This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of the FCA Donor Publication. The FCA publication is a gift from our FCA staff to all donors giving $50 or more annually. For more information about giving, visit here.
It may sound strange that an Olympic rower feels called to a ministry where she’s helping others face disappointment, but that is the testimony of Sarah Chaudhery. Her journey into rowing is a fascinating one: She walked onto a university team after spotting a Welcome Week poster looking for females taller than 5’8”. Being 6’, she gave it a shot, although she’d never rowed before, and she fell in love with the teamwork of rowing and the weightless feeling the sport offers (when you’re doing it right). Coaches saw her natural talent and competitive spirit, and they encouraged her to continue rowing after university, which landed her a spot on Canada’s National Team that later qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After giving their all, the team took fourth place.
Proud, but admittedly disappointed, the experience built a foundation for future upsets. Although she spent four years training for the 2012 Olympics, she was cut from the team less than two months prior to the Games.
It’s not been an easy road, but Chaudhery has refused to let disappointment stop her from looking to the Lord and serving Him. In fact, it’s through these upsets she found her identity in Christ and calling to sports ministry.
Q: How did you get involved in rowing? What do you like about it?
I actually didn’t start rowing until I was 19 years old. I had just moved to Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) to attend university. I saw a poster during Welcome Week advertising the novice rowing team. They were looking for women over 5’8”. I’m 6’ tall. Rowing (and rugby) were the only varsity sports you could try out for without any experience. So, in an effort to redefine myself, I thought I’d give rowing a try. I didn’t love the early morning practices, or even the sport, so much at first. But, I loved being part of a team. The next year, I was going to quit, but a teammate convinced me to come back.
At the end of university, I was ready to move on, but my coach convinced me to try out for the National Team. It took me another year to make the National Team, but timing was everything, and I really clicked with the new coach. The rest is history. I owe so much to both my university coach (Rick Crawley) and National Team Coach (Carsten Hassing). They saw potential in me that I wouldn’t have seen on my own.
The two things I love most about rowing: the teamwork, you have to be perfectly in sync to go as fast as possible, and the way the boat feels right before the catch (when you put your blade in the water). When you’re doing it right, you’re weightless. You feel like you’re flying. Oh, I also live to race. I feel like it brings out this powerful alter ego in me that can’t come out anywhere else. Look out when I’m in race mode!
Q: Tell us about your Olympic experience.
Our team (the women’s 8+) had to go through the last chance qualifier, which was the most stressful event I’ve ever done in my life. (Yes, even more than the Olympic final.) The feeling of elation when we won that race was incredible. We knew at that moment we were going to the 2008 Beijing Olympics together! I think the highlight of the Olympics for me was getting to march in the opening ceremonies. We walked into the Bird’s Nest Stadium and it was so large, sound took time to travel across it and it sounded hazy on the other side. I remember thinking that I’d never seen so many people in one place in my life. It was so surreal. I couldn’t believe I was there.
Our racing was incredibly close. We were in second and third for most of our race, and then got passed right on the line for a fourth place finish. Three boats were within a second of each other. It was heartbreaking, but we had a good race and didn’t leave anything on the water. There weren’t any mistakes.
Click to read Sarah's book,
The Justified Jock!After the Olympics, God started me on (what seems to be) a lifelong journey of sharing about what it means to overcome disappointment. I fought it for a few years, but this has been how He has used me.
I trained for another four years, but I was cut from the team in the last month or two before the 2012 Olympics. My teammates went on to win a silver medal. Again, disappointment. But God has used this more than anything else in my life. The doors He keeps opening still surprise me.
Q: How are you involved with FCA? How did you first hear about FCA?
After I retired from sport in 2012, God called me into sports ministry. I became the Director of Operations for the More Than Gold movement in Toronto, which was an ecumenical outreach during the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Bruce Gray (one of the founding members of FCA Canada) was my right-hand man. God was calling him from his retirement into supporting sports ministry. He has a heart like no other. He even flew me to Glasgow, Scotland, so I could observe their More Than Gold movement during the Commonwealth Games.
