Heather Zealand: Finding Strength and Joy In the Face of Trials
Heather Zealand. Described by many as a “born to run” competitor decided she would leave no stone unturned when she took to running as a junior in high school. Coming from the now largest Christian University in the nation located in Lynchburg, Virginia, Heather Sagan, now Heather Zealand, sure left her mark in the world of collegiate and professional running. With her time spent at Liberty University, she earned the titles of 4 time All-American, 6-time All-Conference in the mile and 800m, and as a senior in 2002, she was named the NCAA Division I National Champion in the indoor mile. She retired her Liberty uniform holding 3 school and personal records in the 1500m, 1600m, and 3000m races with times of 4:14.71, 4:37.53, and 9:34.54. After a rousing comeback in her college career, she felt lead that she still had more to give in her sport. So began her professional career. She noted a professional career highlight being the opportunity to run with team USA Cross Country in Switzerland. She placed 53rd that race on March 30th, 2003 with a time of 13:52 in the women’s short race (4.03 km/2.5 miles). While she was more than happy to share with us a few of her many accomplishments and thrilling experiences throughout her remarkable collegiate and professional career, I watched her face light up when she got the chance to talk about what she learned through the time she spent racing, training, and growing as a young believer throughout her career.
One memory in particular stood out to me as we talked: the day she made history in the Pennsylvania Relays. “In the moments before the race in the bull-pen, my nerves and excitement were high, so I turned around and asked my competitors if anyone wanted to pray with me… No response. I remember being so shocked that I actually asked twice. I waited expectantly…Again, no response from anybody in the crowd. I searched for just one person to say anything, but instead watched people look down and refuse to make eye contact, which was extremely discouraging because there was a person or two in the group that I KNEW professed to be Christians. I can’t describe my shock when nobody answered.” Talk about awkward, right? What would you do after something like that?
She got down on her knees right then and there and prayed before the race in front of them all. “I’m not sure why I decided to do it,” she said “but honestly I felt like I didn’t really know what else to do, even though it was not something I had ever done before in front of a crowd of people.” When she finished, she stood up and went on to be the FIRST collegiate athlete since 1987 to capture the Olympic Development Mile at the Penn Relays. In the two hours I got to spend listening to Heather colorfully and passionately talk about her most memorable years as a competitive athlete I couldn’t help but note two important truths that echoed throughout the testimony she shared of God’s work in her young life. And we want to share these truths with you too.
- “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
- “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” Luke 12:48
The surface of Heather’s career shows the strong successful athlete and woman that she indeed is. The pictures you might find of her show her standing on a podium or putting a quick finish on a record holding personal best. But those moments of triumph on the track weren’t the moments that Heather was excited to share with me. Not even close. And those pictures didn’t show all the work, sweat, tears, laughs, test, trials, and love that came together to mold her into the woman, wife, and mother she is today. Here you’ll get the behind-the-scenes of those stats and photos, the nitty-gritty, and sometimes not so pretty view of what it means to search for meaning in your sport, and what happens when you find it.
Truth Number One: We can find Joy in our suffering, and Strength in the face of trials
Heather expressed that her favorite part about the sport of running is that it satisfies her love for competition. She loves the race. She loves the challenge of having yourself as your biggest competitor while we race to beat personal records and make faster splits. However, with that self-driven, competitive spirit that we all have at least a little of somewhere inside, comes with it that tendency to also be your biggest critic. When Heather entered her sophomore year at division I Liberty University, Something about her body didn’t feel right. Then something about her training didn’t feel right. The result was plummeting times race after race leaving Heather in a “very discouraging downward spiral.” Eventually, after testing she would soon learn that she was suffering from severe Iron Deficiency Anemia. While relieved to know what the problem was, she was obviously also devastated when she realized how long it was going to take to let her body to come back. Let alone, get her race game back to its maximum potential.
Somewhere along the line, Heather recalled how her competitive, driven, self-critiquing spirit got overwhelmed by the continued let-downs and failure to reach times that used to be “easy money”. Those same characteristics that made Heather great were actually mentally wearing her down from the inside-out and causing her to plummet even farther.
To the athletes reading this, I get it. Injury and setbacks [big or small] are not something that is new to us as competitors. We all deal with it at some point and we are all forced to just work our way through it as we roll with the punches. I wish I could tell you that I had the answer to avoiding setbacks, like injury, completely and I’m sure so would your coaches. Unfortunately though, I can’t, your coaches can’t [though they valiantly try their absolute hardest] and neither can Olympic competitor Heath Zealand. The bible tells us we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”(Psalm 139:13-16). It never uses the word perfect. Do you really think Adam never tripped on a root when he went on his barefoot morning run in the garden? Heck no. Point being: these things happen. Even Heather said she “always struggled with small injuries due to running surfaces, especially and coincidentally before a big race.” But, while some things are out of our control, what we can control is how we respond to them.
