Professional snowboarder Jörg Walcher grew up in Austria, where his family ran a ski hotel. His parents’ marriage was failing, and he recalls being disinterested in God.
‘I never went to church. I thought that it was boring, religious hypocrisy and I wasn’t interested at all,’ he recalls. ‘My dad had problems with alcohol and depression. In my teenage years he wasn’t really there for me, so my heart became very hard. My parents divorced when I was 17.’
At the age of 22, Jörg found his way to a church service where a former surfer was preaching: ‘I saw these people singing gospel songs with their hands in the air and saying “hallelujah” and I thought, “These are weird people and I don’t know why I’m here.” I closed my eyes and said to God, “If you really exist, here I am. Show me.”’
This simple prayer led to a spiritual experience that lasted for hours. ‘All of a sudden, such a love came into my heart,’ Jörg says. ‘When I opened my eyes all the people had gone; I didn’t realise. I was in this indescribable love with God. I knew: “Wow, he really exists.” I thought, “With this love, everything is possible, I could forgive my dad for what happened in our family.”’
IT’S A DECISION TO NOT JUST LIVE BY FEELINGS BUT TO LIVE BY COMMITMENT
HOSPITAL AND HEALING
While reading the Bible one day, Jörg felt compelled to ring his father. He discovered that his dad had collapsed but was refusing to go to hospital. When Jörg got him there, the doctors told him his dad’s lungs were full of water and that he would die from suffocation.
‘I thought, “I don’t care what people think, I will pray for my father,”’ he recalls. ‘I prayed that he [would get] to know the love of Jesus as I had experienced. I prayed for healing.’
Jörg’s father invited Christ into his life at this point, and when the doctors X-rayed him again there was no trace of any lung problem. Perhaps even more miraculously, Jörg’s parents were reconciled. His mum had started reading the Bible, and she felt called to end the relationship she was in, in order to look after her ex-husband. They married again in 2002, and Jörg was his dad’s best man. ‘God really restored the whole family,’ he says.
Professional diver Jacqueline Schneider grew up in a Catholic home but had no relationship with God. However, struggling to deal with pressure at the World Championships one year, she got on her knees next to the pool and asked God for help. ‘I need you in my life,’ she said.
She came fourth, a strong result in a contest in which Switzerland had not previously done well. Jacqueline was national diving champion 14 times during her career as well as an Olympic and World Championships finalist.
As a result, she gained something of a celebrity status back home, which led to unsolicited interest from men. ‘I was in the media a lot, and many men wrote me love letters,’ she recalls. ‘I was thinking, “Leave me alone. I only want Jesus, with all my heart.”’
AN UNEXPECTED MATCH
Shortly after this, Jacqueline was having dinner at a Christian conference when a friend of the man she was dining with came over for a chat. ‘I saw this young man with a bright shining face and smile,’ she remembers. ‘I saw the light in his eyes…I was thinking, “Wow, who is this man?” I was really fussy, but my heart was full of love for him. I knew he was going to be my husband.’
Jacqueline fasted and prayed for ten days following that brief meeting with Jörg, by which time he had managed to obtain her phone number. They met up and a few days later Jörg felt a prompt from God to propose. ‘God’s voice in my heart said: “Trust in me with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding,”’ he says.
The couple married a year later at Lake Garda in Italy and their first kiss took place at the altar. They now have three daughters: Joy, Jessie and Jolina.
THE CHALLENGES OF MARRIAGE
Despite this fairy tale beginning and the premarital counselling they had received, marriage proved to be hard work. ‘When you experience love at first sight, that’s a nice start, but then life begins,’ says Jörg. ‘It goes through many different challenges and obstacles…It’s a decision to not just live by feelings but to live by commitment and to serve.’
It wasn’t easy for Jacqueline to adjust from life as a successful sportswoman and celebrity to being a wife and mother, and Jörg admits to being stuck in his ways when they first married. ‘We had our own thinking and our own way of doing things,’ he says. ‘If it hadn’t been for God then we would have taken the easy way out.’
Jörg and Jacqueline have now retired from professional sport, but Jörg has been an ‘Olympic Chaplain’ (a post that was developed after the attack on the Israeli national team in 1972) for 11 years. He provides spiritual support to athletes around the world, both he and Jacqueline mentor athletes. The couple have had a number of opportunities to share their faith in interviews with celebrity magazines in Switzerland. They haven’t lost their love of sports and fitness, however. They get up at 5am, before the children wake, to exercise and pray.
The couple know that the way of Christ is different from the self-centredness of life as a celebrity. ‘Christ says: it is not about you,’ says Jörg. ‘If you leave your life behind, and follow him, that is what gives you strength.’