VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II was an avid sportsman, and perhaps the most athletic pontiff in history.
While memories of the pope on skis or hiking through the Italian Alps contrast greatly with more recent images of him struggling with debilitating illnesses, John Paul was a vibrant participant in physical activities much of his life.
From his days as “Lolek the Goalie” to numerous hiking and kayaking trips for spiritual gatherings, the pope always found time to satisfy his love for the outdoors.
“He has been a terrific sportsman,” said George Weigel, author of a biography of John Paul. “As a young man he was a very active soccer player, a skier, a hiker. As a young priest he became very involved in a ministry to university students built around hiking, skiing and kayaking.”
Weigel said the pope had a swimming pool built at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo during the first summer of his papacy.
“The story goes that he justified it by saying it was cheaper than building a new conclave,” he said. “The first 15 years of his pontificate he took breaks to go skiing, and the miracle about that was the Italian paparazzi actually left him alone.”
John Paul, who traveled abroad more than any other pope, shared the same stage as many of the world’s greatest athletes. And he relished the various audiences he held for professional athletes — from Muhammad Ali to the Globetrotters.
In one of his last such audiences in January, John Paul gave his blessing to the Ferrari auto racing team and its star driver, Michael Schumacher. The pope stressed the importance of team spirit and said Ferrari owed its sports and industrial results to “an enthusiasm that comes from a community spirit.”
Athletics were an important part of the pope’s life since his years growing up in the Polish town of Wadowice. Karol Wojtyla, as he was called then, was a goalkeeper for his local soccer team.
Pilgrims to Wadowice can still see the field where he played.
“There wasn’t much of a means to go up the mountain in those days, there was only one lift,” Kluger said. “We used to walk three, four, five hours to get to the top and then ski down in seven minutes.
“We were like all the other mountain boys, winter was long in Poland.”
As pontiff, his energy and perseverance were unlike that of any other pope in recent memory.
“Pius XI as a priest was a very famous mountaineer, that’s probably the most recent example,” Weigel said of the early 20th century pontiff when asked to name another athletic pope. “And (Saint) Peter was a fisherman.”
The pope stopped skiing several years ago, but Kluger said he was still swimming in the pool at Castel Gandolfo as late as August, 2002.
“John Paul II was the pope who chose sports, with all the valor that it represents, as one of the principal vehicles of dialogue with humanity and particularly with youths,” Franco Carraro, the Italian soccer federation president, said Saturday.
“Children and sportsmen all over the world, in these 27 years, have had respect and an absolutely extraordinary love for John Paul II,” Carraro said. “There is no doubt that his memory will remain in the minds and hearts of everyone.”
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