In God We Trust – But Which God?

Me kicking at high school – with God on my side?

I guess we all know where Israel Folau and his wife stand. They clearly have a homophobic problem. Their recent tweets on the subject are pretty self-righteous; full of, you are a sinner and we are not, you are on your way to hell but we are on God’s side. They demonstrate very little of the love and forgiveness their faith claims to hold so dear. But around the world isn’t that often the way? Those who make the loudest claims to religious faith often demonstrate the least love and respect for their fellow man. Rather than moving on to a time of grace they hold on to the Old Testament “an eye for an eye”.

In my coaching career I have been faced with several examples that have tested my understanding; that have challenged my personal atheism.

About a month after I began coaching in Florida I noticed one of our senior swimmers, Doug, arrive at the pool. A male friend in the car got out with him and together they stood and hugged and had a long and passionate kiss goodbye. I had no idea Doug was gay and confess to male shock at the outward display of same sex affection.

It was a wakeup call for me. I needed to think through my attitude; decide on my position. The process did not take long. My unease said much more about me than it did about Doug. He was a lovely man, a great swimmer, a valuable team member and was involved in an open and loving relationship with his partner. I was helped by the acceptance I saw in senior Florida swimmers like Rhi Jeffrey, Joseph Skuba, Andrew Meeder, Tiffany Erdman and Kirsty Jeffrey.

Doug swam with me through my five years in Florida and remains one of the most delightful swimmers I have coached. I am forever grateful for his contribution in expanding my understanding and acceptance.

Athletes who call on divine help puzzle me. What do boxers say? “Dear Lord, give me the power to beat this guy into a block of bleeding plasma?” When I was a senior at high school in the United States I was the kicker on the school football team. A few minutes before each game the coach gathered us together in the middle of the field. Under the floodlights we knelt, put our hands into the centre of a circle and recited the Lord’s Prayer. I never understood how the creator of the universe was expected to pick our team to win over, what seemed like perfectly good guys, from the high school down the road. We were second in the Wisconsin State Championships that year, so perhaps we didn’t pray hard enough. Or maybe God detected the scepticism of the team’s kicker.

I should have known better. Before I went to America one of the huge events on the Gisborne swimming calendrer was the Bodle Shield. My good mate, Greg Meade, was due to race a local freestyle superstar, Jim Westwood, in the 100 freestyle. I didn’t think there was anyway Greg could beat Westwood.

On our way to the pool Greg stopped his bike outside the local Catholic Church and asked me to wait while he went into confession. A clean slate with God might help his cause. I waited outside convinced I had never heard anything as crazy. Perhaps I should have had more faith. A couple of hours later Greg won the 100 freestyle.

Without question the most devout swimmer I have coached is Abigail; a really lovely person but with stunningly strict Christian views. For example I overheard a conversation she was having with Rhi Jeffrey about abortion. Rhi put the proposition that surely abortion should be allowed in the case of a gang rape and the foetus is found to be mentally and physically deformed and going to full term was likely to risk the mother’s life. Certainly not, came Abigail’s reply, under no circumstance could abortion be condoned.

Abigail owned a plastic bible and during long kick sets would happily swim up and down reading the Lord’s works. I’m sure Abigail would have voted for Donald Trump. I know she was no fan of Hillary. I struggle to understand how Trump’s behaviour fits with the teachings in her plastic bible. In spite of that Abigail was one of the most delightful swimmers I have helped.

And finally on this subject there is Saudi Arabia. When I arrived in Jeddah the main concern of the pool staff and the swimmers was that I might be Jewish. The name David could mean nothing else – or so they thought. Having got around that misunderstanding I discovered that the Saudi guy’s religious beliefs made even Abigail look positively pagan. Every five hours, every day, loudspeakers throughout the country called the faithful to prayer. What I did not realise was that meant if prayers were called in the middle of a main set of 20×100 everyone just climbed out of the pool and went to pray. After a month of gentle persuasion I managed to obtain permission for the set to be completed first. I think they realised that while I respected their religious beliefs, successful swimming was difficult when a two hour training session was interrupted for twenty minutes every day.

Now that Eyad is living in New Zealand I think he may have strayed from the straight and narrow. Certainly training is no longer interrupted by the call to prayer. Perhaps it’s the misguided influence of the coach.

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