A former sponsored child and decorated athlete turns heads, changes minds, and breaks stereotypes

Juan David, 22, is all smiles as he takes the podium to receive his second gold medal.

Winning isn’t new to Juan, a decorated athlete. He is the proud recipient of four Olympic medals: two gold, one silver, and one bronze.

Sure, he might not be the most decorated athlete of all time. His medal count doesn’t come close to that of Michael Phelps. And his 100-meter time doesn’t match that of Usain Bolt, the current Olympic record-holder from Jamaica.

But life isn’t just about the finish line.

To truly appreciate crossing the finish line, you must understand where the race started -- and what obstacles were faced along the way.

*     *     *

On your marks…

You could say that Juan David’s race in life got off to a rocky start, right off the blocks.

By the time he was 2, his father had died, and he had been forced to flee his home with his single mother and his older brother, due to threats of violence by armed groups in Colombia.

Being displaced made life even more difficult for Juan David’s mother. She was already struggling. Then, she was a single mother, in a strange city with no connections, no belongings, and no one to help her care for her children.

Even though he was displaced and living in poverty -- a situation too common in Colombia, which has one of the highest displaced populations in the world -- Juan David was, by all definitions, a “normal” kid.

But his circumstances eventually caught up to him. Lack of basic preventive medicine and access to quality health care would change his life, and that of his family, forever.

The fall…

Juan David receives a medal after running a race. (Royer Serpa/ World Vision Colombia)

At age 7, he got meningitis, which led to cerebral tuberculosis, which, in turn, left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Thanks to generous doctors at a local hospital who agreed to perform surgery, an occupational therapist, and lots of prayers, Juan David slowly began to recover his ability to speak and move.

Getting back up…

Life became even more of a day-to-day struggle. Although Juan David was alive, he didn’t see much reason to live. His mind worked fine, but his body couldn’t keep up.

He was often made fun of and treated poorly by other people in his community. His self-esteem was almost non-existent, and he had as little interaction as possible with other people.

Learning to run again…

When he was 9, Juan David was invited to be part of the World Vision sponsorship program in his community.

Through sponsorship, not only was he able to continue the rehabilitation activities and special medical treatments he needed to continue to improve; he was also able to participate in different programs that gave him a chance to excel -- including programs for music, arts, and sports.

Sponsorship helped with Juan David’s ongoing physical rehabilitation. But it also helped with this emotional and spiritual recovery.

The finish line

For me, the fact that Juan David’s medals are from the Special Olympics and not the London Olympics makes them no less valuable. Sometimes, it is the journey -- not the finish line -- that matters most.

I am proud to be part of World Vision, an international community development organization that values all people -- but especially those to whom society assigns little or no value.

Juan David’s story of struggle, overcoming, trial, and greatness is no less inspirational to me than the many, many heartwarming stories I have seen during the Olympic coverage.

Just like the Nike commercials, he shows that greatness is not a gift for a chosen few -- it is for everyone. But we all need support from others.

Juan David was cared for spiritually, emotionally, and physically through World Vision sponsorship. Want to help provide similar care for another child?

Consider sponsoring a child in Colombia or another country of your choice. You'll help provide basics like nutritious food, clean water, medical care, education, safe shelter, and spiritual nurture -- all of which form the building blocks of a bright future, and all of which help a child to know that he or she is loved.

At what points during your life -- or the life of a loved one -- has the journey been as important as the finish line, or perhaps even more so? Share your stories with us!

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