To qualify for the Olympic marathon trials, you have to run a mile in 5 minutes and 18 seconds roughly 26 times in a row without stopping. For most people, simply running one mile at that pace would be impossible. Your legs would start to feel like they’re made of lead as your heartrate reaches full capacity, and all you can think about is stopping for a drink of water—and that’s just the first 100 yards!
For Jonathan Swiatocha, running at this speed is an oddly peaceful experience. And he can run all day. In fact, he talks about a certain joy he feels when he’s on a long stretch of road sweating it out. “I feel like I’m praising and worshipping God when I’m running,” he says. “It’s an experience like no other.” He isn’t the only person in his family who enjoys running. His brother, Davy, is a runner and his father, Ed, has run more than 25 marathons and even took first place in the White Rock Marathon (now known as the Dallas Marathon) in 1985 and 1986.
Most of us are familiar with the running joke, “If you see me running, it’s because something’s chasing me.” Jonathan isn’t running away from anything—he’s the one doing the chasing. “Ever since I was a freshman in high school, I wanted to run in the Olympics,” he says. And now that he’s 26, he has his sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Competing in the Olympics is an amazing feat on its own, but considering all Jonathan’s been through, it would be a miracle. If he qualifies, he’ll be the first person with a traumatic brain injury to ever represent the United States in the Olympics.
Just before Christmas in 2002, when Jonathan was 10 years old, his family was driving home from a holiday performance they participated in at their North Dallas church. They stopped at a red light, and when it turned green they eased into the intersection. That’s when Jonathan blacked out.
A car sped through a red light at 80 miles per hour and slammed into the car next to them, which crashed into their van and sent them rolling. The woman, who was seven-months pregnant, in the car next to them was killed instantly, and everyone in the van was injured but alert. Everyone except Jonathan. The 20-year-old driver who ran the red light had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit.
Jonathan was rushed to the hospital and that’s when the questions began. Would he ever wake up? Would he be incapacitated the rest of his life? “There were a lot of question marks,” he says. “Nobody really knew if I’d survive.” Miraculously, after three days in a coma, Jonathan woke up with an excruciating migraine headache. “I will never forget waking up,” he says. “I had no feeling in my legs. It was so traumatizing emotionally.”
For 12 days, he was stuck in that hospital bed not knowing if he’d ever walk again. His dad was in the room with him and stepped out to get some coffee. That’s when Jonathan heard the Holy Spirit tell him to get out of bed and walk. He fought the feeling that he would fall over and nobody would be there to help him up, but he decided to trust the Holy Spirit and began to slide his body out of bed. “When I let go and all my weight was on my legs I could feel God breathing life into my legs with every little step I took,” he says.
The doctors were amazed and released him from the hospital just before Christmas. Everything seemed normal, but a warning from his neurologist loomed over Jonathan for years. He said Jonathan might seem normal as he continued to develop, but when he reached his 20s, he’d likely have psychological and emotional difficulties. He continued to grow, and it was almost as if nothing had ever happened.
By the time he joined the high school cross country team his freshman year, he realized he had a natural talent for running. His speed in high school earned him a spot on the Texas Wesleyan University cross country team, and as he continued to get faster and faster, those difficulties his neurologist warned him about began to appear. “I was in a depressed, dark emotional state after college,” he says. “Fear, anger, and anxiety affected my relationships and running career in a negative way. I drew a line in the sand and said ‘I’m not going to live like this.’ When I finally laid that down before the Lord, I felt peace.”
That’s when he began to see growth as a runner like never before.
He started by making it a habit to read the Bible daily. He remembers reading Luke 2:40, which says, “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” “As my spirit gets stronger and as I grow closer to the Lord, I feel Him strengthening and preparing me for the dream He gave me,” he says.
Jonathan is getting closer to his goal, and he’s motivating people too. In the last few years, Jonathan has begun telling his story to schools, churches, and corporate groups. He even gave two Ted Talks in 2016 about overcoming his brain injury. But the most motivating thing he talks about isn’t his past—it’s what lies ahead.
The 2020 Olympic games are still two years away, and there is still much work to be done as he prepares to run an Olympic-qualifying marathon time. Sometimes it seems like it might be too difficult to achieve. Questions fill his mind: Can I do this? Am I fast enough? Then he remembers the night in the hospital when he was only 10 years old and the Holy Spirit told him to walk. “That was the defining moment of my life and my running career,” says Jonathan. “God was asking me if I trust Him—even when it may seem impossible—and I do.”