lake Placid, New York. There’s not really much of an opportunity for a girl from Georgia like me or a girl like Aja (Evans) from Chicago to grow up bobsledding. I think it’s great that we have such a diverse group.

Bonham: Tell me about your faith background.

Meyers: I was baptized Episcopalian when I was maybe two years old and we went to an Episcopalian church. When we moved to Georgia, we started going to a Lutheran church and I fell in love with the church there—Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Douglasville, Georgia. I really have a home there. I have been to non-denominational churches like National Community Church in Washington D.C., but I’ve also gone to Lake Placid Baptist and a slew of other churches. I got baptized with my fiancé (Nic Taylor) this last year at Saranac Lake Baptist Church (in New York), so maybe that makes us Baptist. But for me, it’s really been about my relationship with Christ and not so much about a denomination or a label.

Bonham: Would it just be safe to say that you’re a follower of Christ?

Meyers: That’s sounds great (laughs).

Bonham: How does that play into your athletic career and your personal relationships?

Meyers: The Lord calls us to love everybody. Every day it’s a challenge. Within this sport, I’m called to love everybody. That means that every single German or Canadian that I want to beat, I still have to love. That means competing the way God wants me to compete. That means doing things that might not necessarily be seen as giving me a competitive advantage but instead doing what God would want me to do. As Christians, we’re asked to give. In my sport, if someone needs equipment or help with something, regardless of who they are as a competitor, I’m called to help them for a higher purpose. So it definitely affects everything I do. It’s not easy. It’s very hard to love everyone. But I know that God is working through me within this sport. I know He’s put me here for a purpose and it’s not just to win medals. Winning is great and hopefully it gives me a platform to spread His love and spread His Word, but at the end of the day, I’m called to do what He wants me to do.

Bonham: What do you believe should be the correlation between the Christian athlete and excellence?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Meyers: I’m a representative of something that’s greater than myself. When you see me out there on the track, I’m not just representing myself or my country, I’m representing Christ and what He’s done through me. I have a responsibility to show His love and show others what He’s done for me. It’s also freed me up. We’re talking about the Olympics. We’re talking about trying to win the gold medal. All of these things can be overwhelming. But regardless of whether I win a gold medal or never compete again, I just have to trust that God has a plan for my life and I’m called to be His representative through the sport and outside of the sport.

Bonham: How helpful is it to have others on the bobsled team that share your faith in Christ?

Meyers: It’s very helpful. In Lake Placid we have Bible studies and it’s awesome to be able to share your struggles as an athlete and as a Christian with others Christian athletes. That’s one of the coolest things about sports ministry. We can share these common experiences with other Christians. Having Lolo as a teammate, for example, has been great. I went through a tough week during the season and she sent me some scriptures and it really helped remind why I was here. I’ve got some other great teammates like Dallas Robinson and Johnny Quinn on the men’s side who have been tremendous at showing Christ’s love. It’s not just the US teams, but there are also many believers from the international community including several from the Canadian team. We hope to grow Christianity throughout our sport.

Bonham: What does it mean to be called an Olympian?

Meyers: It’s one of the greatest honors I could ever imagine—to be able to represent my country and to be able to wear “USA” on my back. It’s an incredible honor. It’s an accomplishment of the past four year but of a life of dreaming and working hard and doing everything I can in pursuit of this goal. It’s a huge testament to those around me—my friends, my family and everyone who supported me. Without their help, I couldn’t have made it here. It’s been an amazing journey. But we are here for a higher purpose There’s a reason that God has for each of us in the sport. It’s all about serving His purpose.

Follow Elana Meyers and the US Bobsleigh Team by visiting the official NBC coverage site HERE.

A conversation with Olympic freestyle skier Nick Goepper

posted by Chad Bonham

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Action sports athletes are often pegged as rebellious, freewheeling and borderline reckless. Freestyle skier Nick Goepper certainly doesn’t dispute the stereotype. But what might surprise some is that there’s a strong remnant of Christians within the various winter disciplines.

And as more action sports are added to the Winter Olympics, that translates into a chance for athletes like the two-time Winter X-Games gold medalist to show something unexpected on and off the snow.

