ZAGREB, Croatia — Behind every Olympic medal there is an untold story waiting to be revealed. One such comes from Croatia and one of its best Olympic athletes, whose testimony of faith gathered more than 1500 young people in the Croatian Shrine of St. Mary of Marija Bistrica last Saturday.
Blanka Vlašić, the double world champion in high jump this August, flew to Rio for the Olympics despite a very complicated leg surgery a few months before the competition. Vlašić admitted it was a “should I stay or should I go?” situation, because she knew that the fresh and unhealed wound would make her the only ‘one-legged’ high jump competitor in Rio.
She was also struggling with her inner voice, which couldn’t stop asking whether there was any sense to compete at all. Vlašić had the same struggle before the Olympics in London, when she suffered a heel cord injury.
Unlike Rio, in 2012 she was forced to stay at home and watch the Olympics from her living room, depressed and with tears in her eyes. Anyone who has even the slightest insight into an athletes’ mindset knows that they are literally addicted to competing and winning, so missing a chance to be on the top of the world again wasn’t easy for her.
What happened next was the turning point in her sports career, but also the moment when she realized that her next jump has to be the jump into God’s plan for her life.
A 15-minute talk with her brother turned Vlašić’s whole world upside down. She suddenly knew that if God is the one who created all things, he wouldn’t have a problem lighting the dark places of her soul. A big confession followed soon – God gave her new ears, new eyes, and a new heart.
By putting God first, she became aware that he must increase, but she must decrease; her injuries were not an excuse for despair anymore, but for saving grace and an opportunity to proclaim God’s love and mercy.
Back to Rio, August 18.
With a grimace of pain, Vlašić made the finals of the high jump. “Not even a book would be enough to explain why this is another miracle of God. All glory to Jesus,” she reported Blanka said right after she jumped the cut-off of 194 cm.
As often happens when public figures share their faith and personal testimonies, there were some people who unreasonably accused her of forcing her religious opinions on others, and for praying to win the gold medal. Actually, she said, all she was doing was praying to God to give her strength.
God gave her the strength, but he didn’t soothe the pain. Vlašić believes God wanted to show her that some things she counted on in her life don’t have to happen, if he decides so.
Two days later, Vlašić jumped 197 cm and won the bronze medal.
“All the medals are God’s medals, but this one is mostly his,” she said to the young pilgrims who were listening with rapt attention.
A few days before the meeting with the young faithful at the Croatian shrine of St. Mary of Marija Bistrica, she was told it is customary to bring something as a present for Our Lady – a sign of gratitude for the strength she received from God during the Olympics. As a providential sign, a line of Saint Paul to the Corinthians caught Vlašić’s eye.
Paul wrote that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
There was no more doubt for her – the bronze Olympic medal from Rio went to Our Lady, and now remains in the Croatian shrine of St. Mary.
For many it was an unexpected move, but for those who know her it was just another proof that she jumps to praise God, and that everything she does now is driven by the fact she is God’s child.
When Mother Mary receives, she gives, so let’s hope that after the Olympics in Tokyo 2020, some other shrine of Our Lady will have the same privilege.
Davor Trbušić is the Press Officer in the Archdiocese of Zagreb, and a Ph.D. Candidate in communications at the University of Zagreb.