What is it like to be a Christian who is also an elite athlete . . . and that athletic gift is your gift? The answers may surprise you.
Emma Bourg, a 5-foot-4 senior at Houma Christian School in Houma, Louisiana, attends Bayou Blue Assembly of God. She’s a three-time state champion, and was recently named the Gatorade Girls Cross Country Player of the Year for the state of Louisiana. She is the definition of an elite high school athlete.
GIFTING VS. CALLING
Emma comes by her love of running naturally through her parents, Cory and Katie, who are both marathon runners as well as the young adult pastors at Bayou Blue.
Her running ability blossomed early in her life. Attending a small Christian school, where high school is seventh through 12th grade, she won the small high school Class 1A state cross country championship as a seventh grader with a 19:20 race time, an impressive accomplishment for any seventh-grade student.
However, the next year, the Bourgs moved and Emma started attending Houma Christian School, which was a larger school competing against other larger schools. She struggled as the integration into a new school, puberty, tougher competition, and trying to figure out where she fit in God’s plan led to inner turmoil. She believed God had called her to be a missionary to the nations, and running — the gifting she knew she had — didn’t seem to match up with God’s call.
“The summer before that eighth grade year, I went to Africa on a missions trip,” Emma says. “It really changed my perspective on everything — it was a depression kind of thing, I spiraled into a slump — it was a very dark place, I wasn’t confident in myself. My relationship with God was still good, but I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do in the future.”
She reflected on her skills — she didn’t have giftings as a singer for the church worship team, she didn’t play an instrument, she didn’t fit in with the church youth who loved Fine Arts and performed human videos or who did short sermons. Instead, her passion and her gifting was running. Even to other athletes, running is typically seen as “punishment” and nothing someone does for fun.
And for some reason, the invitation, “Hey, want to meet me at 6 a.m. Saturday morning and go for a 5- or 10-mile run?” isn’t overly appealing to most high school students. Add on top of that she was an intimidatingly good runner even when young, and it’s not hard to understand her inner struggles and feelings that she didn’t fit in.
“During those years when Emma was kind of in a slump, she struggled with having that gift of running and the question why running?,” recalls Katie Bourg. “I’d tell her that I didn’t know, but God has given it to you for reason that He’ll reveal to you one day what you’re supposed to do with it.”
Katie confirms Emma’s feelings of “not fitting in” at times with the rest of the church youth. She loved them and they seemed to love and respect her as well, but their interests and her interests often didn’t mesh.
“Her calling didn’t look like everyone else’s,” agrees Amanda Thompson, Emma’s youth pastor for many of her high school years. “She didn’t know how to navigate who she was — she didn’t know how to be who God called her to be.”
“I sat back and watched Emma really dig deep and seek God’s will and direction,” Katie says. “She had friends, but she didn’t really have that one close friend, but I watched her make God that close friend.”
Thompson adds to the observation.
“I think something to point out, as I’ve watched her since she was young, is her obedience to Christ,” she says.
TURNING THINGS AROUND
Ironically, Emma’s first missions trip to Africa marked the beginning of her questioning and depression, but it was her second missions trip to Africa, before her junior year, that seemed to mark a new beginning for her.
“I had almost lost the love of running,” Emma admits. “But that summer before my junior year, I became confident in who I was in Christ, learning more about Him and seeking more about Him. It changed a lot — knowing what I do, I do for the glory of God. He’s the only audience I do anything for and my goal is to bring glory to Him in whatever I do . . . that’s when I found the love of running again.”
During cross country and track meets, Emma held close to her promise to God. When she would notice a teammate or even a runner from an opposing team looking stressed or anxious, she would ask if she could pray for them — no one refused. Her coach, Wendy Delgado, at times, joined her.
“Emma is faith driven, everything she does is for the glory of God,” says Delgado, who coaches cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. “God is her first priority . . . as a team, we always run for an audience of One. Emma walked the walk for us as the captain of our cross country team and track teams.”
With a new mindset and a newfound joy in running, Emma’s times began to improve. By the spring of her junior year, she was winning her events in track meets, ultimately claiming the state championship in the 1600-meter run and taking third in the 3200-meter run. Then this past fall, the unexpected happened.
Those who know running understand that for a really good runner to shave 30 seconds off of their previous personal best time in a 5K is an accomplishment that often accompanies just the right training and just the right conditions. A full minute faster borders on fantasy.