In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Goepper talks about how he got into the sport, why at least one of the perceptions about action sports athletes is incorrect, and how his faith in God has helped him through some difficult times:

Chad Bonham: Tell me about how you got into the sport.

Nick Goepper: I started skiing when I was five years old. I grew up on a little 300-foot mountain called Perfect North Slopes (a ski resort in southeastern Indiana). It wasn’t a great destination in the world, but it was a good enough place to learn how to do tricks. Then I started skiing at a training park when I was about nine or 10. I’m just living the dream right now.

Bonham: How important is it for the sport to be welcomed onto such a huge stage at the Olympics?

Goepper: The inclusion of slopestyle in the Olympics is cool. I think it’s going to be a total breath of fresh air. The Olympics needs us more than we need it. We’ve built our sport off a free spirited attitude about a decade ago. We’ve separated from mogul and aerial skiing and we’ve built our own sport and our own tricks. And now we’re going back to the roots. But the Olympics is a world stage for athletics and it’s going to be pretty sweet to represent our sport and represent our culture and show everyone what we’re all about.

Bonham: Tell me about your faith background.

Goepper: My family has always gone to church. I like to think that faith has been a part of my life since I was a lot younger. It’s definitely a part of my athletic career. I always wear a cross on my goggles during contests when I’m doing something gnarly. It’s a reminder that I’ve got someone else helping me out.

Bonham: How do you rely on your faith in a culture that sometimes seems counter to religious expression and beliefs?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 20142014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Goepper: Contrary to popular belief, there are actually quite a few guys in the action sports community that have faith and are Christians. There’s also that rebellious, anti-establishment attitude that some people have. They like to stir things up, if you will. But all the athletes are individuals. This isn’t a team sport. We all have our own styles, our own clothing preferences and our own way of doing things. That’s the way I do things and I’m proud of it.

Bonham: How would you define your style within the sport?

Goepper: I’m pretty well rounded. I can do most of my tricks left and right, in both directions. I try to be smooth and confident. But it’s still developing. I’m still trying to find my own personal touch in the way I ski.

Bonham: Does it help to have some others within the sport that have similar beliefs?

Goepper: It’s never fun to do it by yourself. It’s good to have other people that are on the same path as you. It’s nice to have that in common and be able to converse with them. It’s cool to share that.

Bonham: Do you see the sport as a platform to be a good influence on others?

Goepper: All the exciting contests and travel and sponsorships are cool, but I like to be able to have influence on people and on youngsters. One of the great things about the X Games and the Olympics is being on the international stage. It gives you a cool opportunity to express, not only your personal style, but also your faith and what you believe in and your values.

Bonham: Do you feel any pressure to be a role model and is having that platform is something you take seriously?

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014Goepper: Yeah definitely, but there’s no pressure. I’m the kind of person who likes to focus on one thing at a time. I’ll focus on my skiing and then when I get to the bottom of my run and the cameras are on me, I’ll focus on what I need to say, and then I’ll focus that night on recovering and getting ready for the next day. I try to keep a pretty one-tracked mind when it comes to things like that. But honestly, I think it’s great. Even when there’s pressure and distractions and expectations from others or myself, it’s a good thing. It just makes me a better person. It makes me stronger.

Bonham: Can you share a time when God helped you get through a difficult situation?

Goepper: He helps me for sure every day and at every contest. But in particular, this past summer I got really sick for two months and had my tonsils removed. A week after that, I broke my hand and had to get surgery on it. The recovery was really frustrating because I had to skip three weeks at the beginning of the season. But I flipped it around and took it as a blessing. I said a lot of prayers and just asked God to do His thing. I did other things to compliment the recovery like getting the right sleep and taking care of my body. But I went back to the doctor after four weeks and he was ecstatic about the recovery of my hand. I take that as a tribute to my faith and my belief in doing the right things.

Bonham: What biblical principle do you rely on every day?

Goepper: I like to quote the verse, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” I kind of envision me skiing and God is kind of like an eagle right next to me screeching in my ear that everything is going to be all good. I just try my best and that’s all I can ask for.

Follow Nick Goepper and Team USA by clicking HERE.

Photo credit: NBC Olympics/USOC

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