BEIJING (BP)–Sacrifice is a way of life for most Olympic athletes. They endure grueling training regimens and spend countless hours practicing to become the best in their sport.
U.S. cyclist Amber Neben is no exception. Neben has spent much of her life honing and perfecting her athletic abilities. But for her, “suffering” may be a more precise term than “sacrifice” to describe her experience.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am now without having the faith I have,” Neben said. “I don’t know that I would have been able to persevere without knowing that the Lord was in control, and He had His hand on me and was working through everything I’ve gone through.”
Despite the challenges Neben has faced, she now finds herself near the pinnacle of athletic achievement. She competes in the women’s road race Aug. 10 in the Beijing Olympics, hoping to end a long drought for the U.S. team in the sport.
“The Americans haven’t won a medal in road cycling since 1984, so it’s been a long time,” Neben said. “I think we’ll come away disappointed if we don’t win one.”
Still, the fact that Neben is in Beijing at all is quite the story, as she’s overcome obstacle after obstacle in her life and her athletic career. The challenges began when she was only 4 years old and spent three days in a coma with spinal meningitis.
Doctors told her parents that she probably wasn’t going to live. Even if she did, they said, she’d have extensive brain damage.
But Neben proved them wrong.
“I think there were a lot of people praying for me at the time,” she said.
Her parents were not Christians back then, but after the ordeal with Amber’s health, they began attending church regularly, and Amber came to know Christ.
Neben was baptized at a young age and went to a Christian school for much of her childhood; by junior high school, she had grown immensely. “I … remember being an eighth-grader and having a really good understanding of His grace and what it meant to be a Christian,” she said. “I think my faith was pretty far along pretty early.”
In sports, soccer was Neben’s first love. She began high school with high expectations of where her soccer skills would take her. Then she began running cross country, and soccer became a distant memory. By her sophomore year, she was focusing exclusively on her running, and she eventually earned a cross country and track scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
Neben, however, was prone to stress fractures in her shins. They started during her high school years, and continued during her first two years of college -– always causing setbacks in her training and hindering her from getting the most out of her skills.
“I knew I had a special talent,” Neben said. “I knew there was something athletically special about what I could do. But I kept getting hurt.”
Finally, during her sophomore season she reached a point where she knew her running career was over. Another stress fracture. Another major disappointment.
“My body could not handle the pounding,” Neben wrote on her website. “I could never do enough miles to be competitive. I walked to the other side of the track where the bleachers were. I climbed to the top and sat there and cried. For an hour and a half, I sat in the cold. I cried. I prayed. I sat in silence.”
Though difficult at the time, Neben now looks back on that experience with gratitude. She recalls the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-4, that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.
“All of a sudden you have a really clear understanding of what it means when Jesus said to Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient,'” Neben said. “At the time I was going through those four years, it was such a roller coaster. Now when I look back, I’m so thankful for it, and I wouldn’t change any of it, because of how it built my faith and developed a foundation for me for who I am now.”
Her competitive fires still burned, so Neben continued to train as much as she could and engage in physical activities. One of those was mountain bike racing. She began to excel and began to win.
After graduating from college, Neben turned pro. She also got a taste of road racing and eventually decided to focus on it instead of mountain bike racing. Everything seemed to be going so well.
Then another setback. In 2003, Neben tested positive for a banned substance and had to serve a suspension. She points to a contaminated supplement as the reason for the positive test and maintains her innocence in deliberately taking an illegal substance.
“The people that knew me and had been around me knew that something had happened, that I didn’t do anything,” she recounted. “My worry was more with the people who really didn’t know me. For me, that was the hardest thing -– knowing that my witness was a little bit scarred in that sense. But the people who knew me, they knew my faith, they knew my integrity and how I walked, and that it was never something that I would intentionally do.”
Neben rebounded and continued to improve in her racing, all the while improving in the world rankings. At the end of the 2007 season, she had climbed to ninth in the world -– the highest ranking of any of the U.S. women’s road racers.
She was also facing a new challenge –- skin cancer, discovered on Neben’s back. Fortunately, doctors discovered the melanoma early. They removed it and Neben has had no lingering effects.
Now Neben is poised to compete in her first Olympics. She hopes to race well. But more importantly, she hopes to represent her Lord in a fitting way.
“I consider myself a Christian before I consider myself an athlete,” she said. “So how I act, how I talk, how I race — I try to do that as a Christian first. I’m not going to put someone in the ditch. I try to race with integrity and class. I try to do things professionally in a way that, hopefully, accurately represents Christ.”
After all she’s been through, it’s the least Neben can do.
“The Lord’s been good to me and He’s always been there with me,” she said. “I’ve learned to give thanks in all situations, just knowing that the Lord’s in control. His plans are bigger and better than anything that I could ever imagine.”
Tim Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University, is covering the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing for Baptist Press.