Here is another in our series of Athlete Spotlights. Praying Mike’s story will be a blessing to you.
Michael Morrison is a former NCAA D1 Track & Field Champion, and a current coach at the Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK). Attending college at Florida and California-Berkeley, Mike was a five-time All-American and Decathlon National Champion at the 2011 D1 Championships. Mike graduated in the Political Science program. He is married to Chelcie and together they live in Knoxville, TN with their daughter, Miller Kate Morrison, who was born in 2017. In addition to coaching at CAK, Mike is currently building a performance training and track & field program at GymTek Academy (gymnastics facility; working under the owner to build a performance training and track & field program). Mike’s goal is to build up a core of post collegiate athletes who do not have enough sponsor support to pursue their dreams.
Q&A with Mike
Q – How did you become a Christian? What did that journey look like?
A – I grew up going to church and my parents come from strong Christian backgrounds, but the truth of understanding of the gospel didn’t click until about 5 years ago. Throughout middle and high school I would go through phases where I’d be involved in our church’s youth groups or I would attend my high school’s YoungLife meetings, but I also went through phases of drinking and poor decision-making as well. I’d say my spiritual walk was going through the motions and doing what I thought I was supposed to do rather than following Christ as Lord.
I really cared about fitting in and that was often the motivation for my actions. That led to a lot of frustration because I often failed to fit in like I wanted to, and also because it left me conflicted internally when it would lead me to do things that I knew I shouldn’t be doing. Sports, and especially track, became the outlet for my frustration so I would pour myself into training as a way to “check-out” from whatever it was I was going through. That frustration was the chip on my shoulder that drove me to become successful. As I began to experience success, I began to gradually find my identity in it because it made me feel good. It gave me a sense of belonging and it made me feel important. It validated me. So I set my goals on becoming a high school state champion, then a high school national champion, then a junior national champion, then an NCAA All-American, an NCAA Champion, Olympian, Olympic medalist, and eventually a World Record Holder. I went through and started checking off the boxes. I won the state championship, then national championship, then junior national championship. I made national teams and earned a track scholarship where I’d go on to be an All-American and then National Champion. Everything was on track, and I felt so in control of my destiny. That’s when a nagging knee injury finally caught up with me right after the 2011 NCAA National Championship and stopped my progress in its tracks. After finishing with the third-best decathlon mark in the country in 2011, I was the favorite for the third spot on the 2012 Olympic team. Unfortunately, after six months of fruitless rehab, the doctor decided that surgery was the only answer, which ended the dream of making the 2012 Olympic team.
I was devastated and really struggled over the next several months. I watched the Olympic trials and the Olympics that summer full of bitterness, jealousy, and sadness. Everything that I had worked so hard for in the years leading up to that point felt worthless and meaningless. I felt alone and that no one could ever understand the pain that I was feeling. When I was healthy enough to train again the chip on my shoulder was the biggest it had ever been and I was determined to overcome the injury and make a come back for the 2016 Olympics. I moved to Germany to be close to my girlfriend at the time and I began training with an amazing German national coach. I was obsessed with my training, focused only on myself and my goal, and I was determined to prove that I was one of the best athletes in the world.
Six months of living and training in Germany passed and it was time to come back to the US to celebrate Christmas with my family. I figured that I would make the most of my time back in the states and went to Knoxville to train with the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist in the pole vault, Tim Mack. Tim was my hero in high school so it was a dream come true to get to work with him. My high school coach from Virginia had also moved to Knoxville, so it gave me an opportunity to spend some time with him and his family as well. My high school coach, Rich Fulford, was always like a second father to me and also happens to be a man of very strong Christian faith. During that week I attended church with Rich and his family, something I hadn’t really done since high school. I’ll never forget the overwhelming sense of peace that washed over me during the worship music and my eyes began to well up with tears. I think I realized in that moment that I could still be happy and content even if I didn’t accomplish my goal of making it to the Olympics.
