Michael Phelp’s amazing return to gold medal form for the 2016 Olympics is the story of a man with a new mission in life. He was contemplating suicide in 2014 when his friend, Ray Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker and Christian, convinced him to enter rehab and gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
Phelps recovered and thanked Lewis, saying to an ESPN reporter that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”
Phelps isn’t the only American medalist whose identity is anchored outside the pool. The silver medal winning U.S. 10M platform synchronized diving team of David Boudia and Steele Johnson also gave credit for their poise under pressure to something other than their training: their “identity in Christ.”
What’s going on here?
Ask the average Christian about their identity according to scripture and you often get a blank stare, or sometimes, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” But the New Testament fairly bubbles over with illustrations of the principle that once we have been “born again,” as Jesus said, or “regenerated and renewed,” in Paul’s idiom we are no longer simply saved sinners, we are “new creatures in Christ. The old things have passed away, and new things have come.”
Here are just a few Scriptural phrases that articulate the concept:
- Colossians 2:13 – You have been “made alive with Christ” and are no longer “dead in trespasses and sins.”
- Colossians 3:1 – You have been “raised with Christ” and your life is now “hidden with Christ in God.”
- Hebrews 10: 10 – You have been “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all.”
- Romans 6:3-4 – You died with Christ and were raised with him to a new life.
Athletes are, by definition, under loads of “performance pressure.” How they do on the field or in the pool will determine not only whether they win or lose, but often how they feel about themselves as persons; their self-worth measured by the few tenths of a point or hundredths of a second between the bronze medal and fourth place. At the highest levels, as was the case with Phelps, they often have no identity outside of their sport and once they age out, or can no longer compete with the best, become depressed. The internal need to succeed is enormous.
That’s why Boudia’s answer to how he handled the pressure was so important.
“You know,” he said during an interview after their dive, “it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ.”
His diving partner, Johnson, agreed, “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest.”
Take a lesson from these athletes and remember: if you’re a believer your identity is greater than your performance. You are accepted in Christ, you are loved by God, you belong to him and whether you have a gold medal day or come in somewhere back of bronze, nothing can change that.
 Michael Phelps is Driven; Breakpoint Daily, August 11, 2016, with Eric Metaxas.