Interview with Stephanie Brown Trafton

By Brad Dupray

Stephanie Brown Trafton made her second U.S. Olympic Team in 2008 and in Beijing, China, became the first American woman since 1932 to win a gold medal in the discus. For her Olympic effort, Stephanie received the Jesse Owens Award, USA Track & Field’s highest accolade as the outstanding track and field performer for 2008. The post-Olympic road show has taken Stephanie to places like the White House, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the mobile home park where she grew up in Oceano, California. Stephanie and her husband, Jerry, are members of Family Life Christian Church in Galt, California.

What inspired you to achieve as an athlete?

My early athletic inspiration was Mary Lou Retton back in the 1984 Olympics. That was the first time I remember watching the Olympics on TV and the first time I was really inspired to become an Olympian, wear the USA uniform, and represent my country. At the time it seemed like every little girl wanted to be Mary Lou Retton.

So did you start out in gymnastics?

Unfortunately, I never was in gymnastics! I was in swimming and soccer and dance class. I played musical instruments and I played volleyball, basketball, and track and field.

How did track and field end up winning out?

Actually, basketball was my passion for most of my youth. I got a college scholarship to play basketball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, so my first sport was basketball. I was very good at track and field. I won three state titles over the course of my high school career in the discus and shot put, but basketball was my first love.

So track and field actually came in second.

Part of my scholarship deal with Cal Poly was that I was going to play for the basketball team, but I was also going to compete in track and field. If my basketball scholarship was ever in jeopardy, track and field would pick up my scholarship. After my first year of basketball I had a knee injury and I decided to focus on track and field.

When did you realize you might have what it takes to be an Olympian?

Probably not until my senior year of college. At that point I had two or three years of track and field experience without basketball and I had been steadily improving in both the discus and the shot put. I knew I could probably do really well at the USA championships. Then in 2004, just after I graduated from Cal Poly, I competed in the 2004 Olympic Trials in track and field. I stunned everyone (and myself!) by achieving a personal record and making the Olympic team in the discus.

You must have been just blown away!

I’ve never been surprised that I do well under high-pressure situations—that’s part of my nature, being able to compete and have high-level performances at high-level meets. It’s the execution of the plan that is always surprising. You have these grandiose plans, but the real excitement, the real joy, comes from the plan actually becoming reality.

When the pressure is on, how do you raise your game?

It starts way prior to the competition. There’s a lot of mental preparation and visualization, and there’s a lot of physical and skill preparation. My coach and my support team (coaches, trainers, medical staff—there’s a lot people that I’ve built around me) support my dream and do a really good job of preparing me for the big competitions. And I do thrive on the high-pressure situations. If you’re well-prepared for the situation, and you know what’s going to happen in terms of how emotionally stressful it can be, then you can let distractions disappear and focus on the goal.

At a huge meet like the Olympics, what do you do between throws to stay calm?

I pray, I sing to myself, I repeat specific mental cues of my technique and try to visualize a great performance in the ring, and I do lots of deep breathing. These are all tools that I had to be taught, because they don’t come naturally to a lot of people. A lot of people clench up and get tight in competition. They have to be taught how to use relaxation techniques to achieve their peak. That’s where sports psychology comes into play.

Did you think that first throw in Beijing would be enough to hold up?

I didn’t know for sure if the first throw (of 64.74 meters, or 212 feet, 5 inches) was going to be the winning throw. I was fairly sure there would be somebody who would throw farther than that. But I had a feeling that the throw would most likely medal. I just didn’t know if it would be gold, silver, or bronze.

Would you have been disappointed if it hadn’t been gold?

No. I was very happy to throw well under the conditions of the weather and the stress of the Olympic Games in general. I knew at that point my throw was good. It was very humid, there was no wind (a wind helps in throwing the discus), so in those conditions that throw was a very good throw.

When you heard “The Star Spangled Banner” playing, did it seem like it was for you?

I was so overcome with different thoughts and emotions. My mind was racing, and I forgot the words to the national anthem until about halfway through the song! For the first part of the song I was very emotional. I was glad I was able to share that emotion and that moment with the rest of the world and all the people who helped me get to that point.

