A version of the following post originally appeared on the Prison Fellowship blog (a/k/a, my day job). Check it out sometime!
Tim Montgomery has always been fast.
A track legend in his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, Montgomery established himself as a sprinter from an early age. In college, he ran a sub-10-second 100 meters, only missing out on setting a world junior record when it was discovered the track was three centimeters too short. He competed in two Olympics, winning a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta for the 4×100 meter relay, and following that with a gold medal in the same event in Sydney in 2000. In 2002, he reached the pinnacle of his sport, setting a world record in the 100 meter dash with a time of 9.78 seconds and earning the title “Fastest Man in the World.” He even had his own Nike commercial.
And then everything fell apart.
In 2004, as Montgomery was attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games in Athens, he was implicated in an investigation of BALCO Laboratories, which had been accused of providing steroids and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) to prominent athletes. All of his performances since 2001, including the world record in 2002, were negated, and he received a two-year suspension from competition, forcing an early retirement.
With his reputation shattered and the one constant in his life now gone, life began to spiral out of control. Montgomery was arrested for being part of a money laundering scheme that had passed over $700,000 in bad checks, and was sentenced to 46 months in prison. While serving that time, he was charged for distributing heroin, adding five more years to his sentence.
Being sent to prison shook Montgomery to his core. Realizing that he was no longer “Tim Montgomery, the superstar,” he struggled with despair, even to the point of contemplating suicide.
“I got up on top of the bunk and looked at the commode,” Montgomery recalls, “and said, I’m gonna’ fall and try to break my neck or break my head on the commode. Then I was like, Oh, what if I don’t succeed? That’s going to hurt. So then I cut the sheets and tried to hang myself, and every time I got to the point of choking I stopped.”
In desperation, Montgomery turned toward God, remembering how he had been been blessed by Him in the past. “I’m calling on You right now to help me,” he pleaded.
In the midst of his anxiety, Montgomery says that he felt a peace come over him at that moment. “I fell asleep,” he says,
With the help of an acquaintance on the street who later became a minister, Montgomery began to rediscover who Jesus was during his time behind bars. His newfound faith helped him overcome the challenges of his incarceration and gave him strength.
“Prison wasn’t as bad as I thought it [would be],” he says. “Now, it was bad, don’t get me wrong, but [God] was present. … I was able to turn to God, and God became my spiritual help. And throughout the whole process of prison, God stayed present. I was shipped here, shipped there, went here, went there—I was always taken care of. There was always a Bible presence.
“… The real struggle,” Montgomery says, “was when I got free.”
Challenges on the Outside
When Montgomery left prison in October of 2012, he returned to a world that no longer idolized him for his exploits on the track. “The release was like being reborn,” he says. “But after you’re born, you’re a baby, so you need someone to take care of you. That’s how I came out of the prison mill. I was reborn back into society, and was happy to be out here, but I couldn’t do anything.”
Montgomery remembers trying to move into the apartment where his wife Jamalee had been raising her children (the two had married while he was still incarcerated). Because of his status as a convicted felon, Montgomery was not allowed to live there, forcing the new couple to seek out other living arrangements.
“[Before being incarcerated] I was the person with the good credit. I was the person with the credit cards,” he says. “Now, I’m a hindrance. Then, as you try to move forward, with a felony, the jobs are not trying to see you as a changed human being.
“… Society don’t even give you an opportunity,” Montgomery continues. “Then they want you to pay taxes, and you don’t even get a chance. Why shouldn’t I have a right to vote? Why should my voice not be heard? … Why can’t I go in there and vote as a citizen? Because I’m still a citizen.”
A New Race
Despite the challenges of being formerly incarcerated, Montgomery has forged a new life for himself and his family. He is now the director of NUMA Speed, a program training elite track athletes—including his daughter and son.
“NUMA stands for ‘Never Underestimate My Ability,” he says, “because everyone is going to underestimate what you can do. I don’t want you to ever underestimate your own ability.”
Montgomery estimates that he has worked with more than 2,000 kids since his release. “I have [shared] with them about my experiences,” he says, “but I’ve also been able to share about the life of Jesus Christ with them.”
Among his new goals is to teach his kids and those he trains to be productive members of their communities. “I just thank God that [He] was able to change me and place me in my kid’s lives and understand that they’re the most important thing right now, and teach them about God, so that they can move on in life and be productive.
“I was a problem to society,” he asserts. “I want to be a solution.”
Advice for the Incarcerated
Montgomery has also committed himself to helping men and women who are either incarcerated or are struggling with life after prison. He has visited a number of prisons since his release, offering advice and encouraging those behind bars that they have a story to tell and gifts to offer.
“To any prisoner who thinks [that because of] what they’ve done—that they can’t make an impact … just read about Paul, read about Moses … and see how they changed and moved forward,” Montgomery says.
“Where you’re at doesn’t define who you are,” he adds. Montgomery encourages prisoners to use the time they spend behind bars to see how they can improve themselves and those around them. “Work toward your freedom,” he advises.
For those who are have left prison or are preparing to do so, Montgomery suggests that they get involved in a church, doing the small things and actively seeking to serve others. “That’s what it’s about,” he says, “being a part of the Body.”
“Some days, I’m not winning,” Montgomery admits. “But I have to remind myself that I’m free. I’m free. I’m able to walk around, and I’m able to improve myself daily.”
Like every race, life must be taken a step at a time.