Jeff Porter wasn’t supposed to go back to the track. After a weight room injury early in the fall semester left him with a concussion, trainers at the University of Michigan encouraged him to red shirt his senior year. He was considering it, but then he got worse news.
“I found out my dad had stage four cancer, and that changed everything,” says the New Jersey native. “I didn’t want to miss the season for anything; that was something we shared and enjoyed. He was my biggest fan. I kept running just for him.”
Several things make Porter marvel that he’s at this place and time. For one, he had hoped to follow football to the highest level, dreaming of an NFL contract. His first try at track as a high school freshman ended with a torn hip muscle. The next year, though, coaches at Franklin High encouraged him to give it another try.
Finding his sport
He tried the javelin, discus and pole vault, but didn’t find success. The coaches then pointed him to the hurdles, and he gave them a try. He found a natural fit and a new desire to better himself in the event. He ended up with three state titles before graduation. Still holding onto his football dreams, he juggled the two sports and hoped for a college position. Instead, track coaches came calling, including one from Michigan, a school Porter had always followed as a fan. The decision was made.
[My dad] never lost faith in God or in me. —Jeff Porter
But college, Porter says, was a roller coaster ride. He won the Big 10 indoor title his freshman year and was on pace to make the U.S. national junior championships when he sustained a hamstring injury. The following year was unremarkable, then his junior year he won the Big 10 outdoor title and followed that by a senior season winning both the Big 10 and national outdoor titles.
Injuries along the way are another reason Porter is grateful to be bearing the Olympian title. But he rallied from the head injury to do well enough that season and begin to seriously think the Olympic Trials could be possible. The 2008 Olympic Trials were the last time he saw his father alive, and he attended his funeral a few months later in August.
“He never lost faith in God or in me. Every time I go to a meet, I think about that,” says Porter.
The faith that kept his father’s attitude so positive has sustained Porter through the various trials along the way and given him a new perspective. Raised by Christian parents and grandparents, putting his faith in Christ was a natural step for Jeff, and he did that in 1996 as a young man. But his faith didn’t really become personal until he was older and endured hardships, finding a faithful God through it all.
Faith keeps him focused
“My faith has kept me focused on the goal through the harder performances. In previous years, I would lose my temper in bad races, but I have relaxed a lot more this year and kept a more positive attitude,” he says. “Faith is what gives me the perspective that it’s all going to be alright because my Father in heaven has it all worked out for me. I know God has this covered, so I don’t have to worry about it. After I’ve done everything I can do, I can take my hands off of it and say, ‘God, it’s up to You.’”
Much of that has come at Michigan, where he got involved with Athletes in Action through his girlfriend Tiffany, whom he met on the track at school and married in May 2011. At the first meeting he attended in 2005, Porter met AIA staff member Bruce Dishnow and began meeting with him regularly to talk about spiritual matters. Even after Porter finished his undergraduate degree and a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan, Dishnow has remained a mentor and was especially helpful during the difficulty of his father’s death.
Wife competing for Great Britain
The Olympic events will be even sweeter for Porter since Tiffany will be there with him, competing for Great Britain in the 100-meter hurdles. Many other family and friends will be there as well, but Jeff relishes experiencing the event up close with his wife.
“It’s a great time to share the Super Bowl of track and field together; you can’t write a script like that. It’s phenomenal to have my life partner here with me,” he says. “I think we’re looking forward the most to just competing; we’re competitors by nature, and to be on the world’s biggest stage is so great. We hope to bring home the gold.”
But even more important to Porter is the chance he sees to use this arena to spread a message of hope and love found in Jesus Christ.
“It’s a worldwide platform, where people are always looking at how you react to successes as well as failures. I have been given an opportunity, and only by His grace am I in the position I am now. I didn’t get here on my own merit,” he says. “When I compete, I don’t compete for myself or my family. I compete for God because He gave me the talent, and I want to give it back to Him. I was born to compete, and I want to use it for His glory. Every time I step on a track it’s for an Audience of One.”