Regardless, my plan was to return to Germany after New Years as I still had my return ticket booked and all of my things still there. As the week progressed though, Rich and I began to talk and I shared with him a lot my frustrations and unhappiness. He pointed me in the direction of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and shared with me his story as an athlete pursuing his Olympic dream. I had heard parts of it before, but it really hit home this time. Then he offered me a room in his home for as long as I needed it if I decided not to go back to Germany. I brushed it off several times before I finally considered it. I couldn’t get over the voice in my head calling me a quitter if I didn’t go back and finish the pursuit of my dream. I remember feeling peace and comfort at the thought of staying in Knoxville, but the voice calling me a quitter just kept combatting those feelings. Finally, I just became exhausted at the thought of continuing the constant upstream battle to prove myself to the world. I didn’t like who I had become as a result of this battle. I was bitter and resentful and became aware of my selfishness as an athlete that had affected so many of my friendships and relationships. So I decided to surrender for the first time and stay in Knoxville.
Interestingly enough, the Lord had already gone before me and worked out two other dilemmas I had been struggling with about the decision. The first was with my girlfriend who was obviously going to be affected, and the second was with my German coach who had taken such good care of me and who I had grown very close with. My girlfriend at the time had met someone else over the Christmas holiday, and was not affected as much as I had worried, and my coach had been offered an amazing coaching position in a different part of Germany which he told me about before I could even break my news to him. Neither one of these things were even on my radar as I struggled back and forth with the decision to stay or go back.
Over the next several months, I continued to train with Tim Mack, attend church with the Fulford’s, and have conversations about life and the Bible with Rich. I began to read the Bible, starting with the book of Ecclesiastes, and I began to accept the word as truth. But I was also still going out to bars and not always making the best decisions.
That summer, I received a call from my college coach asking me if I would be interested in taking a college coaching position. Coaching in college was always a dream of mine, and I always assumed I would move into the college coaching ranks once I had finished my career as an athlete. I immediately told him YES! It was a high level Division 1 school with athletes whom I had already worked with successfully. He told me to think about it for a few days and he’d call back in a week with more details. Strangely enough, and despite my immediate answer, I struggled with the decision. There was something inside of me telling me that it wasn’t the right time. I prayed about the decision. Not for an easy answer, but for a frame of reference. What should I base this decision on? How it would set me up for the future? What kind of impact I could make? Money and security? I felt that my prayer was answered in the two days that followed. First, I spoke to Rich about the opportunity and I thought he would encourage me to go and take it. Instead, he asked me how my spiritual walk was going. And he asked me what I thought would happen in my spiritual life if I took this opportunity. And the truth was I didn’t like my answer. I was already struggling with some of the same things I struggled with before even though I was going to church and I was living with a strong Christian family. So I prayed again for a frame of reference, and that God would give me clarity and confidence in my decision.
The day after I got the call from my college coach, but before I had talked to Rich about it, I was at church with the Fulford’s. After church we ran into another family in the lobby who had a son the same age as Rich’s oldest. Rich asked them if they’d like to go grab lunch afterward and they said ‘yes’. The other family had a daughter name Chelcie who had just graduated from UT with a master’s degree in teaching and was around my age. While we were at lunch she invited me to a small concert downtown that a lot of her friends were going to. It was a good opportunity for me to meet some people outside of my training group since I didn’t really know anyone else in town. While we were at the concert I met a lot of her friends and had a great time. I also offered to help her paint and set up her new classroom for the upcoming school year. I met her in her classroom the day after I spoke to Rich about the coaching opportunity. The time we had painting and setting up together gave us a lot of time to talk about different things, and naturally the fact that I coached and had this amazing opportunity hanging over my head came up. Even though we had just met, I was opening up to her about my feelings about the whole thing and how I couldn’t help but feel that even though it was an incredible opportunity, something about it just felt off. I just felt that my new life in Knoxville was good, and I was never this happy in the other places I had lived.
That’s when she began to really open up about her faith and share the practicality of building a life and friendships upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. She shared the gospel with me in such a practical way that everything began to click and I started to understand that everything that I had been pursuing in the form of accomplishments and seeking validation from people didn’t matter to an eternal God of the universe. He loves us no matter what; we don’t have to earn it through a resume or by impressing Him. We are to love others because HE loved us first, and He SHOWED us what love looks like in the way that Christ lived his life. We are all screw-ups and we make the same mistakes over and over again, but God loves us anyway and He sent His Son to this earth, knowing that He would be killed, in order to redeem us so that we can have a relationship with Him again.
