Speed skater's faith in focus while setting new U.S. records
SALT LAKE CITY (BP)--For Olympian speed skater Jason Hedstrand, the slim gold band he wears on his right hand means more than his newly ordered Olympic ring.
The Olympic ring will be a reminder of the skater's grueling training and the excitement of competing in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
But the other ring -- a gold wedding band given to him by his grandfather -- is a constant reminder to Hedstrand of his love for God, the support of his family, and of his commitment to remain pure until marriage.
"I wear this one with more pride," said 26-year-old Hedstrand, rubbing the mellowed gold. "It is an outward reminder of my inward commitment."
Hedstrand's time of 13:32.99 earned him a 12th-place finish in the 10,000-meter and set a new American record Feb. 22. In qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, Hedstrand broke the American record in the 10,000-meter in a time that was more than 45 seconds faster that Eric Heiden's world record at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid.
A member of Southeast Baptist Church in Sandy, Utah, Hedstrand said it's not the thrill of the Olympics, the lure of the sport or the pressure to perform that drives him. Instead, right alongside the 100-mile bike rides, 1,000 races and the "pain and agony" of competition is the slow and steady stroke of God who gives him strength.
"Inwardly I am being renewed day by day by God," said Hedstrand, whose favorite Bible verse is 2 Corinthians 4:18: "... So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
"It totally puts everything in perspective and we realize the Olympic status and clothes and media -- it is something to train for, but it is also temporary," Hedstrand said. "[That verse] helps me train harder, keeping that perspective, because with the Olympic year coming up a lot of people have taken a more selfish approach to things."
Part of Hedstrand's spiritual discipline is to read the Bible every day, no matter where he is. Instead of trying to spend a certain amount of time in study, Hedstrand said he has read a chapter a day since 1993 and began his third trip through Scripture on the day of the Olympics' closing ceremonies, Feb. 24.
In Utah, Hedstrand, son of former missionaries to the Phillipines, said he remembers his father coming into his room every night to read aloud Bible story character sketches. Raised in Baptist General Conference churches, Hedstrand said he knew God at an early age, but grew closer to him through the influence of a "great" youth pastor when he was in junior high school.
Through church and family contacts Hedstrand was able to live with a family from Southeast Baptist Church in moving from his home in Shoreview, Minn., last spring to tackle intensive training for the Olympic trials. The first day of the week, however, was reserved for church where Hedstrand spent "literally all Sunday" with friends, including singles and teens.
Hedstrand recently spoke at a True Love Waits banquet at the church, citing "trust, honesty and commitment" as essentials in a relationship -- essentials which are foundational and begin on the first date. He used his parents' and grandparents' long-lasting marriages as models.
Fully committed to remaining sexually pure until marriage, Hedstrand said he also challenges parents to make sure they are affectionate to their children so they will also refrain from early encounters leading to premarital sex.
"If you think that you are loving your child enough, double it," Hedstrand advised. "Hugs and kisses -- I don't care if they are the star football player on the team -- if they don't get it from you they will find it someplace else."
Hedstrand knows what he's talking about. Often lonely while away from home, he said he still looks for little touches, like a special note in his lunchbox or a kind word on a bad day. "Do the cute things," Hedstrand said.
"For me, I don't care if I'm in the bleachers at the Olympic stadium and hugging mom and dad," Hedstrand said. "If the Olympic stadium doesn't want to see it, I don't care -- I love my mom and dad and sister."
The Hedstrands are a close-knit Minnesota family who homeschooled their two children from the time Jason was 12. Challenged with choosing a winter sport for physical education, Hedstrand said he and his parents finally chose speed skating.
"I was not naturally talented," Hedstrand said. "Speed was never a factor -- fun was a factor."
In a sport where most competitors learn to skate as toddlers, Hedstrand said he "bent over and moved his arms like a speed skater," thrashing around on the same hockey skates he used to walk across asphalt and play with friends in frozen backyards.
Hestrand said an indoor rink was like a "sacred thing" and only for professional hockey players; his debut with the Shoreview Novice Program didn't earn him any recognition, but still he stuck it out.
"My early years of not winning were actually beneficial," Hedstrand said. "I had to work hard just to stay with the guys. When I started passing them, they couldn't change their old habits and they were stuck. I just had to work harder."
The hard work and encouragement from family and coaches finally started to pay off for Hedstrand when he won his first race at age 18. Since then he has trained for the ultimate in sports -- to be an Olympic contender.
"I think the ultimate fun is the journey," Hedstrand reflected. "[The Olympics] might be the ultimate destination, but the ultimate fun was in getting here."
Naming a half-dozen churches from Calgary, Canada, to a "dinky" Baptist church in Butte, Mont., Hedstrand lists them right alongside his skating venues in Holland, Italy, South Korea and Norway.
"The journey here has been the ultimate fun," said Hedstrand, crediting God with his success. "I want to give 100 percent in everything I do. I even skate for God."
Like reading the Bible one day and one chapter at a time, Hedstrand knows what it feels like to take small steps to reach a bigger goal. Setting the American record the first time around at the Olympic trials [and later at the Olympics] was like a wedding for the Hedstrands.
"My mother said she smiled so much her cheeks were hurting," Hedstrand said. "There was so much smiling and crying and tons of people cried who usually don't cry."
Yet Hedstrand said he realized he needed to "stay down to earth."
"One thing that I realize is that I'm nothing unusual. I have the same skin and breathe the same air -- and am another wonderfully created human being," said Hedstrand, who despite making the U.S. team still had reservations about actually being an Olympian.
"Even now that it's the Olympics, it's still sinking in," Hedstrand said the day after the 10,000-meter event in Salt Lake City. "It's such an honor and such a privilege and just amazing to think about it."
For now Hedstrand has had enough of the ice and intends "to spend the summer evaluating what I want to do for the next two years, the next four years," Hedstrand said. "To reevaluate and pray, to see what God is doing."
Hedstrand said he'll miss his accountability partners at Southeast Baptist Church but will continue to seek God's will wherever he trains and wherever he is plugged in. Whether that's in church or in the community speaking to young people and business people alike, Hedstrand said he hopes to be a "good role model."
"Having fun and having a spiritual quality and perspective even though I'm training for the Olympics is natural," Hedstrand said. "I need to have fun on the journey."
For more information visit www.thegoal.com. Hannigan is a freelance writer who teaches English and journalism in the Atlanta area. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: A SPECIAL RING.