Score One for Abstinence

Nov 16, 2000 |Michele Deppe

Since when does women's soccer and sexual purity go together?

I recently got a writing assignment from a teen magazine: compile two-sentence comments from athletes about saving sex for marriage. Cake assignment.

My research led me to organizations that promote abstinence, enhanced with color photos of our moral heroes and providing contact information for a bunch of athletes that endorsed purity, having signed contracts stating they "promote abstinence and respect life." Given the long list, I figured this round-up assignment was in the bag. I recognized players who are "known Christians," and started with them first.

I didn't count on those athletes refusing to give me comments.

My list of those willing to "take a stand" was fast dwindling. I even told one athlete, "Hey, I am not trying to make you a 'poster child for purity.' I just want you to encourage kids to wait." It didn't matter. Life on the road can get, well, you know, lonely.

One athlete gave me the quote I needed, and then some. Her name is Michelle Akers. I quickly learned that she has the reputation of being one of the greatest soccer players ever. Prim and proper are not words to describe Akers, whose image leaps at you from a box of Wheaties. Akers was eager to throw in her two cents about whether or not a life of holiness and abstinence is dull.

This athlete has covered a lot of ground. After graduating from the University of Central Florida, she engaged in unswerving persistence towards her athletic aims. Appearing on the original roster for the U.S. Woman's Soccer Team, Akers remained there for 15 years. She was a star player among the Women's World Cup Champions; the American team winning the title two out of the three times it was held. Simultaneously, they seized the Olympic Gold, marking their accomplishments in soccer history with an exclamation point. Nicknamed the 'Iron Lady', Akers was one of the first women in soccer to receive major endorsements, and she is known around the globe for her incredible ability on the field.

Akers has sustained smashed bones in her face, dislodged teeth, several major concussions, and endured over a dozen surgeries on her knees. She has also survived the break-up of her marriage and a broken heart.

Akers' battle wounds were only the beginning of a myriad of physical and emotional struggles. The 33-year-old began experiencing mysterious health problems in 1991; the same year that she was dubbed the 'best soccer player in the world.'

At first, Akers chalked up the symptoms to a rigorous schedule, and cut back for a month to rest. Her exhaustion persisted, and she was thought to have mononucleosis. Akers changed her position on the team from power striker to mid-fielder. Her amazing skill proved her to be a vital team member, even when she ran out of steam and had to be escorted off the field and hooked up to an IV.

Her illness continued to pull her in a downward spiral. Akers struggled to keep up with training, travel, playing, professional engagements, and personal relationships with her husband and family. Her migraines, dizziness, night sweats, and GI problems became increasingly severe, and her doctors suspected that she had chronic Epstein Barr virus.

"There's the fatigue, but you also have migraines, you don't sleep, your balance and short-term memory are gone," Akers said in a Sports Illustrated story. "I've gotten lost going to the grocery store."

In 1994, after three years of pushing through the fog of immobilizing sickness and confusion, Akers collapsed at a game. Intensive testing dominated her busy schedule, in an effort to find the etiology of her illness.

Shortly afterwards, she hit rock bottom. "I couldn't manage to get out of bed and brush my teeth. Finally, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. On top of that, my four-year marriage ended. I was sick, alone, and disillusioned with life."

Akers had plenty of time to consider her withered relationship with God. Lying for hours on her cool kitchen floor, trying to rest, she was too weak to be distracted by soccer and friends. She surrendered her life completely to God. Akers recalls, "God was definitely not part of my marriage and my soccer career. I made my own decisions and dealt with the consequences, and I thought I had done a good job, until then. At that point, I was glad to give God anything He wanted."

Akers triumphed over her illness for a number of years, carefully balancing what she could do and not do, working with specialists to treat her disease. Saving her energy for the next game meant giving up her independence. If she prepared a meal, that required a day of rest that she could not afford. She learned to lay low, in order to keep playing.

All of her efforts failed this past year, when Akers had to make the heart wrenching decision to retire — and miss the Olympic Games in Sydney. In addition to recuperating from yet another surgery, her body was calling it quits.

Her retirement has allowed Akers to leave the sports pages and become known as a person instead of a powerhouse team member. A child of divorce, Akers never imagined recreating a broken home in her own marriage. "It wasn't until later that I realized what a naïve view of love and marriage I'd started out with," she wrote in her new autobiography, The Game and the Glory. " I had thought marriage would somehow automatically enable me to live happily ever after. Yet here I was, with my life falling to pieces."

Did she worry about what a life of active obedience would require? "I think I knew deep down that my focus had been wrong for years," she confesses, "but I feared being a 'spiritual nut.' What would my friends, fans, and the world think of me? Me, the tough, independent athlete, reading the Bible and giving up control."

Akers believes that basing your life in faith, instead of ideals, is key. Real trust that God knows you and what you need has to be the foundation of your decision; otherwise, you will be all bark and no bite.

"Just making it a 'rule' to live by isn't enough," she warns. "You have to know the reasons why and believe in it wholeheartedly or you won't stick to your decision to wait.

"I used to think God and the Bible were old fashioned in regards to the whole purity thing, but over time, I have realized, as usual, God knows best. Saving sex for marriage protects us from potential heartache (i.e., disease, pregnancy, breakup, etc) and allows us to develop a more intimate and healthy friendship for the long haul."

Akers thinks the issue of abstinence can be viewed with a no-nonsense approach, utilizing preparation and awareness. "Expect it to be tough," she says. "Plus, let's be honest, sex feels good, and makes us feel loved and close to someone. If you wait, yes, your heart will hurt, but you will probably not have the rest of the baggage to deal with as well."

She has experienced the sting of ridicule, and empathizes with others who are taking a stand for their faith. "If you are a virgin past the ripe old age of 16 these days, you are probably considered by some to be a stick in the mud, religious freak, nerd, or gay. This hurts our feelings, makes us feel left out, and probably pushes us to think we are missing out on something big time."

Akers clings to the promise of God's grace. She sites 2 Corinthians 12:9,10 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness...That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, I am strong.'

With maturity, Akers' common sense advice smacks of 'everything we needed to know, we learned in kindergarten', however, these basic issues tend to trip us up. "Pick real friends," she says.

About waiting? "When you do get married, you know this part of your relationship is safe, sacred, and special." This, she promises, is "Very cool."

Akers claims that life is more exciting following God's agenda. She has reinvented her goals, focusing on ministering to kids through her soccer outreach program. Her health has improved immensely from a special diet, rest, minimized stress, physical therapy, and her deepened reliance on the Lord. Akers reports that she feels good, except for 'occasional crashes.'

"All those fears about rules and giving up who I am have subsided. Now I face each day with a happy expectation as to what God has for me. My dreams are so small compared to His."

Obviously, God dreams in larger-than-Olympic proportions, and has a plan for Michelle Akers. Even if she didn't sign a lifestyle contract.

Copyright 2000 Michele Deppe. All rights reserved.

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