Personal Stories: A Gold medalist and an Orthodox Christian

Since 2004, the city of Brest in Belarus has become known not only as the city where the famous Brest Fortress is situated but also as the place where Yulia Nestsiarenka, the quickest female runner in the world, lives. Mass media have informed the public what her way towards the Olympic gold medals was like: countless training sessions and constant self-improvement... However, few people know that not long before her triumph in Athens, Yulia visited the Pochaiv Lavra, and this was her first pilgrimage and her first steps towards the Church.Yulia recalls, “The sports event that I had to take part in was really important for me, but when I was standing in front of the holy relics,
I did not dare ask the Lord to grant me a victory and an award... I simply asked Him to help me to go through all this. Even now I remember how I felt after my pilgrimage to Pochaiv: I had a feeling that the world around me had changed, I fell in love with this gracious place, and I wanted to bring everyone to Pochaiv so that they could feel what I felt. Before I went to the Olympic Games, I confessed, took communion, and asked a priest to bless me.

When I reached the finals, I was totally worn out and very exhausted. Nevertheless, I reminded myself of my native country, of my relatives and friends rooting for me. I continued to think that I should not dare ask God about anything so I said, “Thy will be done, O Lord.” Later I realised that these were the most important words in my entire life. The Lord performed a miracle. Needless is to say that I had done a lot of training and made many efforts, and my coach had also done a lot to help me win but I believe that it was the Lord who granted me the victory at the Olympic Games in Athens because everything happens according to His will. There are many miracles in the life of each individual but unfortunately not everyone is able to acknowledge it: some people believe that these miracles are mere coincidences, while others consider these miracles to be the result of their own hard work. There are few people who can thank God for the miracles that He makes.

Yulia Nestsiarenka is now a parishioner of St Nicholas Garrison Cathedral in Brest, which is located in the Brest Fortress. “I have been a parishioner of this church for several years already, and I try to have the Lord on the first place in my life,” she says. “It was hard for me at first to understand how one could love the Lord more than his own parents, children, friends, and himself. However, now I come to realize that all our relatives and friends are a gift from God, and it is He who gives us everything we love and appreciate; this is why we ought to have Him in the center of our lives.”
Yulia has many Orthodox Christian friends and acquaintances. They also contributed to her spiritual development and her becoming a practicing Christian. For instance, the Belarusian athlete made a pilgrimage to the Pochaiv Lavra together with Jana Zareckaja who sings in a church choir. Yulia has also visited Diveevo, the holy places of Serpukhov and Smolensk, the Holy Trinity–St Sergius Lavra, and even St Basil of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro. The Olympic champion regularly goes on pilgrimages to the holy springs, monasteries, churches, and shrines, both in Belarus and abroad.

Yulia got to know about St Elisabeth Convent in the summer of 2012. A friend from Serbia came to Jana so she asked Yulia to help her show the holy places and tourist attractions of Minsk and Brest. Together they visited St Elisabeth Convent where Yulia got to know Nun Magdalene who left an indelible mark on Yulia's soul. Yulia visited our Convent several times thereafter, and she managed to meet Nun Magdalene again during her pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Mount of Grabarka. It was then that the famous athlete got to know other sisters of our Convent.

It was Jana again who invited her to this pilgrimage, and they travelled together. Yulia recalled that Nun Magdalene came from Poland so she was looking forward to meeting her somewhere in the booths selling church goods. Her guess was accurate; better yet, Nun Magdalene also remembered Yulia and Jana.
It might seem that a pilgrimage on foot is an easy task for a person who can run 100 meters in 10 seconds. Nonetheless, Yulia confessed that it was the most difficult pilgrimage for her. “I had anticipated some hardships because the day before our trip I was so depressed that I did not want to go anywhere and see anyone. Despite that, I made up my mind to go to the pilgrimage. On our first day, I was apathetic, depressed, and maybe to some extent even indifferent to what was going on around me. There were pilgrims from Poland walking side by side with me but I do not know Polish... Jana was walking in the front row and singing aloud together with other pilgrims all the time. So I was alone with my thoughts, so to say. My emotional and physical state changed several times during the walk. Although I do regular workouts and my body is well
trained, this walk was very hard for me: it seemed to me that each cell of my body ached but I still tried to walk forward because I realized that I was doing this for Christ's sake and that everything that happened to me was just a temptation. Cars were provided for those who could not continue their ascent but I decided that I would use them only if I could no longer make even a single step; fortunately, this never happened. We walked just seventy-six kilometres (47 mi): thirty-four kilometres (21 mi) on the first day, twenty-five kilometres (16 mi) on the second day, and seventeen kilometres (10 mi) on the third day. As we approached the Holy Mount of Grabarka, I felt so excited; it was as if I did not walk but flew... like a bird. Having experienced such a blessing, I learned why this pilgrimage is held every year on the feast of Transfiguration: an individual climbs this mountain carrying his cross, his sins, his problems and needs; and his soul is cleansed and truly transfigured as he walks up.”

Once the pilgrims are on top of the Holy Mount of Grabarka, they get down to their knees and crawl around the church three times. Yulia knew about it so she had taped up her knees in advance to avoid pain but she still could not avoid it altogether. There was a young family with a 1-year-old baby among the pilgrims. Yulia saw the parents carry the baby and crawl around the church on bare knees, and she could not help crying because she knew how painful it was. At the same time, Yulia was very happy when she saw this family. She recalls, “This episode moved me deeply and I am certain to remember it forever. I am happy that the Lord allowed me to see such a family. After we erected all our crosses on Grabarka, when the service was over, I wished my family had been there to share this moment with me, and I hope that, God willing, this dream will come true next time.” Yulia adds, “My family supports me in everything I do. When I told my relatives about this pilgrimage, they could not contain tears. 'You are our hero!' they said. Now we all are glad that our cross stands on the Holy Mount of Grabarka.”
Unfortunately, Yulia has had to encounter various temptations not only on her spiritual journey but also in her sport career: she had a trauma and could neither participate in the London Olympics, nor get ready for the World Championship, which was held in Moscow that year. In spite of that, she is no longer distressed about it because she knows that the Lord has given her the opportunity to visit holy places, to acquire a different world outlook, to get spiritual insight and to feel His love.
Story by Helena Gulidova, Originally published in 2013

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