The LDS youth in College Station, Texas had a recent fireside where the speakers weren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but were Christian athletes from Texas A&M University. This is part one of three in a series highlighting the events and stories told from that evening.
Stephanie Malherbe is an accounting major at Texas A&M University and a midfielder on the Aggie women’s soccer team. Never before did she imagine the title of “Olympic athlete” would follow her name.
“The Olympics were never in my plans,” Malherbe said. “I was very content playing soccer at A&M and enjoying my time. It wasn't something I had aspirations to do, and it wasn't something that I really thought about.”
That is until her mother suggested the idea. Malherbe’s parents were born in South Africa and immigrated to the United States 25 years ago. Because of that, she has dual citizenship and was eligible to play for the South African Women’s National Team in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“We figured why not just try and see what happens,” Malherbe said. “We thought we might regret it down the road if we didn't at least try.”
After sending a highlight tape to South African coaches, Malherbe was invited to attend a three-week tryout after her freshman season in Johannesburg. However, she didn’t hear anything back from the team until after her sophomore season at A&M, when she received an email asking her to spend the next eight months training and trying out for the Olympic team. An invitation that came to her at a critical time in her life.
“I had just finished my sophomore season at A&M and had a great semester. I was so comfortable and happy with my life,” Malherbe said. “But really, at that point, my faith was really struggling. And I was struggling with fully submitting and surrendering my life to God. I didn't really know what that looked like. I didn't know how to do it.”
Malherbe struggled with what to do. As well as things were going at A&M, she continued to feel a pull toward giving the Olympics a serious try.
“As much as I was struggling with this, I could not deny the fact that I knew God was telling me to go. I could just feel it. It was so clear,” Malherbe said. “I remember crying, praying, asking God, ‘Please don't make me do this. I really don't want to go. Don't do this to me--I'm happy here.’ But in the end, He was telling me to go, and I had to obey. I had to trust in His plan.”
Trusting God’s plan for her sounded good--until she arrived in South Africa and discovered the conditions she would be facing with eight long months of training ahead of her. The facilities weren’t what she was used to in the United States. There was no WiFi or internet for her to easily access and use. There was no TV or entertainment close by the facility, and she struggled to overcome the language barrier between her and some of the other players. On top of that, Malherbe woke up her first morning in South Africa with one eye swollen shut from being bitten by a mosquito.
“It's very different to decide from the comfort of your own room that you're going to trust God and then go out on a limb and take a risk,” Malherbe said. “It's very different when you're thinking God's going to take care of everything for me--and then you get there and it's so hard. You have to actually trust Him in the midst of the chaos.”
“I think that the first week needed to be that way because God had to strip everything away from me in order to really prepare my heart for the change He was about to do in my life,” Malherbe said.
Though the conditions were hard and not what she was used to, Malherbe learned to trust in God and found comfort in Him during her time in South Africa.
“I ended up constantly really digging into the word, reading my Bible, praying, and reflecting,” Malherbe said. “My attitude and my faith improved, and I ended up being happy. I was able to experience what it would be like to only have God as my comfort and to really put my identity in Him. I'm so grateful for every struggle because it has made me a better person.”
After preparing for seven and a half months, Malherbe officially make the South African Women’s National Team and headed to Rio for Olympic competition. In their third match, they faced the home team, Brazil, in front of 80,000 fans, and Malherbe got to go toe-to-toe with one of her soccer heroes, Marta.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” Malherbe said. “It was nuts. I saw her play when I was 10 years old and I got a bobble head signed by her. Now, 10 years later, there I am playing against her, trying to defend her. I could never describe that feeling to anyone.”
“I kept thinking, how am I here? I don't belong here. I'm not one of them [an Olympian],” Malherbe said. “It just goes to show that it's not our ability. It's not us. It's God. I trusted Him and His plan, and I ended up in Rio where I didn't feel like I belonged. But I did because of Him.”
Malherbe cherishes her Olympic memories, but is quick to point out that she cherishes the journey even more.
“It was never really about the Olympics and soccer for me,” Malherbe said. “All the things I learned and the exponential growth in my faith that I experienced are what I'm going to hold on to forever.”
graduated from BYU with a degree in communications and is now a marketing professional living in Utah. He is part Texan by marriage, but still longs for Big Sky Country, where he served his mission. He is also a sports junkie and dessert connoisseur. He is married to Lisa, and what he loves most is being the father to his son and twin girls.