Summer is here and with the rising heat there is a rising excitement for the once-postponed Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Every few years the world comes together to celebrate the connecting power of sports, and this year several members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including gymnast MyKayla Skinner — will compete for the honor of a gold medal.
This episode of the Church News podcast, features Church News senior reporter Jason Swensen reflecting on the gospel principles he has observed athletes practice on their journey toward conquering their goals. He also shares the one trait he has observed in all of them — the belief that their identity is, first and foremost, defined not by being an athlete, but by being a son or daughter of God.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”
I love a popular quote by an unknown author about reflection: “With reflection, we look back so that the view looking forward is even clearer.” This week, we take a few minutes for reflection on the Church News podcast. We want to look back on the stories that have caught the attention of our audience, and we want to share with you the story behind the story and what we learned from all of those stories.
Today on the Church News podcast, we welcome Jason Swensen, a senior reporter and associate editor of the Church News. He’s also a frequent contributor to the Deseret News. Jason is a proud graduate of the University of Utah, and he’s filed stories for the Church News and Deseret News from several Latin American countries, from Europe and from the South Pacific. He spent most of his career chronicling the growth of the Church in Mexico, Central and South America. And today, we’re going to talk about so many of the stories that he’s brought to Church News readers. Jason, welcome to the Church News podcast.
Jason Swensen: Sarah, good to be with you.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, one of Jason's superpowers is this ability to to notice something that has caught the attention of the general public, and then apply it to our Latter-day Saint audience, and one of those stories recently was a story that he wrote about Bob Turner. Now, today for the Church News podcast, we're going to focus on a lot of athletes, but Bob Turner is not an athlete, even though his story has a lot of athletic connections. Jason, tell us who Bob Turner is.
Jason Swensen: Well, I'll correct you a bit, Sarah. Bob would tell you that, in fact, he was a college athlete and played golf in college, at a university in Tokyo, as a matter of fact. And I think one thing I find with a lot of old athletes — they may retire, put on a few pounds, their hair goes gray, but they will always answer to “athlete” and I think that was the case with Bob Turner. But in answer to your question — Bob Turner is a Latter-day Saint, really involved in his YSA stake in Lehi, and he also happens to be the translator/handler for Hideki Matsuyama, which, if you're a golf fan, or a sports fan, that's a familiar name. Of course, Hideki just won the 2021 Masters championship, probably the premier, most widely known celebrated golf tournament in the world, and Hideki is from Japan, and relies heavily upon Bob in many, many ways — not only as his translator, but also his handler, and also, the two are just very, very, very good friends.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and the two of them made history, and then we started seeing Bob Turner in the background.
Jason Swensen: Well, it was funny: I was watching the last round of the Masters with my wife, and then, of course, they transitioned from the course to the area where Hideki, the new Masters champion, was being interviewed for the first time. And there were, of course, with the familiar faces Jim Nantz from CBS Sports; and Dustin Johnson, the last year's Masters champion; the new champion, Hideki — and then I noticed right to Hideki’s side was this silver-haired gentleman, not Japanese, and as soon as he spoke, he was clearly American. They introduced him as Bob Turner, and said, introduced him as, “This is Hideki’s friend and interpreter and handler,” and then proceeded with the interview with Bob, with Mr. Turner doing all the translation duties.
I remember sitting with my wife and looking at Bob and his interactions with Hideki in Japanese, and I remember thinking immediately, “I don't know Bob Turner, but I bet he is a Latter-day Saint. I bet he's a returned missionary.” And so, sure enough, I did some checking and quickly learned that Bob was in fact a Latter-day Saint, was in fact a returned missionary, and a very observant member of the Church, and has this great history with Hideki through his own history of golf in Japan, that about a decade ago, developed into a friendship and a professional relationship, and now he is literally Hideki’s right-hand man.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And let's transition here, because so much happened that impacted athletics during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and sporting events were canceled, people could not train the way they needed to, and so, as with so many things, a lot that happened for athletes was put on hold.
