SPORTS & MISSIONS: Winter athletes find new life in Lake Placid

Baptist Press
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Posted: Feb 18, 2011 5:45 PM
SPORTS & MISSIONS: Winter athletes find new life in Lake Placid
EDITOR'S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches will be March 6-13 in conjunction with the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, with a goal of $70 million to help pay the salaries and ministry support of 5,000-plus missionaries serving in North America under the SBC's North American Mission Board. For more information, go to www.anniearmstrong.com.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (BP)--Lake Placid is full of people going places and at great speeds. The resort town was made famous by movies, high rollers, Olympic events and now by top-flight winter athletes honing their skills on its bobsled tracks and ice rinks.

The people who stand out, though, for North American Mission Board missionary Derek Spain are athletes like U.S. bobsledder John Napier who have been changed by the Gospel and now represent Christ at global sporting events.

"John was 14 when I moved here," said Spain, who relocated to the area in 2001 as a Southern Baptist resort missionary. "Only in the last few years have I begun to know personally."

Nestled in New York's Adirondack Mountains, Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and in 1980. Now home to an Olympic Training Center, the small town receives athletes from all over the world -- training in winter sports such as hockey, figure skating and bobsledding. Many athletes move with their families during their early years to train. John Napier began training in Lake Placid in his early teens.

"Any week of the year you could be walking down Main Street and see a former Olympian, current Olympian or aspiring Olympian," said Spain.

Developing relationships with athletes in the fast moving and regimented world of Lake Placid is often supplanted by the necessities of sleeping, eating and training. But tragedy and difficulty often can slow life down enough to open a door, as when Napier's father fell ill.

Spain was able to minister to Napier for the first time when Napier's father, William, was dying of cancer.

Later, Spain bumped into Napier and invited him to a weekly Bible study. After several weeks, Napier became a regular at the Bible study.

"I had the opportunity to baptize John last year," Spain said. "His whole life had been bobsled and pursuing gold medals and success through the sport. Now he realizes that God is transforming his life in every way and that even bobsled is a way for him to be a witness for Christ."

This is what's driven Spain for nearly a decade -- helping athletes see beyond their sport and find their ultimate purpose in Christ.

Last January, Spain was tapped to serve as an official chaplain for the 2010 U.S. Winter Olympic team. In Vancouver, Spain was able to minister to athletes when tragedy struck. On the morning of the opening ceremonies Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from the Republic of Georgia, died when he crashed during a training run and hit a metal pole.

The accident rocked the entire Olympic community. As officials investigated the death and made adjustments to the track's safety, chaplains like Spain responded to athletes reeling from the loss and fear in the tragedy's wake.

"Some of the athletes, especially the younger ones, were shaken," Spain said. "They were wondering whether they would race. Some athletes put up walls so they wouldn't lose focus. It was difficult for everyone."

And in the pall cast on the games by that cracking blow, Spain had the privilege of being there with a hope much greater than athletic prowess and regimen -- a hope he'd seen Napier find less than a year before.

The road Spain traveled to connect with athletes like Napier began with a desire to serve the Lake Placid community. Spain now heads up North Country Ministries, made up of members of Lake Placid Baptist Church and Southern Baptist mission teams that travel to the resort from other churches throughout North America.

"At North Country Ministries, we were willing to do the jobs nobody wanted to do," Spain said. "We've found many open doors through serving and volunteering at sports events. We just say, 'Hey, how can we help? We want to be part of the event and help to make it better.' And while we're there serving at events we have the opportunity to talk to people. So we just strike up conversations, talk about anything -- the weather, their families -- anything that would help us make a connection."

Through a growing reputation for serving and loving the community, Spain has been invited to serve as chaplain to the U.S. bobsled team and he's started Bible studies with athletes. Lake Placid Baptist Church, which he serves as pastor, has grown as a result.

"It took years for these opportunities to happen and years of serving," Spain said. "Years of praying, years of being patient and just waiting on God's timing for Him to open the doors at the right time."

Spain's prayer now is that God would open the door for a revival among the world's athletes.

"We're praying that hundreds or thousands of athletes in these winter sports would come to Christ," Spain said. "Our prayer has also been for athletes who know Christ, that they would know they're not alone out there."

Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Derek Spain and NAMB missionaries like him, visit the video gallery at www.namb.net.

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