It was a humid summer day in August 2013. I was attending the US Nationals Water Ski Tournament, just like I had every year since 1978, when I’d competed in my first nationals at the age of eight. This year, the event was held in West Palm Beach, Florida, and although I was retired from competitive water skiing, I was there connecting with old friends and newcomers to the sport. I was also representing In His Wakes, the nonprofit water sports outreach that I had founded in 2003.

For as long as I can remember, water skiing and the water sports community have been an integral part of my life. I was four years old when I skied for the first time; five when I started competing. I can still remember being in the shallow waters of the Pamlico River in North Carolina with those small training skis on my feet and being connected to the powerful ski boat. My family and friends cheered me on, telling me, “Kristi, when you’re ready to go, tell the boat driver to ‘hit it!’”

So on that first day in July of 1974, I made the choice to grab the ski handle attached to the boat and yell that command to the boat driver for the very first time. And for the next 35 years, I chose to say “hit it” again and again.

I have to admit, saying “hit it!” wasn’t always easy. It can take years for a water skier to master new feats, and that learning curve includes some incredibly hard falls. Water hurts when you hit it face first, traveling at speeds in excess of 60 mph! Beyond that, tough competition and unpredictable conditions can bring some pretty daunting challenges.

So many times I wanted to yell, “I quit it!” instead, but thankfully, I didn’t allow frustration, disappointment, naysayers, or pain keep me from pursuing my goal of being the best water skier I could be. As a result, I had a successful water ski career, despite countless falls and failures.

For 35 years, I traveled all over the world, competing. With the help of many, I became a world champion and the winner of 80 professional titles. I also held the women’s slalom world record for 18 years and have been inducted into several halls of fame.

My journey has been full of ups and downs that taught me the valuable truth that falls and failures don’t prevent victory—giving up does. Victory comes when we’re willing to learn from our mistakes, listen to our coaches, and say “hit it” to the right power source. We must choose to move forward with integrity, humility, and a teachable spirit. That doesn’t mean we’ll always end up in first place, but we will emerge from every experience better, stronger, and wiser.

When I said “hit it” for the first time, I had no idea where those two words would lead me. I couldn’t have anticipated all the lessons I would learn along the way or how those lessons would impact the lives of others. But on that hot August day in 2013, 43 years after I’d said “hit it” for the first time, I began to get a glimpse.

I’d decided to leave the tournament for a few hours so I could visit a man named Bill Doyle, a friend who was incarcerated an hour away in the Miami Federal Prison. Bill had been a professional boat driver, and we shared a common faith in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, he had taken his eyes off Jesus and made some wrong choices that resulted in a 15-year prison sentence. Halfway through that sentence, he reached out to me by way of a letter.

As I read his words, something in my heart nudged me to go visit him in prison. My husband and I talked about it, and we agreed that while I was in South Florida for the ski event, visiting Bill would be the right thing to do. I hadn’t seen him in eight years.

Prison was a world I knew nothing about, yet I felt a strange sense of peace as I arrived on the prison compound. I just felt like I was supposed to be there. I was full of the same nervous energy I’d often felt when I stepped off a water ski dock and committed to follow the boat through the slalom course. 

I stepped off this figurative dock and sank into the unfamiliar and, according to some, dangerous waters of prison. And just like when I skied, I had no idea what result awaited me.

While I waited to visit Bill, I spoke with another inmate’s mother. She told me how she’d been driving every weekend from Orlando to Miami for years to visit her son. I’d never thought about mothers driving long distances to see their sons in prison before. In fact, I hadn’t thought of a lot of things. I began to pray, “Father, I don’t know why I am here. Show me what You want me to see.”

As I watched the reunions all around me, God began to show me His great love for these incarcerated men and their families. In the process, He reminded me that I was called to love them too (Matthew 25:34–40). Suddenly, I saw people who were worth everything to God, even the life of His one and only Son, Jesus. I no longer saw inmates in matching jumpsuits with federal identification numbers on their chests; I saw fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and friends. People with gifts and talents who needed to know that their lives mattered and had purpose.

Then I sensed God saying to me, “I want you to go to them and share the message of ‘hit it.’ Tell them it’s not over. Tell them that, no matter how many times they’ve fallen or how hard they’ve been knocked down, there’s still hope. Tell them I forgive them and, if they’re willing, I will help them get back up; I have a plan for each of their lives. Tell them I love them and that I know them by name; they are not numbers to Me.”