At the state meet, Bourg crushed her previous year’s personal best time by 90 seconds, recording a 17:57.9. Not only did she win state in her class, but she was the fastest girl in all classes in the state.
But her incredibly fast “personal-record” finish doesn’t make a lot of sense, as Delgado explains.
“The conditions were beautiful the day before the race — picture perfect,” recalls Delgado. “The day of the race (which is run on a grass course), Nov. 14, it was an icy rain. The boys, some of them were blue by the time they finished . . . Emma just ran with gloves on, in a singlet (thin tank top), and shorts. It was rainy, icy, and cold. The whole course was a mudfest . . . and the girls ran last.”
It’s not difficult to make the connection that Bourg’s personal best (and state-winning) time in the 5K is likely to drop even more when provided with more “runner friendly” conditions. However, in fairness, a tip of the hat does go to Cory, her dad. A 2:47 marathon runner, he has trained speed work, tempo, and long runs with Emma, though nothing can make running on a slippery, muddy course efficient or easy.
All these accolades, these victories, and personal best times point to Emma’s gifting like a huge, flashing arrow. But where does God’s calling fit into this?
For those who know her, God doesn’t fit into Emma’s plan — Emma fits into God’s plan.
“She has a God-given opportunity to speak at events and He has given her a voice, and she has stepped into those opportunities boldly,” Thompson says. “Every opportunity she gives glory to the Lord — she’s not a different person behind closed doors; what you see is what you get . . . she’s become an awesome woman of God.”
And then there’s the vision that Emma shares.
“When I was in seventh grade and I was at a summer AG church camp, I had a vision from God,” she says. “The vision was of the world, then I got an image of Hayward Track (Home of the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships from 2024 through 2026 and longtime home of the U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon). I knew at that moment I was called to reach the world for Christ, but I’m still unsure of what the part with Hayward Field was about, but I guess we’ll find out.”
And then one day her vision, her calling, and her gifting suddenly came neatly together.
As an elite runner, Emma has received a lot of attention from colleges wanting to recruit her for their cross country and track teams. In the end, she signed her National Letter of Intent with the University of New Orleans (UNO), an NCAA Division I program.
“When I toured UNO, there were a lot of people from a lot of different nations there, it was like a mixing pot,” Emma says. “And nearly the entire girls team is made up of girls from other countries all around the world.”
Katie recalls the day Emma shared her decision with her.
“She told me, ‘Mom, I just feel called to go to UNO. God told me I called you to the nations, but I’m bringing them to you,’” Katie says.
Although originally concerned for her safety, and hoping Emma would attend a Christian school, Katie and Cory are now at peace with Emma’s decision. They may not fully understand what God’s plans are for Emma’s future, but they have no doubt that He has His hand in her decision to attend UNO.
“She’s obviously going to be able to reach a whole group of people that you or I could never reach,” Katie says. “She’s reaching people here, now, and soon she’ll be reaching people from other countries.”
Being named the Gatorade Girls Cross Country Player of the Year for Louisiana came with a secondary perk — she was permitted to pick a non-profit athletic organization for Gatorade to give $1,000 to in her name. It was a tough decision, but she recently chose Upwards Sports, a Christian organization that partners with churches to develop character-building sports teams and leagues.
Now, for the next few months, Emma’s life will be focused on finishing her senior year strong academically (currently she has a 4.22 weighted GPA) as well as filled with miles of training and racing as she completes her indoor track season and then transitions into the outdoor track season. She’ll also be continuing her low-key outreach to other athletes, at meets as well as in the social “running conversations” that characterize long training runs.
Delgado says Emma’s immediate running goal is to break five minutes in the 1600-meter (roughly a mile) race at the state meet on Feb. 18, where she’ll also compete in the 3200-meter race.
In reflecting on Emma’s high school running career, Katie says, “Winning is exciting, but we’re more excited in this household when she’s able to give glory to God . . . we receive compliments from other parents and coaches about Emma, but for her, it’s all about God. It always has been.”
Cory agrees, noting how a popular online running site, MileSplit LA, used her quote, “All the Glory Goes to Him!” as part of its article headline in a story it posted on her in January.
“I am very grateful for the gift the Lord has given me,” Emma says. “He’s given me a lot of opportunities and a lot of opportunities to share Him and what He’s done in my life.”