The Swider-Peltz Olympic skating team — three members of the Swider-Peltz family who are Wheaton alumni and Olympic athletes — spoke at an open panel on “Evangelism and the Olympics” in the Buyse Lecture Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. is a four-time Olympian. She competed in the 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics in speed skating, making her the first female American athlete to compete in four different Olympic games. She is a two time world record holder, a 2003 USA national team member and prides herself on competing in the 1988 Olympics a year after the birth of her first child, Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. Nancy Sr. was also a star athlete while at Wheaton, becoming a six time All-American Swimmer at Wheaton her freshman year. She is married to Jeffrey Peltz Sr., a Wheaton College Football coach of 34 years.
Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. first qualified for the 2002 Olympic Trials at age 15, in which she raced alongside her mother for her last trials. At age 18, Nancy Jr. competed on the World Cup team for the first time in 2005. Nancy Jr. competed in the 2010 Olympics, winning gold in the 3,000 meter race and fourth in the controversial team pursuit relay in Vancouver. After the 2010 Olympics, Nancy Jr. suffered major injuries three successive years, including a torn achilles in 2010, a stress fracture in 2011 and a discovery of a spinal disc degenerative injury in 2012. She attended Wheaton College, swimming like her mother her freshman year, then studying as a part-time student for the next eight years while training before graduating with a Communication degree.
Jeffrey Swider-Peltz Jr. qualified to skate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea but was not chosen for the team due to political conflicts with the USA skating board. He also attended the 2006 Olympic Trials with his sister and trained with his sister and mother. Jeffrey Jr. played for the Wheaton College football team in 2010 under his father before re-dedicating himself to speedskating while watching his sister compete that year in Vancouver.
During Tuesday’s open panel, both Nancy Jr. and Jeffrey Jr. shared about their experiences growing up, both stressing that they were never pressured or forced into speed skating. Both siblings were multi-sport athletes in middle school and high school. Nancy Jr. decided to pursue speed skating at a professional level at age 14 when she decided to participate in one of her mother’s training sessions as a speed skating coach.
The Swider-Peltz family, who has been vocal about their faith, shared how they often tried to strategically evangelize and share their faith during interviews, contact with fellow athletes and athletic staff and during signature events, where they would write “God Bless You” or a Bible verse on each item and picture they signed as a way to spread the gospel.
Jeffrey Jr. talked about the hierarchical status of athletes, saying that many often viewed themselves as the “ultimate source of perfection.” According to Jeffrey Jr., “ didn’t need more than this.” Instead, their lives revolved around fame and competition, operating under the idea that “worth is based on how you perform at competitions,” he said.
The Swider-Peltz family said they often tried to reach out to athletes with this competition-based outlook but expressed their frustration at the isolation that comes with being a serious athlete in the sport. On a given day, these athletes have both a morning and evening practice, they explained, with mandatory rest in between. Athletes were not allowed to walk far distances or exert any serious strain during competitions, as any exertion could impact their performance. According to Jeffery Jr., it was a sacrifice to choose to become a dedicated speed skater because “ is so competitive, and you are so isolated … you see the world through a hotel window.” Nancy Jr. said she sacrificed close friendships and relationships because of her rigorous training schedules and inability to complete normal school semesters, causing her to graduate with peers almost seven years her junior.
This high level of competition and sacrifice led both Nancy Jr. and Jeffery Jr. considering leaving the sport at various times. “Speed skating is such an up and down thing,” Jeffery Jr. said, adding that because many athletes invest their identity into the sport that when age or injury forces them into retirement, they go through depression or crisis of identity. Members of the Swider-Peltz family said they tried to advertise their own identities as rooted in Christ, trying to share a message of “God loves you and you are worth it” to as many as possible.
Nancy Jr. decided to become a communication major in order to better develop her outreach skills and evangelize from her particular position as an Olympian. “My story is about Christ, evangelism isn’t just for the non-believers but for the believers too,” she said.