Just a few months ago, we watched the BYU men's and women's cross-country and track teams excel, and actually win some national titles and draw some attention to that program. Jason, you wrote an interesting story on why Latter-day Saints have so much success in distance running — and this was so interesting, because the BYU coach had a mantra during the COVID-19 pandemic where she asked her team to win the wait. So, while other people were sitting back, she said, “Nope, let's train. Let's dig in. Let's make sure that we do everything during the COVID-19 pandemic that will prepare us to compete when we're done.” Jason, tell us what happened as a result?
Jason Swensen: Well, it was obviously a stellar year for distance runners at Brigham Young University: The women's team won the national championship in cross-country, and then their teammate on the men's side, Conner Mantz, won the individual cross-country championship at that same event. And beyond that, what was remarkable as I was looking over the list of top finishers on the women's side — obviously, there were a number of high-performing BYU athletes — but then I was also able to spot two LDS athletes in the top seven of the cross-country championship who were not BYU athletes: a young woman named Taylor Roe from Oklahoma State, and a young woman named Summer Allen from Weber State University. And that's when I realized, “I don't know what's happening here. But Latter-day Saints seem to be performing at a really, really high rate in distance running.” And so I thought, “I need to try to pursue this and try to figure out why.” You have the women's team winning it all. On the men's side, a return missionary, winning it from BYU, and then two female athletes, not affiliated with BYU, finishing in the top seven. So I thought, “I'd better pursue that.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: And what did you find?
Jason Swensen: Well, I found that — I had a chance to speak with a number of coaches and the athletes themselves, and found a few things.
Number one: there's a real legacy in the Church of elite distance runners, and so many of these athletes are the children of former athletes. I remember speaking with Ed Eyestone, the track coach at BYU and certainly a celebrated distance runner in his own right. I asked him what was the secret, and he said, “Well, as I always tell people, if you want to be an elite distance runner, then you need to choose your parents wisely.” That was certainly playing out because so many times I speak to these athletes, and it's their parents. But there were some gospel elements that I think have served them well as athletes, and particularly as distance runners — things like being able to work hard, to stay disciplined, delayed gratification — all of those elements that we learn in the Church that help us in so many ways as a fundamental gospel principle, but translate really well over to distance running as well.
Now, it seems like without fail — I was speaking with athletes who just put in mile after mile after mile after mile, usually with little celebration, little fanfare but expecting a reward at the end, however that develops. And so, I think, certainly there were some gospel principles that coaches and athletes alike were able to point to that seem to produce elite distance running. And we've seen that. And just recently, even even after the cross-country championships, I followed up with another story on a young woman named Anna Camp Bennett, who just won the 1500 (meter) NCAA title, another story of a distance runner who's just worked really, really hard, usually with little fanfare, and is now enjoying the success of that patience and her efforts.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I can't even imagine the hours and hours and painful training that has to go into making a distance runner. So often, when we look at the story behind the story, we learn things that sort of surprise us. In another story you did recently, I was surprised, and that was a story on Matt Gay. Matt Gay is a football player and placekicker for the Los Angeles Rams who went to the University of Utah for his undergraduate years, and he's also a Latter-day Saint, and he shared with you something that was really interesting. Tell us what you learned from him.
Jason Swensen: Well, Matt Gay has a fascinating story because he actually grew up as a soccer player, and that was his first love, and in the process developed a really, really, really strong kicking foot, succeeded at the highest levels of youth soccer and then, prior to his mission, played soccer at Utah Valley University for a while and then returned home from his mission, and decided to try placekicking on football, on American football, and long story short, ended up at the University of Utah where he had a stellar All-American career.
