The 2014 Olympics in Sochi may have been half a world away, but a chaplain from Lutz was there, offering spiritual support to athletes.
Asif Shaikh, who pronounces his name “Ah-sif Shake,” traveled more than 30 hours, with stops in Chicago, Dusselfdorf, Germany, and Moscow before flying over the opening ceremonies to land in Sochi.
But it wasn’t his first Olympic experience. He and his wife Leaha tended to the spiritual needs of athletes at the Olympic games in London in 2012 as well.
This time, however, Shaikh traveled alone to Sochi and said his ministry work there involved prayer and Bible studies with hockey players and speed skaters. One of the athletes he prayed with was Jessica Lutz, a hockey player who was born in the United States, but because her father was born in Switzerland, was able to play on the Swiss team.
Lutz — who pronounces her name the same way as the northern Hillsborough County community — already was familiar to Shaikh.
He and his wife met the hockey player during a summer program they worked at in Colorado in 2009. Shaikh’s wife was Lutz’s advisor.
As it turns out, Shaikh was able to watch Lutz’s Swiss team play against the American team in a contest where the Swiss were soundly defeated. But he also saw Switzerland defeat Sweden in the bronze medal game, where Lutz scored the winning goal.
The idea of interacting with world-class athletes is nothing new for Shaikh. Besides providing spiritual guidance in London, he also had daily chapel gatherings for athletes competing to be part of the American team during the 2012 U.S. Olympic track team trials in Eugene, Ore.
Before that, he was a chaplain to the U.S. soccer team at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and served in the same capacity at the track and field International Association of Athletics Federations World Championship in Daegu, South Korea and the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Because of those experiences, Shaikh is familiar with the types of security precautions taken at international events. Despite reports of potential security threats leading up to the games, Shaikh said he felt completely safe while there. He rated the quality of the security as “off the charts.”
“There was no issue. They were ready,” Shaikh said.
The hotels, however, were another matter. Although he stayed in a private home, Shaikh said media reports about some of the hotels not being ready were true.
The trains, on the other hand, were fantastic and they were beautiful, he said.
While he was able to pray with some athletes, Shaikh said the most important part of his trip this year was making connections for future Olympics. He got to know people involved with the U.S. Olympics Committee and with people within the Procter & Gamble Co., who sponsored the P&G Family Home in Sochi.
There the company offered moms, Olympians and their families a home away from home during the Olympics. It served as a place to hang out and be pampered, he said.
The USA House also served as a gathering place for members of the U.S. Olympics Committee, for Team USA, for corporate partners, sponsors, suppliers and licensees.
Shaikh hopes the connections he made during his time in Sochi will lay the groundwork for him to volunteer his spiritual help at the USA House, the P&G house or both during a future Olympics.
“I’m trying to get established. I think the next step would be, ‘How can I help, in the sense of volunteering my time,’” Shaikh said. “They don’t have any spiritual leaders. They don’t recognize that as something that’s important.”
The chaplain said he’s found that athletes often welcome spiritual support. Many of them travel to the competitions by themselves and some of them are facing personal crises, even as they prepare to compete on a world stage.
Besides praying with athletes in Sochi, Shaikh said he was lucky enough to get free tickets from Procter & Gamble for several events. He was able to watch American skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White win the gold medal in ice dancing. He also watched bobsled, ski jumping, speed skating, curling and the half-pipe.
While there, Shaikh also had his own fleeting taste of fame. On Valentine’s Day, he went down to the set for NBC’s “Today Show” onsite at the Olympics carrying a sign that Lutz had made for him to hold, wishing his wife a happy Valentine’s Day.
“Scott Hamilton signed an autograph on it and it was on TV,” Shaikh said. “Leaha saw it, so it was really neat.”