Thursday, March 31, 2022

A Lenten Reminder: The Importance of Community

Let's be honest, Lent is long. Even with Laetare Sunday—March 27—reminding us that we are 21 days from Easter joy, three full weeks remain in the journey. The spiritual season is meant to mirror the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert. The Lord fasted and prayed. He was tempted and yet He persevered. And you? 

these donuts were not in the iconic pink box, but still led me into temptation

During Lent, we make plans for deeper conversion. Some of us refrain from eating certain foods, maybe a dish we like, or we avoid social media. Whatever the case, we are trying to discipline ourselves in some way. Sometimes, we don’t stick with what we planned. Sometimes, we completely abandon the good work we started. But many of us in fact, persevere as well. How?

This is an important question to ask. With any goal—whether it is physical, spiritual, personal or prayerful—it helps to know how we can succeed. What choices ought we make? What should we avoid? Who can we turn to for support? When are we weak? When are we strong?

Just this morning, I found a helpful hint when I needed it most. The Fellowship of Franciscan Athletes is a group of student athletes who come together for faith sharing and prayer. Co-founder of the group, Jack Perry—home for spring break—came back to Saint Francis to speak about our dignity and worth beyond sports. He shared passages of Scripture, examples from the Bible, his personal story and led us in prayer. Thanks, Jack!

The group often promotes a speaker or guest to draw a crowd. Another successful tactic to attract students is extending hospitality, and of course fellowship. It works! 

For this speaker, the moderator spared no expense. I looked at the pink box of donuts he passed around with eyes bigger than my stomach. Move over Dunkin'. So long Krispy Kreme! Stan's donuts beats all. I took my seat in the gym and rationalization began. I decided I would wait until after everyone else got a donut before I ate my own.

I gave up sweets for Lent. I have done this for the past three years, because this sacrifice brings me into temptation nearly everyday. During Lent 2022, I have won many of those battles and other times, I have fallen. I have not abandoned ship. Today, however, I decided the apple fritter that caught my eye was mine for taking.

What's scary is I didn't even make an excuse for my choice. I deemed no justification necessary. In a way this scared me, I usually make a worthy plea bargain for my sugar intake. For example, I renounced my Lenten obligation because it was my friend's birthday. I mean, why not join in the celebration? The Sunday before last, I had the dessert after dinner because—well, it's Sunday. Thank you, Resurrection. Today, I was just ready to enjoy. Lent be gone.

And then one of my favorite golfers, a junior named Max walked in. He sat down near me and I asked him if he was going to have a donut. He said "no, my family gives up sugar for Lent. How's your Lent going?"

I could barely believe what I just heard. My plans for a donut suddenly changed. I couldn't look Max or anyone in the eye and not share that I made the same sacrifice.

This exchange reminded me of the importance of community. To take on any sacrifice is a challenge, but once we know we are in relationship with others doing the same—somehow, someway the burden isn't so heavy. We can swap stories. Share sympathy. Hold one another accountable, both directly and indirectly.

At the beginning of Lent, I discussed with my students the many ways we can implement the traditional pillars of Lent both as a community and in our homes. I invited them to consider not only giving something up, but doing something as well. I told them that I was giving up sweets and I said "please ask me how it is going. I know it won't be easy."

I understand that some people may not want to share what they have given up. But I do believe we can all give a little insight into our own journey and as proven today, help another person in the process. It helps me to know we do not spend these 40 days alone in the desert. We have Jesus and we have one another. Thanks be to God.

Photo Credits

Saturday, March 26, 2022

When Choosing Your College: Consider this Lesson from a Looper

This is much more than a story of a golfer and his caddie. As I sit down to write, I am acutely aware that it's that time of year again. For the next few weeks we will be scratching our heads wondering how, why and why not. We will do our best to consider what went right and what not wrong, but what was missing. No, I'm not talking about March Madness, although said comments and questions apply. It's admissions season, which means colleges are sending their decisions—yay, nay and maybe. For some students, a decision has been made for them. Others have options. Like any important decision, there is much to discern and important questions to answer, such as: What do I want to study? How much can I afford? Where do I want to live? And who do I want to be? 