Read more: Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay on record field goal, relying on God through his mission and the NFL
And you would think of all people who would never have any sort of challenges or doubts, or the obstacles that we might see today, a placekicker would be one. But in learning a little bit more about Matt Gay, I discovered, in fact, that this was a young man who had suffered for quite some time in a battle with depression. And so, that was something that had interfered with the quality of his own life, and it was fascinating to be able to talk to Matt about that issue that so many people, of course, can recognize, and I appreciated him being so open as he discussed his own challenges and how he's been able to utilize just a lot of day-to-day faith, and prayer, and the support and love of everyone — from coaches to his families, to his priesthood leaders who have all just helped him sort of manage, day-to-day, this battle with depression, which you can imagine would be so essential for someone like a placekicker, who was always going to only be as good as his last kick. It doesn't matter how many field goals you kick, how many PAT’s you make consecutively, the time that you missed that game-winning field goal, you're everyone's goat. I can imagine how emotionally difficult that must be, that sort of pressure.
But Matt's been able to persevere. And he was very, very candid in speaking with me about his own battle with depression, and how he's been able to not only survive, but thrive. And here he is now, you know, I think now he's playing for the Rams, as you mentioned, and I think he's gonna have a really, really successful career, but he has his day-to-day challenges that he has to face. And I think readers could connect with that right away.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I have been so touched in recent years, as we've seen, a transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable from a lot of the people that we have featured in the Church News. Another one of those people is Isaac Asiata. And he is also a former football player who played at the University of Utah. I think he's a guard, right?
Jason Swensen: He's an offensive lineman, yeah.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And tell us what you learned from him.
Jason Swensen: Well, you know, I will say, full disclosures: As a hardcore Ute, Isaac has always been one of my favorite players along with Matt Gay because of so many game-winning heroics we enjoyed during Matt's tenure up at the U. But Isaac has always been one of my favorites, because he’s just not only an outstanding athlete and first-rate lineman, but just a gregarious, fun guy with a big, big personality. And so I was eager to be able to catch up with him and get to know him a little bit better.
But again, as I had a chance to sit down and speak with Isaac a few years ago about his experiences in the NFL, at some point in our conversation, it transitioned to some of the challenges that he had faced years earlier, when he was serving a mission. And then, if memory serves me, he returned home because he was dealing with some injuries or some health challenges, and at some point, made the decision not to return to his mission. And that decision — he dealt with some pushback from a lot of different people who thought that he was making the wrong decision. And I remember Isaac telling me, “OK, people are saying that I'm the bad guy. Well, guess what? I'm going to be the bad guy, I guess,” And for a time, he stepped away from the Church, or at least from full activity and different things. And it wasn't until a few of his coaches and teammates and other loved ones, who recognized that his value was far beyond being able to protect a quarterback or open up a hole for his running backs — they realized what a special guy Isaac was, and they supported him, they ministered to him. These were coaches, these were teammates who offered priesthood blessings. I remember one teammate accompanied him to the temple for the first time in several years, and all of these experiences helped bring Isaac sort of back into the fold, if you will, into full activity, and now he's married and has some beautiful children. The last time I caught up with Isaac, he was working as a police officer in Provo and just a first-rate guy, but it was a testament to the power of ministering and how people can look out for one another. And he was also very candid in talking to me about ways that we can best support people who, for whatever reason, their missions don't end the way that perhaps that they had anticipated, and just some really good common sense counsel that I think all of us needed to hear about how he was able to transition out of that challenge. So that was a super story.
Read more: NFL player shares what it’s like returning home early from a mission, what you can do to help others
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, his story never had more relevance than as the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating and the Church is sending home missionaries to their home countries. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was the chair of the Church's Missionary Executive Council said that at one point, 32,000 missionaries were crisscrossing the globe. Obviously, each of those missionaries had their own story and some of those missionaries had missions that ended earlier than they had anticipated. Some of them had missions that ended in a reassignment to another mission. Above all, is that during this time, every missionary had to learn to be a little flexible and learn to have their story unfold before them. And so, what a great lesson from someone who was willing to share his story long before that ever happened.
