Faith, Sacrifice, and Sports
An Olympian, a nun, and a collegiate swimmer rely on God
by Lori Hadacek Chaplin
Three amazing female athletes shared their journey toward strengthening their faith. One competed on her sport’s biggest stage three times. One discovered a vocation. One overcame immense pain. All three share a love of sports — and of the Catholic faith. Olympian Dominique Dawes, Sr. Mary Jo Sobieck, and former Notre Dame swimmer Haley Scott DeMaria reveal how they triumphed and sacrificed, with God as a guiding force in their lives. The sacrificial nature of competitive sports prepared these women for a deeper relationship with the Lord and the sacrifices he asks of us.
FROM PERFECTIONISM TO PEACE THROUGH THE CHURCH
Dominique Dawes fell in love with gymnastics when she was 6. She said gymnastics taught her how to work as part of a team, to set goals, and to persevere. Sadly, there was also a dark side to the sport with physical, verbal, and emotional abuse — and for some, sexual abuse — as part of the gymnastics culture.
Dawes told Catholic Digest that her conversion to Catholicism helped bring her some peace and closure with what she suffered.
MEDALS AND MISERY
Dawes opened the way for gymnasts of color; she was the first black woman to win an individual medal in Olympic gymnastics. She was a member of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team (dubbed the “Magnificent Seven”) that won gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Dawes competed and medaled in three Olympics Games for the United States in 1992, 1996, and 2000.
Success didn’t come easy for the little girl from Maryland. Dominique awoke at 5 a.m. to train for two hours before going to public school. After school, she would practice for an additional five hours. She didn’t mind training long hours — six days a week — because she felt at home in the gym.
Though she enjoyed what she was doing, the toxic gymnastics culture caused the athlete emotional scarring. The Olympian recalls hearing often that her feet were wrong for gymnastics, and in competitions points were deducted from her score because she had bowlegs. “It was normal to be regularly criticized, ridiculed, and told that you’re not good enough,” said Dawes, 43. “People in the sport would ask me, “Why can’t your legs go together?” I remember as a kid thinking, “Gosh, this is how I was born.”
SEEKING COMFORT IN A HOLY PLACE
As a result of that treatment, Dawes battled self-doubt and suffered from perfectionism and anxiety. The Olympian found solace in Catholicism. As an adult, Dawes felt drawn to the holiness she sensed in a Catholic Church. She would visit St. Patrick’s in Rockville, Maryland, when Mass wasn’t taking place, and she would sit in the pew, talking to God and the Blessed Mother.
“I felt at peace in the silence of the church,” she said. “I also used to attend Mass, but I didn’t understand what was going on — I was raised Baptist.”
Dawes’ paternal grandmother, who died in 1991, was a Catholic. “I always felt connected to her Catholic roots,” Dawes explained.
FAITH IN THE FAMILY
Years later, Dawes met her husband, Jeff Thompson, a Catholic, and he helped her on her faith journey. She entered the Church before marrying Thompson in 2013.
“I felt a completeness when I entered and felt that my grandmother was smiling down on me.”
Dawes and Thompson have four little girls, two of whom are twins. Her older daughters have shown an interest in gymnastics. Dawes used to think that she didn’t want her children to be a part of the sport. Now, it’s her goal to help change the culture so her children can be involved with the sport if they choose.
Sr. Mary Jo Sobieck
GOD REWARDED HER SACRIFICE IN UNEXPECTED WAYS
On Aug. 18, 2018, Sr. Mary Jo Sobieck — dressed in her black-and-white habit and a Marian Catholic T-shirt — walked confidently onto the Chicago White Sox’s field to throw a ceremonial first pitch. After adeptly bouncing the ball off her bicep and catching it, she threw a perfect strike to White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito.
Ironically, Sr. Mary Jo — who played volleyball and softball for the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota — left behind her dreams of playing a sport professionally to become a Springfield Dominican sister, only to end up with her photo on a baseball card.
Sr. Mary Jo, a Catholic theology teacher and assistant volleyball coach for Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, tells Catholic Digest, “I think the popularity of it is to see a sister who’s joyful.”
She added, “I was also unapologetic about being out there in my habit — I love my vocation. Standing on the mound provided an opportunity to preach without saying a word.”