I believe one of the best places to find an answer amongst the students in attendance at a college you are considering. Seek to find out: Who are they? What do they value? And how is the university shaping, challenging, assisting,  forming and informing them? 

Another place is among the alumni. The spiritual life speaks about the "fruit" of one's labor—or the practice of faith. The "fruit" of a school community are the men and women who have lived on campus, graduated and moved on. Talk to them. What themes and threads emerge in common? Who are they at both their best and their worst? I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle.

For those considering the University of Notre Dame, it's true—you won't have any trouble finding an alum eager to share his or her experience. Many of us love nothing more than to talk about our alma mater...but that's not true for everyone. At our worst, Domers are annoying and in your face. I'll keep this brief as I don't think it fair to say much more. However, at our best, ND alumni are what Father Sorin hoped we would be: a force for good. We are loyal and loving, smart and passionate people. I'll keep that brief, too.

But something you might not know about Notre Dame alumni is that we are storytellers. It's those Irish roots and that Catholic heritage. We love the fight—whether is be on the gridiron on Saturday, the hardwood on Sunday or in providing answers to that question: "What would you fight for?" And yes, what though the odds be great or small—we love to defy expectations and assumptions.

Therefore, as I was reading "A Course Called America" by a great alumni storyteller, Tom Coyne '97, I couldn't help but pause after reading about his caddie at North Shore Country Club, Jackson Wrede '18. To me—Jackson is the perfect profile of Notre Dame alum as I've described here. Coyne writes, 

Four days later, I would meet another caddie full of surprises in Chicago. North Shore was a level layout by the prestigious design firm of Colt, Mackenzie, and Alison and had hosted the U.S. Open in 1933, when Johnny Goodman became the last amateur to ever lift the trophy. Today the club was a Catholic golf haven (I was surprised to find that Chicago’s private clubs remained organized along religious lines), and it seemed as if half the membership was there to welcome a fellow Notre Dame alum to the course, including my caddie who are just graduated that spring. 

Jackson was looping his way through graduate school, and by the look of him he was pursuing a master's in the bench press. He was a block of a dude, with a chiseled jaw and thick brown hair with a careful part. He had to roll up your sleeves to let his biceps breathe, and his shoulders were like side tables on which he rested two bag straps. I don’t think he put down our bags once the entire around; I doubted whether he noticed they were even there.

I wondered aloud if he had played football at Notre Dame, and he explained that no, he had been a boxer. Notre Dame’s boxing club had been around for 90 years and was one of the campus is more celebrated intermurals. Jackson had been it’s captain. God bless your sparring partners I thought. I asked him what he was studying in grad school, and when he said fine arts, I checked my ears and asked him to say that again.

"I’m doing a master of fine arts. I’m a painter," he said. "Wait a second. I have a master of fine arts. You don’t look like any MFA student I’ve ever seen."

He laughed and showed me some of his work on his phone. He specialized in pop art paintings, and his oil-on-canvas collages were good—outstanding really. I looked forward to adding one to my art collection. Well, I looked forward to starting an art collection, with some work for my friend Jackson Wrede, the caddie–painter–pugilist.

Perhaps you would think a blog on Sports and Spirituality should also reveal that Jackson has also considered a vocation to the priesthood or that I met him while he did his six-week summer service project working at St. Anthony's in the Tenderloin. Yes, I would love to that to be true but that's not what this story reveals. Furthermore, that's missing a bigger point.

This story—a shared experience between two alumni—speaks to me of what saying "yes" to a school like Notre Dame means. For those who are not sure that it's the school for you, I can offer but one more example. The relationship is one that does not end upon graduation, unless you prefer otherwise. It means that you will study, learn and live among people who will surprise you, who will impress you, and a whole lot of people ready and willing to share their gifts and talents with you. In this case, I came to find out Jackson did send Tom one of his paintings. And Tom, promoted Jackson's work among his many followers.  

Universities and colleges say "yes" to students they hope are a good fit. They accept men and women who will support the mission and thrive in their academic environment. And students who say "yes" to a specific school have those opportunities and many more.... so the story goes!

Best of luck to the Class of 2022 in your next step!

