Josh Davis could brag if he wants: he was the only man at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games to win three gold medals. But instead, he travels the country telling people how great God is and reminds himself that even as his hard-earned Olympic medals are now dented and scratched from handling, God's Word is eternal.
Davis spoke to The Christian Post last week about his book The Goal and the Glory – a compilation of stories from Christian Olympians – how he felt the day after winning his first gold medal, and his connection to Texas megachurch pastor and bestselling author Max Lucado and 14-time-Olympic-gold-medalist Michael Phelps.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
CP: I noticed Max Lucado wrote the foreword to your book. How do you two know each other?
Davis: Yeah, I go to his church, and so that is kind of easy to see him. Actually there was a season when he was training for triathlon, I was so proud of him, and he says, "Hey, I need to work on my swimming." And I said, "Well okay, I need to work on my life so we can go swim and snack." So we would go swim a few minutes together and get a snack together. So I was hopefully able to help his swimming a little bit.
CP: One of the quotes from your book that stood out to me is the one on page 149: "I had finally tasted the best the world had to offer and it was sweet . . . but oh, so short! Having had a taste of glory, I now felt empty. It was sobering to experience the shock of a high so high followed by a low so low. I was a little confused and disillusioned." What realization did you have the morning after your first Olympic gold?
Davis: I think it is maybe what some celebrities or CEOs or gold medalists might tell you in a secret safe place that when you climbed to the top of the ladder it's not everything that you thought it would be. (Laughs) I agree that there are so many fun perks of being the best in the world at something, but at the same time it went by so fast. I went like, "I just trained ten years and it lasted about four or five hours! That was it!" It was a little sobering thinking, "Oh my gosh, was it worth it?" I had to really analyze my motivation and my soul, and yeah, it was worth it because this is what God called me to do regardless of the result. When I developed my character along the way, it is the journey that counts not so much what happens at the very end.
CP: When you are really good at something and you are at the top of the ladder, it's hard to overcome the tendency to give yourself all the credit and glory. How have you and other Christian athletes remind yourselves that glory should be given to God?
Davis: Yeah, I think it comes down to your worldview. When you read the Bible it's very clear that God created us and He knows how we best operate. And for me, when I trusted God with everything in my life, He allowed me to do a lot of neat things. There's a verse in the Bible that says God allows it to rain on the just and unjust. God gives various gifts to all people whether they acknowledge Him or not. It is very evident to me, and probably everyone on the planet, that Lance Armstrong has a gift, but he is not too concern where that gift came from. To me I think the right thing to do and the smart thing to do is to acknowledge where your gift comes from. Every gift, every ability, every breath is a gift from God.
CP: What is the meaning of the title of your book, The Goal and the Glory?
Davis: The Goal and the Glory emphasizes that to reach your potential you have to line up your goals, you have to analyze your priorities, your passions, where God has placed you, and then there is a second thing that isn't in the title. In the book it's the middle section called "guts." You got to train your tail off and I think that takes a lot of guts and a lot of courage and perseverance to see it go to the end. But then the last part of the book we talk about glory. And it is not just saying "Thank you Jesus" when you have the gold medal around your neck. It's actually reflecting Christ's love and attitude when you don't win, when things don't work out as you planned. That's the real glory, when God takes our selfish stubborn heart and we reflect a heart like his. To me that is the bigger miracle. But obviously we love to see someone break the tape and a world record in the dash, and do something a human has not done before. But I love it when a human heart is changed because that is something only God can do.
CP: When did you start thinking about writing this book? Were you already talking to Christian athletes and decided that you should compile it?
Davis: Yeah, well my first Olympic games in 1996 I met several Christian Olympians and that was really fun to just encourage one another and share stories in the Olympic village. And in 2000 I got to meet a few more, and over the years I began to read about different folks and did research on some folks in the past, too, all the way back to Eric Liddell in 1924 Paris Olympic. Some of our athletes from the '50s and '60s. So yeah, someone encouraged me to write this book and I said, "Okay, let's do it."
Regal publisher asked if I would be willing to put this book together, "We think there would be some interest." I said, "Yeah, I always wanted to do this book. So let's do it." So we took a few months to figure out who would be [in it]. You know, in a way we do have to pick carefully who the Christian Olympians are because we want to make sure they walk the walk and not just talk the talk. You don't have to be perfect to be in the book. It was really fun to learn what we call their God moments. Sometimes it was when they were winning, but most of the time it was when things weren't going as planned and God met them in that place and gave them the strength and perspective to carry on. That's why I think this book is perfect for anybody, athlete or non-athlete, because these verses, these stories and these quotes apply to everyone because we all go through hard times.
