Have you ever considered what goes through the mind of an Olympian just before they are about to compete? What does the training schedule look like for an elite athlete? How does God come into play when we talk about professional sport? Ollie Baines speaks to Olympic and World triple-jump champion, Christian Taylor to delve a little deeper on all things faith and athletics.
Let’s go back to the beginning for you Christian, would you say that your childhood played a big impact on the man and athlete that you’ve become today?
“For sure, I think you can say that with most fields. Your upbringing is a big factor in how you turn out but I was very blessed and fortunate enough to have extremely supportive parents. My family is very sport orientated; my cousin was in football, my sister ran track and field as was I; so as a family we were very much into outside living. I do really think support played a big factor in my life because the more I was around teams and other kids, I realised that I couldn’t just take this all for granted. My parents were always on the side-lines every week, whether that was football or basketball, they were always there. At the beginning, it was almost quite annoying as they just always seemed to be right there but I soon realised my friends would give anything for their parents to support them for one game.
So I think this is when I began to actually appreciate how important they have been to me and I truly believe it has drip-fed into my success even in today’s championships. I suppose that, when my time comes it comes, but I have to trust that process but for me, they’ve been a huge part of my journey.”
You’re 3 x World Champions and 2 x Olympic Champion – a truly remarkable achievement. But has there been a stand alone moment which you see as the pinnacle?
“Yes, I think my stand out moment was my first ever World Championships in 2011. This was really the deciding factor as to whether I would go back to school or not and so it was really taking a risk because if I became a professional athlete I would forgo my senior year and this was actually really difficult for me. But looking back I see now that it was a huge leap of faith and just going for it and it ended up working out nicely, but it doesn’t detract from the fact it was incredible scary. You know, I’m now actually finishing up my final senior year at school to take advantage of this off time.
If not that moment, my second gold medal at the Rio Olympics was a special moment for me. Just because I think the first gold medal was a shock for everyone but the second one was about having a target on my back and there are expectations and sponsors expecting things from me. So that was pretty tough for me but also a truly amazing experience at the same time.”
You’re also plying your trade on the track as a sprinter. How do you create time to train on both your sprinting and jumping careers – talk us through what that looks like in your training?
“From the very beginning, I have to give credit to my club coach. When I started out in track and field, my coach would always tell me I was never allowed to specialise. He’d sit me down and say, ‘Christian, you’re going to be fit and you’re going to run.’ Every practice (which was around 4 times per week), each athlete: from the shot-putters to the jumpers were all running the 400m sprints in training. You just had to break this barrier and fear of, ‘I cannot do this because I’m a jumper, or, I cannot do this because I am a thrower’, no – everyone will be able to run. You know, it was so tough at the beginning but looking back now, I admire this kind of thinking as it helped me to branch out and develop as an athlete. I’m no longer in a box as just a jumper, so I have to give my coach a huge amount of credit for helping us see the bigger picture.”
In the UK, lots of sports fans are still revelling in the moment of London 2012. Talk to us about your experiences of that Olympic games and what it was like to be in and around the park as part of Team USA?
“The Olympic experience is something else! There’s no championship, there’s no trial, there’s no book – nothing can ever prepare you for this energy, for this movement as it were. You enter into a new country and the environment is so different; people give off different vibes but I’d been living in the UK near Loughborough, but during the Olympics it even felt like the sun was shining every day! It was really as if God was smiling on the event too. You’d walk around the park and it was rammed everywhere – the energy is crazy. It’s something that I am so proud to have been a part of and I would never take it for granted either.
As an American, the trials to get to the Olympics was almost the hardest part because the the standard is so high due to the volume of athletes in our country. For me, that’s almost the nail-biting moment, so when you make the team you can enjoy the big stage that little bit more and you take in the opening ceremony with such pride because you had to fight tooth and nail to get this.
Heading over to Stratford, getting to the Olympic village is so cool. Westfield is right there, you get the Oyster cards and you can go anywhere – it’s the little things that make it so exciting. You might walk into Westfield with your accreditation on and people will stop you and ask for a photo – they don’t care what you do or what your affiliation is because they know you’re participating and they want to get a small piece of that. It’s a completely different energy and London 2012 was an incredibly special time.