Photo Credits
Alumni Spotlight
Force for Good

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Solidarity and the Same Path: A Short Story about Coach Casey Martin

It's 9:30 p.m. and I still haven't eaten dinner. The junior varsity baseball game went long; it was a full day. A stop at Chick-Fil-A was a must. Ever too trusting of technology and my navigation app, I arrived at some dead end street only to realize my empty stomach was another 10 minutes away from hearing Chick-Fil-A's signature soundbite. "My pleasure" was the furthest thing from reality as I saw that even my mobile order didn't go through. I was too tried to feel sorry for myself. Ever feel that way?

I navigated my way through the lengthy takeout line and opted to go inside. I waited 10 minutes for a simple sandwich. In that time, I looked over at the lone group of people at sitting at two tables: two men and a group of young adults—eating and talking with one another. A few minutes later, I looked at them again. After all, what else was there to do? God knows, I couldn't look at my phone anymore. 

For whatever reason, something registered: the Oregon Ducks hat, the ever so slightly familiar face, the realization that the young men were wearing the same thing—black hoodies and pants with a green O. It was the University of Oregon men's golf team and their Coach Casey Martin. 

Casey is one of my first and favorite subjects of the many Sports and Spirituality interviews I have conducted in 13 years time. After walking over to say hello and sharing a brief conversation, I thought to myself: sometimes, the universe throws you a bone.

Running into a golf team in a fast food restaurant probably doesn't mean a lot to most people, but in that time and in that space it did to me. It felt like I got a lucky break or as we say in golf, a member's bounce. In other words, this was good fortune. Thank you, Universe. However, this bone had some special sauce on it. Allow me to explain.

For one, I am also a golf coach. I can't tell you the number of times I have sat with my own team after traveling near and far for a meal in Chick-Fil-A, In and Out Burger, etc. I don't know a coach in America that hasn't at some time, in some place done the same. It doesn't matter if you coach on the Division 1, Varsity, JV, freshman or youth sports level, this scenario is the no different. And the moral of that story is that solidarity is not to be underestimated. To see others doing what you do, and to know that another person gets it, speaks volumes.

Furthermore, writing, following and teaching about athletes and coaches changes you... and your sense of fandom. Over time, it is as if the subject of my articles and lesson plans become friends, mentors and spiritual heroes. It exciting to encounter these people in real time, but it's also challenging. You feel like you know them when you don't. You want to share what young people think and say, but not sure you should. There is a natural imbalance and I always want to mind and bridge the gap. In light of this disparity, I know some writers and teachers just leave others alone. Sometimes I do, other times I do not. I've always thought the best thing to do is say "thank you." In this case, I wanted to say that and more.

Since my interview for Hopekeepers magazine, Casey helped the Ducks capture a national championship. He qualified for the 2012 US Open at the Olympic Club, my home course. And less than six months ago, he had a surgery to amputate his right leg. As written in Golf Digest, "His right leg, or his trail leg as he’s known it in his life as a golfer, was amputated above the knee in a three-and-a-half-hour surgery the afternoon of Oct. 15. That infamous leg afflicted with a circulatory disorder since birth, that won a national championship alongside Notah Begay at Stanford in 1994, that made the Supreme Court debate the essence of competitive golf, that made Jack Nicklaus reluctantly testify against carts, that qualified for two U.S. Opens, that sometimes made him cry getting in and out of the shower, will bother no one anymore." I thought he looked great; I hope his health is strong. Pretty remarkable—I thought to myself. But what do I know?

on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club, 2012.

Well, I know that the Oregon golf team arrived into the Bay Area to play in "The Goodwin" a tournament at Casey's alma mater—Stanford University. I know that getting athletes who play an individual sport to think and work like a team is not easy. I wish I had asked Casey for some tips. And most importantly, I know that it's worth it to reach out to those coaches and athletes we care about when we can. If only for the fact it makes hard work a little lighter and those long days a little more interesting. Sometimes we come to them, sometimes they come to us. Other times, the good Lord puts all of us on the same path. 

Good luck, Coach Martin and Go Ducks!

