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Interview: Debbie Flood, rowing champion

28 June 2019

‘It was wonderful to be passionate, representing my country, yet seeing my competitors through God’s eyes’

I grew up in a sporty home. It was a lifeline to keep me on the straight and narrow. I loved sport, and dreamed of going to the Olympics. I was a successful county 1500-metre runner, cross-country, and shot putter; and I represented Great Britain in judo, before switching to rowing when I was 17 — which, at the time, was thought of as old. I was spotted on the rowing machine that I used for general fitness and told to be a rower.

I was terrible to start with. It’s a very technical sport, which wasn’t my forte. I had the power but no technique. It took God to give me the best technical coach in the country — a miracle in itself, and a story too long for this. I ended up getting selected for the junior GB team, and competed at the Junior World Rowing Championships. It was the beginning of a wonderful journey.

The most exciting thing about the Olympics was racing the best in the world, in a sport I loved, with teammates who became some of my best friends, with a grateful heart for the opportunities and abilities God gave me.

The hardest thing, apart from hundreds of hours of training, was injury, and disappointment at not achieving what I’d hoped. But the most surprising was how God taught me so much about his unending love, faithfulness, patience, and mercy. And he’s showed me more of who I am, how precious my life is, and how much I need him, through the ups and downs.

Each Olympic competition was unique [Flood competed in 2004, 2008, and 2012, winning silver at the first two], and my goals and expectations for each changed. We have to be in our own bubble, focused on our performance; but it’s also important to enjoy and appreciate the scale of where you are. The Olympic and Paralympic values are friendship, excellence, respect, determination, courage, equality, inspiration. . . As athletes, we hope these will bring us together in a positive uniting way, above any political undertones.

You need the physique and technique, but, without the right mental attitude, they can’t be seen to their best. As in anything in life, including our Christian walk, our heart-attitude and thoughts and behaviour are key to growth. Of course, my Christian faith is central to everything; so this influenced my attitude most, as God was at work in my life transforming my heart.

I always believed that God existed, and we’re not bags of chemicals. I genuinely believed that God blesses us all with abilities, talents, and passions, and part of that, for me, was sport. But I just wanted get on with my own life till I joined a youth group when I was 15. A dear lady, Jennifer, faithfully spoke about Jesus, about the life he lived, and why and how he died for me. I suddenly realised God made us to be in relationship with him, and I realised my personal need for Jesus.

Christians in Sport gives sportspeople opportunities to hear the good news of Jesus, and equips Christians to love their teammates and competitors, praying for their sport and speaking of Jesus. They work in churches, universities, schools, elite sport, and with sports-mission organisations globally.

Christians in Sport supported me as an elite athlete, gave me Christian fellowship, encouraged me in my faith, and pointed me back to God’s wonderful truths in the Bible. Now I work for them part-time, and help at my rowing club with athletes’ welfare on every level.

Sir Steve Redgrave was a role model, for his achievements and his care for others; but I want to do this on a deeper level, too.

The Bible teaches us to approach life with the right attitude: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”; and worship God by offering our lives sacrificially in thankfulness. He’s the one we should honour by how we live and treat others.

Sport can be a very selfish world; so it is a challenging life for Christians. But it was also wonderful to be passionate, competitive, representing my country and working with my teammates — yet loving my teammates and competitors, seeing them through God’s eyes, putting their needs first when they’re struggling, finding my identity and security in being a child of God, when others around me put their identity and hopes in their successes.

There were many opportunities for God to grow me, when I was challenged about my attitude towards winning and losing; and many opportunities to reflect God’s love as I shared life with others through the ups and downs.

Sport is broken because the people who do sport are broken, just the same as in every other area of life, because human hearts are broken. That’s why we need Jesus — because not one of us measures up to God’s perfect standard. We all fall short. Unfortunately, this will always be the case in sport to varying extents. Christians can stand up for what’s right, which includes standing against doping and the misuse of other drugs.

Countries often take pride and pleasure in showing what they can do: in sport, music, business prowess, inventions, the arts. It’s a good thing when we see stories of success against the odds. It’s good to celebrate when people have used their gifts well and realised their potential. But, often, it is used for control and manipulation, and governments exploit athletes to advance their own agendas. There’s also a danger of idolising athletes, and this is also against the wisdom of how God shows us to live and honour him.

Since my Olympic successes, God has helped me to see his great love for people. I want others to know, whether they realise it or not, that they need Jesus, because, without him, they’re perishing, and will face God’s judgement.

I’d planned to be a vet, but when we came back from our success in Athens, I was led into mentoring disruptive young people, and then into several years of prison work.

I know first-hand the impact that literacy has on young people and adults; so I’m involved with SPCK’s prison-literacy programme, giving stories to help prisoners with their literacy and enable them to explore issues, think about choices, and give them hope for the future. God doesn’t give up on anyone.

So many things make me happy: being reminded of the many blessings God has given me, and how he’s saved my life in so many ways. My wonderful husband. The peace and freedom of my allotment. Most of all, seeing someone coming to faith in Jesus, or growing in faith and being restored. That moves me to tears.

Trusting God in relationships was the bravest thing I’ve done — waiting for God to give me the gift of a husband, and to walk his path and design for marriage rather than take things into my own hands and live the way our culture does. His timing was perfect, and the waiting was worth it.

Life with God is good; so I know, wherever he takes me, he’ll be at work for good and for his glory. The future’s full of hope.

Mostly I am praying thanks, but I also pray regularly for those God brings into my life and heart — usually for God to be at work in their lives, helping them to know Jesus more, and for his saving grace and restoration.

I’d like to be locked in a church with my granddad. There’s so much to share with him that he didn’t see when he was alive. He prayed faithfully that all his grandchildren would know the Lord Jesus. I know we’ll be worshipping together magnificently in heaven when Jesus takes me home.

Debbie Flood was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

She is in conversation with Andy Frost at an event in aid of Diffusion, the SPCK prison reading programme, at the London Rowing Club, Putney Embankment, Putney, SW15, on 11 July. For details and tickets, visit bit.ly/spckdebbieflood.

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