Last week, Katie Ledecky won her fourth gold and fifth medal of this Olympics, setting a new world record in the 800-meter freestyle–by 11.38 seconds. That’s 20 times the margin of many races, or more.
How do you sift through the best swimmers all over the world and come up with an individual who is that much better than her contemporaries—and 80 seconds faster than the comparable Olympic races of my childhood? How do human beings keep breaking records? Is there a limit to human speed and strength?
I don’t know, but I am speculating that Ledecky’s performance rests on a long historical foundation that enables athletes to push the margin just a bit further in each generation. The foundation includes a growing culture of valuing sports and achievements for women; earlier and more consistent training; improved coaching techniques, swimwear, and nutrition. I don’t know, but the proverbial wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented from scratch for each generation, and that must help in some way, because the Olympics remind us that people keep achieving beyond our dreams.
The recent release of the Lubwisi New Testament in Uganda reminded me of that, too. Missionaries Rich and Alie* (full name not provided for security reasons) spent so many years developing the spelling (orthography) of the local Lubwisi dialect. This enabled the Tabbs and subsequently Charles and Hannington to translate the New Testament.
Similarly, my husband Scott and I entered a ministry context in Uganda years ago where another missionary already had spent years carrying out village visits for community health. We were able to start new programs and significantly expand medical outreach.
P.L. (full name not provided for security reasons) was there, too. He supervised clearing land and laying a foundation for our house before we arrived in Uganda, so our house construction progressed to live-able in only four months.
In any sector where we can think of our own work, we can acknowledge that we stood on broad shoulders of those who enabled us. People who came and lived in tents to negotiate the sites of initial housing, teams who invested in those buildings, who figured out how to import vehicles, who preached the gospel and made friends.
We didn’t have to start from scratch, so we could go a little further. And so it goes for wave after wave of missionaries.
Today’s group might come to an established hospital or school, to houses that might need repair but are standing, to church denominations with second or third generation leaders, to accessible education and medicine and electricity and clean water. It doesn’t mean the work is easier. It means is that instead of laboring to collect rain water in a gutter, they can be consulting on a massive water purification system to serve tens of thousands. Instead of hours trimming the pesky kerosene fridge wick to slight coolness, they can plug in a humming electric unit and spend their energy on more important things. In the next decade, they will far surpass all that has gone before, and we will cheer.
So we celebrate Ms. Katie Ledecky, and her coaches, her team, her family, her relentless hard work, her discipline, her achievement. And as record after record falls, we celebrate not only the current tip-of-the-pyramid athlete but the historical mountain of people whose work brought them to this pinnacle.
Our community stretches across cultures and through generations; our blessings flow from the sacrifices of others. And we pray that our little pushes in 2016, our small losses and sufferings, bear an eternal weight of glory for those that follow.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2
Photo sourced from Flickr under a Creative Commons License.