With an expression of pure joy on her face, Sara Lopez lifted her arms in triumph as she crossed the finish line at the Eugene Marathon in Oregon last April.
The 24-year-old from Port Orchard, Washington, had won the women’s 26.2-mile race with a time of 2 hours, 33 minutes and 48 seconds. In the process, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, thanks to her sub-2:37:00 finish. That alone, to her, was a meaningful accomplishment.
What made the victory even sweeter was knowing her journey of faith, sacrifice, hard work and endurance that brought her to that point.
Years earlier, her parents received a call to full-time service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a foreign country, which required Lopez to sacrifice her senior year of high school and a possible shot at running in college. She thought her opportunity for competitive running was gone.
Other trials followed, including an eating disorder.
When she finally began to regain her old running form, injuries slowed her progress.
“For a long time I struggled with it, like ‘Am I crazy for wanting to go for this goal?’ It’s something I really wanted for a long time,” she said. “Heavenly Father knows you. He knows what you want, and He wants you to feel joy. That’s what I have learned through this whole process. ... He has something better in mind for you, better than you could ever imagine, and that has brought me so much peace.”
‘My running career was over’
Lopez started running and competing in track and field events in junior high when her family lived in Washington.
She began breaking school records as a high school freshman, and that success continued into her junior year when her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts.
Going into her senior year, Lopez felt she was on target to hit the marks she needed to either earn a scholarship or walk on at her favorite school, Brigham Young University.
“I really wanted to run for BYU,” Lopez said. “But my time was not quite fast enough for BYU, so that’s why I was hoping to have my senior year to get the times down that I needed, or at least improve enough that I would be able to walk on to the team.”
Life took an unexpected turn in 2016 when her parents, Siegfried and Riitta Naumann, were called by the Church to serve as mission leaders of the México México City East Mission.
Lopez was initially upset, especially when she learned that her new school in Mexico didn’t have a competitive track and field program.
“I will admit I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t make it easy for my parents. I begged them to let me stay with a friend and finish my senior year in the U.S.,” she said. “I was mad at God: ‘Why are you doing this to me now?’”
Lopez gave up her senior year and moved to Mexico with her parents.
She witnessed the joy and blessings of missionary work as her parents served with the missionaries, but it was still difficult to reconcile the lingering frustration of losing her senior year and dream of running at BYU.
“I thought my running career was over,” she said. “It’s still difficult to dwell on at times, but I’ve had a lot of healing and faith-promoting experiences since then that have helped me realize how much Heavenly Father understood what I was going through. He understood what I really needed and what was truly better for me in the long run.”
Her parents completed their mission in 2019. Her father, Elder Siegfried A. Naumann, now serves as an Area Seventy in the Church’s North America West Area.
Gaining new perspective
During her senior year in Mexico City, Lopez didn’t have a track team or coach, but she did her best to stay in shape by running daily on a treadmill and monitoring her diet. Without guidance, her overexercising and food restriction became extreme. She developed anorexia, which took her out of running for a couple of years.
The problem continued into her freshman year at BYU until she started meeting with a therapist and nutritionist. They provided Lopez with the coping tools she needed. Looking back, she knows the Lord was mindful of her.
“If I had competed at BYU with an eating disorder, I don’t think I would have performed to the best of my ability,” she said. “I think I would have been burned out from the sport permanently. I knew, in retrospect, that Heavenly Father was looking out for me and knew what was best for me.”
Another form of healing came during her college years as Lopez became acquainted with the families of other mission leaders, including their circumstances and sacrifices. This helped her appreciate and understand her own family’s situation.
“Heavenly Father knew it would be hard for me, but it was going to be OK,” she said. “I wasn’t just screaming into the void. ... I don’t know all the reasons why my parents needed to be called at that time, but I know and believe in a God that sees everything and has the bigger picture in mind.”
Return to running
An opportunity to run competitively at BYU never materialized for Lopez. As a freshman, she tried to join a group of runners with the same goal of joining the track and field team, but she stepped away to improve her physical and mental health while dealing with anorexia.
Fast forward to 2020. After getting married, Lopez learned that her brother-in-law was training for a marathon. She felt ready to run again herself but didn’t train properly.
“I’m never doing this again,” she thought. “That was the worst.”
The following year, in July 2021, she followed a better training plan and ran a half marathon. She performed better than expected, and hope was renewed. She needed a coach and found one by networking through her old ward young women president in Boston.
At long last, Lopez began training more seriously and racing more competitively in marathons and half marathons.
‘Heavenly Father was with me’
Lopez prepared to run a marathon in New York in October 2022 but sprained her ankle a month before the race. She ended up running a half marathon to maintain her training but not cause further injury to her ankle.
Lopez was scheduled to race in the California International Marathon in December 2022, but she slipped a disc in her lower back two weeks before the race, once again forcing her out of the competition.
Despite the frustrating injuries, Lopez wasn’t ready to give up. She wasn’t so focused on qualifying for the Olympic trials as she was just finishing the race.
“OK, I’m just going to give it one more chance,” she said. “I just want to make it to the starting line healthy — not injured.”
Lopez kept a prayer in her heart through the entire race and said she felt heavenly support. She finished with the second-best time for a woman in the history of the Eugene Marathon. Crossing the finish line to a cheering crowd on the track at historic Hayward Field at the University of Oregon campus was a moment she will never forget.
“It was tender because I haven’t run on a track since racing in high school, so to finish like that was surreal,” she said. “I felt the love and support of all the people that have supported me through this whole process. I felt like Heavenly Father was with me. I felt like I was carried through that race. It was very special.”
U.S. Olympic trials
The U.S. Olympic trials are scheduled to take place in February 2024 in Orlando, Florida. There Lopez will compete against more than 125 elite runners. The top three finishers will qualify to represent the United States at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France.
She is preparing for the Olympic trials with an open mind and grateful heart. She wants to give her best and knows this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Obviously it would be amazing to finish in the top three, but my main goal is to get to the starting line healthy and run the best race possible. No matter what, I know Heavenly Father is with me throughout this whole journey, and that brings me peace,” said Lopez, a member of the Sinclair View Ward in the Bremerton Washington Stake.
“I try to remember what I value the most — my family and my faith. Sometimes it’s easy to get sucked into how competitive running is and feel anxious about it, but I try to remember that my worth is much greater than being a runner. I never want to take for granted this gift of running that Heavenly Father has given me, so I try my best to stay close to Him and my Savior, Jesus Christ. I rely on Heavenly Father by trying to stay in tune with what He wants me to do, because I know He sees the big picture. If the trials don’t go the way I want them to, yes, it’ll be hard, but my worth is beyond that. I’m 24, so I have so much time ahead of me to achieve these big goals. I just try to keep those things in perspective.
“Realizing that Heavenly Father wants what is best for me and what will bring me and my family true joy brings me so much peace about my running journey, both for the trials and beyond.”