On this long-distance journey I often grab bits of encouragement from people in whom I see qualities I want to, indeed, must emulate if we are going to reach our destination. Amazing people like Brian Kajiyama who show what is possible. Other brain-injury families who model commitment and stubborn hope. And, yes, given my bent for enjoying sports, our new Little League World Series Champions from Hawaii, who embodied “No Quit!”

This Friday, however, I was so blessed to spend time with one man who underlines the word “Persevere” for me. Bryan Clay was in town to celebrate with family, friends and supporters after winning the decathalon gold medal in Beijing. Because one of Ray’s hospitals, Straub, is Bryan’s long-time sponsor, we went to many events in his honor, beginning in the afternoon. By late evening we were sitting with Bryan’s doctor and his wife, and a very weary Bryan and Sarah Clay at dinner. Their graciousness, in the midst of their current whirlwind astounded me. I was surprised that Sarah recalled so clearly having dinner with us a couple years ago, and still knew how old Abbie is.

As the dinner was winding down I wanted to get a picture with Bryan, Sarah, and Michelle, Bryan’s sweetheart of a mother.

After we snapped this photo, Bryan and I stepped into the corner to chat for a moment. His weariness melted away as he began talking about what is deep in his heart. He described his amazement at the doors his gold medal is opening. Not the one that found him hanging out with Tiger Woods a few days ago. Not the one leading to a scheduling conflict between appearing on the Oprah Show or at the Republican Convention. But, rather, what animated Bryan was the opportunities he is going to have to do good on a scale he could not have conceived. As he said, “I was thinking about Hawaii…now people are talking to me about global projects!”

At this point Michelle walked up and said something like, “Oh, Bryan, she is so good with words…you should read her site.” To which Bryan answered, “Oh, no, Mom…I have..we have.” I was stunned, and then he turned to me and said, “I recall it being something that really impacted Sarah and I.” I was almost humbled to tears, but this gave me a chance to relate his journey to ours, and ask him the question on my heart.

“How?” That was it. How to persevere when the challenge is only met day by day, by a “long obedience in the same direction?” He spoke of the crushing weight on his shoulders, as a husband, father, and provider, in the year leading up to Beijing. If he did not win, would his wife have to return to work? Would he have to quit track? This was not just an athletic competition, this was a lifetime turning point for the Clay family. I feel his struggle wanting to measure up to both potential and requirement, and empathize with being overwhelmed. But, what he said next will stick with me forever.

“I knew God had told me I was going to win the gold medal…it was so clear.” “Wait,” I interrupted, “Did He tell you that before you won the silver in Athens?” “Yes, ” was the reply. ” So, even after the silver, or ‘un-gold’, and through all the challenges that followed, you kept believing what you heard?” I asked. “Yes,” again.

What seems so expected now, a natural outcome — Bryan won by an impressive 240 points — is really the culmination of a journey of twists, turns, challenges, and God’s faithfulness. Who would think that the world’s greatest athlete would come from Hawaii, from tiny Azusa Pacific University? But, the same God that chose David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, chose Bryan. And the same God that made promises to Bryan, fulfilled through hard work and dedication, is the same God that has made promises about Abbie, which we pursue in like manner, with perseverance and hope.

I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of this. An Olympic gold medal tucked into his back pocket…

The boys also got to meet Bryan. RJ and Matt both happened to be wearing red, white, and blue shoes, which they had Bryan sign.

The events of that evening didn’t really sink in until I returned home, to Abbie’s room. There, mounted in the corner, was the ancient TV on which we watched Bryan compete, win, and receive his medal just the week before. Abbie had been so excited when I told her Bryan won, and her face showed the same thrill when I told her that I had seen him and touched that very medal.

Champions inspire us, pushing us to dig for that same chord of greatness within ourselves. Spending time with Bryan and his family tonight was a divine gift to spur us on, and to help us remember that long-sought promises are especially sweet when they arrive.

/All photos rights reserved, property of Tiffany Vara