By B.C. Manion
The rivalry between swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will play out on a world stage and amazing feats of track and field stars may capture global attention.
But behind the scenes there’s a network of people who will be in London tending to the athletes’ needs during the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Two of those people are from Lutz.
Asif Shaikh, who pronounces his name Ah-sif Shake, and his wife, Leaha, will be at the XXX Olympiad. They’ll be focused on the spiritual needs of the athletes who are converging in Great Britain for the international games.
The Lutz couple is excited about the opportunity.
They know they will enjoy seeing the sights in London and soaking in the excitement of the global sporting event, but their motivation for making the trip goes well beyond that.
Like the athletes they’ll be serving, they are focused on a mission.
“It’s a calling, maybe something that we would have not chosen,” Leaha said, but she said she and her husband feel compelled to share their Christian faith.
“We’re not there to go to the events,” Asif said. “We’re working. We’re not on vacation. By the time we put our head on the pillow at night, we will be dead tired.”
Leaha said she hopes “to at least connect on a heart level with one athlete.”
Asif and Leaha are among 10 chaplains from the United States who will work with Team USA, as representatives of Athletes in Action, which is the sports ministry for Campus Crusade for Christ.
Normally, the couple works for Athletes in Action serving student-athletes at the University of South Florida.
Asif and Leaha said they’re eager to serve.
The idea of interacting with world-class athletes is nothing new for Asif. He recently returned from the 2012 U.S. Olympic track team trials in Eugene, Ore., where he offered daily chapel gatherings for the athletes competing to be on Team USA.
The athletes came to worship and to pray, said Asif, who was born in Pakistan and was raised as a Muslim before converting to Christianity when he was 11 years old.
Asif was also a chaplain to the U.S. soccer team at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa two years ago, and last year he served in the same capacity at the track and field IAFF World Championship Athletics in Daegu, South Korea and the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Asif and Leaha are not intimidated by the athletes’ international status. Rather, they view them as being human, like everyone else.
Many athletes are young and some are at the Olympics by themselves, Asif noted.
Sometimes difficulties arise in their personal lives — a death in the family, a divorce or some other tragedy — at the same time they are facing an athletic challenge for which they’ve been training for years to take on.
“They’re in front of the whole country, the whole world. Who do they turn to?” Asif asked.
“We represent a neutral person they can go to,” Leaha said.
Asif plans to spend three weeks in London, while Leaha will be there for a week. The games run from July 27 to Aug. 12.
While the couple is away, Leaha’s mom will be looking after the couple’s daughters, Makenna, 9, and Janessa, 6.
In addition to this year’s Olympics, Asif plans to travel to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
He’s excited about reaching out to athletes from all over the world, especially those who do not enjoy religious freedom in their homeland.
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