The day I went to prison, my old, broken foot just might have helped heal some broken hearts.
I never would have imagined myself going to prison, but my dear, crazy friend Kristi kept asking me to join her. She assured me that visiting inmates would change my life and the lives of others.
I had signed up a few times to go with her, but life always seemed to get in the way. Finally, I told myself I should live up to my commitment and go at least once. I’m so glad I did! I almost missed God knocking on my door, inviting me to be a part of what He was doing behind prison walls.
We arrived early that morning to go through security. I was wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. It took four hours for prison officials to complete their search of our team and equipment, but finally we were allowed through the prison gates. Who knew it was so hard to get into prison?
We drove onto the big, empty prison yard, and the ministry team of Inmate Encounter, the host of the event and a partner with KOJ Ministries, began to set up. The sound system, stage, high wire equipment, motorcycles, and Kristi’s ski boat were displayed in an organized fashion. Then the guards let the prisoners through the gate. A sea of men, all dressed in light blue, flooded the space like water. I should have been terrified…but I wasn’t. I was calm and full of peace.
I found myself reaching out naturally to shake hands, welcoming the men to our outreach.
I was overcome by the realization that, although many of these men were drug dealers, thieves, and murderers, they were still all fellow humans who desperately needed hope and the power to change.
They were God’s children; He loved them and offered them the same forgiveness He’d given me. Romans 3:23 says we have all sinned and fallen short of the honor and glory of God. That made me their equal in this matter.
As I looked into their faces, I thought, “I have a gift I could give them that would change their lives forever. Am I willing to get out of my comfort zone and give it to them?” The answer was yes. Immediately God’s Word came to me, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). There is no other commandment greater than this. Hour after hour, I poured out all the unconditional love God had put in my heart for these men.
I went to the prison that day thinking I would be a silent observer. I wasn’t sure what I had to give. I wasn’t a seasoned speaker or performer, nor was I experienced in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sharing openly about my faith was really outside my comfort zone. But then John Lance, our leader for the day, spoke these words over the microphone in his southern twang, “Hey, Stretch, come on up here and tell us your story.” (He calls me Stretch because I’m six feet tall.)
I was shocked and terrified. I had no idea what I could possibly say that could help these men. But with several hundred people looking at me, all wanting a hope of a better future, I knew I had to say something. I took a minute and looked down to gather my thoughts. It was then that I saw my left foot, and suddenly God gave me the words to speak.
So what does my left foot have to do with anything? Let me explain.
I grew up in West Virginia and learned to water-ski on the Ohio River at the age of five. By the time I was twenty, I was skiing professionally on the Coors Light Water Ski Tour and appearing regularly on ESPN. I’ve had a great career that included three world records, over thirty professional victories, sixty podium finishes, and I’ve been inducted into the USA Water Ski Hall of Fame. I also played college basketball at Georgia Tech. I was pretty much born to be an athlete.
In 1998, I was having my best season ever, leading the World Cup series with one event to go. Prior to the tour finals, I was competing at another event in New York when my ski broke in half. I crashed so violently that my left foot was nearly broken off. I shattered the tibia and fibula. Soft tissue was the only thing keeping my leg attached to my body.
In an instant, my life completely changed. I left the lake in an ambulance, delirious with pain. Thank goodness, my four-year-old daughter was playing on the playground and missed my crash and its aftermath.
I was in a hospital for three weeks while the doctors tried to figure out what to do with the mess that had been my lower leg and ankle. Knowing I was determined to ski again, my doctor consulted with the world’s best trauma surgeons. It seemed hopeless.
Six months later, the doctors removed my cast. I was shocked. My leg looked like it belonged on an alien! There was no way I was going to be able to walk on that broken leg again, let alone ski. I was sent back for another surgery where they discovered I was missing one and a half inches of the largest bone in my body. It had been pulverized in the crash. This time, the doctors replaced the missing bone with a bone graph from my hip…and warned me that if my leg didn’t improve, they would have to amputate.
I was not willing to believe this news. I had known God as my personal Lord and Savior since I was in third grade. I knew He had the power to help me, and according to Matthew 8:3, He was willing to help me, too. Nothing was impossible for Him. With childlike faith, I trusted Him to move my mountain and heal my broken foot.
It was touch and go for another four months. The doctors said I was getting clinically better even though the X-rays showed no evidence of improvement. After two surgeries and eleven more months of rest, I finally turned the corner. This time when they unveiled my foot, it actually looked like a human foot again.
