This piece by Stuart Weir. Stuart wrote this piece on Madeline Manning, an Olympian at 1968, 1972, and 1976, and two time Olympic medalist. Madeline Manning also tells Stuart Weir about developing her vocation, as a team chaplain. Madeline Manning is one of our finest American middle-distance runners. 

Last week a legend celebrated her 75th birthday.  I am referring to Madeline Manning, 1968 Olympic 800m champion with a silver medal over 4x400m in 1972 as well as Pan American and Universiade champion over the individual in 1967.  She also won 10 US national indoor and outdoor titles and set numerous American records as well. After setting a national record of 2:02.3 in 1967, she improved on that record three times, eventually running 1:57.9 in 1976. She set three world indoor records, culminating with a best of 2:02.0 in the 800 meters in 1969. After retirement Madeleine served as a chaplain at several Olympics and World Championships.

She was just 20 when she went to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, after starting running in High School and becoming State Champion within a year.  She recalls that first Olympics: “I was just 20 – I was wide-eyed, like a little child.  Everything was new.  I felt I was watching the whole world pass before me and I had never experienced anything like it before”. Despite her youth, she was confident: “For the two previous years I was undefeated, so I knew I could at least be on the podium and it happened that I won”.  Her winning time was 2:00.09, more than a second and a half ahead of Ileana Silai (Romania) who took silver.

Munich 1972 Olympic athlete village, photo by Stuart Weir

Madeline was something of a trailblazer as she explains: “I was a black woman, but the myth at that time was that women of ethnicity could not run long distances – so I actually broke that myth by winning and by winning by quite a bit over my competitors in that Olympic final”.  Years later at a World Championship a Nigerian official thanked her, saying: “It is because of you that Nigerian women are running”.

Munich 1972 Olympic memorial to the Israeli Massacre, photo by Stuart Weir

She was originally a runner who liked to run at the back and then kick over the last 200 until her coach said to her one day: “You will never run your best race if you run everyone else’s race from the back.  You need to get to the front and run what you can run”.  So she changed and became a frontrunner.

The 1972 Olympics has only negative memories for her. The reigning Olympic champion progressed through the heats easily.  It was then two semi-finals with the top four in each reaching the final.  Before the race an official said to her: “You are in lane one.  This is where you start and this is where you stop”, pointing at a line. But the official was pointing to the wrong line. She remembers the race clearly: “The first three were together with me just behind so I veered to the side, not realizing that the British girl [Rosemary Stirling] was coming up behind.  I saw her driving past me.  Then she came over and asked me why did I stop?  And I said, ‘because I had finished’ and she said, ‘No the finish line is there’.  I was devastated”.  Stirling had taken fourth place by 3 hundredths of a second. Manning-Mims gained some consolation by running in the USA 4 by 400 relay team which took silver.

 The 1972 Olympics are remembered for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by the Black September terrorist group. This is a really poignant memory for Manning-Mims: “The US women’s building was adjacent, not even 100 yards from the Israeli building and we were watching it all until they called us to come out of the building”.   

In the 1976 Olympics, she was again eliminated in the semi-finals. She went into the Games confident: “One week before my 800 heat I ran a world record in the 3000 so I knew I was in shape”.  She finished eighth in 2:07.25, fully ten seconds behind the winner. “I had one of those lethargic races.   Everyone has one of them – you just hope it won’t be at the Games.  But mine showed up at the Games!   I was running as hard as I could but I wasn’t going anywhere.  I realized I’m not going to make the final.  I finish dead last and was shocked by the whole thing.  I was numb, confused, hurting, and in tears”.  

Team Chaplains at Rio 2016, photo by Stuart Weir

She described the 1976 Olympics as “a challenge of my Christian faith like never before”.  After the race she told journalists: “all the things that I cared about most – the gold medal, the world record, the Olympic record, Olympic championship – all those things had died out there.  A dream died out there.  But what is clear to me now is that none of that can take me away from the love of God”.

In 1980 she won the US trials to qualify for the Moscow Olympics but the American Olympic team boycotted the Games. Manning-Mims ran in three Olympics but has been at every Summer Olympics since 1988 in a chaplaincy role. At Rio, she was appointed by the USOC as chaplain to the US Track and Field Team and worked with other chaplains to offer church services and support to athletes and officials. She has just completed a doctorate in sports chaplaincy at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma – while serving as chaplain to the Tulsa Shock, women’s professional basketball team.

Madeline Manning, photo by James Drake/Getty Images/IAAF

Her passion for chaplaincy has been a part of her since her running days.  After retiring from running she took two degrees and set up the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy mainly because she wanted chaplains to be seen as professionals.

Madeline Manning, photo by Madeline Manning

She describes what she does like this: “While I was on the US team, my teammates knew that I was a Christian so they would come to me privately and ask me about right and wrong or things of the Bible.  They would ask me things like: ‘it is OK to pray to win?  When I lose does that mean that God is mad at me?’  I was giving and giving.  Sometimes I was up to 2.00 or 3.00 am talking about things.  And that is really what I do now as a chaplain.  Now I can be there for them because I don’t have to run!  I can listen to what they have to say.  I can laugh with them, and cry with them and that is all part of pastoral care. I truly believe it is what I was born for”.




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