Bike champion gives up racing to serve mission

As the timed-trial champion of Slovenia, Leon Bergant was something of a rising star on the Slovene National Bike team.

He was well known for his accomplishments, having collected more than 100 trophies from major European races since he was 11 years old.Prospects for the future of this national hero were bright.

But the course of Leon's life - and his budding professional career - began to change in December 1995 after attending a Christmas Fair held in his hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

There he noticed a display for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He strolled over, stood near the display, and soon began talking with Elders Shea Clawson and Craig Tingey.

He was intrigued. The message of the missionaries struck a familiar chord and he wanted to learn more. His family had no religious affiliations. Yet, as a child, he had searched for the truth.

"I was never raised in a religion," he said in an interview with one of Slovenia's major newspapers, "but I always knew God existed, and that there was truth somewhere. I searched for it. I would go to

differentT churches on Sunday. But I never received answers to my questions.

"I met the Mormon missionaries and finally found what I had been searching for all my life. When I heard about principles of the gospel like the Word of Wisdom, charity, and the law of chastity, they were familiar to me. They were the words I was seeking for my whole life. What they were telling me was just so amazing and so good for me and my soul. I accepted the gospel very quickly."

Brother Bergant was baptized on Jan. 5, 1996, two weeks after meeting the missionaries. "It was a day I will never forget," he said. "I have a very strong testimony of the gospel. The missionaries are my great example, and I wanted to become like they are."

Indeed, he not only wanted to be like them, Brother Bergant wanted to become a missionary himself.

So, after years of training in a sport he loved, often riding 100 miles a day, he suddenly changed his goal from racing in the Tour de France to serving a mission.

"I'll be able to show the Lord the great faith and love that I have. I will be able to learn a lot on my mission," he said.

But before he could consider a mission, the young man was required to fill his mandatory obligation in the military.

"Since becoming a member," Brother Bergant said, "I have prayed in the morning and before going to bed. When I came into the military and slept in a room with 30 people, it was hard to kneel down and pray. But I felt I had to do this no matter the circumstances. The first day I asked the guy in the lower bunk if I could borrow his bed and he said, `Yeah, sure, but why do you need it?'

"I told him, I pray. He said it was okay. So I knelt down and prayed, and the room went from being very loud to very quiet. I felt a really strong spirit, and it was something special.

"Later, they started asking me what I was doing and what were the books I was reading. I had a lot of opportunity to share the gospel."

"To give up a career to serve a mission is difficult for those not of the Church to understand," said Johann A. Wondra, president of the Austria Vienna South Mission which includes Slovenia. "It was a difficult decision for his mother, trainer and employer to understand.

"These people loved Leon and had high expectations for him. But Leon responded with love, as he was blessed in a priesthood blessing to do, and before he was set apart for his mission, he was invited by his trainer, employer and teammates to a farewell where they offered him all their support, even a bicycle. Before he left, they opened the door for him when he returns from his mission.

"The two main newspapers in Slovenia devoted major stories to the announcement of his mission, which gives some idea how well respected this young man is, and how important the sport is."

Brother Bergant received his call, the fourth missionary from Slovenia, to serve in the country of Croatia in the Austria Vienna South Mission.

"They are different countries, but in the same mission," Pres. Wondra said, explaining how Slovenia and Croatia were never in conflict with each other during the recent war in the Balkans.

"Elder Bergant entered the mission field Jan. 8, and has completed his training in the Missionary Training Center. He is now serving in Croatia, where I expect

the CroatiansT will accept him because of the good relations between the two countries," Pres. Wondra said.

Last year, during the Church's Pioneer Sequicentennial celebration, members of the Church in Croatia celebrated 25 years since the Church had been established there with the help of legendary basketball player Kresimir Cosic.

But the Church is relatively new in Slovenia, with most of the 130 members joining the Church since independence was declared after the collapse of communism.

"Elder Bergant is a completely trustworthy young man of great faith, and full of love," said Pres. Wondra. "He is a hero for these mostly young members.

"He learned in his sport to set goals and how to work hard. He learned to work harder and push through discouragement. He is enthusiastic and loves to serve as a missionary. And he was willing to sacrifice all."

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