Olympic Competitor Kirstin Holum Gave Up Gold for God

Kirstin Holum was the youngest-ever national junior champion speed skater, breaking numerous records before competing in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, at the age of 17, placing sixth in the 3,000 meters and seventh in the 5,000 meters.

The speed skating world predicted that, as she matured, she would have been a gold medalist.

But today, at 32, she is Sister Catherine, a nun serving in England who is trying to catch a glimpse of the London Games as often as she can. There are no television sets at St. Clare's Convent, part of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Leeds.

When she and the sisters go down to the center of Leeds to watch swimming or equestrian events, she gets a wistful twinge.

"I do miss it when I am watching," she told ABCNews.com. "It's so exciting and my heart soars back into it. It's an amazing reflection of my own experience, which was really good."

Her mother and coach, Dianne Holum set the stage for her daughter. She won more medals than any U.S. woman in Winter Games history and captured gold in Munich in 1972.

But her daughter said that she never put her mother "on a pedestal."

"I remember my mom saying to me before going to line up for the 3,000," said Holum. "She was on the ice with me coaching -- 'You could get a medal here.' It was a push of encouragement."

Kirstin Holum overcame exercise-induced asthma, ranking eighth going into the Olympics. She didn't medal, but she competed in the last four pairs of women with her childhood idol, Germany's Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann.

"I was very nervous going into the Olympics," she said. "I did feel personal pressure being in the spotlight in the media. But my own personal pressure or drive was the strongest, more than any other external pressure."

But by the time the Games had started, Holum said she had decided to retire.

"It wasn't that I didn't have great passion for the sport," she said. "I was definitely going for the medal ... Of course, I wanted to win."

But Holum said she wanted more as she saw "the older athletes putting off [careers] and sacrificing things to stay in the sport."

She chose to go to college, forced to choose between an academic life or competing year-round. There are no college programs for speed skaters.

"I couldn't see myself continuing all through my 20s and 30s like other athletes," she said. "I remember it vividly, one day practicing: I said [to my mother], 'I just want to be in a play or a musical in school rather than this.' I had a feeling there was something else for me."

Dianne Holum, who was raising Kirstin as a single mother in Milwaukee, coached for 25 years. She counted among her proteges the legendary speed skater Eric Heiden, who went on to collect medals at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980.

But her daughter said she never felt pressured: "I felt her support, even as a little girl. I felt her motherly hand."

When Kirstin Holum was little, her mother asked her, "Can I buy you a new pair of figure skates?"

"She said no, Mom, I want speed skates," said Dianne Holum, 61, who now lives in Denver. "The decision to get serious was hers."

And when her daughter decided to quit, her mother said, "It was almost a relief for me."

"We were real close and I always knew," said her mother. "She was getting more and more focused on her faith and I was happy for that."

After retiring from skating, Holum went on to study photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, leading a secular life.

"I didn't have any Christian friends, let alone any Catholic ones," she told the National Catholic Register. "So, by the time I graduated, I had completely forgotten about my call to be a sister. I moved to live with my mother after that, not knowing what the next step in my life would be."

But in 2002, after finishing graduate school, Holum joined a pro-life walk across the United States and met Pope John Paul II, living with 12 Catholics in a caravan.

Her mother had also been active, protesting outside abortion clinics, praying the rosary and going to Mass every week.

"I saw my faith coming back in a strong way and [began] seeing myself as a sister," she said. "I saw a lot of nuns there who had this real heart about what they were doing."

Olympic Skater Embraces Her Catholic Faith

In 2003, Holum joined an order in the Bronx in New York City, then was sent to northern England, which has a small Catholic community.

"It's been quite a journey," she said.

Today, she works with the poor and devotes herself to evangelism in parishes and youth retreats. The convent distributes food and runs soup kitchens.

Her decision to take her Catholic vows was a "peaceful" one, according to Holum. But the mental preparation required for athletic competition has helped her sustain the religious life.

She has even compared the discipline and motivation that drives athletic competition to getting into Heaven.

Holum said she had an inkling about what would become her strong faith even before she went to the Olympics when her mother sent her on a pilgrimage to Fatima in Portugal with her cousin.

"When I was 15, I remember having an experience, a kind of feeling that there was something more for me than speed skating," she said.

At the same time, she asked the "blessed mother" to pray for her speed-skating career.

But today, with more perspective, Holum told the Catholic press, "Heaven is eternal glory, where the Olympics -- winning a gold medal or what not -- is brief glory."