As I began to understand these things and actually internalize them, I realized that I wanted to follow this God no matter what it meant. I wanted to give up the things in my life that had been detrimental because I was so thankful to him, not because I was scared of punishment.
I decided to remain in Knoxville for a second time in order to grow in my faith. Rather than coaching at an amazing university I delivered pizzas for another year until I had an opportunity to become a coach at a local high school. Rich baptized me in the Fall of 2013, and I began dating the girl who fearlessly shared the gospel of Jesus with me. In July of 2014, less than a year after we began dating, Chelcie and I were married and we now have a beautiful baby girl named Miller Kate.
Q – You had a lot of success in athletics before becoming a Christian, including winning a D1 NCAA National title (which is every college track athletes dream). Did that fulfill you? If not, what did Jesus offer you that athletic success did not?
A – I don’t think I ever felt fulfilled by it. I was too tired the day I won to really enjoy it, and the very next day I was planning out how to make the World Championship team. It was really just a checkmark on my to-do list and a resume builder.
Jesus offered me peace and acceptance. I know that I’m loved by the creator of the universe and nobody can ever take that away. Jesus has also given us a calling to follow Him and His word, be full of grace, and to love Him and each other in radical, often self-sacrificing ways.
Q – What were your post-college athletic experiences? What advice do you have Christian Athletes wanting to continue competitive athletics after college graduation?
A – I recall waiting for sponsorships and contracts. I remember feeling like I had earned it, rather than being grateful for any help anyone was willing to offer. I wish that I could do it all over again. My advice for future athletes coming out of college would be to establish a support system first, complete with a job and relationships outside of your training group. I think being involved in a church or finding opportunities to be connected in your community are extremely important. Find a good training/life balance and realize that you don’t need the “ideal situation” to be successful. You just have to work to get a little bit better every day. Fight the urge to be selfish like many coaches tell you to be and look for ways to serve those around you.
Q – If you were to return to college today as a Freshman, as a Christian Athlete, what would be some of the disciplines that you would put in place for yourself to succeed in school, athletics and in your Christian walk?
A – I’d say get on a regular schedule and don’t just fly by the seat of your pants. Find a rhythm. Also, I would get involved in some sort of campus ministry. I think it’s extremely important to have Christian influences in your life, even if you’re ashamed that you’re not living up to God’s standards. It makes it a lot easier to completely stray if you’re not exposed to any truth to pull you back on track. And I think being in Christian community gives you more of an opportunity to see God’s work in action.
Q – Anything else that you would like to share with the readers?
A – Perseverance is key. Fighting the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12); racing a good race (1 Corinthians 9;24). We often think of those scriptures athletically, but we need to look at them spiritually. What are they really wanting to tell us? I am thankful as I look back. I have been able to embrace the trials and hardships. I think that is where growth occurs when you’re challenged and afraid. We need to be ready to embrace that. Looking back years later that is where God did some real work. All of the things that I thought were life ending, like not making the Olympics, injuries etc., they were actually a blessing. I can pass a lot of those lessons on to young athletes. I believe I gained way more knowledge through those trials, than if I had gone to the Olympics. There was a lot of wisdom found in the trials.
Q – What’s your Favourite Bible Passage?
Romans 12 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
This was the verse that Chelcie shared with me when I made the decision to follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I feel like it answered the question of “now what do I do with this newfound faith?”
“Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice”
- really put into perspective “what am I willing to give up” vs “what did God give up for us”. And we are to willingly and lovingly offer our lives as a sacrifice the same way He did for us as a form of worship.
“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world”
- we should be set apart from the conventional wisdom of the world. We have the truth to follow
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”
- pray that God would transform and renew your mind to match His word. Get rid of the worldly stuff you thought you knew and renew it with scripture. It’s amazing the wisdom and knowledge contained in the Bible.