You know, this year was also an interesting year, because the Church sustained new general authorities; one was Elder Vai Sikahema. Jason, you wrote his profile as a new General Authority. Many of us knew Elder Sikahema long before his Church service because of his career as an athlete.
Jason Swensen: Yeah, and it was so much fun working with Elder Sikahema because he, again, he's just a great guy, big personality, loves to talk sports, loves to talk football. He's been a great source for me over the last couple of years as I've done stories on some fellow Polynesian Church members connected to the football world, like coach Ken Niumatalolo at Navy, as well as Kalani Sitake, of course, at BYU, and I’ve been able to develop some fun stories.
So I had a fun working relationship with Elder Sikahema prior to his call to the Seventy. I was thrilled when that call came because I knew just what a great guy he was, and it was so much fun hearing his own story about how he's worked his way up as an immigrant to a football star at BYU, making the difficult decision to serve a mission, and then enjoying the sort of success that he's had not only as an all pro football player, but as a beloved sportscaster and journalists in the Philadelphia area who has never felt the need to compartmentalize his faith. He didn't have to set it aside. He didn't have to ever apologize. He could be an elite football player, he could be a respected journalist, and he could remain loyal to his Latter-day Saint convictions seamlessly. And I think that's a lesson that we can learn from, in any capacity.
Read more: Divinely inspired confidence lifts former pro football player, broadcaster Elder Vai Sikahema
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and in the interest of transparency here — when we introduced Jason today, we said he was a proud University of Utah graduate. He actually has a daughter that went to Brigham Young University where she played collegiate soccer, and a son that is currently at the Naval Academy. Now with that — you'd mentioned the Naval Academy, but we have featured quite a few stories on the Navy's football coach.
Jason Swensen: And full disclosure: President Niumatalolo, and I call him President Niumatalolo, because, of course, he's not only the head football coach at Navy, and the winningest football coach in the Academy's history; he's also the president of the Maryland Stake. So he's my son's priesthood leader, and just an outstanding super guy who reminds me of Elder Sikahema in a lot of different ways, because, again, as I've spoken to him, I've got the sense that, again, he's never felt the need to compartmentalize his profession from his faith. And there's some real lessons there. And I visited with Coach Niumatalolo in his football offices in Annapolis, and there are quotes from President Hinckley, the writings of general authorities, and other things that any visitor, any recruit’s going to see and know exactly who this guy is, and he's 100% comfortable with that. He never has to say, “OK, I'm gonna put on my football hat now, or I'm gonna put on my priesthood leader hat.” He's the same guy. And that's always been remarkable — that he's felt no need to apologize or even explain or even compartmentalize his profession from his faith. And so, it's been so much fun to be able to see the success that he's had.
Read more: ‘The Savior is the head coach’: How Navy’s challenging football season brought Ken Niumatalolo closer to Christ than he’s ever been
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and while we're talking about the Navy, I want to shift and talk a little bit about Mason Wells. We just wrote an update on his story for our audience. We first heard of Mason Wells while he was a missionary. He was, unfortunately, at the Belgium airport at the same time, there was a horrific terrorist attack there, where he was injured. Mason is not an athlete like the others were talking about on this podcast, although Jason did tell me before we started this that he did play a little high school football. So, Jason, by your earlier definition, I'm sure he considers himself an athlete in some form.
Jason Swensen: He certainly looks the part. I was with him just a few days ago, and he looks fit. And you're right — he was a high school football player, and comes from an athletic family. So I think we can safely call Mason an athlete. Sure.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So update us on where Mason is, and actually tell us the end of this story. We met him after this horrific terrorist attack, and then you followed up with him at the Naval Academy.
Jason Swensen: If I may, Sarah, I'll go ahead and sort of start from the beginning of my association with Mason in the same way that I referenced earlier — that I was watching the Masters press conference and spotted Bob Turner speaking Japanese and thought, “I bet he's a Church member” — under far darker circumstances.
