As Madeline Manning Mims sat in a room tucked beneath the stands at Chesapeake Energy Arena earlier this month, waiting for her time to head on court to sing the national anthem, she listened intently as three Thunder employees perched on a table facing her and rattled off facts about her incredible career.
Olympic gold in the 800 in 1968 at the games in Mexico City. Silver in 1972 in Munich for the relay. Gold in the 800 in the Pan American Games in 1967.
The list went on – and it can go on for quite a while. But as Madeline told a story later, it became clear this wasn’t the first time she’d had her career statistics quoted at her.
It was some time back, she said, when she was working as a chaplain at the World Track and Field Championships – years after she had stopped competing as an athlete. She was being introduced to the head of the delegation from Nigeria, who surprised her by saying, “I already know who she is.”
“You know how you think they’re just being nice,” she said. ” … So I got curious – how much does this man really know about me?”
A lot, it turned out. “He started running off my times, and where I did what,” even citing her lane assignment during her ’72 gold medal-winning run.
But why he remembered so many details about her career perhaps surprised Madeline more than anything. He asked, “Do you realize you’re the reason why women of color run in the 800 and longer now?”
Until Madeline won Olympic gold in the 800, blowing away her competition in Mexico City, there was a widely held belief – a belief that crossed racial lines – that black women lacked the physical traits to run long distances without doing damage to their bodies. Her incredible win destroyed that myth across the globe.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Do you know who you are?’”
At that stage in her life, Madeline thought she did – but realized in one moment that perhaps there was a lot more she didn’t know.
Madeline, among other things, currently serves as a chaplain for the Tulsa Shock WNBA team. It may seem an odd combination for one person to be passionate about – and excel in – areas from track to singing to chaplaincy, but for Madeline, it’s all a natural fit.
“It really all is one [passion] – it just has different facets,” she said.
Part of the process of her moving through these different aspects of her central driving force has been to have her world opened up. When you gain a global perspective, you can begin to see more of the connections between things than the differences.
For Madeline, this process began at a young age when, before she entered college, she had an opportunity to travel abroad. “I started traveling overseas, and it changed my whole world,” she noted.
She gained confidence and perspective, and she found that when it came time to challenge herself to compete to be world-class – not just the best at her college or in the conference – the travel experience gave her the tools she needed to grasp what that meant … and to succeed.
It also, to this day, gives her the ability to fit her passions together so they can have a multiplying effect.
For example, last year, Madeline sang the national anthem at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., held at the same track where she competed in the Olympic trials for the ’68 games.
“That was very, very moving for me … being back in that arena where I ran, and they had me singing on the track, where I started,” she said. “They had this big screen, and as they were introducing me, they were showing me running. I got so teary. …
“And people who had actually been there when I ran were there. This lady was just bawling – I was like, ‘Please don’t do this. I appreciate the feeling that you’re having, but I’ve gotta sing!’” she laughed.
By layering her passions together, they become one, stronger passion that gives her the opportunity to constantly pursue new goals and set new missions in her sights.
Her current goal is to create a system for credentialing sports chaplains as professionals. “You know, I’ve been doing this now, like, 34 years, and I’m still a volunteer,” she noted. She has long sought a way to codify the importance of the work she does on a high level in order for the worlds of athletics and ministry to fully grasp the impact of this important specialty.
She’s taken her quest beyond certification through ministerial channels and has sought a credentialing process to give sports chaplaincy credence as an academic pursuit. Her doctoral dissertation will focus on the need for Christian sports chaplains in the United States at the Olympic level, substantiating what she knows from experience.
“The main reason is to equip and to help – you know, who’s feeding those who are feeding the young athletes and coaches? Who’s helping them to hone their skills and develop knowledge? … That’s not happening.”
After rising to the top of the athletic world, Madeline’s global perspective has taken her all the way back to the bottom, focusing on how best to support those who are just beginning to dream about the heights she has achieved.
“Now I can see how everything I’ve done has led up to this point,” she said. “I really believe that, after I finish getting this fulfilled … that the purpose for which I was born will have been accomplished.
“It’s an exciting time in my life, where I really feel the depth of my purpose,” she concluded.
The clarity that she has from being on the culminating path of her life shone through in her words, but it also filled an arena through her singing.
Watch and listen here, and you can feel the power behind her story.
- Karina Henderson