Photo Credits
Coach and athlete
2012 US Open: Lake Course

Friday, March 18, 2022

Fireside Chat with Golf Writer Tom Coyne: A Course Called America +

On March 11, 2022 the Olympic Club hosted award winning and New York Times best selling  author Tom Coyne for a fireside chat. Tom is on a book tour promoting his fifth book A Course Called America: Fifty States, Five Thousand Fairways, and the Search for the Great American Golf Course. I still feel nourished by the stories that he shared. I am amazed that something so simple, was so special. To make this fireside chat go, we didn't even need a fire! The gathering required three microphones, two chairs, and one set of questions. What we got was a bevy of answers, a whole lot of input from the audience, hundreds of stories and just as many laughs. 

I met Tom my senior year of college. One of my closest friends was a very serious, erudite English major. They had several classes together and his contributions in class made an impression. This should be of no surprise whatsoever. For example, in his Links Life Episode #2 Whistling Straits, Tom stands in the tee box on hole 12… a par three looking down upon what is a diabolical pin placement. Lake Michigan, or is it an ocean(?!) is on the right. He places his golf ball down, gets ready to take a practice swing and says, “What a pin! Who set these pins—Nero? Caligula?” In case you're unfamiliar with these Roman Emperors, let's say Putin might be a friend. Nero killed his own mother.  The questions I raise in the tee box are different. Just the other day, I said, "I really like those pants, what brand are they?" or "Is that KC over on 12?"

...and the fog creeped in.

A big part of college life at Notre Dame includes dances hosted by each dorm,…I think my parents called them mixers, we called them SYRs, short for Screw Your Roommate. I’m sure there is some benign and appropriate name for them now. Karen did the setting up. She said. "I think you will really like Tom—his wit and persona, he’s great…." I thought so and so did everyone else in our group. Literally. To this day, my friend John still talks about that dance, and it's not because of me or because of his date, it's because it was an evening with Tom.So imagine my excitement to host Mr. Coyne, all grown up now, red hair still in tact. A husband and father he is only slightly weathered, well traveled, wise, witty and truly one in a million.

Paul O'Driscoll—President of the Olympic Club served as moderator for the evening. I'm not sure a better one could be found. Why? For one, Paul has never met a stranger. His gregarious, affable, warm and quick nature puts any guest at ease. Second, Paul hails from Co. Cork, Ireland. Walking the perimeter of Ireland with golf clubs on his back to play over 50 golf courses, has given Tom a rich, deep understanding and appreciation of the Emerald Isle and its people. They were indeed kindred spirits.

Paul O'Driscoll and his Presidential Foursome. St Patty's Day Tourney 2022
Paul lobbed the first question. With this lovely brogue he invited Tom to tell us what A Course Called America is about. Tom admitted that he knew golf in Ireland and Scotland, but not in our country. This was in no way a humble brag or a sobering realization. Instead, he recognized it as an opportunity which he paired with an essential question. The product is what he predicts to be the final text in a terrific trilogy.

No spoiler alert necessary, Tom affirmed that he did find the great American golf course. And, he let us in on what he learned that might be even more important: our country is comprised of great people. Because we are nation divided—it's hard to believe we are states united. Sadly, this truth might not seem self evident. While the American Studies major in me could have told him he didn't need to play over 200 golf courses to learn that, I'm glad he did, for what follows are profiles and portraits of these Americans and the places they call home. 

Paul asked him the biggest surprise and the biggest let down. Congratulations Minnesota! Sorry Arizona. 

When asked to choose between Irish/British Isle golf and what we have here in America, Tom gave a nod to what is across the pond. In no way did his answer surprise me, for in several episodes of Links Life and infrequently in his writing, Tom states that this country has it backwards. The best courses in the US are very exclusive; too many people pride themselves on their ability to access what most people cannot. In Scotland, the best courses have memberships, but also offer times that are open to the public. Accessibility is the (other) name of the game. Why can't we do the same? Good question.

Tom reminded us that quite often the best part of traveling is planning for it. These words were serendipitous to my ears. I am taking a 12 day trip to Ireland this July with a group of women from the Olympic Club. The earliest part of planning this sojourn included  an enticing invitation to the crew that included a video featuring No Laying Up and none other than Tom Coyne. Amazing.

