Sister Catherine Holum remembers her first Olympic speed-skating race very clearly. The crowd, she says, was very loud. Three men with television cameras knelt in front of her as she tied her skates up. She felt the whole world was watching. And when she had finished the race, she burst into tears.
At the time — it was the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — she was only 17. She had come from an Olympic family: her mother was a gold medallist and a US star coach. Sister Catherine — or Kirstin, as she was then — was hyped up as a prodigy, destined for greatness. Then she retired.
I meet her at a care home in north London, where she is staying briefly. She is a diminutive figure in a thick Franciscan habit. Her oval spectacles protrude under a smart black veil.
She is, like many young nuns, smiley and joyful and warm. She makes me feel like I am great company even if I am not saying anything. She laughs often, as sociable people do.
As we sit down Sister Catherine sips a glass of water while I help myself to tea and biscuits. I ask her when she started speed-skating and she explains about her mother, Dianne Holum, a champion skater who coached three US Olympic teams. ‘I was always at the rink with her,’ she says. ‘She took me everywhere.’ So she started skating when she was seven, and competed internationally at the age of 13.
The ‘turning point’, she says, came at 16, when she went on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal. She was walking arm in arm with her cousin at the spot where, in 1917, three children apparently saw the Virgin Mary, and all of a sudden she heard the words, ‘You are going to be a sister.’ ‘And this peace and this joy came rushing through me,’ she recalls.
When she got home, she says, she asked the Virgin Mary to pray for her speed-skating career. And it immediately took off. She became US national champion, junior world champion, and broke world records — ‘It surprised me, it surprised my mum, it surprised everybody,’ she says, laughing.
She was training four or five hours a day, six days a week. As well as skating she was weightlifting, running, cycling, doing drills.
That year, though, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, and had to take a ‘ton of medication’. Preparing for the Olympics was tough, she says, and, in the middle of the trials, she announced that after the Nagano Games she was going to retire.
‘I really couldn’t see myself speed-skating my whole life,’ she says. ‘In the sport people focus everything on being a speed-skater — not getting an education, not moving on… I really felt there was more to life for me than sports.’
What she found instead was art. For four years she studied photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The art crowd, she says, were very different from the sports crowd. None of her friends was Catholic, or Christian. She prayed outside abortion clinics, which was not a popular activity. ‘I didn’t get any hostility because, honestly, in art school people are very accepting of other people’s views. It was more that I knew a lot of people didn’t agree with me.’
When she finished, she didn’t know what to do. She moved back in with her mum in Denver, Colorado. She had not thought much about her faith, or the call she felt to be a sister. But she continued to pray outside abortion clinics, and met a group of people who were about to walk across America to promote the pro-life cause. The next day she decided to join them. ‘It was crazy — I met them on a Friday and started walking with them on the Sunday.’ She says she had never before met people living their faith so joyfully. ‘I knew it was because of their love for Jesus and I knew, reflecting on my own life, that I wasn’t experiencing that same joy.’
That was only the start of the walking. The following year Sister Catherine walked for a month and a half to Toronto for a global gathering of young Catholics called World Youth Day. There, she met the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.
After that, she felt ‘on fire’ with her faith. ‘All I wanted to do was be with nuns,’ she says. She helped out at different religious communities in Denver before she finally phoned the Franciscans and flew out to join them in New York.
The hardest moment in her life, she says, was leaving her family. ‘Even though I knew I wanted to do God’s will, it’s still a big step to dive into your vocation and really focus everything on the Lord, with no turning back.’
She served the homeless in the Bronx and then, in 2009, moved to Leeds, where she and a handful of other sisters give talks at schools, help at a care home and run a mothers’ group.
The Franciscans of the Renewal are, in many ways, the Olympians of religious life. They pray five hours a day — the amount of time that Sister Catherine used to train for. They are relatively new (they were founded in 1988) and, with their habits, sandals and rosary beads, seen as radical in a traditional kind of way.
Sister Catherine says the discipline that high-level sport demands is useful in spiritual life, too. ‘The effort, the goal-setting, the sacrifice can totally be applied or re-applied to a relationship with God, trying to get to heaven, trying to be a saint,’ she says.
Sports are well behind her. She doesn’t skate — it’s too expensive — or do exercise. Sometimes, she says, she does miss it. ‘The times I’ve had the opportunity [to skate], it’s been a lot of fun.’
She has ‘no regrets’, though, and sees her dramatic departure from skating as God gently nudging her towards religious life. ‘He was in charge,’ she says. ‘The Lord was leading.’
Now, she uses her past to evangelise. She says: ‘A lot of people sacrifice themselves [and] work very hard for a gold medal or a championship title, but if you can apply that same effort and put it in the context of your eternal reward then it is of so much more value.
‘We can see,’ she adds, ‘in the amount of effort that’s put into attaining a gold medal, that we have the capacity for greatness. We have the capacity to become saints.’