By Lee Davis
In his many years as a youth pastor, David Thompson has counseled countless young people about virtually every question imaginable.
Later this month, Thompson, who works at Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, will take his counseling skills to a new world. He will be serving as an athlete service coordinator for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, from Aug. 5-21.
Thompson will leave for Rio on July 21 to help set up the Olympic Village and return Aug. 24. In between, Thompson said, his job is “primarily being a voice for the athletes and understanding what their concerns are. We take their issues to the Athletes Advisory Council and help them any way we can.”
His duties might range from explaining issues of Olympic governance, such as anti-doping rules, to simply being available to talk about personal situations. Even helping Olympians transition to life away from athletics is part of the job description.
“Remember that the vast majority of the athletes will not gain fame and fortune from the Olympics,” Thompson said. “We work to help them get jobs outside of sports when their Olympic careers are over.”
Thompson will also help the Olympians with more tangible services such as organizing the elections for Flag Bearer in the opening and closing ceremonies, helping the athletes get guest passes for family and friends, and operating the U.S. Athlete Service Center in the Village. The service center is a place where the athletes can relax and develop camaraderie with fellow Olympians.
“More than anything, it’s really about relationships,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to establish a balance between being a staff member and an athlete. We try to have their full trust and help them with whatever they need.”
Often Olympians just need someone to talk to who can relate to their situations. That can also mean congratulating medal winners – but in many more cases this means consoling those who fall short in their bids for glory.
“Everyone sees the gold medal winners on television,” Thompson explained. “They don’t often show the competitors who didn’t see their Olympic dreams come true. It’s important to remember that they worked just as hard as those who were successful, and the realization that their Olympic hopes have ended can be a difficult adjustment. We try to help with that aspect of it.”
Thompson believes his experience as a Christian minister will be an asset.
“My faith and ministry is part of who I am,” he said. “We’re not going to be pushing faith in anyone’s face, but I’ll be there to share with those who are already believers and those who want to learn more.”
Thompson’s background in counseling and athletics make him specially suited for his new role. A native of Tuscaloosa, he is the son and grandson of United Methodist pastors. Thompson was a multi-sport athlete in high school until a transfer from Tuscaloosa County to Hillcrest made him ineligible for competition for a year.
“I was looking for a sport to play during the year I had to sit out,” he said. “And I found handball.”
The decision to play handball worked out. Thompson eventually became a member of the United States Team Handball and represented his country in two Pan American games, most recently in 2011.
Thompson’s experience in the Pan Am games made him an “active athlete” in the eyes of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and therefore eligible for consideration as an athlete service coordinator. After applying for the position in 2015, Thompson learned in November that he had been selected.
“They were looking for individuals who had been athletes and could relate to what the Olympians were going through,” he said. “It was a tremendous honor to be selected.”
Thompson, who has visited Rio twice, said the Brazilian metropolis will be a terrific host city.
“It’s a beautiful city with great infrastructure and a strong public transportation system,” he said. “All of the venues are within 45 minutes of the Olympic Village. Most of them are only 15 to 20 minutes away.”
Even while in Brazil, Thompson will not be abandoning his role with his church. He will be skyping into Trinity each week either with a live or recorded presentation as part of a Sunday Series called “The Starting Line” beginning at the Aug. 7 church service. In the skype broadcast, Thompson plans to share his experiences and stream interviews with athletes giving Christian testimony.
“I think it’s something everyone will enjoy,” he said.
In a few weeks, American athletes will be experiencing the thrills and disappointments of the Olympic Games. And Trinity’s David Thompson will be with them every step of the way.