Ten American Catholic athletes to watch for in the Tokyo Olympics
On Friday, July 23, athletes around the world will gather in Tokyo for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. All will bring years of training to the competition—but some members of Team U.S.A. will bring their Catholic faith as well. This summer, keep an eye on these Olympians who were formed by Catholic education or a Catholic upbringing.
Sydney McLaughlin made headlines when she broke the world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles on June 27, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics with a time of 51.90 seconds. “All the glory to God,” she told an interviewer after the record-shattering race. “Truly, it is just all a gift from God.” Ms. McLaughlin, 21, is now headed to her second Olympics. While still a student at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey, she ran as the youngest member of the United States’ 2016 track and field team in Rio de Janeiro.
As Team U.S.A. heads to Tokyo, keep an eye on these athletes and all of the Olympians whose faith inspires them in competition.
Matthew Centrowitz Jr. will return to the Olympics for the third time to defend his 2016 gold medal in the 1500-meter race. The Maryland native was the first American to win the race since 1908. Mr. Centrowitz received his first Communion and confession at St. Andrew by the Bay parish in Annapolis, the Catholic Sentinel reported in 2012. His father, two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, credits a Christian brother at his New York Catholic school as a “great influence” and “great coach,” according to the Sentinel. Mr. Centrowitz Jr. shows off a tattoo that reads “like father, like son.”
If Ms. McLaughlin and Mr. Centrowitz excel on the track, their fellow runner Molly Seidel thrives in distance races. Ms. Seidel will make her Olympic debut in the marathon this summer. A 2016 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Ms. Seidel secured four NCAA titles in ten months, making Fighting Irish history. But her career at Notre Dame was just the start—she made history again when she placed second in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in February 2020, her first attempt at the distance. Despite the race’s postponement, Ms. Seidel said in an interview, “We make the most of the situation that we’re given. I’m enormously grateful that the Games are happening.”
Notre Dame alumna Skylar Diggins-Smith will compete on the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Fellow Notre Dame alumna Skylar Diggins-Smith will compete on the U.S. women’s basketball team in Tokyo. Ms. Diggins-Smith, a guard, plays with the Phoenix Mercury. This summer is her Olympic debut. Ms. Diggins-Smith has been a standout basketball player since childhood—she got a college scholarship offer from Notre Dame’s head coach at the time, Muffet McGraw, when she was in eighth grade. She went on to lead the Fighting Irish to three Final Four games, making her a first-round draft pick for the WNBA. Now she is taking her talents to Tokyo. Ms. Diggins-Smith and Ms. Seidel are two among 20 current and former Notre Dame athletes representing Team U.S.A. this summer.
Ms. Diggins-Smith’s teammate, point guard Sue Bird, will return for her fifth Olympic Games this summer. Raised in New York, Ms. Bird attended Christ the King Regional High School for two years and played on a team that won the national title her senior year. She has had one of basketball’s most storied careers, and Team U.S.A. has never lost an Olympic game in which Ms. Bird has been on the roster.
Simone Biles has often cited her Catholic faith as a source of inspiration, energy and strength.
Although not an alumna of a Catholic institution, gymnast Simone Biles is a five-time Olympic medalist and has often cited her Catholic faith as a source of inspiration, energy and strength. Born in Columbus, Ohio, Ms. Biles resides in Spring, Tex. and is considered the greatest gymnast of all time. She has not lost an all-around competition since 2013 and has four skills named after her. As she heads to Tokyo, there are four records she could break: the American record for most career Olympic gold medals won by a woman, the international record for most career Olympic gold medals won by a woman, the most gold medals held by an individual gymnast and the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles since 1968. At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, Ms. Biles revealed that she always carries with her a white rosary from her mother Nellie. When Ms. Biles was five years old, her grandparents, whom she refers to as mom and dad, adopted her and her siblings as her biological mother struggled with drug addiction. They instilled the family with a faithful Catholic identity, regularly attending Mass on Sundays and praying to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, before her big events.
Eighteen-year-old gymnast Grace McCallum soared to a fourth place finish at the Olympic Trials last month to clinch a spot on the four-person team representing the U.S. in Tokyo alongside Ms. Biles. The Minnesota native competed for the U.S. team that won gold at the 2018 and 2019 World Championships, and placed third on balance beam at the 2021 U.S. National championship. Ms. McCallum carries a rosary and a special cross from her grandmother in her backpack as she competes around the world, The Central Minnesota Catholic magazine reported. “Definitely, whenever I have a rough day, in the gym or competition, I just know God gave me this talent,” Grace told the magazine. “I need to use it and not waste it.” Ms. McCallum’s fans can pray to St. Philomena, who according to The Central Minnesota Catholic is the gymnast’s confirmation saint, as she swings from uneven bars and launches off the vault.
Swimmer Katie Ledecky has worked closely with Jesuit Refugee Service to advocate for the rights of people on the move.
A graduate from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., swimmer Katie Ledecky has won five Olympic gold medals and currently holds the world records in the women’s 400-meter, 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle. Outspoken about her Catholic faith, Ms. Ledecky says a few prayers before every race and is confident in her Catholic identity. When she is not in the water, Ms. Ledecky has dedicated time to caring for people on the margins. She has worked closely with Jesuit Refugee Service on multiple occasions to advocate for the rights of people on the move. Most recently, she participated in J.R.S.’s virtual World Refugee Day event where she talked with J.R.S.’s senior mental health and psychosocial support specialist about the benefits of sport. Even amidst intense training and preparation for Tokyo this month, Ms. Ledecky’s Catholic faith has guided her to prioritize uplifting marginalized voices.
Softball is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and Catholic-educated Amanda Chidester will bring her explosive bat to the diamond for Team U.S.A. Ms. Chidester attended St. Francis Cabrini High School in Michigan and was named the 2008 Detroit Catholic League Female Athlete of the Year. She now plays professionally for the Chicago Bandits. Ms. Chidester’s favorite piece of advice is a sentiment her grandma often repeated, to “put it in God’s hands,” she told Wilson in a Q&A. “Especially with all the ups and downs these last few years. I just try to put it in God’s hands, trust it and go from there,” Ms. Chidester told Wilson.
Four-time Olympic saber fencing medalist Mariel Zagunis will compete in a fifth Olympics this summer. Ms. Zagunis attended Valley Catholic School in Beaverton, Or., from kindergarten through twelfth grade and went on to fence at the University of Notre Dame. Ms. Zagunis has been a trailblazer in her sport: She was one of the first women to fence saber when women were finally allowed to do so in 2004—not only competing but winning a gold medal in Athens that year. Ms. Zagunis has credited her Catholic faith with providing motivation and strength especially in the earlier days of her career when she missed qualifying for the Olympics at her first trials. Through prayer, perseverance and dedicated training, she is now the most decorated fencer in U.S.A. history.
These ten athletes are hardly the only ones bringing their Catholic educations or backgrounds to the Olympics this summer. As Team U.S.A. heads to Tokyo, keep an eye on these athletes and all of the Olympians whose faith inspires them in competition.
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