The evening concluded with questions about caddies. Tom was a caddie at Rolling Green Country Club—providing experiences which would characterize and color the truth behind the fiction featured in his first novel, "A Gentleman's Game." Tom believes the best story tellers are caddies. I told him Plato believed "those who tell stories rule the world," which led me to wonder how many people in leadership worked as caddies.

Tom might be one of the best story tellers I have heard. Granted, I love the subject of his stories: America, Ireland, golf, encounter, and more. But I realized that the questions and answer he asks at the introduction of his Links Life series are on point. He asks: 

Is golf a game? A lifestyle? An obsession? 
My name is Tom Coyne and for me, golf is connection
It’s a connection with nature, places but most of all with people.
I’ve traveled the world with some crazy golf adventures and everywhere I go, I find people whose lives revolve around this little white ball, because this isn’t just a game....

Thank you, Tom for visiting and sharing your stories around the proverbial fire with us. Go Irish!

Photo Credits
Map for Course Called Home

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Who is your favorite (female) athlete?

As I distributed the viewer's guide for the film Venus Vs., I asked the student in front of me: Who is your favorite female athlete? He went silent. I paused and said "let me rephrase that. Do you have a favorite athlete?" Without hesitation he said "Aaron Donald." I looked at him again and said "that doesn't surprise me. Now is there a female athlete you admire?" I continued to ask the class, in search of a good answer...any answer.

Really? Ronda Rousey?!

We celebrated International Women's Day at Saint Francis with a program: In Celebration of 50 Years of Title IX. Student unable to attend came to class to view Venus Vs. This movie is the first one in ESPN's Nine for IX—a series of documentary films produced and aired by ESPN to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Venus Vs. is the story of Venus Williams’ ground-breaking actions, which served as a springboard for radical change within tennis...and beyond. 

I delight in sharing this documentary with my class because Venus is one of my favorite athletes. Furthermore, it raises great questions about the gender pay gap, hegemony, social class, equality, racism, justice and shed further light onto Title IX—the amendment passed to ensure gender equality in American college sport. By the end of the film, I hope my students will have an answer to the question I kept asking.

I didn't want to embarrass anyone, and yet I wanted to make a point: Why aren't we naming more female athletes among the GOATs? This question led to others: Do female athletes get the media attention they deserve? Why is it that so many people cannot name a female athlete they admire? Should we even make the distinction between male and female athletes? 

Serena Williams challenged this distinction. As written on The Cut "One reporter asked Williams, “There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?” Williams responded, “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time." Just to be clear, Serena's comment isn't about what pronouns a person prefers—it is a call to look at all of sport. Is she right? 

In light of International Women's Day and the celebration of the history of women throughout the month of March, this is not an easy question to answer. But I have one...both/and.

I too believe Serena Williams is BOTH one of the greatest athletes of all time AND one of the best female athletes. Ever. 

If playing one another—and they have throughout the entire lives, I cheer for Serena over Venus. Though I love Venus' long strokes, her class and grace, I prefer Serena's game. It's pure physicality. Though she stands 5'8" to Venus' 6'1" frame, Serena has an unsuspecting weapon she uses frequently: her flexibility. Both women are equally resilient when it comes to the mental game. They calculate every play and their composure is steadfast. Venus and Serena are relentless in exposing their opponents' weakness(es). They truly rank among both the greatest in the game of tennis and of women's tennis. Both/And. Now are they my favorite athletes? They are certainly among them. 

Is this a nuanced debate for sports fans? Sure. But what GOAT debate isn't. I welcome your barstool...and I want men and women there. Yes, International Women's Day is "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women," but there are men to recognize and thank along the way. Richard Williams might be a good one to include.

Photo Credits
Women Athletes

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

International Women's Day: In Celebration of 50 Years of Title IX

I suppose social media was made for days like International Women's Day. Started in 1975 by the United Nations, March 8 is "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women." While it's important to recognize and call attention to International Women's Day, if all we do is post about it on social media we are missing the point. 

I have written about International Women's Day on this blog many times. I am intentional in my efforts to celebrate womanhood and women's rights in a special way on this day. And, with the 50 year anniversary of Title IX upon us, I wanted to do more during women's history month (March) and on this date (March 8). The purpose of this post is to share the program we ran at Saint Francis High School in celebration of both events. I hope it will encourage you to do the same.

