Veteran gymnast Matt Hicks is finally going to the Olympics — the Winter Olympics. While it’s not quite the realization of his childhood dream, it does come close. The 30-year-old Louisiana native is helping to ensure that America’s athletes are taken care of while competing in Sochi, Russia.
Hicks still hopes to make the 2016 gymnastics squad, but for now, he is offering logistical help to his countrymen who are currently competing in hockey, skiing, bobsledding and other winter sports. Hicks sees his service as a means of helping athletes reach their God-given potential, which in turn, helps him reach his own.
Hicks, who is fluent in Russian, spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie before the 22nd Winter Olympic Games, which officially start on Feb. 7.
You’re volunteering for the Winter Olympic team in Sochi. What exactly will you do?
I’ll be the No. 2 guy in charge of volunteers for the American team. We’ll be doing a bunch of problem-solving in order to make sure things go smoothly for the athletes. Anything that might come up, we’ll be there to help out.
I will probably be using my fluency in Russian to help with translations, since I’m actually one of only two people from the group of volunteers who speaks Russian. I started learning the language in my teens because most of the great gymnastics coaches here in the States are from Russia. I thought it would be fun, not to mention useful, to learn their language.
I’ve been to Ukraine, the homeland of a former coach of mine, Rustam Sharipov, many times, but to Russia only once. That was in December of 2012. I got to do a lot of sightseeing then, but this time, it will be a lot of work — fun work, though. Outside of participating in the Olympics as an athlete, this is the most enjoyable thing to do from a work/career standpoint.
What do you think of the talk of boycotting the Olympics?
Some people have called for a boycott of this year’s Olympics, like we did for the Summer Games in 1980. I’m not a fan of boycotting, though. That doesn’t help the people it’s supposed to. It only hurts the athletes and any chances they have for mending international wounds and promoting world unity. The games are one of the best means of engendering goodwill among nations, so to use them as a political punishment tool just doesn’t seem productive.
You left home at 14 in order to pursue your Olympic dream. Was that difficult?
Yes and no. I moved two hours away from my home in Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, La., where there were better training facilities and coaching. Then, at age 16, I moved even farther away to Houston, Texas. There was a lot of value to these moves, since I was getting better and better at my sport. However, I don’t think I ever lost the awareness of the fact that I was away from my family, which was tough.
I did have a “second family” of sorts, though, among the other gymnasts and coaches. The gymnastics community is fairly small, so we’re a close-knit group. This “second family” experience was when I started to learn Russian, because my coach at the time, Vladimir Artemov, is from Russia. I thought that speaking the language of an Olympic gold medalist would make learning from him easier, and it did.
You seriously injured your back at age 18. How did that affect your outlook on life?
That injury was a real turning point in my life. I completed my flip correctly, but due to faulty boards under the floor exercise mat, I bottomed out on the concrete. There was too much “give” when I landed on it. That’s when I fractured my L2 vertebrae in three places.
I went from being this hyperactive kid flying around the gym to someone who couldn’t even walk without pain. I spent many hours alone, recovering. It was very painful, initially — not only from a physical standpoint, but also an emotional one. Sure, my back hurt, but my heart was in worse shape. I was suffering from not being able to work toward my Olympic goal.
Looking back, however, that injury was a great blessing — maybe one of the greatest in my life. I started to pray the Rosary and go to Mass on a daily basis. Going to Mass was about the only thing I did outside the house, and it was a humbling and enriching experience. It’s not something I would have done had I not been injured, so you can see that sometimes things turn out better than they start.
It was also during this time that I was introduced to Padre Pio, a modern-day saint who was blessed with the wounds of Christ and who could bilocate. I was very impressed with this man who lived not long before I was born. That fact, in particular, really made me take a deep look at his life. Most of the time, the saints we hear about are from many centuries ago, which can make them seem out of touch. Yet Padre Pio lived among cars and airplanes and many other modern things that we have. That really got me to thinking about how holiness is meant for us today. It’s not just for medieval people.
You also learned from Padre Pio how to use your suffering for a greater good.
Yes, that was a huge thing. I read books like Padre Pio: The Wonder Worker, and then I read a collection of his more personal letters. There was a wealth of information that guided me in my search for meaning amidst the suffering. I learned from Padre Pio about “suffering properly,” which made the pain go from a major annoyance to a great gift.
I realized that everyone suffers in some way, that suffering is just a part of life in our world. No matter how hard we try, we will not be able to escape some sort of suffering; so the important thing to know is how to make good come out of it. This is done by uniting our suffering with the suffering of Jesus.
We become active participants in our own salvation and that of others when we are drawn near to Christ on the cross. Then we do what St. Paul wrote about in Colossians 1:24, ”Now, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.”
Christ’s suffering is superabundant, but it is “incomplete,” in the sense that it is up to us to be drawn into it through our own suffering. It’s not as if we sit back and admire what Christ did from afar, but, instead, we should see suffering for what it is: an opportunity to grow closer to him and to become more helpful to our neighbor.
A year after the back injury occurred, I was able to like the person I became. It was a trying time, but that’s what made it all the better. It seemed like I was living as a Christian should live, amidst the trials of life. It’s like in Sirach 2:4-6, where it says, “Accept whatever befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For in fire gold is tested and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God, and he will help you; make straight your ways and hope in him.”
What are you doing outside of Winter Olympics volunteering?
I’m attending the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. I’m completing my master’s degree in public administration, which I’d like to use one day by working for the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo.
They have outstanding training facilities in Colorado Springs, which I was able to utilize during the four years I lived there. Once my competitive days are over, I’d like to be a part of the administrative side of things and help lead America’s next generation of athletes. In the meantime, I’m still going to try one more time for the 2016 Olympic gymnastics team.
Helping the Winter Olympics athletes is a great mental preparation for that. You get to see what they go through and be a part of it. You’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your countrymen in pursuit of athletic excellence. It’s great to help others reach their God-given potential, which can only help each of us to reach our own.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.