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Ryan Hall’s season of joy

When I saw the headline on the featured New York Times sports story yesterday — “A runner’s belief: God is his coach” — I assumed it would be a story full of digs at the faith of the athlete involved, Olympic marathon runner Ryan Hall. But Jere Longman’s byline prompted me to read the story.

Longman is the author of Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back and an outstanding reporter. You can watch a video of Longman discussing the book here.

Longman’s profile of Hall is an intriguing portrait of an unusual man. Hall is unusual in more ways than one. Longman really brings him to life and makes you want to get to know him better. His story inevitably calls to mind the story behind Chariots of Fire. It is something like an updated and Americanized version of the story. Here is Longman’s nod to it:

It is while running or thinking of running, Hall said, that he feels most conversant with and dependent on God. And it is through this professional excellence that Hall believes he is best able to show God to the world, to display his goodness and his love.

Joe Bottom, who won a gold and a silver medal in swimming at the 1976 Montreal Games and attends Bethel Church [i.e., Hall's church], compared Hall’s Olympic pursuit to that of Eric Liddell, a Christian runner from Scotland who won the 400 meters at the 1924 Paris Games. Liddell’s story was featured in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”

In the movie, Liddell is portrayed as saying, “I feel God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Bottom said in an e-mail: “It’s fulfilling, even exhilarating, to feel God’s pleasure in our willingness to pursue and occasionally fulfill the dreams He puts in our hearts and the purposes He built into us. Cooperating with that purpose and those dreams is the greatest fulfillment that one could experience.”

Longman quotes the respectful if ambivalent observation of Alberto Salazar:

Among the most interested observers is Alberto Salazar, a former American marathoner who now coaches elite athletes. He, too, is a renowned tinkerer whose Catholic faith played a significant role in his career. Salazar said he had the utmost respect for Hall, but also believed that God wanted his followers to take responsibility for their daily actions and “not depend on him for the answer to everything.”

“I don’t believe God is necessarily interested in what workouts I should give my runners,” Salazar said.

At the same time, he said, “I may not understand how Ryan believes, but what I respect him for tremendously is that he has the guts to share his faith.”

Even the photographs that the Times runs with the article are striking. Despite the length of the article, Longman left me wanting more after giving Hall the last word:

His spiritual growth, he said, has freed him from caution and a dependence on results for his happiness.

“It’s going to take a special day,” Hall said of his gold medal chances. “But I feel like I went for it, regardless of how the race goes. I’ll always look back on this as a season of joy. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the fun of life, taking some chances and seeing what happens.”

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