By ALLISON ROSS
Listen to Blanca Aaron talking about similarities between running and faith.
COLUMBIA — Lacing on her familiar running shoes, Bianca Aaron slips outside while the sun rises above the horizon. In this quiet moment before the rest of the city awakens, Aaron's feet find their pace on the pavement as her heart and mind connect with God.
"In the summers, I would get up and I would just run, and that was my personal quiet time with God," said Aaron, a 2008 graduate of Hickman High School who belonged to the school's track team. "It was just to be in nature and talk to God and get my day started right, with my mind starting right. I need that personal time with God to keep my balance in life."
For the 18-year-old Columbia resident, the journey to find her connection with God is not only spiritual but also physical. Athletics is an avenue by which she deepens and explores her connection with her religion and with God.
For some Columbia teens, athletics helps them find and keep their faith.
Aaron said both athletics and faith are factors in her life that "keep me focused" — an important trait for the energetic, ambitious teen who ticks off the numerous school organizations she's involved in. No matter how busy life gets, she said, she still makes time to go with her family to Columbia's United Pentecostal Church on Benton Street every week.
Aaron, who began her freshman year at MU on a Bill Gates Scholarship, said she often gains insights into her rapport with God through workouts or competitions.
"When I have a really hard run, making it to the finish line seems so hard. You may be so worn out and tired, and you feel people are passing you up, but if you stay the course, you will finish," she said. "God will hold you up and carry you. You just have to find the strength to continue and keep running towards him."
Last year, Aaron decided to help revive Hickman's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the nation's largest Christian organization for student and professional athletes, in order to share with others the connection between her religion and athleticism. With chapters at nearly 8,000 middle schools, high schools and colleges nationwide, FCA invites its members to join "Team Jesus Christ."
FCA at Hickman had been dormant since 2005, after the teacher who sponsored it left.
Aaron, along with a new sponsor, social studies teacher Andrew McCarthy, helped re-establish weekly meetings and draw students back into the organization. The group, which meets regularly for Bible studies, now has about 10 members.
"Aaron is very mature, very strong in her commitment to Christ and her interactions with him," McCarthy said. "In the time I've known her, I've seen her grow in her connection to God, in wanting to know more, being eager to know more."
Rock Bridge High School also has an FCA chapter, as does Columbia's Independent School, MU and several junior high schools
Aaron is among thousands of high school, college and professional athletes who belong to FCA and use sports as a tool to explore and find insights into their spirituality.
"High school and college students are really searching for meaning; they haven't found meaning in life yet," said Susan Saint Sing, author of "Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul." "Sports is a great way for some of them to find a place. It's an identity. Sports fills a space in their lives, just the way spirituality does. It's natural that they go hand in hand."
Saint Sing, who was a member of the 1993 U.S. National Rowing Team and who became a lay member of the Roman Catholic Franciscan order after living in Assisi, Italy, said her spiritual journey began during a cross-country run when she was 12 years old.
"I remember distinctly the sun beating down, the feel of the grass," Saint Sing said. "I was suddenly aware that I was created, that I exist here. As I pounded out those miles, I was aware there was something other than just me."
Saint Sing said athletes often feel a sense of the spiritual when working out because the physical exertion forces them to reach inside themselves to keep pushing.
"Athletes are driven into that interior world because they are constantly being exhausted and have to go inside themselves for the stamina and the resources to get through," she said.
Sports as a Journey in Faith
Frank Reich, a former National Football League quarterback and former president of the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., said the pursuit of excellence in athletes is in itself a journey toward God and grace.
"Even as we push our bodies to the limits and be a good steward of our bodies, that creates a connection to God," the 46-year-old North Carolina resident said. "If you're a Christian athlete, you know every play is a chance to give your all to God. You should be the most motivated athlete because you're playing for a higher purpose than yourself and making money."
Unlike the public, Reich said he believes God doesn't care who wins an athletic contest. "When I set the record for the most fumbles in a Super Bowl game, God was just as much with me as when we had a great comeback," he said.
Reich also believes God wants people to experience both easy and hard times to make them better people. Aaron agreed, saying that sometimes she learns more from her defeats than her victories.
"If you make a mistake, put your hands up, push it down and let it go," she said.
Athletics as a tool to explore spirituality is not limited to high school, professional sports or to Christianity, however.
Yoga started as an ancient Hindu practice, but now it's popular in the United States among all ages, including children, Ken McRae, owner of Columbia's alleyCat Yoga.
Yoga originated from the discovery that certain body movements can enhance or create spiritual experiences, McRae said. Moving your body in positions not encountered every day allows stresses to "drift away," he said, and the result is a clearer sense of your true nature and spirituality.
Extreme physical exertion can have a similar effect, McRae added.
Aaron said a hard run makes her recognize her strength — both in herself and in her faith.
"Sometimes I count the distance I've traveled or the distance I've left to go. I'll say encouraging words to myself," she said. "(Faith) helps me stay focused and motivated."
For Aaron, the race to the finish line is never over; the journey will continue to bring her closer to God.
"Jesus is a coach, he teaches us with his word," she said. "We read the game plan — his word — and know how to deal with offense, how to deal with each play or move or situation.
" I take that with me and try to live according to that," she said.