FCA came to Canada to partner with some of our churches and run sports camps around the Pan Am Games. They were an amazing addition to the ministry going on, and this sparked a bigger flame for FCA to establish itself in Canada. Bruce has encouraged me to stay involved ever since. FCA brings key elements that are different from, and compliment, the other movements involved with sports ministry in Canada.
Q: What does competing for Christ mean to you?
This is so hard to answer because I find there’s such a dichotomy between the humble servants Christ calls us to be and the fierce, competitive nature that seems to be required to be an elite athlete. For me as an athlete, it meant putting Christ first and making sure I was a good teammate. I would pray for my teammates individually. But I sure didn’t start like this. God absolutely used my journey through sport to bring me back to Him. Sometimes my coaches would be down on me for letting others go first and being ‘too nice.’ Ironically, at the very end of my career, it was my character traits that they saw as an asset. They asked me to train with the non-Olympic team to encourage them to stay in the sport. They asked me to essentially be a cheerleader for the sport, which was an honor, but also pretty hard because it meant training alongside my former Olympic teammates in a non-Olympic boat. But, I think I did a good job; three of the women I trained with went on to win gold in Tokyo!
Q: How has God helped you through challenging times?
God used the absolute and complete breakdown of my heart, mind and body through sport to bring me back to Him. So many days I had nothing left. I would look at the training schedule for the next day and just pray for God to help me make it through. Also, something so small happened but it made a huge difference in my life: the morning paper stopped coming. I used to read it before practice while eating my oatmeal. I was at a loss for something to read, and I started reading my Bible again. God started speaking to me (or rather, I started listening again). I started turning each day over to Him again, and again, and again. Honestly, so much of what happened to me in sport seems like a miracle to me, even now. I was never the “obvious” athlete. Many people and coaches were surprised each time I had success. I truly believe God gave me the results I needed to stay on the team at the right time. It was never easy, but it was where I was supposed to be, at that season of my life.
Q: How have you seen God work in this season of your life?
It still blows my mind that people keep giving me opportunities to talk about my experiences. It resonates with people, because everyone experiences disappointment in their lives. I understand now that God chooses to use disappointment, because like 2 Corinthians 12:8 says, “(His) power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Disappointment that leads you further into the power of Christ in your life is always worth it.
Q. How have you seen FCA reach everyone through Christ?
I love that FCA does ministry “to and through the coach.” We are in a coaching crisis in sport right now. All kinds of physical and emotional abuses are coming to the surface. We are finally addressing the fact that coaching shouldn’t be about breaking the athlete’s will, or bringing them to a breaking point over and over and over again, where only the strongest survive. It is more important than ever that we redeem not only coaches through Christ, but change the whole conversation in sport. Both coaches and athletes need to know their worth is not based on results, but on who they are in Christ. It’s time for athletes and coaches to know they are incredibly valuable to God outside of sport, and they were created for a much bigger purpose. I am so excited to be a very small part of FCA, because I know this is at the heart of your ministry.
Q. FCA is all about disciples making disciples. Who has helped you grow in your faith? Who have you helped grow in theirs?
So many people have helped me grow in my faith, but most notably in sport, it was one of my teammates who invited me to attend her church. Although I had a strong faith background, I hadn’t settled into a church while attending university, and it wrecked havoc on my faith. By the time I joined the National Team, I had almost nothing left. I’m also grateful the church had multiple services each weekend because we would go around our practice schedule. The evening services would be hard because we’d be too tired to stand for all of the worship!
I feel so blessed that God can continue to use this journey I’ve been on to open doors for me to speak to so many people, and especially kids. I’d estimate that I’ve probably done over 100 speaking engagements, and the vast majority have allowed me to speak openly about my faith. Sometimes I’m like, “But I’m always talking about the same thing, God!” But that’s the point. It’s the story of what God has done in my life, and wants to do in yours. It’s salvation. It’s the only thing worth sharing anyway.
Thank you, FCA, for holding true to what God has called you to do. He will use you mightily in the lives of athletes and coaches, and in turn, countless others!
Photos courtesy of Sarah Chaudhery