Susan Saint Sing was a promising athlete with a love for sports when she suffered serious injuries as a gymnast. But she was determined not to let the accident impede her: She turned to the Sacred Heart and St. Francis in search of healing and understanding and went on to study for a Ph.D. in sports history and become manager for the U.S. National Rowing Team for the World Rowing Championships in 1993.
Now, almost fully healed, Saint Sing has written several very popular books, including one entitled Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul. She spoke to the Register recently about her remarkable story, just before giving a presentation at a conference in Rome hosted by the sports section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
What is your talk about?
I’m going to give a personal talk about basically my life and how a personal experience with God intersects with sports. I broke my neck and back as an athlete, and what I’m going to talk about mainly is how we take these lessons from sports and put them into real-life situations and crises. I spent 10 years in a pain-control center. I will draw on some of my training, […] not giving up and things like that were needed to get out of what was a dire situation — of being almost a world-class athlete to someone who was stilled in a moment.
So I will talk about the joy of movement, handedness and footedness that we have, and which to me is part of the energy of God. God created us to play, and play is intrinsic to our understanding of God. Play matters, and we should play as if it matters.
How did your own experience help you better appreciate the value of sports?
It gave me a new appreciation, not only for what we learn as an athlete, but that when it’s taken away from you, what that means too, because other things are then forced upon you — patience, gratitude, some things that are not inherent to sports. You don’t hear about patience in sports very often.
How did your faith help you to adapt?
I spent 10 years in a pain-control center and was obviously in a lot of pain just to even enter into a pain-control center. Partway through that I told my doctors that I just couldn’t handle it anymore — it was just too much; I had too many injuries. I had almost 200 [surgical] procedures. So I left and went to Assisi. I said I just had to go and talk to St. Francis and ask him: “Why? Why was my life altered so much?”
It was a personal tragedy for me to go from being what I wanted to be — an Olympian — to almost a quadriplegic. I was paralyzed for a while, and I kind of always said that when I die, I would like just to have 20 minutes of uninterrupted time with God to ask some questions. So when I went to Assisi, I just spent time trying to figure things out, trying to talk to St. Francis.
You seem physically able now. Would you say you were effectively cured through prayer?
It has been through prayer. I think when I was in Assisi it healed me spiritually. When I got off the train at Santa Maria degli Angeli, I took my cast off, I threw it in a garbage can, and I took my sling off (because I was paralyzed in my right arm), and threw that in a garbage can. I was healed spiritually there. I can’t really explain it, but I started to understand creaturehood and being created — that we’re all part of God’s greater plan, and we have to kind of accept where we are to be part of that plan and not fight it.
Then, over the years, I was prayed for a lot by people. Francis McNutt [founder of Christian Healing Ministries], who has spoken at the Vatican, has the gift of healing, and he has prayed over me many, many times. So I walk and I talk, and I’m not a quadriplegic, and I’m not paralyzed.
Have you totally been healed from your injuries?
Pretty much. I have some residual pain. I think that’s left as a reminder, which is a good thing. It humbles you — pain keeps you grounded.
Did you pray to a particular saint, St. Francis perhaps?
I’ve always prayed to St. Francis or the Sacred Heart; predominantly probably to the Sacred Heart.
When you look back on what happened, do you see God’s hand behind it — and that good fruit has come of it?
It definitely got my attention! I write, and when I was in college, I was a double major in fine arts and physical education. I was never going to be in physical education, so I started to write. The only thing I could to make a living was to write, so I’ve written eight or nine books now, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I’m here is because of the books I’ve written.
I would never have done that if I hadn’t been hurt. I would never have gone into rowing if I hadn’t been hurt. I would have been in some other sport.
What would your advice be to those sportsmen and women who would perhaps do more sports if they weren’t worried about being seriously injured?
I’ve spent a lot of life being afraid, even before being hurt. Courage is really not that you’re fearless, but that you understand fear and that you enter into it anyway. So you discipline yourself.
Sports can be very scary, such as gymnastics — I was hurt in a gymnastics accident. If you’re not afraid as a gymnast or as a diver or football player, you really shouldn’t be there. It gives you a good respect for what you’re doing.
Fear can be a very healthy thing. I wouldn’t let fear hold you back from sports. You can get injured just standing here — the building could fall down.
Edward Pentin writes