Viewers of the 2012 Olympic Games in London might have noticed a confident, powerful member of the silver medal-winning U.S. women’s volleyball team in middle blocker Christa Harmotto. What they didn’t see is the transformation through faith that brought her to that point.
Just last summer, Harmotto would have said her chances at even ending up on the Olympic squad were slim. She had hit a skid in her serving and the anxiety surrounding that was debilitating both on and off the court. Not only would her arm not cooperate in practices or games, but her entire demeanor was also deflated.
“It was affecting my whole game; I couldn’t even help my teammates because fear was closing me off. There was so much fear of failure, I spent 24-7 worrying about it,” recalls the Pennsylvania native. “I had a breakthrough one day after listening to a sermon by Francis Chan about struggle. I felt like God just wanted me to trust His timing and believe He was stirring something and building something in me. But I had to go through that; there was a purpose to it. He brought me down and pulled me right up.”
Releasing that fear and anxiety to the Lord, Harmotto’s next practice was very different. After trying a variety of different serves, she tried a jump-float move that “felt so natural.”
“That was the turning point”
“I put that serve in the next scrimmage and played with so much freedom and joy,” she says. “That was the turning point.”
The next five months, Harmotto was in Italy playing in an overseas league (America has no professional volleyball leagues for players to participate in) and she used that time away from her usual fellowship group to grow closer to God and rely on Him for her consistency rather than her game performance. She began playing with God, not for God, and that opened the doors to great joy both on and off the court.
“The Lord took away my fear. It was like I had a new skin,” she says. “The anxiety was crushed, and He was so faithful. I still had the nerves but I was giving it to Him; just trusting Him has been the biggest lesson for me.”
Harmotto found parallels in her journey to Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” For her, that defined the process of growth: trusting God had to come first, then setting her own thoughts aside, before God could really build her character and guide her.
That breakthrough changed Harmotto’s life in several ways. What had held her back from opportunities over the past four years was no longer an issue. Her season in Italy was successful, and the U.S. coaches took note. She learned on July 3 that she was part of the Olympic roster. The Olympic dream was finally going to be a reality.
“He was the one that crushed that fear”
That first Olympic experience was surreal for the 25-year-old, who enjoyed the unity with Team USA athletes from all sports though she was only able to watch other events on television. The team played every other day and took advantage of recovery days to rest. She also enjoyed interacting with athletes from all over the world, a rare opportunity in one setting.
“My favorite memory would be the first game of the first match. When it was my turn to serve – a moment I had feared for three years – it was cool to step across that service line and have the Lord bring so much peace and joy to me,” she recalls. “He just reiterated that He was the one that crushed that fear. I went on a string of 5 or 6 points, and it was a super moment with God.”
While those recent moments have solidified Harmotto’s trust in God, she says it was an experience when she first began playing for Team USA that really brought her into a personal relationship with the Lord. She grew up going to church but admits she didn’t really understand the deeper aspects of faith, even though she felt God’s presence with her in high school and college and felt Him guiding her to make the better decisions most of the time.
Just after college, an automobile accident would jolt Harmotto toward a deeper faith. She had finished her studies at Penn State – where she helped lead the Nittany Lions to two NCAA championships – then traveled to Brazil and flew back into New York. She was driving home to Pennsylvania on little sleep, planning to move to California in 48 hours. Reaching for a water bottle, her tires hit the rumble strip on the shoulder and Harmotto overreacted. The car spun, hit the guard rail and ended up in the grass. She knelt in thanks that she survived.
“I was burning with questions”
After moving to the West Coast, she got involved in a Bible study for the men’s and women’s national teams, then began attending outreach events for athletes. In 2010, a teammate started a study for the women’s team and Harmotto began to learn more about what it really meant to have a relationship with God.
“God put it on my heart, and I was burning with questions. He brought all sorts of people from all angles to share with me. At another church, I heard from a girl about going through the motions growing up, getting pulled into volleyball, and it literally sounded like me,” she recalls. “She talked about how when she came to this church during worship she would cry, and the same thing was happening to me. It was a strong feeling of the Holy Spirit.”
Over the next few months, Harmotto sought answers to all her questions and felt the Lord calling her to make a commitment to Him publicly. At dinner with a few friends, she decided to give her heart to Jesus officially.
“It was like a screen door just blew off my heart,” she says. “I couldn’t even make sense of it all.”
Harmotto’s service anxiety would test her new faith but she persevered and proved Him faithful. Since then, God has provided not only opportunities for her to share her faith but also the boldness to speak. Her platform as a recognized player – in the U.S. and abroad – is helping make those opportunities more common.
With London behind her, Harmotto is focusing on playing to the best of her ability, using those chances to share God’s love and faithfulness and grow closer to Him in the process.
“The biggest thing the Lord taught me during the Olympics is not to think ahead or reflect on the past but to stay in the present with Him,” she says. “I had learned so much from my past and the character-molding made me who I am in the present. He brings me peace in the moment and keeps me there instead of moving into the future and worrying about what’s ahead.”
By Teresa Young, AIA Communications
Top photo courtesy FIVB: Christa Harmotto (13) goes up for the block in a match against Brazil in the London Olympics.
Bottom photo courtesy USA Volleyball/Bill Kauffman: Christa Harmotto (center) prepares for the spike from an opposing player during USA Volleyball matches.