.- At a Vatican athletic event promoting the connection between faith and sports, British Olympic gold medalist runner Jason Gardener credited Catholic nuns for encouraging him to succeed.
He recounted his first involvement in sports at age six at St. John’s Catholic Primary School in Bath. There, he said, “I was given the opportunity to participate in sports days, and I remember crossing the (finish) line – trying my best and doing really well.”
“That coincided with the Olympic Games in 1984 and I thought, ‘wow, I want to be like that.’ And my nuns (from my school) came to see me and brought some medals and said, ‘you work really hard, and be a good boy, you may get some of these when you’re older’,” he said Oct. 20.
Gardener had run a 100-meter track that had been set up along the street leading to St. Peter’s Square on Sunday morning.
The British athlete had been invited to participate in the “100 Meters of Racing in the Faith” sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. He won a gold medal for the 4 x 100 meter relay in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics
The event was part of a festival day for sports intended to “to recover the educational, cultural, and spiritual values of sport,” the pontifical council said.
Gardener said the festival is “a very special occasion and event.”
He addressed the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, telling them that sports has “the power to change lives, whatever your ability.” Sports provide “values and life skills…the ability to enjoy yourself, have healthy lifestyles, learn how to win, and sometimes lose. But of course it’s about a life-long journey of being a good person and having good values.”
The athlete told CNA he had a “good foundation” and was brought up in a Catholic school.
“I was brought up with good values, so that’s played a huge part in my life,” he continued. “I’m not outspoken, particularly, about my faith, but I’m a believer and I’m very pleased to have had a good life which I’ve had to this day. I’m very thankful – I’ve worked very hard, and having good morals instilled in me, behaving well as a citizen – I believe has helped me on the journey to where I am.”
Gardener wasn’t always so committed to his faith. “I probably didn’t get into Church as often as my parents or grandparents would have liked,” he admitted.
“But a few years ago I joined the John Paul II Foundation for Sport in the U.K., so that was very interesting, and actually it’s evolved from knowing some of the people who are doing great work within the U.K. and beyond.”
The foundation began after Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010. It seeks to promote “the building of spiritual character through excellence in sporting skills and fitness,” the foundation says on its website.
Gardener also works with the Special Olympics, an organization dedicated to providing athletic training and competitions to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Many Special Olympians were present to participate at the Vatican’s sporting event.
Gardner said it was “very humbling” to work with them and with Para-Olympians “because everyone is an athlete who works really hard and most importantly everybody takes part to have fun.”
“I think sometimes as a professional sports person you lose that aspect of it, you know, when it’s your job and things aren’t going well.”
“I sometimes just feel so impressed with people who have experienced so much,” the champion runner explained. There are “such stereotypes of who they are in common society but then you bring the athletes into an arena and they’re great athletes in the their own right.”
Gardner was grateful that the stereotypes surrounding disabled athletes are diminishing.
“They work very hard… seeing what’s achieved is incredible and that’s a real powerful message to society and I think times are changing and people are realizing that just because you may not have all your limbs, you’re not at a disability because athletes can do so much more than the regular person on the streets.”
Gardener considered the power of sports in his own life to be part of his journey that led him to Rome on Sunday morning.
As the crowds waited for Pope Francis to give his weekly Angelus message, the Olympic gold medalist expressed his excitement to see the pontiff.
“I have to pinch myself because I can’t quite believe that I’m actually here!” he exclaimed.