Let’s talk specifics about your jumps. You’re on the track, preparing for your next jump. How are you preparing? What are you thinking physically, emotionally and spiritually? Talk to us about that step by step process.
“It’s very different for each jump. I’m a very emotional person, so I feed off of my friends doing well or if there’s really good competition. These things I really feed off of, I love to soak up the atmosphere by being close to the track-side and if there’s a big performance I try to hold onto that positivity and feed off that energy going into my jump. Before I step onto the runway, that fuels me so much.
Of course, once I’m on the runway I go through the visualisation process and I try to get into the correct state of mind – optimising tunnel vision and perform what I practice every single day.
When it comes to spiritually, that’s the part I focus on at the beginning. I don’t go back into each jump and pray for it, that’s not really me. At the start of the day I pray that the Lord will just use me in His own way. For me, being on this platform and being on the track is a blessing and when I ask God to use me and let me be a vessel of some kind – it’s freeing and it changed everything for me. Sometimes someone from the side of the track will nudge me and tell me that they were so encouraged by a video I may have posted about my faith and it gave them a lift – for me, that can be the biggest high, almost bigger than if I was to jump a world record. This is what I want to do – I want people to see how I am using my platform to point to Jesus. It’s not about how far I jump, but it’s about how He uses me. Sometimes I find that God is sneaky and creative in the way that He uses us and I am up for that because I’m so ready to be blown away but what He does.”
How did you come to know Jesus for yourself?
“Where I live in the South, it’s known as ‘the Bible belt’ – every street you will probably find around 3 churches, it’s crazy in the south. It’s almost unheard of to go a mile without seeing a church, so it’s quite unbelievable. So obviously church was very present but getting into one was very different. My grandmother was a big Christian and huge role model for me growing up, she helped guide me into fellowship with other Christian athletes too. Even to this day, she’s emailing me daily devotionals whilst I’m living abroad – so the seed was planted extremely early for me, thanks to my grandmother.”
How would you say that your Christian faith has impacted yourself as an athlete as well as a person?
“Great question. I would honestly say that it has shown me that how we are using our time and the people we meet, is really important. When we don’t get caught up on ourselves and actually look into the interest in others, it’s so much more rewarding and I think my faith has shown me that whether I win or lose – if my heart was in the right place, that’s what matters most.
I’ve been my happiest not when I’ve won, but instead when someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’ve opened the Bible because of what you’ve said about your faith,’ or, ‘That word you posted up really encouraged me.’ When God puts something on your heart and you share it, you have no idea how God is going to use it for his glory and that’s what it’s really about. It’s not about my plan, but instead about His plan and the bigger picture.”
Would you say you see your ability in athletics as a gift from God?
“For sure, I use it to glorify God. I know that all of my gifts, my strengths and my talents come from Him. For me, it would almost be a slap in the face if God had given me all of this talent and then I don’t do anything about it. There’s a reason why God has given this to me, there’s a reason why he puts people in your life at a certain time and these things are all orchestrated by God.”
Athletes today are always on the move whether it be travelling, training or competing. How do you still find time to grow in community with others?
“I watch live streams with my church every single day, so I really try to stay connected to them as much as possible. I’m really close with my pastors and they actually come overseas sometimes to where I am based in Holland and that’s such an awesome way to connect if they’re around in Europe. My girlfriend and my sister are so great to have bible study sessions with as well. Specifically to athletics, on the Diamond League circuit there are some bible study meetings there which are awesome and you end of finding out that some of my competitors are believers too which is really cool. I can then grab a coffee with these guys, hear about their faith and own personal stories so we are always staying connected to keep my fire going.”
What advice would you give to any young athletes who are aspiring to get into the profession?
“I would say trust the process. I’m not talking about just a coach, but more so the fact that God’s got a plan. You can try to be creative, go left or go right, but if God wants to use you – He will find a way. I’m not saying it’s easy because it’s far from that, you have to sacrifice a lot and you may even question if you should continue in the sport as well. But if it’s meant to be, God will bless these things and this is what I’ve sen in my life and the people around me. If ever I wanted to quit, I had someone come up to me and say, ‘Give it one more season!’ and then I’d find out that the next season would be anointed and I would grow in that process. Just be patient and God will bless you.”