What Can True Christians Learn from Michael Phelps’ Achievement?


Eric V. Snow, sermonette, Ann Arbor, Michigan, UCG, 8-23-08


Have you been watching the TV coverage of the Olympics over the past two weeks?  Michael Phelps has put in the most amazing performance, especially from the American viewpoint.  After having won 6 gold medals and 2 bronze during Olympics in Athens 4 years ago, he won an amazing 8 gold medals in 8 events this time.  By beating out Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals in swimming set in 1972 in Munich, he has captured especially the American public’s attention.  But now, what spiritual lessons can we true Christians learn from his physical achievement in the Olympics?  After all, Paul in his Letters made spiritual analogies or allusions between sports and living the Christian way of life.


S.P.S.:  Just as Michael Phelps was born with great physical talent for swimming that he had to develop by very disciplined training in order to get Olympic gold, we Christians receive a great gift in our calling, so we should strive to develop holy righteous character in order to gain a far greater reward in God’s kingdom.

Michael Phelps was born to swim fast.  He has a number of anatomical advantages compared to other swimmers because of the way his body was built by nature.

1.  For his height, has size 14 feet, instead of size 12.  10% more efficiency, a bit more like “flippers” then.

2.  Is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, but has an unusually long reach:  6 feet 7 inches arm length vs. 6 feet 4 inches height.  Espcially crucial in winning by 1/100 second over Milorad Cavic in the 100 M butterfly for his 7th gold medal, won by fingertip reach.

3.  Is apparently double jointed in a chest area, so can do a “dolphin kick” more effectively and stay under water longer after diving.

4.  Has a long, thin torso  and relatively short legs (for less drag through the water).

5. Has larger than average lungs.

6.  Has hypermobile ankles, can extend beyond the pointe of a ballet dancer, so can whip his feet for maximum thrust through the water.


Hence, one could say Michael Phelps was virtually born to swim incredibly fast.  Mark Tewksbury, last Canadian to win a gold medal in swimming, said unusual to be good at both breaststroke and freestyle, and Phelps did it vs. much tougher average competition today (high quality national programs) than Spitz had in 1972.  Local angle:  attended U of M 2004 to 2008, assistant coach to swim team, majored in sports marketing and management.


But now, let’s compare his physical talent for winning Olympic gold to our spiritual calling and purpose to gain spiritual gold.  Besides getting worldwide fame from winning so many swimming contests at the Olympics, Phelps also was making on the order of $5 million/year in product endorsements already, due to his success as a swimmer.  We likely would consider having that kind of “gold,” or money, a marvelous blessing as well.  However, we in this room have an undeserved blessing of far greater value than what Michael Phelps has:  Our calling and opportunity to be in the first resurrection.


Rev. 20:6


Don’t we realize how much more valuable it is to be called in this first life than to win worldwide fame and fortune by naturally being an incredibly good swimmer?  Shouldn’t we be more thankful to God for our spiritual calling and our knowledge of God’s truth in this life than we would be if we were as good at sports as Michael  Phelps?  So then, brethren, do we really value our calling?  If you are young and were raised in the church, don’t take your calling for granted or that it has little value.  Do anyone here mistakenly value the respect of peers in high school from playing on sports on the Sabbath more than obeying God’s law?  No young person should think what they’re taught by their parents and by the Church of God is worthless.  It’s not about keeping you from having fun now.  But of course, the Bible’s spiritual realities now seem to us to be so abstract, so far beyond our present experiences in this world, so ethereal, so above us.  So we may find it hard to value emotionally and psychologically our calling since the world rejects its value, unlike the case for Michael Phelps’ amazing swimming abilities.  Do we have the faith to value our calling and living a life that fits it?  It’s hard to live our lives as if the spiritual is more important than the physical, but that’s exactly what God wants us to do.


But now, suppose Michael Phelps had all these incredible natural talents for swimming, but had no discipline for training.  Suppose he only worked out 15 minutes a day.  Would he have even one Olympic medal, let alone a total of 16?  His standard training schedule required of him at least 5 hours of work a day, six days a week.  Had ADHD as child, swimming a way to burn off excess energy!


I Cor. 9:24-27


So then, how well are we doing at the four spiritual disciplines of praying, Bible study, meditation, and fasting?  They are equivalent to training for success at any sport.  For example, if someone here only fasts on the Day of Atonement, and it isn’t for an obvious medical reason, we should consider carefully why.


A few years back, Mr. Richard Pinelli gave a sermon called “Spiritual  Hypothermia.”  In 1984, he handed out a survey in his local church(es) in which asked how many minutes of Bible study and prayer members of the church did.  The answers came back:  5 minutes and 5 minutes.  This disturbed him.  So then he gave sermons on Bible study and prayer, and gave out the questionnaire again.  He got back the same answers:  5 minutes and 5 minutes.  Well, are we doing better than that?  Perhaps we should turn off the TV or recorded music an hour sooner each day so we could aim to study the Bible and pray for 30 minutes each instead.


So then, are we aiming for spiritual excellence?  Do we discipline ourselves the way Michael Phelps did in order to win 8 more gold medals after having already won 6 of them 4 years earlier?  He was putting in 30 hours or more a week in training for his sports.  So, are we going for the gold?  Are we just putting in a so-so effort for a bronze?  Or are we content just to show up on the field?  Scripture teaches that we are rewarded according to our works, that how high or low our position is in the kingdom of God is determined by what we do, not by faith.


Matt. 25:24-29


We especially wouldn’t want to be so neglectful of our spiritual duties that we end up like this servant or the “goats” of the following parable who didn’t help others enough during this life.


S.P.S.  So much like Michael Phelps had to physically discipline himself greatly in order to win gold medals although he has great natural talents, we as Christians have to spiritually discipline ourselves if we want to be in God’s kingdom and have a higher position in it although we get God’s calling and grace without credit to ourselves.  So let’s not content ourselves with only appearing on the field.  Let’s not settle for bronzes either.  Let’s spiritually discipline ourselves, and go for spiritual gold! 








2 Timothy 2:5; Gal. 2:2