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FIERCE Athlete Founder Samantha Kelley on Building a Bridge Between Sports and the Catholic Faith

This year is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, the civil rights law that gave countless women and girls equal access to sports and education. Samantha Kelley joins the Busted Halo Show to discuss this milestone and her organization FIERCE Athlete.

Samantha is a former college athlete whose mission is to help women build a bridge between sports and their Catholic faith. A former Division I soccer player for the University of Connecticut, Samantha is the founder and president of FIERCE Athlete, a community for female athletes which promotes true and authentic identity and femininity within women’s sports. The organization aims to help women thrive through supportive speaking engagements, clinics, retreats, and coaching.

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“I grew up Catholic, but if you’d asked me in high school who I was, I was an athlete,” Samantha says. “Until I tore my ACL, LCL and meniscus and was told I’d never play again.” She explains how she did play soccer again, but in her time of injury she’d “escape to Mass” and ended up having a radical encounter with Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration. “At that point, I was all in,” Samantha says.

Father Dave shares his experience ministering to teams on college campuses, but he notes that the sports fellowship programs he saw were predominantly Christian and not Catholic. Samantha describes how the Christian programs had some great principles but for her, “It wasn’t deep enough.” Samantha founded FIERCE Athlete to help fill that need, specifically for female athletes at both the high school and college level. “It was through encountering The Theology of the Body that I suddenly understood some of these deeper truths of the beauty of the female body, and was able to apply them to sport.”

FIERCE is an acronym standing for Femininity, Identity, Embodiment, Receptivity, Catholicism, and Encounter. Father Dave and Samantha discuss specifically how Embodiment (or mind-body connection) is a large overlap between sports and our faith. “Embodiment is so important for us Catholics because we’re a sacramental people,” Father Dave explains. They examined how we as humans are a “body-soul composite” and that what you do to one affects the other. “If you want to be the best athlete you can be, you need to have a prayer life,” Samantha says.

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Title IX helped give women equal access to sports and education, but Samantha says there are still many challenges facing female athletes today, especially women of faith. “Athletes know how to perform and they know how to hide [weaknesses], but it’s also a very stressful, kind of toxic culture,” Samantha says. She mentions a “play hard, party hard” culture, disordered eating, body image, and same-sex attraction as some common issues in women’s sports.

Despite these challenges, she knows how much sports can enrich our lives. “John Paul II said that ‘athletics is the gymnasium for human virtue,’ and I love that,” she says. “Learning how to live in a community, persevering through hardship and suffering, all of these things are naturally lived out in sport.