Tending Spiritual Needs in Sochi

Fuller alum serving as chaplain at 2014 Olympic Games

jorg-walcher

Olympic athletes - they're at the top of their game, at the peak of physical fitness, and they have whole teams helping them to get there. From personal trainers, to coaches, to physical therapists, these Olympians need people to care for their physical well-being.

As for their spiritual well-being? That's where Fuller alumnus Jörg Walcher (MAGL '06) comes in.

Walcher, an ordained pastor, nutrition and fitness coach, and sports chaplain for the past 11 years, is currently in Sochi, Russia to serve as a chaplain for the Austrian Team competing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

"I've been meeting with athletes for whole days," Walcher says. He arrived in Sochi on February 5th with groups of athletes, who arrived to prepare for the competition. "With the Austrian Ski Jumping Team we were able to make an ecumenic church service."

Walcher himself is a top athlete, who competed in snowboard races in the International Snowboard Federation World Pro Tour up until 2001. His background, he says, has helped him to understand and relate to the athletes.

"It's important to know how an athlete thinks, lives, and acts," Walcher says. "It's very good if you have an athletic background yourself to understand the lifestyle and their language."

In addition, professional athletes are wary of people, even pastors, whom they do not know.

"The most important thing is your personal relationship with them," Walcher says. He's known many of the athletes for many years as an athlete and a chaplain, which aids in his success as a sports chaplain.

Walcher was first asked to serve as a chaplain in 2003 after returning home to Austria having completed his first six months of classes at Fuller. A friend who led the chaplain team at the Ski World Championships in St. Moritz in 2003 asked Walcher to join in. After that he was asked back to more and more major sports events, and was providing pastoral care for athletes and coaches in their time of preparation until it eventually became his full-time job.

This year's Olympic Games is his 15th major event, and his third time serving as a chaplain for the Winter Olympics. Walcher was at the Olympics in Turin in 2006, and in Vancouver in 2010, as well as the Alpine Ski World Championships in Schladming, Austria (his hometown) in 2011, the 2012 Sky Flying World Championships in Norway, and various World Cups and World Cup Finals.

As a result of his chaplaincy support to athletes during one of those events, the senior ecclesial committee of the Protestant Churches in Austria (Lutheran and Reformed) requested that the Austrian Olympic Committee accredit Walcher as Olympic chaplain for the Austrian Protestant Churches at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

As a chaplain, Walcher conducts services, provides pastoral care and spiritual guidance, makes sickbed visits, and is there to talk and pray with athletes and coaches. The issues he encounters with athletes, he says, can be very specific.

"They need guidance in dealing with pressure, identity, self-value, and disappointment," Walcher says. "If you're the fifth man on a four man bobsled team, or you're the best in training and World Cup, and sustain an injury two days before the Olympics, and have to watch the Olympics knowing you would have won the gold, those are difficult times for these athletes to face."

And just like everyone else, athletes also go through personal losses of family, friends, fellow athletes, and coaches. Walcher provides a place for those athletes to talk with someone confidentially, and to offer encouragement.

Olympic Ski Jumping Team of AustriaWalcher says his Fuller education has helped him in counseling and guiding the many athletes he's encountered. As a student in Global Leadership, Walcher took classes on mentoring with Dr. Robert Clinton that have proved extremely valuable. His classes in intercultural studies, he adds, helped him relate to people from different countries in sensitive and nuanced ways. That skill is proving particularly helpful now as there are 88 countries represented at Sochi this year, he says.

It'll be another week before the Olympic Games are over, and Walcher's schedule is extremely full. Some of the athletes will have been there for three weeks once the games are over - another source of stress that Walcher anticipates he will help to navigate.

In addition, Walcher is at the games representing Beyond Gold, a non-profit sports ministry he and his wife (a 14-time Swiss diving champion and Olympic finalist in Sydney 2002) started to serve high-profile athletes, and coaches throughout their careers with mentoring and chaplaincy.

It's an Olympic size calling, but Walcher is up for the challenge. In the meantime, he sends his blessings from Sochi.

Photo above: Jorg Walcher (center) with 2014 Austrian Olympic ski jumping team after a church service in Sochi, Russia.