When you were young, who was your hero? Do you still have heroes? Who are your guiding lights, the people who have and are shaping your life?

While walking along the beach on a beautiful Autumn day recently – a privilege in my retirement! – I was reflecting on all the people who have influenced and shaped my life in positive ways. I thought about those who have been my mentors and guiding lights during different seasons of my life journey. Names like Peter, John, Pieter, Dave, Tony, Shelagh, Mike and Chris came to mind. Indeed, I have paid tribute to many of these positive influences in my life in my book Mentoring Minutes: Weekly Messages to Encourage Anyone Guiding Youth.

A mentor who shaped my life

However, one of the people who influenced my thinking and way of living when I was a young adult, and who continues to significantly influence and shape my life and thinking appeared in the film Chariots of Fire, which still rates as one of the best films I have seen. The film introduced me to one of my ‘mentors’ – definitely a guiding light – I shall never meet, Eric Liddell, the ‘Flying Scotsman’.

Eric was born in China to Scottish missionary parents. He was schooled in London, attended University in Edinburgh and became a duel international sportsman, representing Scotland in Rugby and Athletics.

Eric was regarded as the fastest man in the world over 100 meters before the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics, yet, on a point of principle – he would not run on a Sunday because of his strong Christian faith – he was unable to participate in that race at the Olympics.

Instead, having come third in the 200 meters final, he ran the 400 meters final and, not only won the race, but also set a new world record which would last until 1936 when it was broken at the Berlin Olympics.

Eric’s strange running style saw him running for the finish line with his head and eyes seemingly looking to the heavens. It would be surprising if any athletes and coaches today would refer to his running style as a positive style to emulate. Yet, Eric made a simple statement about how he was able to run: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel this pleasure.”

Life after the Olympics

Although Eric ran for a short while after the Olympics, continuing to win most of his races, in 1925 he returned to China as a missionary teacher, eventually marrying Florence Mackenzie with whom he had three daughters.

When World War 11 broke out, Eric decided to send his family to Canada while he remained in China.

In 1943 he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp with other members of the China Inland Chefoo School. There he counselled, cared for, encouraged, inspired, motivated and mentored many interns, using his teaching gifts most especially to care for the children.

On 21 February 1945, five months before liberation, Eric died from an inoperable brain tumor at the age of forty-three.

The spirit of mentoring seen in the tributes

It remains one of the mysteries of life that so often only after one’s death people express their thanks, admiration and appreciation for how that person positively affected their lives.

While this might not have necessarily been the case in Eric’s situation, as he was a revered sporting hero who never let these achievements go to his head, the tributes after his death have provided the spirit of mentoring inspiration and motivation for me as a family man, teacher, school principal, sports coach, mentor and developer of youth mentoring programs – someone who never stops learning.

We are living in a politically correct thinking global community that so often squelches the God-given gifts and talents of individuals like Eric, yet he remains a role model for many, especially those guided by a strong faith.

David McCasland’s superb book, Eric Liddell – Pure Gold, provides some of the tributes which highlight the spirit of mentoring.

“Never once did he [Eric] show the slightest sign of bad temper or bad sportsmanship on the field; both, it seemed to me, were utterly foreign to him … ” (Ted McLaren, teammate in the Scottish Rugby Team and a fellow prisoner in China)

“… Eric is the most remarkable example in my experience of a man of average ability and talents, developing those talents to an amazing degree, and even appearing to acquire new talents from time to time, through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (A.P. Cullen, a friend for thirty-three years)

“… he won his way through by persistent study, regular time of devotion, constant meditation, insistent prayer, getting up early in the morning and spending one hour – two hours – in a concentrated search for God’s will as revealed in the teaching of Jesus and the Bible generally.” (A.P. Cullen)

One of Eric’s roommates in the internment camp, Eugene Huebener, wrote, in a letter to Florence ten months after Eric’s death: “Today I am trying to live more like he lived, because he lived like Christ lived.”

Another unnamed internee wrote in a personal diary: “He was not particularly clever, and not conspicuously able, but he was good. He was naturally reserved and tended to live in a world of his own, but he gave of himself unstintedly. His reserve did not prevent him from mixing with everybody and being known by everybody, but he always shrank from revealing his deepest needs and distresses, so that whilst he bore the burdens of many, very few could help to bear this. His fame as an athlete helped him a great deal. He certainly didn’t look like a great runner, but the fact that he had been one gave him a self-confidence that men of his type don’t often have. He wasn’t a great leader, or an inspired thinker, but he knew what he ought to do, and he did it. He was a true disciple of the Master and worthy of the highest places amongst the saints gathered in the Church triumphant. We have lost one of our best, but we have gained a fragrant memory.”

Life lessons – always learning from our mentors

The spirit of mentoring involves having fun, remaining humble and selfless, non-judgmental, living a healthy and balanced lifestyle, modelling a strong work ethic, and being compassionate, empathetic and caring.  Eric Liddell personified all these qualities and more. It is easy to appreciate the impact his life journey has had on me and my career. I have written more about the spirit of mentoring in my two recently published books CHOICES, Encouraging Youth to Achieve Greatness, and MENTOR, Strategies to Inspire Young People.

One of the pall bearers at Eric’s funeral eighteen-year-old Stephen Metcalf had helped Eric keep track of the athletic equipment in the internment camp. A few weeks before his death Eric had given his only pair of running shoes to Stephen, saying, “You’ll need these for winter.”

I think of the spirit of mentoring as walking in the shoes of my mentees – sometimes feeling the blisters, too – to understand them better. I am thankful for the example of Eric Liddell, one of the inspirations for much of my writing which promotes the spirit of mentoring.

Eric Liddell is an inspiration, though when asked who my hero is – my guiding light  – I would think about who Eric Liddell’s hero was, and respond: “I follow Jesus.” An interesting conversation could then take place as I share my life story.

What about you? Has this story reminded you of someone who has motivated and inspired you, shaped your life, perhaps someone you haven’t met either? Who will you share that story with?