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Bronze winner thanks God through running

BEIJING (BP)–When New Zealand track star Nicholas Willis was 4, his mother died of cancer, sending him into a tailspin of searching for significance. Now he has won a bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics.

Willis placed third in the men’s 1500 meters final Aug. 19 with a time of 3:34:16, 1:22 behind the winner from Bahrain and 17 seconds behind the silver medalist from Kenya. He finished second in the preliminaries and fifth in the semifinals with times of 3:36:01 and 3:37:54, respectively.

In a retrospective on his website, willisrunning.com, the athlete explained the impact his mother’s tragic death had on his childhood.

“I had to win everything I took part in to maintain my self-esteem. I was angry at God for allowing her to die and often viewed my life as unfair,” he wrote. “During my teenage years, I felt a great need to leave New Zealand and explore the world. I wanted to be in control of my future. I wanted popularity, money and fame. I thought a running scholarship to America was my ticket to happiness.”

But when Willis arrived at the University of Michigan, he soon learned that the very things he thought would make him happy had only left him empty and unfulfilled.

“All I had achieved was nothing compared to missing my mother, blaming God (if He even existed), for her unfair death,” Willis recounted on the Beyond the Ultimate website of Athletes in Action. “In depression, I felt like I had nowhere else to go. I needed guidance and a direction with real purpose.”

He sensed a knocking on his heart, telling him his mother was watching his life from heaven. He tried to evade it, he said, but he knew God was chasing him and he finally stopped running. Unknown to him, many people had been praying for Willis, and some had encouraged him to consider what he believed about Jesus.

“Jesus showed me how we can live life to the fullest,” Willis, 25, wrote on his site. “Rather than seeking money or power, He chose to help feed the hungry and heal the sick. Jesus lived a perfect life, never deceiving or hurting anyone. Many people started following Jesus, and cheered that He would become their new king.

“The leaders in power became fearful of Jesus, so they decided to have Him killed. Jesus did not run or hide but chose to accept this fate,” the runner said. “The coolest thing about Jesus is that although He was the Son of God and had the ability to do anything, He still allowed the soldiers to nail Him to a cross. His innocence has now made it possible for all of us who are guilty to be forgiven and set free from our sin.”

In 2003, Willis asked Jesus to forgive him for his anger and disobedience and for hurting so many people in his rebellion.

“He came into my heart and swept me clean. All the anger and bitterness towards my mother’s death became healed, and I was ready to restart my life fresh,” he told AIA.

“… God is real, and He walks alongside me every day. He convicts me when I stray and loves me when I’m lonely…. Nothing I have done during my life has allowed me to deserve this. My selfish existence is proof that God can and wants to forgive everyone. We just have to ask.”

Willis also testified that “Jesus is not about religion. He is a living God who wants to be a part of our lives. He knows we are messed up and struggle with different temptations. He wants to help free us so we can enjoy life to the full, not live a boring life following strict rules and regulations.”

Now Willis runs to show gratitude to God for saving him.

“Running with all my heart is a way for me to thank God for the opportunities and gifts He has given me,” he wrote. “As I train for the Olympics, I constantly remind myself that all I have comes from God, and without Him, I would not be the person I am today.”

Willis’ brother Steve has been his coach for the Olympics. Steve’s running career included an NCAA Division II title and a best mile time of 3.59.1.

“Whether I win or lose, I believe that God gets great joy when I approach my training, working and racing with an attitude of power, love and discipline,” Willis said. “I also try to adopt this same view when it comes to other areas of my life besides running.”

Willis was scheduled to begin competition in the men’s 800 meters Aug. 20.

In other track and field news, Lopez Lamong, the Sudanese refugee who carried the flag for his adopted homeland of the United States, did not qualify for the 1500 meters final. He finished eighth in one of the two semifinal races on Sunday.

Lomong, 23, is one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, a group of 3,800 boys who suffered through genocide in North Africa and were given a second chance at life when they were brought to the United States in 2001. He viewed his participation in the Olympics as a God-given opportunity to make the entire world aware of the crimes being committed against Christians and tribal peoples in southern Sudan.

“When we were in Africa, we didn’t know what was there for us as kids — we just ran,” Lomong wrote on his website, lopezlomong.org. “God was planning all of this stuff for me, and I didn’t know.”
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.

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