Spring Spark 1999
The Director's Desk
Champions of Heart and Soul
The clearest and most meaningful memories of my (undistinguished) running career at Calvin College come from Dandridge, Tennessee.
Nestled on a beautiful piece of land nudging into a lazy curve of the French Broad River in that town is the French Broad Baptist Church. The church has a quiet grace, with a grove of trees surrounding and the congregational cemetery nearby.
During our track team's spring break training trips, we made an annual stop at the church, singing in the worship service and enjoying the hospitality of the amazing Ponder family and their friends and relatives.
It was in that church and at the outdoor spread afterwards, eating Mrs. Ponder's heavenly peach cobbler, that I began to understand that even running could be used by God to speak (and sing) His name and could bring honor to Him.
I'll never forget teammate and fleet 400-meter runner Joel Cooper singing the verse "You can talk about me/Just as you please/I'll talk about you/Down on my knees" from "I've Been Redeemed" in front of a packed church. We assigned Joel that verse because, with long brown hair falling down to his waist, he was concerned about the reception he was going to receive down south. (He was warmly welcomed.)
At Calvin, I learned, even athletics belongs to Jesus Christ. And while I sometimes wish I had performed better on the track during those college days, I treasure the time spent with teammates, working together not only to win a meet, but to build each other up as Christian brothers.
Twenty years later, as I celebrated with the women's and men's cross country teams at their December National Championship dinner, I couldn't help notice that not only has Calvin's running program raised the bar for athletic excellence --- these coaches and runners have also captured the essence of honoring Christ as individuals and as a team.
Calvin's women's cross country team won the NCAA Division III national championship in November, the first for the college in that sport and the second overall (men's basketball won in 1992). Women's coach Nancy Meyer was named NCAA Division III Coach of the Year. The men's team finished second, confirming Calvin's status as a major running power in small college athletics.
Since 1991, the women's team has placed in the top ten nationally every year, including three runner-up finishes before the breakthrough victory on November 21. Since 1988, the men's team has finished in the top ten every year except two, including the runner-up status of this past season.
But for all of this excellence on the cross country course, the thing that really makes these teams stand apart from their competition is the intensely spiritual emphasis the coaches and runners put on everything they do. The December celebration was decidedly more church service than sports-achievement party.
Coach Meyer, men's coach Brian Diemer and assistant coach (of both teams) Al Hoekstra presented a consistent message of seeking, above all, to honor God in training and competing.
Coach Meyer did not contend that because the teams were so spiritually focused, God "rewarded" them with first and second place finishes; rather, she asserted that the victory had already been won for the athletes even before the starter's gun went off. Team members Sarah Gibson, Andrea Clark and Sarah Gritter said the team devotions prior to the race were the highlight of the weekend. The championship, they said, was a wonderful conclusion to a season that was already life changing and successful in the most important categories --- the heart and soul.
I think Calvin's cross country program is the finest in the nation --- not only because the runners are very fast and the coaches are gifted mentors --- but because they've added some new choruses to the music coming from the French Broad Baptist Church.