"Jesus Changed My Life"
Katya Antonuk grew up in a part of Russia where there was snow eight months of the year. It was almost inevitable that she would become a cross-country skier. She came second in the first competition she entered and never looked back. When she left school, she chose to study in Belarus and was selected for their national team.
She was champion of Belarus seven times (1991-98), competed in several World Cups and the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where she was in the Women’s 15 K cross country and the women's 4x5km cross-country relay. She recalls, “The Olympics is like nothing you can describe. It is one great celebration. It is the culmination of your career-all the hard work, effort and training to get there. The whole atmosphere in the Olympic village and meeting athletes from other countries was really exciting. It was an unforgettable experience and it means a lot to me even now that I was able to compete in the Olympics."
“There are great pressures–having spent so many years of effort just to get there. The expectations of your team and country and your own expectations; the coach is under pressure and passes that pressure on to the athlete. If your race does not go well, everything seems to collapse and you don’t know how to deal with it. As a Christian, if I knew I had done all the preparation I could then I was able just to leave the rest to God."
Talking of hard work – few athletes work harder than cross-country skiers. “In Russian we call it the ‘Horse sport’. We trained three times per day, doing up to 1,000k per month and perhaps 8-10,000k in a year - sometimes 60k in one training run!”
Growing up under atheism, Katya knew nothing about God. “We were taught in school that the Bible was myths and legends. I thought the only people who believed in a God were old people. Even the graves had communist stars on them, not crosses.”
Once I visited another skier and saw that she had a Bible. That was so strange for me as I had never seen a Bible before. I had been taught in school that the Bible was myths and legends. I was surprised that my friend did not know that the Bible was nonsense. She offered to lend a Bible to me. I said “No it is not for me”.
But as I got to know her, she invited me to a Bible study. I was surprised by how many people were there, as I thought Christians were just old ladies. I did not expect to see any young people and was amazed at the range of people at the meeting. I decided I needed to find out why all these people were so interested in this Bible. I started to read Bible and it was such a revelation to me. Rather than myths and legends as I knew, it was real history about a real God.
“As I read it, God spoke to me through the Bible and gradually my interests and priorities changed. At first it was very difficult, as there were no other Christians on the team and I did not know how to deal with sports, but gradually God showed me. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, Katya met other Christian athletes and sport chaplains. “I found the very idea of Christian ministers in a sports event very strange. I understood for the first time that I could use my sport ability together with my faith. In a real sense I found myself there.”
Four years later Katya found herself a chaplain at the 2002 Turin Olympics. It was a great experience. “I said to team, 'I am there for you-to talk, to listen, to help, to be with you and even to pray for you. I know the stresses you feel because I have been there.'" She was so warmly welcomed that she even went on a training run with one of the Olympic teams. Having grown up as an atheist, Katya says now: “Jesus changed my life completely. I don’t know where I would be if it had not happened. I cannot imagine life without God. My life is richer, brighter and has a different quality. I never regretted not for a single moment my decision to follow Jesus.”