As a starting point, we invited all students, educators and coaches to the program in our theater. The poster you see here, includes images past and present of women in our community in sport.

The event began by taking some time offer context for both International Women's Day and Title IX. I referenced Billie Jean King's website, under equality, and said

You have probably heard the proclamation “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written to end discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, and national origin in the area of employment. However, it did not prohibit gender discrimination in public education and federally assisted programs, including high school and collegiate athletic programs.

In 1971, before Title IX passed, only 1% of college athletic budgets went to women’s sports programs. At the high school level, male athletes outnumbered female athletes 12.5 to 1. Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972 by President Richard Nixon.

50 Years later we tell a much different story! That is what we celebrate today. The history and those stories—the examples, and the lessons we have learned. 

I posted the image you see here to serve as the backdrop. I said "I look at the women behind me and I think of their talents and their gifts. I think of Bethany Hamilton’s faith in Christ and Simone Biles’ courage to speak about her mental health challenges and other personal difficulties she has faced. I see not one but two Presidential Medal of Freedom winners in Billie Jean King and Pat Summit. I wonder who the next female athlete will be? I see Se Ri Pak of South Korea and know hundreds of girls took to the game because of her example. And in a special way, I think of Oksana Baiul who hails from Ukraine. I think of her homeland, under siege and wonder if she too is a refugee.

I concluded with my belief: Sports has always allowed us to dream, and dream we must about the next 50 years. To do that, let us begin by hearing testimonies from your peers, coaches and school leaders. They will share the way sport has impacted them, what their dreams may have been and what they are today.

Our campus minister, Sister Jodi who played basketball at UC Davis offered our prayer.

Former CCS Commissioner, Nancy Lazenby Blaser, gave the keynote presentation, a talk guided by the essential question: If women were already playing sports, why was it necessary to pass 
Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972? Through historical examples of women's limited but dynamic participation in sport, the "37 words that changed everything," a profile of an invaluable stakeholder—Patsy Mink and the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics, story and personal testimony, Ms. Blaser proved to be the perfect teacher of this timely topic. I was fortunate enough to hear this presentation at the CCS meeting for high school Athletic Directors. I will encourage her to continue sharing her stories.

A four-year varsity athlete shared a personal testimonial about the impact of sports on her life. We were able to have a male water polo player speak about his experience of sharing the pool with the girls' team. His observations about their physicality, grit and mental toughness was honest and fun to hear. A current teacher and coach, who played both soccer and football at Saint Francis spoke about how her coaches shaped her and what it means to do what they did.

The presentation closed with a slide show of teachers and coaches in youth, high school, collegiate or current day sports. To see so many examples of my colleagues in such a wide variety of sports was interesting, important and inspiring.

I don't know if I would have run this program if I had not heard Nancy Lazenby Blaser's presentation back in August—the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. However, I think it's essential to teach and share what we can, when we can. Days like International Women's Day allow us to look to the calendar, to pause, recognize, commemorate and celebrate. Between now and next year, I will be in search of new ways to do it again.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Sport, Spirituality and Ukaine....Beyond our Prayers

On Friday, February 25 one day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of my seniors asked me, "Will we be talking about Ukraine?" I said, "I'm not opposed to doing so, but I need some sort of connection to the curriculum." He nodded in understanding.

I teach Sports and Spirituality and often find an argument to teach about a wide range of  topics; this one however got me thinking...and guessing. I taught about Ukraine's history, people, leadership and the conflict in Moral Issues—a required course for juniors. No rationale necessary. But, this young man's question stayed with me. 

I woke up on Saturday morning only to read on my social media feed that world boxing hall of fame prizefighter "Wladimir Klitschko and his older brother Vitali, are defending their country amid Russia's siege." Connection made. 

I would like to share my lesson plan with you.

I named my presentation Sports, Spirituality and Ukraine...Beyond our Prayers. I included this image of sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine on the cover slide. In a Religious Studies class, we are gifted with the opportunity to give voice to a person, place or cause through our prayer. And yet, my student's question invited me to go deeper. Thank you, Matthew.

