Heroes

My conversation with an Olympic athlete


I will never cease to be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, which has put me in contact with so many friends, both old and new. I connected with Katya Antaniuk via research on the internet, then email, and finally a conversation on Skype. She is an amazing woman with an incredible story.

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Imagine a place covered with snow for eight months of the year, and you’ll have the Russia of Katya Antaniuk’s childhood. “I was five years old when I first put on skis,” she says. “At ten, I started to train in cross-country skiing.”

She became a member of the regional team and participated in various competitions, at the local and then at the national level. After high school she was offered the chance to either join the Russian national ski team, or to study elsewhere. Antaniuk opted to go to university in Belarus, and joined the national team there.

It was about this time, when life was going very well for her and she thought she didn’t need anything else, that Antaniuk had her first encounter with the Bible.

“I visited another skier, and saw that she had a Bible. Coming from a Communist background, I had never seen one before. We were taught in school that the Bible contained only myths. She offered to lend it me. I was skeptical, so I said no.”

After about a year, she started to train with the same girl. “I visited her at Christmas, and she invited me to church. I was surprised to find that there were more than just old ladies…there were all kinds of people. Men, women, children. Young people. And they didn’t look crazy. They looked normal.”

She agreed to attend a Bible study. “It was very strange at first to hear all this talk about Jesus. There were many people, and I was straining to hear the pastor. The next time, I came early. I listened, and I started to realize that the Bible is not something out of this world. It’s a story about people who existed here on earth, and about a God who is real.

“It was so touching to me, this new discovery. I started to read the Bible and other books. I had no chance to go to church – the team was travelling all the time – so it was just me and the Bible, and God leading me. My life, my priorities started to change. I started to see the world from a different perspective.”

The Bible opened her not only to God, but also to history, archaeology, and other cultures and languages. “When you are in sports, you need to stay so focused on one area, with no time to explore other things,” she notes. “Reading the Bible inspired me to learn and study more.” In addition to her degree in physical education, Antaniuk did a major in English and a minor in religion at a theological seminary. Later she completed a Master of Arts in theology at a Christian college in England.

A special moment for Antaniuk during the 2002 Nagano Olympics was encountering the world of sports ministry. For her, it was another first.

“I didn’t know that sports chaplains existed. Some teams, like the Americans, even bring their own chaplains,” she says, noting that the care of a ‘spiritual coach’ is just as important and necessary as that of a medical doctor or physical trainer. “For the first time I saw that it was possible to combine my athletic abilities with my faith.”

When the Olympics came to Turin in 2006, Antaniuk was there as a sports chaplain. 2010 will find her in Vancouver, not to compete, but to minister and counsel as she did in Turin, as part of a multilingual pastoral team at the service of all the athletes.

Being a sports chaplain is an experience Antaniuk says she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. “I can help the other athletes because I understand them, I can speak their language, and I know the pressures and difficulties they are going through, so I can share their worries. I help them to trust, and to pray.

“And when things are going well, success can open another door to have a conversation with athletes,” she notes. “I congratulate them, tell them I’m happy for them, that I prayed for them.”

One other thing Antaniuk will be praying for during this Olympiad is the weather. “I visited in Vancouver three years ago, and it rained all the time!” she says with a laugh. A nice balance of sun and snow? Amen to that.

(This story ran in the February 1, 2010 issue of the BC Catholic.)

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