By Teresa Young, AIA Communications
It was down to the wire. The last of Chantae McMillan’s seven events – and her least favorite, the 800-meter run – was next, and she was on the bubble at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Her coach had said she needed a 2:17 or better to qualify for the team, but she heard the announcer say she needed a 2:20 as she was setting up on the starting line. The butterflies began to stir.
“Before the 800, I was so nervous,” says McMillan, a graduate of the University of Nebraska. “My coach still makes fun of me because I put my head on his shoulder twice and asked for a hug. I felt all this pressure on me.”
McMillan recalls the race vividly: around the 200-meter mark, she notices the clock and thinks the pack is coming in too slowly. At the 400 mark, she’s falling to the back of the pack when a fellow runner, Heather Miller, calls out encouragement, simply yelling, “Come on, Chantae.”
Image of Jesus spurs her to finish line
“We get around that curve with about 300 left to go and I get an image of Jesus running next to me for a split second, and I realize that if I want to be an Olympian, I had to go fast right now!” she remembers. “I hear the crowd all yelling for me, and I ran that race with all my heart. I put it all out there, and I was happy with that. That image of Jesus was so motivating.”
The next moment confirms her joy: a run under 2:20 and a spot on the U.S. Olympic heptathlon team heading to London. At that point, McMillan says she can only give thanks to God. After all, for this race – and indeed, through the past few years – He’s been figuratively running by her side.
Her relationship with God started in college at Nebraska, when a friend, Anna, reached out to McMillan, who was hurting from looming boy troubles.
“I found a great purpose for my life”
“She was there to help me and get my life together, and she helped me know how to become a believer,” McMillan says. “I started going to a few Bible studies and found a church where I felt like family. I found a great purpose for my life and began doing things for the Lord and not for man.”
That transformation would bring greater perspective for McMillan in her track career, which she began in eighth grade for fun with her friends. When her friends switched to soccer, Chantae stayed in track and found success.
She was recruited to colleges across the country in the long jump and triple jump, choosing Nebraska because it was close to home in Missouri. After a year in college, McMillan switched to the heptathlon when a series of ankle sprains made her skittish of the triple jump.
As a junior, McMillan captured the win in heptathlon at both the Big 12 indoor and outdoor meets, then placed fourth at the NCAA outdoor meet. In August 2011, she earned a berth in the Thorpe Cup, and her coach began to talk about the Olympics.
The surprise path to the Olympics
“The last time I was motivated by the Olympics was in 1996, watching it on TV,” she laughs. “Toward the end of my years in college, I figured out I was pretty good at this and had the opportunity to keep training, so I ran with it. The Olympics just naturally came out of that.”
The Thorpe Cup would be a turning point in both her track career and her faith. At that meet, she ruptured her patellar tendon, but still was thinking positively at first.
“I figured six month for rehab, no big deal. But through that six months, I had a lot of hardships,” she recalls. “I’d get down in rehab when I couldn’t do something the trainer wanted me to do because my knee was weak, and I’d break down. He would talk to me and that would help for the moment, but at the end of the day, I needed more to lean on.
“Talking to God gave me more peace about it all. He would remind me, ‘This is the plan I’ve put you on; keep trusting it, and you’ll end up doing great one day.’”
That one day came sooner than she imagined with qualification during the Trials – a third-place finish at Eugene that secured her spot on the team and the Olympic Games this summer. Her trust in God gave her a perspective that is freeing, even with all that pressure to perform.
Encouraged by teammate Bettie Wade
“Being a believer takes a lot of weight off my shoulders because I don’t worry anymore; I know everything happens for a reason. Faith affects all aspects of my life; Even with my parents, I’m able to respect them better. It’s fun to motivate my friends through my faith, showing them things that have helped me,” she says. “I feel like I have more of a purpose on the track than someone who’s out there for money or just because they love the sport. I am out there competing and giving all my God-given talents for Him.”
During those stressful trials, McMillan found solace at the chapels sponsored by AIA, and she focused on Scripture before each event.
“Chapel is such a great outlet for us to get around other people with the same motives for being at the Trials,” she says. “I loved the people who were singing and speaking; they were able to give me an insight into how other athletes feel out there, and that motivated me.”
She also found encouragement in teammate Bettie Wade, with whom she volleyed for that third-place finish during the heptathlon trials. The upbeat attitude of Wade, a believer who was active in AIA while at Michigan, helped McMillan keep things in perspective.
“At the trials, Bettie was so happy all the time, and that joy was rubbing off on me,” McMillan says. “At the Games, I hope to carry Betty’s spirit with me and keep talking to her to remind me of what I’m out there for. I hope to represent her out there (in London) too.”
As for the Games, McMillan feels prepared.
“I look at it as a business trip, and I going to go out there and do my best on Aug. 3-4,” she says with a smile. “Then I’m going to become a tourist and watch these other athletes do great at their events.”