Sr. Mary Jo, the youngest of 10 children, grew up in a Catholic family that lived the faith. Even so, being a nun was not on her horizon. Then spontaneously, Mary Jo attended a vocations retreat at the Dominicans’ motherhouse in Springfield, Illinois. That’s when the 25-year-old realized that she wanted to play on team God.
“I had a fire in my belly for team sports, but that weekend I couldn’t get enough of the nuns talking about how they surrendered their lives to God,” she shared.
Becoming a nun was natural to her because being a nun is like being on a team. “My desire to be my best and to give my all for my team got transformed into giving myself over completely to God’s will,” she explained.
Only a year before her famous pitch, Sr. Mary Jo felt a yearning to be an itinerant preacher. It happened, but not in a way that she ever expected.
“Those good things we desire for ourselves — we don’t have to give them up. We have to be patient and wait to see how God wants to use them,” she said.
Since her unexpected popularity, Sr. Mary Jo has been able to evangelize on a grander scale. “Even though my love for sport didn’t work out the way I wanted, God used my gifts and talents when he saw the need for them.”
For every media interview, Sr. Mary Jo makes sure to bring the conversation back to God. One such instance occurred in an interview on the “WGN Morning News” in Chicago. The evening before, Sr. Mary Jo had attended the ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) awards — having been nominated for the “Best Viral Sports Moment” category.
WGN anchor Robin Baumgarten asked Sr. Mary Jo about her unique look because the nun wore her habit on the red carpet.
Sr. Mary Jo answered in her friendly, matter-of-fact manner, “God sees the soul, not the swag.”
Haley Scott DeMaria
TRAGIC ACCIDENT CATALYST FOR CONVERSION
In January 1992, 18-year-old Haley Scott lay paralyzed in the freezing snow for 90 minutes. The University of Notre Dame swim team had been on their way home during a snowstorm when their bus slipped off the side of the road and overturned.
DeMaria told Catholic Digest, “Two of my freshman teammates, Colleen Hipp and Meghan Beeler, died instantly. I landed on the top of my spine and shattered three vertebrae.”
Surgeons didn’t think DeMaria would walk or swim again. After two operations and missing her 48-hour window for movement, her doctors informed her that her paralysis was permanent. Three days later, DeMaria began to wiggle her toes. Two months later, she walked out of the hospital with only the aid of a cane.
In June 1992, DeMaria’s spine collapsed again and she underwent three more surgeries, surviving complications including heart failure and a collapsed lung. Later, she would endure a sixth surgery.
DEFYING THE ODDS
Overcoming every obstacle, DeMaria felt like she would soon be winning meets again, but in reality, the accident had slowed her down.
“It was the first real limitation that I had to face, and it was difficult for me,” recalled DeMaria, who wrote a book about her experience called What Though the Odds (Cross Training Publishing, 2008).
“For many people, swimming is just a sport, but for me, it was what I loved. To compete week after week and to see a slower time became a daily reminder that my life had been affected by this.”
The psychological challenges were even more difficult for DeMaria because they weren’t as easy to recognize and address. “It is impossible to go through an experience like I went through and not have it fundamentally change you,” she said.
It was the Notre Dame Catholic community’s supportive and compassionate witness that became the catalyst for DeMaria converting in 1997.
“I have always said it wasn’t my faith that got me through my injury, but the faith of those around me,” DeMaria shared. “I was surrounded by a community of faith that carried me through my darkest days, and I knew I never wanted to be without that. I converted to Catholicism to be part of this prayerful community of faith.”
CHRISTOPHER REEVE’S WORDS
In 1999, DeMaria met actor Christopher Reeve, and they shared injury stories. She and Reeve experienced similar injuries, but Reeve was left a quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse.
“He looked at me, and I can still hear his voice — it was very challenging for him to talk — and he said, ‘Ah, you’re one of the lucky ones.'”
Seeing and meeting Reeve — who died in 2004 — reframed the swimmer’s life. “He changed a lot for me,” she said.
BRINGING HER STORY TO OTHERS
DeMaria is an inspirational speaker whose message is one of hope. She looks at the hardship she went through as transformative. Without it, she wouldn’t have the Catholic faith or be the person she is today.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Do you wish this had never happened?’ It’s a complicated question to answer,” she said. “On the one hand, I wish every day that my two teammates were here. But when I look at everything in my life that is most meaningful — my children, my family, my faith, my friendships — every single thing stems from the tragic event. I couldn’t be the person I am today had I not lived through that hardship.”