Faith

Olympic Phenoms Biles, Ledecky Lean on Their Catholic Faith

Simone Biles celebrates her gold for the women's individual all-around final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky might not run into each other at the pool or uneven bars at the Rio Olympics, but they may run into each other at Mass.

Biles, called by some the best gymnast ever at age 19, has already won gold medals for the team competition and the individual all-around. On Thursday night, she became the first woman in two decades to win back-to-back Olympic and world titles in the all-around.

She’s got three world titles and four U.S. titles in the all-around, and will likely keep adding to her stack of gold.

And she’s carrying something else, as she told US magazine: a white rosary tucked into her gym bag, a gift from her mother Nellie (the grandparents who adopted her when she was 5 years old). “Before a big event, I usually go to church and light a candle for St. Sebastian, who is the patron saint of athletes,” Simone told Olympic.org.

A Texas Monthly profile notes that Biles, who learned from a private tutor between practice sessions due to her rigorous training schedule instead of attending a high school, takes one day off per week: Sunday, when she goes to St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in Spring, Texas, with her family in the morning.

Ledecky, also 19, has already won three gold medals in Rio: for the women’s 200m freestyle, the women’s 400m freestyle and the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay. She’s a world-record holder in several events and scored her first gold in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As CBS Sports noted, she’s even setting records during preliminary heats: “Ledecky’s 8:12.86 prelim swim on Thursday afternoon set an Olympic record. And it honestly looked like she was barely trying. She blasted the rest of her heat, a heat that posted the four fastest times of the four heats run on Thursday. Ledecky outpaced second-place finisher Boglarka Kapas of Hungary by almost seven seconds.”

Before Ledecky jumps in the water, she says a “Hail Mary.”

“The Hail Mary is a beautiful prayer and I find that it calms me,” the Bethesda, Md., resident told the Catholic Standard last month.

She attended Catholic schools through high school, and “going to these schools was important to my swimming – my Catholic schools challenged me, they broadened my perspective and they allowed me to use my mind in ways that take me beyond just thinking about swim practices, swim meets and sports.”

“My Catholic faith is very important to me. It always has been and it always will be,” Ledecky said. “It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith. It helps me put things in perspective.”

In fact, the star swimmer wants to make sure “people in our nation look beyond sports and beyond athletes to find inspiration.”

“For example, our country has such brave, dedicated military and service personnel around the world who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our nation and other nations – these are true heroes,” Ledecky said. “I have gained a great appreciation as to what a remarkable privilege it is to represent the United States in the Olympics. I appreciate the flag being on my cap as I compete. That is a real honor.”

In an earlier interview with the Catholic Standard, she said it was important to pray at swimming events because “it is important for me to take time to make space for God and thank Him — He will always be at the center of my life.”

Ledecky filmed a video for the Washington Archdiocese pledging to mark the September 2015 visit of Pope Francis by “finding special ways to support charitable organizations” such as Catholic Charities.

Crux notes that during high school, Ledecky “was the co-leader of the school’s campus ministry program, helping plan school liturgies, retreats and prayer services.”

“She also volunteered serving meals to the homeless at the Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen, visited wounded warriors at the nearby Walter Reed Medical Center, and served with Bikes for the World, which collects bicycles for children and adults in developing countries.”