My husband just won the 2015 World Handball Championship in his division – men aged 65 and older. He was not favored to win, ranked somewhere in the middle of 22 participants from Canada, Ireland, Japan and the United States, but he walked away with the medal. And yes, that was the extent of his visible prize, a handball medal on a ribbon… But what struck me and generated such emotion over his victory is what it says about him.
Handball is much like Racquetball, without the racquet. It isn’t a mainstream sport, many have never heard of it and most have never seen it played. I understand the snickers when he heads off to compete from people wondering why he bothers – it’s only handball after all. I’ve rolled my eyes a few times… There are so many other things you should be doing. Why travel all the way to wherever to complete for a little medal at your age? What’s wrong with Hawaii?? But what it took to get there is the thing champions are made of.
Ed hasn’t always been a champion player. It wasn’t too difficult to find superior opponents, challenging and growing his skills when they met. There have been more defeats than I’m sure he ever wants to remember. He’s had humiliating trouncings at the hands of gloating victors, one painful episode of neck cramping that forced him off the court, and countless early eliminations. But he never quit. Ed has mental determination that overcomes his detractors. When he sets his mind to something, he may listen to detractors and mockers without taking offense, but he doesn’t them to dissuade him from his goal.
I assume that champion athletes are thoroughly disciplined with unwavering regiments and practice routines. Maybe so, but that’s not always Ed. His intentions are good, but he gets sidetracked with projects at home, and by work and family. He’s also a wee bit of a procrastinator, and in my expert opinion, unorganized. Nonetheless, though he may wander from his training regimen, eventually he always gets back on track, heading off to the gym after a literal meal of vitamins and minerals he believes necessary to compete at the level he strives to reach.
This world tournament was the most challenging of all tournaments I’ve witnessed. The matches were not well spaced, leaving him to play two singles matches and one doubles, all in the same day. To say the game’s workout is aerobic is an understatement. It’s played in an enclosed court that captures body heat. Sweat is unavoidable. There are often time-outs to change shirts, gloves or sweat bands, or to wipe the sweat from the floor or walls that’s causing the players to slip or the ball to slide. Three matches in one day is brutal. As Ed said when he say the schedule, “Do they know how old we are? I think they’re trying to kill us!” After making it through the three matches, he earned the privilege of playing the final match the following day.
Exhausted and drained, hope of reaching the goal provided fuel during the first game. He gained an early lead and wrestled to a 21-15 victory. The second game did not go as well. Perhaps his opponent got a second wind, unwilling to surrender his objective, or maybe Ed put too much into the first game. At any rate, he was defeated 6-21. The last thing either of them were looking for was another game of handball, but the split games forced a tie breaker.
Drained, fatigued and weary, I just don’t know what enables you to play another game at that point. That’s when your mind provides reasons to quit… excuses. “It’s only a game,” “I’m going to hurt myself…or die” Ed told me afterwards that he considered quitting about 30 times, but each time he thought of the reward and how close he was to it.
Both players exhausted the time-outs allowed competitors per game. Following each rally, they stalled, leaning against the wall, lungs heaving for oxygen, before slowly wandering back to their positions. At one point their deliberate regrouping took so long that the scorekeeper jokingly called the gap in play a “referee’s time out”. In the end the tie breaker deciding the game, match and tournament ended with just 4 points between Ed and his Irish opponent. It left me pretty emotional, willing myself not to cry over a handball tournament! Welling with pride over his accomplishment, understanding what his victory meant to him, and overflowing with admiration for his internal fortitude, I was also so relieved it was over!
As I bask in the memory of that moment, I can’t help but relate it to spiritual matters. I visualize God cheering me on, pulling for me to make the right choices, to get back in there when I stumble, staying focused on the goal. I see him at the finish line, waiting to see my face as I realize my goal and receive my reward.
I want to develop spiritual strength and maturity. What will it take? Like Ed, I cannot be deterred by the opinions of others. I must do what my heart and soul tell me is pleasing to God. Being a Christian isn’t always popular, it’s seen as a crutch, or has a bad rap because of the unholy actions of high-profile, but misguided people who call themselves Christians. Some are so opposed to my faith that they will behead me given a chance.
I must keep a dedicated focus on the goal of a righteous relationship with God when I experience setbacks, whether they be my own failure to live up to His expectations, or disappointment by imperfect Christians who stumble. Ephesians 4:12-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” I need to choose my teachers wisely, praying for discernment and always remembering that Jesus is my ultimate teacher and authority.
Ed was a gracious champion with huge respect for each competitor. I must grow in humility, gentleness, and kindness while putting off the pride and selfishness that is part of my human nature.
I need to be purposeful about my development. That means prioritizing my time and talents to align with God’s purposes and plans for me. Like Ed and his handball community, I need to be in community with others who share my goals, contribute to my growth and challenge me to mature spiritually. I also need special people in my life who encourage me on my journey. Without my encouragement and support, Ed would find it very difficult to dedicate the time and resources required to train for and win a World Handball tournament. I must cultivate that same community as I seek to develop spiritually.
I’m proud of Ed and inspired to win the race to which God has called me!