I knew God had just issued an invitation for me to join Him where He wanted to reveal His love. Now I had a choice: I could either run from these prison waters, forget what I’d seen, and jump back in the lake where I was comfortable—or I could grab hold of this new rope God was extending to me and follow Him.

When our visit ended, I said goodbye to Bill, promised to visit again, then got in my car and headed back out to the lake. I wept so hard I almost had to pull off the road. I wept over the families that had been torn apart. I wept over the consequences of sin. I wept over the weight of my friend’s guilt and shame and his struggle to accept God’s forgiveness. I wept over his fears of not making it out of prison alive and about what type of life he’d have when he was released. I wept over the stories he’d shared about the men who had sat within a stone’s throw from us. God had broken my heart for what breaks His.

Driving along the Florida Turnpike, I looked up toward the sky and said, “Okay, God. I see what You see. Now what?”

I didn’t know the first thing about prison ministry. Other than break the law, how would I even get through the prison gates and to the people? I soon learned I didn’t have to have all the answers; I just needed to trust God, to step off my dock into those uncharted waters—despite my questions—and follow Him wherever He wanted me to go. 

One thing I did know, both from leading In His Wakes and a second nonprofit called Kristi Overton Johnson Ministries, was that I needed to be patient and stay in step with God. I needed to wait for His Spirit’s leading. I’m well aware that the performer in me, my persevering spirit, and my type-A personality have to be kept in check, or I move ahead of God and start blazing trails. I didn’t want to be like a skier trying to ski ahead of the boat—that wouldn’t work any better in life than it would on the water.

So I prayed again, “Lord, if You want me to minister in prison, I’ll go—but You have to open the doors.” Prison was not a place I wanted to put myself without God’s presence, power, and protection. I didn’t share this prayer or this new burden for prison ministry with anyone other than my husband. But that didn’t hinder God from moving.

The next week, I had lunch with a friend who wanted me to meet his friend, Thomas. Incidentally, Thomas was a former New York pimp and drug dealer who had been in prison ministry for 17 years. God used him to show me what I needed to do to get behind bars. Within weeks, I had clearance to go into Florida prisons to speak to inmates. Various ministries began asking me to come speak with them in prison. And God sent wise men like Jack Murphy (Murf the Surf), a famous criminal turned evangelist, to mentor me.

Two years earlier, I had started Victorious Living (VL) as an outreach of Kristi Overton Johnson Ministries, to share stories of God’s faithfulness in the lives of everyday people. I wanted people to know that God is alive and active today, and He is able to help anyone overcome anything. To my surprise, I began receiving requests for VL to be distributed in prison. I love how God’s plans are often different but always greater than our own. He sees the bigger picture.

Within three months of my visit with Bill, we were sending this magazine into more than 30 Florida Department of Corrections facilities. Today, VL continues to deliver hope to incarcerated men and women as we introduce them to the God of another chance. The magazine is now distributed in over 30 states and has impacted over one million incarcerated lives. To God be the glory!

Since 2013, our ministry has received thousands of letters from inmates responding to the stories published in VL. Some of these people simply need someone to talk to. Others are searching for answers. Many share how a story gave them hope and saved their lives. All share personal stories of tragedy and victory.

These letters needed to be answered, so we formed a correspondence team. Today, faithful men and women from various states correspond with thousands of inmates. Our only agenda is to encourage hearts with God’s love, equip minds with His truth, and empower lives by helping others grow in their relationship with Jesus. 

I am overwhelmed when I think about the people and resources God has provided to help me deliver hope behind bars. This includes partnerships with other ministries who help our VL inmate family transition successfully from prison to free society.

I’ve been asked many times why I go into prison voluntarily. Why not minister to another segment of people? It’s simple. Prison is where God has invited me to join Him at work, and it’s where He empowers me to minister hope. It’s where He uses my past experience and the things I’ve learned in life to impact others. It’s a fruitful endeavor, and I love it.

I enjoy meeting men and women behind bars and hearing their stories; God uses them to change my life. And I love being used by God where I know I have no experience or expertise. It helps me remember that this is not me, doing something great. It’s all God.

