Olympics star turns sports chaplain and gospel singer

Story highlights

  • Madeline Manning Mims got a personal pep talk from Jesse Owens in 1968
  • She saw the Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games
  • She says she has experienced athletes' pain and fear
  • Mims was among the first group of official Olympics chaplains in 1988
Madeline Manning Mims has a message for the athletes at the London Olympics.
"They are loved. They are a part of humanity in a very special way and what they do matters," Mims said.
She's not talking about being loved by the fans -- she's talking about being loved by God.
Mims is a gospel singer and a sports chaplain, and she's no stranger to the Olympics.
She used to be a track and field star herself, and made history at the 1968 Olympic Games, when she shattered the myth that black women were no good at the 800 meters.
She got an extraordinary pep talk before her race.
The great American Olympian Jesse Owens, who'd shown Adolf Hitler that the Nazis' racist beliefs were wrong, spoke to the U.S. team about the 1936 Games.
"It was the most moving thing that I had ever heard in my life. Everybody was moved to tears," she said.
But there was a surprise yet to come -- when she met Owens in person, she found out he had been following her track career because they were both from Cleveland.
"I was fascinated that this man, this legend, knew me of all people," she remembered, her eyes aglow. "He reached out and hugged me and said, 'You're ready. This is your time, go out there and get that gold.' And I said, 'Yes sir,' and proceeded to do that."
The 1968 games saw controversy in the form of Black Power protests, but nothing like what happened at Mims' second Olympics, at Munich in 1972.
The Israeli team was attacked by Palestinian terrorists.
"The women's U.S. track and field dormitory was directly adjacent to the Israeli dormitory, so when we went out on the porch of one of our sprinters we were looking right at the action.
"We couldn't figure out what was going on," she recalled
Then one of the terrorists shifted his position.
"When he turned we saw the gun and we just all fell silent for a moment. And one of the girls said, 'Is that a machine gun?' It must have hit us all at the same time because we all just turned and ran for the door," she said.
"Of course we blocked the door and nobody could get out and I had a horrible feeling. ... I thought he's going to get really upset that we're making all this noise and just start shooting. And I could just imagine bullets riveting through my back. I was just so scared," she said.
Eleven Israelis, a German policeman and five terrorists died in the Black September attack.
But the Games went on -- and so did Mims, who found herself mothering her teammates more and more over time.
"A couple times I didn't run such good races when I was up till 2 or 3 in the morning trying to help another athlete deal with different issues," she said.
Only later did she realize this was all preparation to become a chaplain.
"It was just natural for me to do because of my Christian beliefs. That's what we are taught to do, serve -- serve others," Mims said.
The Olympic Games have had official chaplains since Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Mims was invited to be part of that first group.
"There were only two women called, one lady who spoke nine languages from Switzerland, and myself -- and 25 men from all over the world," she remembered.
Many of them, she suspected, probably thought she shouldn't be there -- but she thinks she's been a help to athletes, because she knows what they're going through.
"The thing is a lot of people don't understand is that in competition there is a lot of fear and pain. It's a part of who an athlete is. And to get through that, to break through that, so that you can produce at your highest level, many of them pray for God's help," she said.
That's why it's so common to see athletes thanking God for their successes, she said.
"They are really thanking Him for helping them to get through this, to be able to do what He created them to do," she said.
Sometimes athletes come to her for counsel, and she doesn't say a thing.
"They want to you to tell them something, but you just let them talk themselves through it. A lot of times and they get up and say, 'You've been so helpful, I feel so much better,' and I haven't said anything," she said, bursting into laughter.
She consoles the ones who don't achieve what they hoped to, and assures those who ask whether they are doing the right thing.
"A lot of times athletes feel a lack of value because they have to be so focused on themselves," she explained.
Her message to them is simple: "You're right where you're supposed to be, doing what God created you to do. It's OK. He's happy with you."