CP: Do you know what story I particularly enjoyed? Peter Westbrook's story. It is so dramatic! That was not what I expected to read in this book!
Davis: Wasn't that fascinating! I know! The way he started was so unusual and he was just an angry dude for a long time.
CP: They should make a movie on this. The whole Japanese single mom … they should make a movie on this.
Davis: I know, I know! I'm sure there are old YouTube TV interviews of back-in-the-day when he was more famous. But I think this would be a great movie, this guy's life is insane. But how he totally turned it around and made it for good. And he brought hundreds if not thousands of kids to fencing in that underprivileged area, and he has put several Olympians on the team in fencing from his program. It's just a great story.
CP: Could you tell me a little about the chaplains at the Olympic Village, because we don't really hear much about that.
Davis: Yeah, that is kind of an interesting thing. Ever since the 1972 murdering of the Jewish athletes, it has become part of the Olympic village experience to always have a chaplaincy to meet the spiritual need of whatever faith background there might be. Because when that went down in 1972, they didn't have anybody able to handle the spiritual needs of the athletes who were going through a crisis. So that is the genesis of it.
Over the years it has evolved into this building, the chaplaincy building, that houses the chaplains. There are the protestant ones, and the Catholic ones, and there is a Buddha room, and prayer room for the Muslims, and there is a prayer room for anything else that someone else might need to pray to. They have to have that. And so the most well attended services are the Protestant and Catholic services. And we have had some wonderful, wonderful services. There is one in particular where we all got together for a chapel and we had all these athletes from all the corner of the globe singing the same songs, to the same Jesus, and it gave me a little glimpse of heaven. The Bible says every tribe, every tongue, every nation will bow before King Jesus, and I thought this is a little bit like what it will be like. I had a big African athlete in his traditional garb – it was Sunday chapel so you got guys dressed up in big, flowing robes with all the colors and this cool little hat they wear. There were Asians, Europeans, and me and a few Americans and I thought, "Here we all are, all of the colors and tribes and this is what heaven will be like."
CP: Are you able to openly share your testimony with other athletes easily?
Davis: Umm, obviously I don't mind. I try to be fluid and strategic with it. I guess my philosophy is building bridges strong enough to support the weight of the truth. Building bridges strong enough to support the weight of the truth. So I love building relationships with athletes. Obviously, I can get into the Olympic Village and I am friends with these professional Olympic athletes and we have immediate rapport and I have an immediate bridge to talk about life and sport, and hopefully over time, we get to talk about the truth claims of Jesus Christ. And so whether they accept or reject the matter, the bridge is always there and they know I'm their friend no matter what. So I wouldn't call myself an in-your-face street evangelist, but everybody kind of knows where I stand. (Laughs)
CP: What is included in your swim clinics and how can people bring one to their area?
Davis: We visit over 80 cities a year, for the last six years, and so we go all over. Our website is usaswimmer.com, and people can write in and if you want some Olympians to come to your town. Obviously we do the swim clinic, but we also do church talks and school talks, civic luncheons and anything else anybody can think of while we're in town. It's really fun. Obviously our main vocation, our main program, is the swim clinic. We spend four hours teaching the kids everything we know about life and swimming. The website for that is breakoutswimclinic.com.
CP: After the Olympics we usually don't know what happens to the Olympic athletes. What usually happens to them afterwards? Do they return to normal life? Do they do swim clinics, fencing clinics? What happens to them?
Davis: It's a whole combination of things. There isn't a lot of support and money in most of the Olympic sports and the training requirements are so intense, the hours are so long that if you are lucky enough to have some sponsorship or continue with your college scholarship, you can keep training for the next Olympic. But it is a whole mix. Some people retired and move on and get their degrees; some people go into coaching the sport they were involved in; some people are able to do other things in their sports like I have, to go around and do this Olympic inspirational tour. So it's kind of half and half, half are able to survive and keep going and the other half have to retire and return to normal life.
CP: I wonder if you have contact with Michael Phelps? Have you talked to him?
Davis: Oh, I'm great friends with Michael! Yeah, we were in the 2000 team together when I was the oldest guy on the team and he was the youngest guy on the team. He was 15 and I was 28, so I was the old cap on the team and he was the young pup. And we have great respect for each other ever since. And it has been so awesome, fascinating to watch him grow up from this little 15-year-old kid in his first Olympics to the greatest Olympian of all time. It has been wonderful. He's a good friend and he's trying to do his best. We are watching history when we watch him swim, especially now when he only has a couple weeks left in his career.