If it had been up to me, I would have chosen a different path, possibly something water related, as that’s where I have knowledge and expertise. Or I might have sought after corporate and faith-based speaking engagements, as that was the direction my life was naturally heading.

But I never would have chosen to go into prison. I had no former prison experience, nor could I imagine how I’d connect with inmates. I mean, let’s face it. I’ve lived an extremely privileged life. I have parents, a brother, a husband, and three children who have continually loved and supported me. I’ve never been in trouble with the law, and I’ve never been addicted to drugs or been abused as many inmates have.

I remember speaking in prison at the beginning of this journey with a lady named Nancy. That experience confirmed how very different my life story is, and it made me question just for a moment whether or not I really belonged in prison ministry.

Nancy was a professional singer, and the inmates loved her, as did I. I wish you could have seen the smiles on their faces as they clapped their hands and sang along. After singing awhile, Nancy shared her story of being sexually abused by her father and his friends during her childhood, and how she had turned to alcohol and drugs to ease her pain.

I watched the inmates nod their heads in agreement. So many identified with her story. What could I possibly have to offer these ladies? I hadn’t walked in their shoes or experienced their pain. My father came into my bedroom at night to kneel beside my bed in prayer, not to molest me. I couldn’t believe how many women had been hurt in this way.

When it was my turn to speak, I did the only thing I knew to do—I shared my insecurities with the ladies before me. I admitted to not having any idea about the depths of their pain or struggles. I told them I didn’t understand why some, like me, have loving parents and amazing life experiences while others are born into a life of hell. And then I cried. And then they cried. And they looked at me with eyes of love.

I breathed in and, with God’s leading, began to share my life story and the message of “hit it.” As I spoke, I realized that even though my story was very different from Nancy’s and probably many others sitting before me, what had saved Nancy’s life, and the thing that would save these ladies’ lives, was the very same thing that had saved mine. Jesus.

Yes, I had been a champion water skier with a loving, supportive family. I’d also been raised in the church and witnessed Christian living at home. But since the age of four, I had been a performer, and I had learned early on that excellent performance puts big smiles on the faces of those you love. It also brings loud applause, great reward, and new opportunities. And I liked all those things!

Decades of performing, people pleasing, and perfectionism had taken a toll. I had carried those “three P’s” into every area and every relationship in my life—including my relationship with God. They had pushed me to say and do things that weren’t always in my best interest physically, spiritually, or emotionally. Trying to control every outcome in my life had worn me out.

In my thirties, I was chronically ill and continually anxious as I lived under constant pressure to do more and be a better everything—skier, wife, mother, daughter, friend, and ministry leader. I never felt that I was good enough or that I had done enough. It was a lie from Satan that kept me chasing after an impossible goal. For many years, even as a Christian, I didn’t know how to recognize Satan’s tactics and his subtle voice. Thankfully, now I do.

Like Nancy, surrendering my life to Christ and building a relationship with my heavenly Father had exposed fear-based lies and revealed truth that set me free (John 8:32). This new relationship brought me peace and contentment and healed my anxious heart. It gave me a new identity as a child of God. I wasn’t just “Kristi, the skier” anymore. No, I was “Kristi, the daughter  of the King!”

This new identity changed everything. Pressure subsided when I realized my heavenly Father loves me unconditionally. I learned I don’t have to perform to receive His love. Nor do I have to be perfect to receive His blessings. I just have to be me, and being me is enough. And knowing Him is enough.

It’s my greatest joy and honor to share this good news behind bars. I don’t know where God’s going to take this ministry. He opens new doors every day for Victorious Living to deliver hope and freedom, both in literal prisons and to those in emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual prisons.

The potential impact is incredible, as millions are incarcerated each year and millions more are transitioning into free society. We’ve now begun reaching the Hispanic community by translating some of our articles into Spanish. We intend to include more of them in VL in 2020.

It’s vital that God’s champions everywhere know who He is, how much He loves them, and who they are in His eyes. When they do, everything will change—for them and for generations that follow in communities around the world.

Where is God calling you to share His love? Whether you’re reading this magazine in the comfort of your home or in a stark prison cell, God wants to use you and all your experiences, good and bad, to touch others. Step out on the water with God. Leave your doubts and fears behind and speak those powerful words: “Hit it, God!”

An amazing adventure awaits you. †