Originally Published: July 2012
When an athlete reaches the pinnacle of a sport, the new pedestal changes their vantage point. No longer are they looking up to others; everyone is looking up to them. It’s a powerful shift that alters every aspect of their lives.
What’s interesting about Lauren Cheney, though, is how far from that observation shift she lives. As one of the stars of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, Cheney has, by contrast, spent most of her life looking up to and learning from others. Only recently has she realized that, while she’s been focused on others, the world has been focusing on her.
As a 6-year-old youth soccer player from Indianapolis, Cheney followed in her older brother’s footsteps, even playing on boys’ teams until she was 12.
Said Cheney, “You couldn’t get the soccer ball away from my foot.”
Then in 1999, she watched the U.S. women’s national team successfully pursue and claim the FIFA World Cup. The then-11-year-old particularly revered soccer legend Michelle Akers, who helped the U.S. to an iconic championship shootout victory against China, which made an impression on soccer fans worldwide.
“That’s when I realized how badly I wanted to play for my country,” Cheney said. “The World Cup made it real to me. That’s when I knew I wanted to play on that stage one day.”
Even though she has now achieved her dream, Cheney remains inspired by others. She specifically cites teammate Tobin Heath for modeling both soccer and Christ-centered passion.
“Watching her has set me on fire,” Cheney said. “She has an incredible recklessness for Jesus.”
But now, however, Cheney is realizing that the platform at the pinnacle of her sport can’t be ignored.
It was a fact that became evident to the 24-year-old soccer star when she spoke at an FCA banquet in New Jersey earlier this year at the invitation of Philadelphia 76ers chaplain and FCA staff member Kevin Harvey. After the event, a parent approached Cheney and paid her a touching compliment.
“Christ is so alive in you,” the woman said. “I want my daughter to do the things that you were able to do.”
That experience spoke volumes to Cheney regarding the importance of her responsibility as a Christian athlete. Even as she continues to look up to others who have gone before her, she knows now that she has a sizable platform, and she hopes to honor God by setting a good example and boldly sharing the gospel.
“I have a passion to let kids know that sports and God don’t have to be separate,” she said. “God gives us these talents, and He’s given us this pedestal for a reason. You don’t have to choose between being great at your sport and following Jesus. To me, it’s encouraging to be able to speak truth into the lives of these young athletes who are so impressionable.”
SPIRITUAL GROWTH SPURTS
While Cheney’s passion for God now runs hot, it didn’t begin to burn overnight. Unlike her love-at-first-sight experience with soccer, it took years of spiritual growth and meaningful encounters to stoke the flickering sparks into a full-on blaze. Cheney recalls her mother faithfully taking her, her brother and her sister to church every Sunday, but it was at a junior high school youth camp where she began to “discover the presence of God.” Later in high school, she would also encounter the FCA ministry and begin to develop the heart of a Christian athlete.
While in high school, Cheney was also selected to play on the U20 women’s national team. Tobin Heath was one of many strong Christians on that squad, but head coach Tim Schulz, a former professional athlete who had played in the North American Soccer League (NASL), made perhaps the most significant impression on Cheney’s burgeoning faith.
“He was on fire for the Lord,” she recalled. “He was so passionate. He would laugh, and he would cry. He’d give the shirt off his back to anybody. And I just remember praying one night, ‘God, I want what he has.’ That’s when I really started to seek the Lord.”
The next phase of Cheney’s spiritual journey provided opportunities for both growth and setbacks. After leaving Indiana in 2005 as the NSCAA High School and Youth Playerof the Year and the Gatorade Girls’ High School Player of the Year, Cheney landed in the unfamiliar territory of Southern California as a new recruit at UCLA.
On the soccer field, Cheney was in her element. During her four years with the Bruins, she was a four-time All-American and led the squad to four consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances. Off the field, though, especially during her freshman year, Cheney experienced culture shock.
“It was really hard but, thankfully, I had some pretty cool teammates in the class ahead of me,” she said. “There were four or five girls who were strong Christians. They were involved in church, and they just swept me up and said, ‘Okay, we go here on Sundays, and we have Bible study on this day.’ It was also good to hear different perspectives other than my Midwest view. I got to be immersed in nondenominational Christian churches and experience worship like I had never experienced before.”
With her passion for Christ deepening, Cheney quickly realized that her desire to share her faith with others required a balanced approach. When the upperclassmen who had influenced her so greatly graduated, Cheney was left as one of only a handful of believers remaining on the team.
“That challenged me to be even more of an example and more of a light,” she said. “I had to value my actions over preaching to my teammates. Especially in L.A., being too outspoken didn’t go over so well. Girls wanted to be a part of the Hollywood scene, and people wanted to do their own thing. It completely brought me out of my comfort zone to be around people who didn’t believe in the same things I did, but I learned to love people unconditionally regardless of what they believed.”
In 2007, during a game against Germany at the Four Nations tournament in China, Cheney made her debut as a member of the U.S. senior national team. Later that year, in a match against Mexico, she earned her second cap and scored her first goal. By the time the 2008 Beijing Olympics rolled around, Cheney was on the cusp of making the full-time roster. When an injury sidelined star player Abby Wambach, Cheney secured a spot on the Olympic team but found her situation to be much different than she had experienced so far in her career.