The way we respond to the trials and challenges we face WILL have a huge impact on our mindset, recovery time, our teammates around us, and especially unbelievers who are watching us. We read in Acts 16 how Paul faced death as he sat in prison for proclaiming God’s name throughout Rome. 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. For TWO years they sat! And you thought 2 days or two weeks was rough. . . 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” What can we learn from this passage? First, we can look at how they responded.
(1) They praised. They sang. They didn’t complain.
What was the result? The other jailors were listening to them and watching them! It’s easy to represent Christ to unbelievers and fellow Christians when we’re at the top of our game but when we’re at rock bottom or a cold stone jail floor that people REALLY watch what we do. Through their struggle, Paul and Silas trusted the intangible hand of God that was allowing these challenges to test them and their faith. They found joy in the fact that through this struggle they were being given an opportunity to represent their God Paul later reveals in Romans 5:3-5 “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
(2) They were Patient. Not once but TWICE: First, when the doors were closed for 2 years and Second, even when the doors were opened!
What was the result? “all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s [including Paul and Silas’s] chains came loose.” Not only that but the Jailor who was about to kill himself turned to them and expressed his desire to be saved because he was shocked by Paul and Silas’s actions! He “brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household (Acts 16:34).”
The other inmates were affected. Guys, these are our teammates.
The jailor was affected. Guys, this is our competitors.
God promises again and again that His strength will be given to those who call on Him. He promises us “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responds by saying “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (II Corinthians 12:9) Remember – ask and it shall be given, Seek and you will find.
- Injured? Ask for His strength. 1 Chronicles 16:11
- Stressed? Tired? Overwhelmed? Ask for His strength. Isaiah 40:29-31
- Nervous? Ask for his strength. Psalm 46:1 Philippians 4:13
When we search for His strength rather than lean on our own, we find Joy. Like Paul did, like the Jailor did, and like Heather did when she took a couple weeks break after her sophomore year XC Season and patiently began what she expected to be a slow climb back to the top of her race game. When she began training again and still competed for Indoor and Outdoor track that next season, she began seeing improvement within a few months and even had some PRs in the spring season of track. She was right back to her previous PR’s by the start of her junior year. Her challenge ended in a build up to a Division I National Championship win in the 1600m (2002: Indoor Season).
Dear readers, think about the struggles you’ve faced in the past. Think about the challenges your facing now. Do not be afraid of them and do not be discouraged. You’re certainly not alone. Look at these setbacks as an opportunity for spiritual growth, for physical rest, and for witnessing to others through the way you respond! Remember that before God trusts us with the big things like victory and podiums before men, He has to see how we respond with the little things (Luke 6:10). The little things are preparation and testing for bigger things and victory does not come all at once. Be joyous because God is testing you and preparing you for bigger opportunities to serve Him in your future!
Through her struggle with Anemia, Heather says she learned that “most opportunities to connect and reach out to others about Christ throughout her whole running career came when she least expected it. It wasn’t based on how good she was or how well she was competing. The opportunities are there always.”
Heather also acknowledges herself as extremely blessed to be placed at Liberty where she had constant access to an encouraging team of Christian teammates to keep her accountable, support her during her recovery, and share each other’s passion for serving Christ through their sport. But don’t make the mistake of thinking our faith cannot be tested anywhere we are. Keep yourself in check. Are we strong when life is good? Do we make a habit of waiting until life gets rough to run back to Him to tap into His strength? I remind myself what 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 reminds us all, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” For those of you who are not struggling right now with any kind of challenge, trial, or setback: don’t wait for that setback to come to grow in Christ and tap into His power and His strength. You can have it all right now.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
A prayer for today O, Christ, do not give me tasks equal to my powers, but give me powers equal to my tasks. For I want to be stretched by the things too great for me. I want to grow through the greatness of my tasks, but I shall need your help for the growing. (E. Stanley Jones)
Please stay connected with us weekly as we uncover more about Heather’s experience in the realm of collegiate and professional athletics. You can anticipate hearing more from Heather as we uncover how she came to learn Truth Number Two: To whom much is given, much will be required. More testimonies from collegiate and professional athletes; Amanda Winslow-Rego, Josh MacDonald, and Michelle Kauffman are upcoming as well so be sure to keep checking back and follow our Instagram or Facebook for blog updates @altitudeproject!