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A life-changing experience

Paraguayan swimmer takes plunge for Christ

By Kirk Noonan

The sun had not yet risen when 9-year-old Emilio Abreu dipped his foot into the pool’s water. It was cold and biting like the morning air, but he pulled off his shirt and dived in. The water engulfed his body, then he cut quickly through it.

Three years later, that boy captured every swimming record for his age group in Paraguay. Each year he continued to improve. He dominated his competition until he moved to the United States at 19 to train for the Olympics. His swimming prowess paid for his college education and helped him fulfill his dream of being an Olympian.

Emilio and Bethany Abreu and their family. "My plans were not to be a minister," says Emilio. "It never crossed my mind." Now he pastors a church of 6,000 in Paraguay.

At Miami Dade Junior College he impressed a skeptical coach by tying a school record. That year Emilio won three All-American honors and set three national records. His specialties were the 200 individual medley, 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley.

Universities began to court him. He settled on Indiana University in Indiana, Pa.

"We had a good team, but the key thing that was going to happen to me was that I was going to get saved," says Emilio, now 46. "My coach was a Christian. Through him I heard the gospel."

In March 1976, he asked Christ to come into his life and a radical conversion was under way.

"I was an athlete and that kept me on the right path," he says. "But before I accepted Christ as my Savior I was trying to fill the emptiness in my life with partying. After I met Jesus, I stopped partying. Jesus changed my whole life. My priorities and behavior changed — it was amazing."

Emilio now spent his free time reading his Bible, praying and witnessing. He became president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the university. When fellow swimmers were injured or going through hard times he would pray with them. Many times, he says, they were healed. That year, more than half of the swimming team asked Christ into their lives.

"God was preparing me for everything that was to come," he says. "The focus of my life became the kingdom of God, which I knew was the only thing that was going to last forever."

Four months after receiving Christ, Emilio represented Paraguay in the Olympics in Montreal, Canada. He swam the 400-individual medley.

"Being at the Olympics was one of the greatest experiences of my life," he says. "I was a baby Christian at the time, but I had the fire of the Holy Ghost, so I witnessed to anyone I met."

In locker rooms, the athletes village and on buses en route to competitions, Emilio shared his faith. He also met other Christian athletes eager to do the same.

"We shared our faith with everyone, even athletes from communist countries," he says. "Being at the Olympics was a great opportunity to impact people from all over the world who had influence in their nations."

During his college career Emilio won 15 All-American honors. He also met an American student named Bethany, whom he eventually married. After graduation they moved to Paraguay where Emilio planned on working in his family’s business.

But God had other plans for the former Olympian.

"My plans were not to be a minister," says Emilio. "It never crossed my mind. In our country to be a Christian is to be a second-class citizen, especially if you go into the ministry."

But soon after he moved home in 1984, some friends who were holding church services asked him to interpret their sermons. For nine months, every night of the week, Emilio translated the missionaries’ words. As he did, he discovered the joy of preaching and praying for people.

"I didn’t realize it at the time," he says, "but God was preparing me for the ministry."

When the meetings ended, 12 teen-agers asked if he would lead a Bible study for them. He agreed, and the Bible study quickly grew to more than 60 people. Emilio left the family business to become a minister. As the Bible study grew, they moved from building to building. Today, nearly 6,000 people attend Centro Familiar de Adoracion (Family Worship Center) of the Assemblies of God, and 4,000 more attend its satellite churches.

"We are working with an architect to build a church that will hold 20,000 people," says Emilio. "Since 1985 we have also started 11 satellite churches."

Though he does not swim competitively anymore, Emilio still trains every day with the intensity that took him to the Olympics. But rather than jumping into a cold pool before the crack of dawn, he spends hours praying, reading the Word and sharing the message of Christ to anyone who will listen.

"There are so many people who need Jesus," he says. "Time is running out. We must do everything we can to tell them their lives can change through Jesus Christ."


Kirk Noonan is a staff writer for the Pentecostal Evangel.

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