“I was new to the team; I was younger, and I was still in college,” Cheney said. “I knew that I was on the line between making it and not making it and that I might only get two minutes on the field. I had to make the most of every chance I got. But, as hard as it was, I think it was easier because I knew my role was to just encourage everybody else. It’s so much fun to build up your friends and your teammates. I really embraced that the first year, and I accepted that role.”
Much like in her early days at UCLA, Cheney found strength and accountability in a group of like–minded believers on the national team, which continues to strengthen her today. Along with Cheney and Heath, Amy Rodriguez and Heather O’Reilly make up a core group that organizes chapel services and Bible studies and actively encourages their teammates during games. Among the group of believers, each athlete serves the others through prayer and by reminding one another of their responsibility to be witnesses of God’s love.
“At the World Cup (2011), we had church services on Sundays,” Cheney said. “We’d play worship music loudly and write ‘Church’ on the door. We let everyone know they were welcome. Now the entire team embraces it. But we know that, without other believers on the team, it would be a much more difficult job.”
No one expects international competition to be easy-especially in the world’s most popular sport. After winning the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, Cheney had experienced one of the sport’s greatest emotional highs, but the 2011 FIFA World Cup took her on one of the most intense rides of her life.
Cheney scored the team’s opening goal of the tournament against North Korea and added the opening goal of the semifinal against France. She also led the team with three assists and was named to the World Cup All-Star Team. But when the Americans faced an upstart squad from Japan, no one expected such an epic battle.
In classic back-and-forth action, the Japanese team scrapped its way to a shootout where the vaunted U.S. team fell short.
Yet, even in that moment, Cheney was inspired by the resilience of her opponents throughout the tournament—even more so in light of the tragic tsunami that had recently devastated their homeland.
“That loss obviously hurt for us, but it was amazing to see how they worked through so much devastation and never stopped trying,” Cheney said. “They really never gave up. It was great to be a part of that and to witness that. I know God had a plan. Despite what was sent their way, these women found a way to bring a lot of happiness and pride to their country.”
In that moment, Cheney embraced a bigger picture and chose to believe that there was purpose even in painful losses, just as there had been in each of the victorious moments that had led her team to that place. Through that World Cup final, Cheney was able put into action the wisdom she had been acquiring throughout her career.
“I learned to give God the praise in the highs and the lows,” she said. “That’s not easy. It’s not easy to lose the World Cup and say, ‘Thank You, Lord,’ because it hurts. But our lives are completely full of highs and lows, and I’m so grateful that my confidence is in Christ. My identity in the Lord will never be shaken. My career will come and go, but remaining faithful has made my relationship with Him so much stronger.”
AN ACT OF WORSHIP
As Cheney and her teammates prepare for the 2012 Olympic Games, they are facing pressure from American soccer fans and sports media to bounce back from their loss at the World Cup and reclaim the top spot on the world stage. Considered one of the team’s breakout players from 2011, Cheney admits to feeling the weight of wanting to step up her role and be one of the team’s difference-makers.
“I feel like I’m expected to be here,” she said. “The pressure is tougher, so I rely on others to build me up and encourage me. I’m grateful to be on the field, and I love the responsibility, but it’s a tough situation, and I have to continue to give it to God.”
Part of the process for Cheney includes daily reminding herself of the words written by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:1: “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.”
“I try to think of that verse every time I play,” Cheney said. “At the World Cup, I was playing in the biggest tournament of my life and playing a position I was unfamiliar with. I just remember thinking, ‘Lord, this is my act of worship.’ I try to keep in mind that He gave me this talent. This isn’t for me; it’s for Him. That gives me so much joy.”
Cheney’s “act of worship” continues off the field where she receives equal amounts of joy by being a role model for young girls like those at the FCA event in New Jersey—an event that also featured Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday, whom Cheney is currently dating. After meeting at UCLA, the two have embraced the unique opportunity to model a healthy, godly relationship.
“The professional athlete lifestyle can be hard to live out,” she said. “It’s hard to keep Christ first, but it’s so important to be vocal with it, not only for girls but also for guys. They need to see that it’s possible to be a man of God and be successful and be funny and attractive. Jrue and I both come from families that raised us to be morally sound. He comes from a strong Christian family, and we try to make sure that God is prevalent in our lives.”
Part of that process has included a unique form of accountability stemming from Cheney’s openness about the relationship in interviews and through social media outlets like Twitter—something she didn’t care for until Heath warmed her up to the idea, starting an account on her behalf.
According to Cheney, being a Christian athlete in the public eye is a double-edged sword, but proactively following the Holy Spirit has helped her sidestep many of the common pitfalls.
“Once you’re in the spotlight and profess that you’re a believer, people want you to fall,” she said. “They immediately want to point out your flaws, and that’s hard because everyone’s going to make mistakes. But if I’m going to proclaim Christ’s name, I want people to see it. Making decisions by following the Spirit makes that a lot easier.”
It’s an act of obedience that translates into every aspect of Cheney’s life, whether that means giving her best during a game even when things aren’t going her way or embracing the chance to speak into an aspiring soccer player’s life. She realizes in every situation she has the opportunity to make an eternal impact.
“That’s the most important part,” Cheney said. “That’s why God has given us this platform. And when I speak to a young girl, I hope she’ll see Christ in me the same way I saw Him in my coach so long ago and that she’ll want to have Him too. And that’s absolutely why I play the game.”
Photots courtesy of John Todd/isiphotos.com, Brad Smith/isiphotos.com and Thomas Eisenhuth/isiphotos.com