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Prayer on the starting block

From the February 7, 2011 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel


I am a sophomore in college and have been swimming competitively for the past eight years. For several years, I was not able to swim the butterfly stroke very long without pain searing through my back. I wasn’t in pain at other times, so I’d told the coaches of my club team that I didn’t want to swim those kinds of races, and they obliged, letting me swim in races of 50 yards or less.

However, I came to realize that I’d let myself believe this was a part of me, that I had a back problem, and there were limits to my capabilities. I wanted to be healed of this limitation. I often thought about the answer to the question “What is man?” on page 475 of Science and Health. From this I learned that God’s qualities are not expressed by matter, and I began to understand that I could express freedom and dominion in all my endeavors, including swimming.

I prayed on and off about this issue during high school, occasionally supported by a Christian Science practitioner, but never really put my full effort behind my prayers. When I came to Principia College last fall, I was determined to meet this challenge spiritually. I had great expectations about what I could do, especially on the swim team.

Before the swim season started, I had the chance to talk to one of my coaches about what strokes I wanted to do and what races I wanted help with. I mentioned that I wasn’t able to do more than a 50-yard butterfly, because it bothered my back. He told me, “I can help you fix your stroke, but we can also think about this spiritually; it’s not part of your spiritual identity.” This was a new concept for me. Never before had I been told by a coach that dilemmas can be fixed spiritually. Then, my coach and I talked about the idea that I am a reflection of God and one of my ways of expressing His grace is through swimming. A fear of back pain couldn’t hinder this clear expression.

Over the next few weeks, I kept thinking about the good I reflected, and how I could better portray qualities such as strength and freedom as I swam. My strokes improved dramatically, but for a while there was no progress—my back still hurt when I swam butterfly, and I was a little discouraged. For the next few weeks I thought about reflecting God’s qualities, and I realized that I’d assumed back pain would accompany my butterfly stroke, when in reality I never need to expect suffering!

After that I changed my expectations and the way I thought about my swimming. Whenever anyone asked me about swimming the butterfly stroke, I replied, “I can do anything.” This was a small step to big progress. I continued practicing my stroke—and most important, continued praying—and found I was able to swim the butterfly with less pain.

Later in the season, I wanted to swim the 400 individual medley, an event that requires 100 yards each of four different strokes, including butterfly. I was a bit nervous since I’d never raced more than a 50 butterfly. My coaches, who knew about my challenge, supported and encouraged me, making sure I was all right with the prospect of swimming the 400. In the end we all agreed that it was wise for me to go forward with the race, and I felt confident about the decision.

The day of the race, the fear that I wouldn’t be able to swim without pain came back, but as I prayed, I felt peaceful and the fear dissolved. While I swam, I thought about how grateful I was for the support I’d received, and I finished the event with little pain. I hadn’t fully overcome the issue, but it was much better than ever before and I had swum a strong race. That was the end of my first quarter in college.

The next quarter I wanted to swim the 200 butterfly, which I’d never swum before. Over winter break, I went home to see my family and also got the chance to swim with my club team. I chatted with my hometown coach and mentioned that I would be swimming the 200 butterfly sometime soon. She knew about the back issues, and her first words were “No way, you can’t.” I immediately claimed my freedom in my thought, and told her, “I’ve been working with my stroke, and everything is much better.” I showed her my stroke in practice, and she was impressed and supportive of my swimming the race back at school. When I came back from break, I felt confident that no fear could stop me from swimming that race.

I held to the thoughts of unlimited strength, power, joy, and freedom, knowing that I couldn’t be prevented from expressing them. 

The day of the meet arrived and I was feeling pretty good, as I had seen so much improvement. The warm-up went smoothly, but not long after the meet started, my back started to bother me again. Immediately I prayed. I called a Christian Science practitioner, and we talked about a few metaphysical ideas before I swam. He reminded me that I was completely spiritual, loved by God, and that I expressed strength and ability, and had unlimited power, joy, and freedom. As we talked, my thinking shifted—I went from feeling apprehensive to feeling grateful for everything that was going on around me, and I saw only good ahead.

These thoughts were running through my mind when I stepped up to the blocks for the race. “Swimmers, take your mark . . . beep!” I was off on this new adventure feeling strong and ready for everything. My teammates were at either end cheering me on, telling me to go. 

For the first 100 yards I was doing great, but during the second half of the race I started to feel extremely tired. I held to the thoughts of unlimited strength, power, joy, and freedom, knowing that I couldn’t be prevented from expressing them. Not long later, I finished the race and felt very accomplished. I had swum the first 200 butterfly of my life—and my back was not bothering me at all. Joy and achievement were all that filled my thought.

I’d overcome the fear that I couldn’t swim an event because of a physical limitation. This healing took place about a year ago, and my back hasn’t bothered me since. I’ve continued swimming competitively, and each of my races since then has become more graceful. I’ve felt better able to express God each time, with no fear to stop me. 


Jenna Mehlenbacher is a sophomore at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.

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