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4 mins

Before There Was Phelps

Seriously…can you believe the Olympic rampage that is Michael Phelps? The 23 year old swimming sensation from Maryland rocked Beijing and inspired a discouraged nation.

Oh – and did you know he eats 12,000 calories a day?

To put his accomplishments in perspective, check out these facts:

  • Michael Phelps – If Michael Phelps were a country (Phelpsland – maybe?), he’d be tied for third overall in gold medals won.
  • In the total medal count, Phelps would be tied for 12th overall with the Netherlands.
  • India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and Bangladesh (combined population = 2.1 billion) have earned a total of four Olympic medals in Beijing. Phelps (population = 1) has EIGHT.
  • Michael Phelps has a perfect build for swimming success, but so do thousands of others.

The thing that I believe separates him from all other competitors is the most critical piece of success: Focus.

You know who else had focus? An Olympian from the past who you probably never heard of – but you should know about her story:

Picture a small girl hobbling across the yard with leg braces attached to her crooked leg, her left foot twisted inward. Neighborhood kids laughed and pointed.

This girl was Wilma Rudolph. Wilma was born prematurely, weighing only 4½ pounds at birth. She was sick most of her childhood, suffering from double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. After losing the use of her left leg at six, she was fitted with metal leg braces.

But Wilma wasn’t one to let her disability hold her back.

Wilma was one of 22 children from her father’s two marriages. She got her brothers and sisters to serve as lookouts while she removed her braces, forcing herself to learn to walk without them.

Wilma’s disability affected her family. Her brothers and sisters took turns massaging her crippled leg every day. For years Wilma underwent weekly therapy, requiring her mother to drive 90 miles roundtrip to a Nashville hospital. She was determined not to allow her disability to get in the way of her vision.

By the time Wilma reached her 11th birthday, 5 years of work – she had shed those braces and was playing basketball with her brothers in the yard.

A few years later, Wilma made the high school basketball team, and before long- Wilma became an all-state player, setting a Tennessee state record of 49 points in one game.

When basketball season ended, she decided to try out for the track team. That decision turned out to be one of the most significant of Wilma’s life. It started when Wilma beat her girlfriend in a race. Then she beat every girl in her high school. Soon, she beat every girl in the state of Tennessee.

Wilma was only 14 years old, but she’d come a long way since her leg braces.

Two years later she was invited to try out for the Olympics. At 16, Wilma qualified and ran in the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. She won a bronze medal – her team placed third in the 400-meter relay.

The victory was bittersweet. Yes, she’d made the Olympics and won a medal, but in her own eyes Wilma had only won the bronze. She wanted the gold. The prize wasn’t the Olympics – the prize was the gold medal – so she decided to try again in four years.
Wilma knew that if she wanted to win the gold, she’d have to dedicate an enormous amount of time, commitment, and discipline. Wilma started daily training runs at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3 p.m. She’d often sneak down the dormitory fire escape from 8 to 10 p.m. to get in some running on the track before bed. For more than three years – a total of more than 1,200 days – Wilma maintained this punishing schedule.

Finally 1960 Olympics in Rome arrived, and Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100-meter and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4×100 – meter relay, breaking records along the way.

Michael Phelps and Wilma Rudolph had one thing in common…focus. You see, I tell you this story not only because it’s amazing – but also because it reminds me of us.

Why? Well, we all have disabilities – ‘braces’ – not on our legs, but on our hearts and lives. They hold us back from experiencing life the way it’s supposed to be experienced.

You know what I mean – right? Habits – addictions – struggling home life – fear of failure – disappointments – shattered dreams – pressure and pride – anything that makes us feel trapped or limited.

But like Michael Phelps and Wilma Rudolph, we want to succeed. We want the best out of life.

Success for her was to take her focus off her braces and limitations, and keep her eyes fixed on the gold medal at the Olympics. Bronze wasn’t good enough – it had to be gold.

Success for us is taking our eyes off ourselves, our problems, and our world and focusing – not on a gold medal or any other thing – but on a person.

That person is Jesus Christ. Focusing on a career or a title or a salary or a school are not bad things – unless they are your only thing. That’s when they become a bronze medal. But the gold is Christ because when you focus on Him and put His honor in first place, everything else falls into place.

Here’s the way the Bible puts it:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

What’s your focus? Do you want to succeed in a way that lasts for eternity? Yes? Then take a cue from Michael and Wilma – and set your eyes on the relationship that is pure gold – Jesus Christ.

Head: When we fix our eyes on Jesus and focus our priorities on His honor, we will succeed in this life and in the life to come.

Heart: A story like Wilma Rudolph’s or Michael Phelps is incredibly inspiring. When you think of their sacrifice and dedication, think of what Jesus Christ did to purchase your salvation and to offer you the best life possible.

Hands: To focus your life is to start each day asking Jesus to help you keep Him in first place and care more about His will than your own. Are you willing to do that each day?

Lane Palmer serves as a writer for Dare 2 Share Ministries International (D2S) in Arvada, Colorado, a ministry committed to energizing and equipping teenagers to know, live, share and own their faith in Jesus. For more information about D2S, please visit

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Before There Was Phelps

Get free weekly resources from us!
Get free weekly resources from us!
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