I was improving physically, but I still had many wounds of the heart and mind that needed attention.
I found myself growing depressed. Being a driven athlete, it was difficult not being able to do things for myself. The realization that life as I had known it was gone and my identity as a professional athlete was no more was at times too much to accept. I had lost my ability to do the things I loved—ski, play basketball, volleyball, hike, dance, and run. I couldn’t even walk on the beach without severe pain. My life felt like it was in complete shambles.
Bills piled up as my livelihood as a sponsored professional athlete disappeared. I pushed myself to continue to work, struggling on crutches to operate my water-ski school, coach skiers, raise my four-year-old daughter, and organize a professional women’s ski tour.
I had many dark hours over the next year. I hadn’t shared this, but there were times when thoughts entered my mind, trying to convince me to commit suicide. Thankfully, the power and love of God helped me press on. He reminded me of His words, found in Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” Through God’s power living in me, I had the strength to endure all things. With God, I could overcome this trial and rise again.
We all have moments when we are broken. Satan tries to convince us that we have no hope. He’d love for us to stay broken and run back toward darkness. His goal is to kill, steal, and destroy our lives (John 10:10).
But as children of God, we must hold fast to our faith and continue moving forward. We can trust God, even in when we are broken.
With a lot of hard work and many tears, I finally began to walk again. But it wasn’t until 2000 that I dared to strap on a water ski. I was so afraid of getting hurt again. One day, a friend who worked at my ski school said, “Let’s go ski, Jenn.”
Hesitantly I suited up and slid into the water. After a few moments, I found the courage to tell the boat driver to go…but as soon as I felt the power of the boat and heard the sound of the engine, I let go of the rope. I was so gripped with fear that I couldn’t even try to get up on a ski! Can you imagine a pro skier being too afraid to hold on to the ski rope and rise out of the water?
A few weeks later, I tried again. I got up this time, but was absolutely terrified to move. So I just rode behind the boat. A few weeks, later my friend pushed me once more. This time I crossed the wakes. Those little one-foot boat wakes looked and felt like mountains! Every time I crossed them, I experienced great pain as my ankle flexed. Terror filled me at the thought of what could happen.
“I’m never going to be able to do this. It’s over!” I thought.
Just as I was about to throw in the towel, I had a crazy thought. I told the driver to pull me through the slalom course. I was determined to overcome my fear once and for all. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with a slalom course, it’s a series of six buoys strategically placed in the water that the water-skier goes around. I had been running the course my whole life. I thought maybe I could will my way through it with a target on the other side of the wakes. If I could look past what I feared, maybe I could do it.
But this would require me to put my ski on edge and cut through the wakes at double the speed I had been traveling. For a skier, that’s about 65 mph! Why would I even consider such a thing? There was a reason behind my madness—I knew that cutting fast on the ski’s edge like an expert would help my ski slice through the wakes easily rather than jump over them. Perhaps it would lessen the pain. In retrospect, this was a crazy and dangerous idea.
As we approached the course, I suddenly remembered the story of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 14:22–31. The disciples were caught in a great storm, overwhelmed by fear as their small boat was tossed violently by the waves. Jesus, seeing their predicament, came alongside them and said, “Take courage. I am here.”
I felt as if He was saying those words to me. “Take courage, Jenn. I am here with you. You don’t have to be afraid.”
With that assurance, I turned toward the course and sped across the wakes like they didn’t exist. Amazingly, I rounded all six buoys. I realized that I had been skiing like a beginner, fearfully trying to protect myself from the unknown—and my fear was hindering my ability to move forward. When I put my fear aside and committed to face the unknown with God, I was victorious.
Today, I am competing again. I am a walking, skiing miracle. My performance and form aren’t what they used to be, but I have been blessed to win another pro event, I hold the world record for my age group, and in 2012, I won the Senior Worlds.
You know, my life could have been a tragedy. If I had given in to those dark thoughts or succumbed to my fear, I would have never known the victory of running the course again and would have remained broken. I am so thankful that God gave me the courage to move forward. He has restored my life, and in the process, He has given me a story of victory that I now share to encourage people and give them hope.
I hope this is exactly what my story has done for you. God is willing and able to help you through every fall. When your dreams are shattered, your body broken, and your mind overcome by fear, take courage. You are not alone. God is with you.
Written by Jennifer Leachman LaPoint
Photo by Caroline Hernandez