The essential question of this lesson was not WHY we should talk about Ukraine; given what is unfolding in real time, I would like to believe "the why" is understood. Instead, I posited: How might we be able to talk about the Ukraine in Sports and Spirituality (strike through on the is intentional)? 

To frame our conversation I had students discuss with a partner

  • What do you know about Ukraine?
  • What are the most popular sports in Ukraine?
  • Can you name any athletes who have defended their country? and fought in combat?

Sharing prior knowledge set the stage for "the how." Encyclopedia Britannica proved to be an excellent resource for images, maps and historical photographs. 

Somewhere along the way, I learned that teachers should use maps as often as they can. I began with this map of Ukraine and the following bullet points.

I began by explaining why we say Ukraine, not “the Ukraine.” The name of the country, Ukraine, means “borderland” in Slavic. My next slide included a larger map of Ukraine's location in the world, and as a borderland to other countries. Ukraine is home to 44.1 million people. By comparison, California is home to 39.5m It is roughly the size of Texas.

Given that it is a Religious Studies class, I shared a profile of the Religious Affiliations of those who live in Ukraine. For context, I showed their Ethnic composition first. 

And with that, it was time to commence the connection to Sport and Spirituality!

Ukraine benefited immensely from the Soviet emphasis on sports and physical education, which left the country with hundreds of stadiums, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and other athletic facilities. 

Popular sports in Ukraine include track and field, volleyball, shooting, basketball, swimming, and gymnastics. However, of little to no surprise soccer is by far the nation's beloved and favorite sport. Arch-rivals Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv are two of the country’s most popular clubs. Of note, chess is also considered a sport. This claim made me question their definition of sport—a central question of the course.
Sports fans of my generation will appreciate knowing Oksana Baiul who won the gold in women's figure skating at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, in Lillehammer, Norway hails from in Dnipro, Ukraine. Though the target in many a Saturday Night Live skit, the stamp you see here—for her country and by her country—not the USSR, is a beautiful tribute to her talent and ability.
Support for the people of Ukraine and opposition to Russia's invasion, moved beyond social media and onto the field, inside stadiums and more. As noted on CNN "Football fans around the world have been showing their support for Ukrainian players following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week, with Manchester City's Oleksandr Zinchenko and Everton's Vitaliy Mykolenko also receiving an ovation when they faced off at Goodison Park on Saturday."

But the moment that captured hearts and minds far and wide was when "Benfica's Ukrainian forwardRoman Yaremchuk was moved to tears after receiving a standing ovation and the captain's armband when he came on as a substitute against Vitoria in a Portuguese league game." This gesture of solidarity is worth watching; it's hard not to tear up, too.

I concluded this lesson with the story that caught my attention first. 
Born 3/25/76, Wladimir Klitschko stands 6'6" tall and weighs 245 lbs. A heavyweight boxer, he was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2021—his first year of eligibility.
Known for his exceptional knockout power—using a strong jab, straight right hand and left hook, and quick hand speed—his athleticism, as well as great footwork and mobility, are unusual for boxers of his size.

His older brother Vitali is not only a heavyweight boxer, he is the mayor of Kyiv, since 2014. Both men hold PhDs in Sports Science and have earned the monikers Dr. Ironfist (Vitali) and Dr. Steelhammer (Wladimir). Like good sons, the two men never fought each other—at least publicly— as a promise to their mother.
Klitschko has already left a legacy of giving back to his people. For example, in March 2012, during a charitable auction, Wladimir auctioned off his 1996 Olympic gold medal to a buyer who bid $1 million. 

The boxer said he would use the money to help the dreams of thousands of Ukrainian children. 

After the sale, the buyer immediately returned the medal out of respect for Klitschko and because he wanted it to remain with the Klitschko family.

In February, both he and Vitali joined the Kyiv Territorial Defense Brigade (a military reserve component of the Ukrainian Armed Forces). They have pledged to fight to protect the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, through armed forces, and are willing to die for the cause. Heroic? yes. Tragic?absolutely.

We live in precarious times. We know not what is to come for the people of Ukraine. Thanks be to God we have sport as another means by which to launch the conversation and spirituality as a pathway to call for continued prayers for peace. 

Photo Credits
Fan with flag