A place atop the podium was only the beginning.
Sharon Wichman found her dream in seventh grade.
Not long after she moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, Sharon's father signed up her and her brothers for Club Olympia, a year-round swim club that boasted some elite athletes. At the time, Sharon wasn't a great swimmer. His goal, she admits, was to keep his children active and out of trouble.
But listening to girls talk in the locker room, Sharon felt a big, wild idea take root: She wanted to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal.
"Nobody believed I'd ever do that," laughs Sharon, "and I kind of didn't either."
GOING FOR GOLD
Even so, Sharon began to pour herself into training. By 13, she was competing nationally in the breaststroke. When a world-renowned Hungarian swimming coach, who had fled from the Communist invasion of his homeland, settled in Fort Wayne and became Sharon’s coach, her swimming career rose to dizzying new heights.
At 16, Sharon made the U.S. team for the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. There, she won the gold for the 200-meter breaststroke in record Olympic time. She also claimed the bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke.
With a gold medal hanging around her neck, young Sharon stood at the top of a podium before a crowd of cheering spectators, listening to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and reveling in the realization of her improbable dream.
"I thought there couldn't be anything better to happen," she remembers, "but I was wrong."
A SECOND CHANCE FOR SHARON WICHMAN
Sharon returned to Fort Wayne a local celebrity. But before too long, the spotlight faded, and her life resumed a normal course. She graduated high school and college and got married, becoming Sharon Jones. She and her husband, David, lived rent-free in her father-in-law's old farmhouse, where they spent frugally and invested their savings. Sharon gave birth to two sons.
But still, Sharon felt a yearning for something more—something greater. She says she found what she was looking for when she had an encounter with God.
"I was going one direction, and when I became a Christian, I turned around and went in the opposite direction. I got a second chance by knowing Christ," she marvels.
Sharon and David found a spiritual home in a Baptist church, and Sharon discovered a new passion: generosity to those in need.
"Learning about God, it really touched my heart that we needed to be giving and sharing," she says.
Fueled by the dividends of disciplined spending and prudent investments, the Joneses started donating to several organizations, including Prison Fellowship®, that they felt would advance the Gospel and use resources wisely.
"With the world the way it is, I want to give as much money to missions as I can," explains Sharon. "So, when I feel God leading me to [give], I just do it right away."
FUELED BY HOPE
Sharon has never been to a prison. But her heart remains with those behind bars. She even established two charitable gift annuities, donations that make fixed payments to her for life while supporting the ministry of Prison Fellowship.
For Sharon, it was an easy decision.
The hope and love that I know [because of Christ], I want other people to know that, and I think people in prison need that more than ever. … Everybody needs a second chance and that's what Jesus Christ is, a second chance to turn your life to God. [People in prison] need to know that they're loved, they're valuable, they’re important, and they have something to give to the world for God."
A NEW KIND OF PERSONAL BEST
Decades after her glittering experiences in the Olympics, Sharon prefers a simple life. She drives a school bus and loves the kids she shuttles around in the early mornings. She laughs when "her kids" Google her name and discover her past athletic achievements. David and Sharon's sons are grown and married, but they are kept busy by the three cats they rescued and bottle-fed as kittens.
Sharon's current life goal no longer involves a pool. Instead, she's set on reading the entire Bible for the third time. She says that delving into God's Word fills her heart with love and compassion for others—even strangers.
She isn't very interested in spending money on vacations ("They’re so exhausting!") or clothes ("As long as I look decent, what difference does it make? I'm not a model."), but Sharon finds great satisfaction in donating part of her income to causes she deems important. She considers generosity an investment—not one that will yield temporary financial gain, but rather one that will pay eternal dividends for those whose lives God will touch as He's touched hers.
"I thought that winning those gold and bronze medals at the Olympics would be the highlight of my life," reflects Sharon, "but it wasn't anything compared to knowing Christ. The trappings of all that, the fame … it lasted for a year, and then it was gone. But [knowing Christ] totally changed my life."
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