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Page Turner
Katya, an Olympic chaplain who started out an atheist, thought religion was for little old ladies until she picked up a really good book.

Everything—even the place you are born—has an impact on your destiny.

I was born in 1974 in Karamken, a small settlement in eastern Russia near Alaska, 8,000 kilometres from Moscow. Karamken has snow eight months of the year, so everyone cross-country skis, and it was almost inevitable that I would, too. I joined the ski club when I was ten and came in second in the first competition I entered. Soon I was winning regional school competitions so often that, at 14, I was the youngest participant selected for the regional team, where I rose to first place.

I did well in Russia’s open championships and was invited to join the Belarus national team. With three universities pursuing me, I chose to study physical education in Belarus and won in many competitions: World Cups, championships and marathons. I was a seven-time Belarus national champion and came in eighth in the worldwide university championships.

Fateful visit

While in training camp in 1995, I visited a teammate and noticed she had a Bible. Growing up in Russia, I knew nothing about God. We were taught in school that the Bible was all myth and legend. I thought that the only people who believed in God were little old ladies.

My friend offered to lend it to me but I said, “No, thank you. It’s not for me.”

Eventually, we ended up being roommates. One weekend, she invited me to join her when she went home to visit her family. While I wasn’t interested in Christianity, I tagged along one day when she attended Bible study. I was amazed at how many people were there and how many of them were young people.

As I got to know my friend’s family and fellow Christians, I was impressed at how different they were from the people I knew. These Christians, although not perfect, demonstrated clean living, good values and emotionally healthy family lives because of their commitment to Christ.

Curiosity about their devotion to the Bible finally overcame me, and I asked my friend if I could borrow her Bible. What a revelation! Rather than myths and legends, this was a real story about a real God. And He was speaking to me as I read it!

Soon, my interests and priorities started to change. Until then, my life revolved around sports, but I realized I wanted a better life for myself and my future family—a life with God, a faithful husband, and spiritually healthy children. I also wanted to be a better and more honest person around my coaches, teammates and opponents.

At the age of 22, I made a commitment to God and was baptised in May 1996. Church became my family. By reading the Bible and other Christian books, I developed a relationship with God and was soon sharing my faith.

At first, life as a Christian was difficult. With no other Christians on the team, I had no one to talk to and I didn’t know how to relate my faith to sports. But eventually, many of them started listening to what I had to say, and a few even started attending church with me.

Winning effort

Few athletes work harder than cross-country skiers. In Russia, we call it “the horse sport.” We trained three times a day, doing up to 1,000 kilometres a month and perhaps as much as 10,000 kilometres a year. A training run could be 60 kilometres long.

My hard work was rewarded when I was selected to the national team that would compete at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, one of only five women chosen!

Unfortunately, while we did our best, our team didn’t do well.

Even though our results were disappointing, I came out a winner. While there, I encountered sports ministry—a strange concept, but it allowed me to see how I could integrate the two. I’d found my calling. I subsequently attended sports-ministry conferences in Russia and Europe, where I also received training. As a result, I served as sports chaplain at two Nordic Championships as well as at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

I’m married now to a wonderful Christ-devoted man and have a Masters in theology. I don’t compete anymore, but I’m still keen on skiing and I’m attending the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a chaplain.

Where would I be without Jesus? I can’t imagine. He planted me where I could learn to ski and has guided my life ever since. 

Originally published in Faith & Friends, February, 2010.

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