Story Magazine

Fourth Quarter, 2004

Alum Ministers to Olympic Team Amidst Joy and Sorrow

by Shelley Cunningham

They say it's not what you know, it's who you know that will get you places. And that's certainly true for Pastor Mark Reitan, '71, whose prior relationship with Mike Candrea--coach of the U.S. Olympic Softball team--led to a trip to Athens last summer as the team's "softball chaplain."

But they also say that God puts people in the right place at the right time ... and that's true for the relationship between Reitan and Candrea, too.

Reitan got to know Candrea as the coach of his daughter Julie's softball team at the University of Arizona. Shortly after Julie started college, Reitan and his wife, Elaine, moved from Arizona to Lynnwood,Wash., where Mark took the call as senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. They counted on the coach to help keep an eye on their daughter.

In 1997, Julie had just finished her junior year at Arizona, and her team had won the national championship. The night before she was to read scripture at a former teammate's wedding, she died unexpectedly in her sleep. The shock and sadness the Reitans felt was tempered by the outpouring of love and support they received from Julie's friends and teammates.

"Mike was so supportive. He stood by us during that time, and continued to speak of Julie often," he said. "He has been such a great person, and really honored Julie's memory." The two families kept in touch over the years. Reitan was pleased when Candrea was named head coach of the 2004 Olympic team.

Then, about seven months before the Olympics began, Candrea asked Reitan if he'd consider taking on an informal role as the "team chaplain." Neither one knew exactly what that would look like, but Candrea felt having spiritual support would help the team grow together.

Last spring, Reitan traveled to Tuscon to meet the team. It was an emotional weekend for the Reitans--to spend time in the stadium where they'd cheered for their daughter; to see her number 10, which had been retired, hanging in left field. After the game, the team gathered on the mound. He said a few words, and then Lisa Fernandez--the leader of the team -- stepped out of the group toward him, reached out her hand, and said, "Welcome to U.S.A. Softball."

"It was a special moment," he said. "To feel so warmly welcomed into this group, several of whom knew Julie well."

Reitan wasn't sure what his role as team chaplain would entail, but it certainly changed after the sudden death of Coach Candrea's wife, Sue, just a few days before the team left for Athens.

Reitan was in Europe on sabbatical. He returned to the states to speak at Sue's funeral. While in Greece, they spent time grieving with Candrea's family--including his two children and his mother-in-law. "We were able to care for the people with Christ's love the way I've been cared for by so many people since Julie died," he said.

Because his role as chaplain was strictly an informal, volunteer position, Reitan didn't get to sit in the dugout or stay with the team in the Olympic village. But he did get passes to the games, and was able to sit with the alternates in the stands, and spend time with the athletes before and after the games. During some of those visits, he learned just how much his daughter's faith had influenced some of the players. One shared that Julie had been the one to encourage her in the faith in college, inviting her to Bible studies and praying with her. And, he wrote a devotional book that included scripture and inspiration for every day of the Olympics. The devotion for the day of the gold medal game was based on Julie's favorite verse, I Cor. 16:13-14: "Keep alert. Stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be in love."

Did God put Reitan and Candrea in one another's lives? Their relationship certainly bears witness to the power of spiritual friendship.

Mark Reitan tries on the gold medal of Jennie Finch, pitcher of the U.S. women's Olympic softball team