I remember driving to work that awful morning in 2016 and learning the news of this terrorist bombing in Belgium and thinking to myself, “OK, that's a big airport. I bet there will be some sort of Latter-day Saint connection and we'll find ourselves involved in the reporting of this horrible crime.” And sure enough, before too long — and you'll remember, Sarah — we got the awful news that four missionaries: A missionary companionship that included Elder Wells, along with the senior missionary and a sister missionary were counted among the victims of the bombing, and all were seriously injured, including Mason.
So, that was the first time on that awful morning that I ever heard Mason Wells’ name, and began our coverage of the missionaries, the news of their involvement in the bombing, and then their recovery over the next few weeks and months. So, I think Church members around the world became familiar with missionaries like Mason and his companion, Dres Empey, and the others because they loved them, and they were worried about them. And so I think we did a pretty good job keeping track of them. And then a year or two passed, and I learned from some of my Naval Academy friends: “Hey, you remember Mason Wells? From the bombing?”
I said, “Of course.”
He said, “Well, Mason's got himself an appointment to the Naval Academy.”
And I thought, “Well, readers are going to want to know about that, because they're so concerned about these missionaries.” And to hear him be able to make that next transition into his life, and be able to do something like begin study at the academy, people will really be interested in.
So, as you referenced, Sarah, I did a story just as he was about ready to enter the Academy, and kept up with him over the last few years. This is an ongoing story. But at this point, it's at something of a happy ending. I was able to put a story together right at the end of May with the great news that Mason was graduating from the Naval Academy, he’s in good shape, he’s feeling healthy, he was commissioned an ensign in the Navy, and is about to start in a few weeks his pilot training down in Pensacola, Florida, which was a fulfillment of a dream — a dream that he didn't know, frankly, if he was going to fulfill after the bombing.
Read more: A survivor’s victory: Brussels bombing victim Mason Wells graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy
And as anyone who read that story knows that there's more to that there's even a bit of romance in the Mason Wells story, which is fun. When Mason was in his plebe year, his freshman year at the academy which is, again, having had a son of the academy during plebe year, I know it's an awful tough year, and you need good friends. And that year, he was fortunate enough to meet a young woman from California who became a friend, Cassidy Hylton, and the two of them struck up a friendship that developed into a relationship.
Cassidy, at the time, was not a Latter-day Saint, but knew a lot of Church members growing up in the San Diego area. And when I had a chance to speak with both Mason and Cassidy, Cassidy reminded me that she had told Mason, “We can be friends, Mason, but remember, I know everything about the Church, so you don't need to tell me any more about it.” Mason gave her space and they went to church together and other meetings. And at some point, it was Cassidy who approached Mason and said, “I want to know. I guess I don't know everything. I want to know a little bit more. Can we talk to the missionaries? And so, certainly a fun element of that story is, a year or two after they met at the Academy, Mason was able to baptize Cassidy.
They continued their studies together, and then in May, they graduated together. And then just a few days after graduation, they made the cross-country trip from Annapolis to San Diego where they were married there in the San Diego Temple. I had a chance to spend some time with Mason and Cassidy at a reception in Mason’s Salt Lake City home. They both looked great. She looked beautiful in her wedding dress; Mason looked very, very handsome in his ensign’s uniform. And, as is typical of all newly commissioned officers, they're about ready to head in different directions. Mason, as I mentioned, goes to flight school. Cassidy is going to be a Surface Warfare Officer. So, she starts her schooling and they'll sort of be separated for a time.
But, you know, what a remarkable story to see the Wells family at their most desperate, tragic moment after that bombing, and to see Mason's persistence. He still carries the scars of that bombing. You can look at his hands and the burn scars remain, but he proudly wears his Academy ring on one hand and his wedding ring on the other And he's persevered, and he’s succeeded, and I think people are thrilled to see this success story for both Mason and now Cassidy Hylton Wells.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and that sort of takes us back to where we started with that quote on reflection, because when we look back at people's experiences, then the view looking forward is even clearer, because we know where they've come from.
