Summer 2024

NCAA discus national champion Hannah Woelfling seeks 'God's will' in disappointment, triumph

Hannah Woelfling was a household name in the Division II track and field space. One of the best in the country in the discus and hammer throw events, she hoped to parlay that success into a platform to make the name of Jesus known more than hers. She quickly learned during her junior year at Millersville University (Millersville, Pennsylvania) how God can use even the most disappointing losses to do just that.

Though she was introduced to Christ in high school, she had yet to fully commit her life to Him. When a former athlete from the school came back to speak at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event, something in the message moved Hannah to truly give her life to Him.

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“That fired her up to have a great testimony for Jesus when she hit the 2022 national championships,” said Lisa DeVinney, an area representative for FCA at Millersville University. “She believed God would help her finish well, and she in return would give Him all the glory.”

However, a life of faith is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it gets harder once you proclaim Jesus as your Savior. But it’s those hard moments that test and strengthen faith.

The 2022 spring outdoor track season, which was technically Woelfling’s sophomore season eligibility-wise, was “the best track season of my life,” she told Sports Spectrum. She was living up to her All-American status and setting conference records. She was competing as well as she could heading into the national championships.

“I was feeling a lot better about a lot of stuff in my life and just growing in my faith,” she said.

Despite the momentum, the regular-season success didn’t translate to national championships. After throwing some of her lowest distances all season, she failed to make the national finals in the hammer throw — an event she had dominated in most other meets. Instead, it was a teammate who advanced.

Woelfling then had to regroup to compete in the discus event. Once again, the struggles appeared.

“I was able to get things back together and I was throwing super well in warmups for discus,” she said. “Then I was throwing really good marks but I was fouling every single throw. I fouled all three throws and ended up getting last in discus, and that was the end of my season.”

It didn’t make any sense. Distraught and confused, Woelfling just kept asking, “Why?” During the indoor season in the winter and throughout the outdoor season, she journaled regularly, asking God to let her be a light while competing.

“I just had this life-changing experience being saved and I thought I was doing all the right things,” she said. “I thought I was competing for the right reasons. I just was so unsure of why, in the result of me having this year of seeking God, it would turn to this outcome in my season.”

Hannah Woelfling

Hannah Woelfling. (Photo by Bill Morgal/SHIP Sports Info)

Woelfling returned to Millersville in the fall of 2022 doubting herself and her understanding of what God wanted from her. She struggled to see the purpose of it all, only the dejection and discouragement.

“I believe she felt like He let her down. Or that maybe she had somehow let Him down,” DeVinney said. “So she and I started meeting weekly, talking through why God might have wanted things to go the way they did, and how sometimes a big loss can open up a platform as well.”

Woelfling said she felt she had to succeed for people to see the hope she had in Jesus. After some reflection, she realized that approach was wrong and all it was doing was adding unnecessary pressure.

“He just wanted me to go out and glorify Him,” she said. “If people tag along in the process, I feel like that’s more of what He wanted from me. But I was just thinking something else.”

Woelfling and DeVinney talked about competing for an audience of One and what that looked like.

“It seemed to bring back the joy and bring freedom from the pressure to perform,” DeVinney said.

With some newfound clarity, Woelfling got more plugged into FCA. Over winter break, she went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, where God spoke to her personally about some things in her life that she still needed to surrender, DeVinney said.

That proved to be a pivotal moment in her faith.

“When she came back to campus in the fall, she plugged in like never before with FCA,” DeVinney said. “And we had the opportunity to share with her that perhaps platforms aren’t limited to worldly success, that sometimes the greater platform is actually adversity, because so many more athletes can identify with that. A very small percentage stand on that podium. But nearly all have endured sidelining injuries or time on the bench.”

Woelfling started her training for the 2022-23 track and field season with a renewed perspective and motivation.

“While doing so, she also began reaching out with a greater passion to her teammates, inviting them to come to FCA with her,” DeVinney said. “And several of her teammates had their lives literally changed by Christ for eternity through her testimony.”

Woelfling had a strong regular season and entered the 2023 national championship meet with a ton of confidence. The desire to win was certainly there. But the pressure? Not this time around.

“This season I wasn’t really trying to ask God to help me throw certain things,” she said. “I was just asking Him for peace in the competition and the results and just to have this experience and further my faith.”

She started writing “God’s Will” in her journal before competitions as a reminder of His provision, whether she won or faulted on every throw. This was her prayer heading into the hammer throw event.

She threw 61.98 meters, which was good enough for second place. The champion, Judith Essemiah of Grand Valley State University, threw 64.31 meters. Though she didn’t win, Woelfling said this time she felt content with the outcome.

The next day was the discus event. She was a little more nervous for this one, just because it was her last event. A senior academically, she had already made the decision that, despite having another year of athletic eligibility due to the NCAA’s ruling for athletes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, she would graduate and pursue a career as a teacher.

Instead of writing down any distance goals in her journal, she wrote, “God’s will be done.” She left the hotel with her journal on the dresser, not paying attention to what page she had left it open to. She threw 50.91 meters in the finals to take first place, a far cry from the disappointment she’d experienced just a year ago. She was the NCAA Division II women’s discus national champion.

She couldn’t help but notice the 180-degree turn she’d just experienced.

“There were people out-throwing me that just kind of had similar experiences to my previous season and just couldn’t do with the weather. It was kind of a miracle,” she said. “I knew I could do well. I don’t think I was really supposed to win. I came back to my hotel and [my journal] was sitting there with ‘God’s will’ written in it. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it was all about.’”

Reflecting back on the work God did over the last couple of years, Woelfling said she realized she had made her sport an idol. God started to “chisel away” at her life, she said.

She learned how to be patient with God’s plans and that His timing is perfect.

“It’s not about when things are convenient for me,” she said. “I had to learn those things the hard way, I feel, but I think that’s kind of how it works. My faith has definitely deepened in that sense.”

The thought of using her extra year of eligibility did creep in, but Woelfling ultimately stuck with starting her teaching career. She’ll teach industrial arts at the middle school level. It was just time to move on, she said.

Her school doesn’t have an FCA chapter yet, but it does have a Students For Christ organization, which Woelfling plans to help with, as well as serve as a volunteer coach with the throwers on the track and field team.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of fortunate blessings and people mentoring me and coaching me,” Woelfling said. “I just kind of felt like it was my time to start doing that for other people.”

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