swimmer takes plunge for Christ
The sun had not yet
risen when 9-year-old Emilio Abreu dipped his foot into the pools
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
Noonan is a staff writer for the Pentecostal Evangel.