Another person whose career that we followed at the Church News, and one that I think will have the eyes of the world on her in the not-so-distant future is MyKayla Skinner, who is a gymnast who will be participating in the next Olympics.
Jason Swensen: I really think that the the storyline you're going to see a lot with MyKayla, as people watch the games — and, of course, there's always great interest in gymnastics, it's one of the most popular events — is that Kayla is the personification of persistence, which, I think, to be able to succeed at that level in gymnastics, and maybe at anything else, the rewards really do go to those who persist.
So if you remember, in 2016, MyKayla was actually selected as an alternate to the team. She went to Brazil, but I'm sure for a competitor like MyKayla that had to have been so hard to be so close, and yet so far away from the Olympics. And she — those of us who were University of Utah fans, of course, know well that she went on and competed for the University of Utah. And then, I believe a year or so ago, decided to make the big shift to step away from collegiate athletics and concentrate again on making the national team so she could qualify for the Olympics.
I remember speaking to MyKayla in 2019, and I talked about how persistent she is, and I guess anyone who followed gymnastics associated MyKayla with her steadiness because, if I remember, she had performed 161 different routines without falling. And I don't know a lot about competitive gymnastics, but I'm guessing that's a huge accomplishment, considering the events. They're on the beams and the vaults and different things, she'd gone 161 times.
She finds herself competing again for a spot on the U.S. national team, is on the beam, and seconds into her performance, she falls. And I'm sure, at that moment, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people were watching and everyone was saying, “Wow, we can't believe MyKayla just fell.” She had to decide, “OK where do I go from here?” And it sounds cliche, but she got back on the beam, she performed and she made the team. And I thought, and being able to speak to MyKayla after that, she just simply said, “That's what I do. I just have to persist.”
Read more: Gymnast MyKayla Skinner shares how she balances competing on U.S. National Team while living the gospel
And we've certainly seen that over the last year where she's had to deal with COVID. Apparently, she had to be hospitalized for a while with pneumonia, had big interruptions. MyKayla is 24 years old, which I guess in the world of competitive gymnastics, makes her almost a geriatric athlete compared to all those other teams. But she has persisted. She's done well. She has also recently married in the past year, and now she's going to be competing in Tokyo. And it's going to be a lot of fun to watch her, and I think regardless if she wins a medal or finds her way to the podium, or if she falls seconds into her routine, I think all of us are going to recognize some of the lessons that she can teach us with her persistence.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and these are the lessons that we've seen highlighted all the way from everything we've talked about — you have Bob Turner, who has just consistently gone through his career and supported the people and used the language he learned on his mission, all the way down to football players who were vulnerable enough to share with us stories of their own falls, their own shortcomings.
And then you've got BYU distance runners who are just keeping at it. Mason Wells, who's just working hard every day to move forward with his life after an unfortunate turn of events, and MyKayla Skinner who refuses to give up. And so, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast, Jason, as you know, where we always give our guests the last word, and we have them answer the same question. And the question is: “What do you know now?” And so, as you look back on your career, and especially on your career where you've had the opportunity to write about and profile some prominent Latter-day Saints who have excelled in different forms of athletics, tell us what you've learned. What do you know now?
Jason Swensen: I think the most important thing that I've learned from a number of these athletes is that being an elite gymnast, or an NFL placekicker, or a national championship distance runner: It's what these athletes do, but it's not who they are. And I have heard that message from so many different athletes — from Tony Finau, to MyKayla Skinner, to Isaac Asiata. And from Mason Wells, as he's pursued his own dreams. Each one of these individuals recognize that their true identity was as a son or a daughter of God, and that was not conditional upon their performance in a football game, or at a golf tournament, or in a gymnastics meet, or even in a classroom. And I think their identity is never a reflection of their medal, or their trophy, or their honor — their identity is that they are a son or a daughter of God. I'm going to face my own challenges, my own shortcomings, and if I have that identity always at the front of my mind, that I know I can overcome those challenges.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.