How have you handled all of the excitement since that time?

I didn’t think the excitement would last more than a couple of weeks after the Olympic Games. I’ve been surprised at the longevity of the spirit of the Olympic Games. I have been steadily appearing at schools, churches, service groups, and different events. My community has rallied around me and they’re very proud of my accomplishment.

It’s quite an opportunity to share your story.

I’m really excited to inspire the kids in my community and across the United States. I come from a humble background. I had a single father; my mother died when I was very young. The people who surrounded me—my teachers and coaches and neighbors, basically the people I knew growing up—had high expectations for me to reach beyond what I thought was possible, and that was what made the difference in my life.

What would you say is the core of your story?

God gives everybody his or her passion. If you follow what you’re passionate about, God will use you in that way to be successful in life and in his plan. Find out what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at, and he will lead you in the right direction and use you for very great things. I know God has used me because I was available to him, and I said, “Yes!”

Your Web site highlights Philippians 4:13. What role has your faith in Christ played in your athletic career?

In 2003 I was done with college and I was basically done running from God. I had spent my whole life ignoring his presence and not really facing him at all. At the time I was done with my college classes and I had achieved what society had told me was successful—I had completed my degree, I had a great relationship with my boyfriend (who is now my husband), I was getting close to the top of the ladder—but I realized that what society had told me was success wasn’t fulfilling my purpose in life. I was convicted to turn toward a higher power. God welcomed me with open arms. He gives you a choice every day, and I chose to say “yes.”

Was there a particular turning point?

Early on there were a lot of people who encouraged me to accept Christ. They were planting the seeds, for sure, and at some point I knew where I was going was not where God wanted me. Then again, after I had accepted Christ, I did have another really big turning point. That only happened after I started to believe that God can make the impossible possible. In late 2007 my father kept on asking me, “Do you think you can win a medal at the Olympics?” I would answer him, but I wouldn’t be direct. I didn’t want to answer the question, because I knew the answer was no. I finally admitted my self-doubt to my dad and I told him I don’t think I can win a medal. He said, “Why are you wasting your time if you don’t believe you can be successful?” At that point I realized that where I was in terms of my attitude was not where I needed to be.

How did you approach God to settle things?

I prayed and asked God to take away my unhealthy attitude (that I couldn’t be successful). God revealed through his Word, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). It’s not a new concept—so many athletes and professionals have found this to be true in their lives. But I really took the emphasis on I can. My attitude has to be, I can be successful, I can accomplish great things through Christ. I used that to push myself in the next few months. I took it that if God wanted me to win a medal at the Olympic Games, I could. I had to put the work in, but he could make it possible.

That really was a turning-point passage for you.

It wasn’t the first time I had read the passage, but at that time God used it to remind me that he can make the impossible possible. That’s what he does through his strength and power. He has a plan for all of us. I wanted to be able to be successful at this. I told God I was available to do whatever he wanted me to do. And that included a higher mission of going to China. I was determined to start a Bible study for the athletes going to China. That was part of my goal in going to the Olympics. And I believe God made it possible for me to go because I made myself available. I said, “God, send me,” and he did.

Were you able to set up the Bible study?

I started the one for the USA Track & Field Team training camp. It was difficult at first. There was no one who had the drive to start one, but I knew that my purpose in being there was to find a leader, put up the posters, and find a time and place to meet. To my surprise, we had about 10 or 12 athletes who were coming on a regular basis. Once I got to the Olympic Games there were several Bible studies run by mission organizations.

What role has the local church played in your life?

My husband bought a house in Galt just before we married. I lived in Sacramento and would commute to Galt where we started attending Family Life Christian Church in February 2005. We felt connected to it and felt it was a great place to be for us. We were baptized by our pastor, Rick Keiser, in February of 2005 and were married by him in March of 2005.

With a job, training, travel, interviews, etc., are you able to be plugged in to the church?

A Bible study group meets in our home each week. I’m really connected to the members of my small group. I would really encourage people to be connected to a small group—that’s how I’m in touch with my church. We’ve built a lifelong relationship with our small group; they’re part of our family. That’s how God intended it—to be in small groups, sharing life.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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