Christchurch Para-athlete William Stedman is home after winning two medals at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The medals though are a result of his wider desire to use his giftings for God, he says – and more than any accolades, he wants his story to be a message which points people to Jesus. He catches up with Jeremy Smith to chat about faith, family, his studies, sport and living with Cerebral Palsy.
“Honestly, as I take a moment to reflect on my journey so far – and as I think about what God might have for me in the future – I’m definitely pretty excited. I’m happy to share my story to be an encouragement to others.”
The fact William Stedman is excited about what’s ahead is saying something – because it’s fair to say the current chapter of the Christchurch-based Paralympian’s story is already, well, pretty exciting. In late August, 21-year-old William won two medals within 24 hours of each other at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics – a silver medal in the men’s long jump T36, with a final distance of 5.64m, and a bronze medal the following day with a time of 54.75sec in the men’s 400m T36 race.
Fresh off returning to New Zealand, William chatted with Authentic – and while delighted with meeting his pre-games two-medal goal, he added that over and above any accolades he acquires, ultimately it’s the big picture that matters.
“My faith gives me perspective on my athletics career, so my sense of identity isn’t dependent on my performance.” William’s total Paralympic medal count is now four – he adds his Tokyo medals to the two he won when he made his Paralympic debut for New Zealand in Rio 2016. Then just 16, William won bronze medals in the men’s 400m T36 and 800m T36 races. He also competed in the long jump there, finishing fifth.
Medals in Tokyo, though a goal, were anything but a given however. He had a few injuries in the lead up to the event, before being diagnosed with a small stress fracture in his lower back just a week before departing for Japan.
“Yeah, it could have easily gone not quite so well,” William said, adding that he was a “little concerned” upon hearing that news. “Some adjustments to our training programme and responsibly managing it with things like physiotherapy really helped – and it started to actually feel not too bad. I am really happy with how everything turned out.”
When I ask how he sensed God first opening doors for him into the Paralympic realm – given that sport is now a large part of William’s testimony that the Lord is using – William says he always loved sport growing up – including cricket and football – and his first encounter with the Paralympic games in fact came when he got to watch the 2012 event in London from the stands with his family.
“Before then, being at the games in terms of competing had never really crossed my mind – but when I saw the athletes competing in London I definitely thought to myself, “Wow, this is cool! I could do that!’”.
Upon returning to New Zealand after those games, William joined Christchurch’s Port Hills Athletic Club – initially running cross country, before, at 15, deciding the track – and track events – were calling. In 2014, he teamed up with his coach George Edwards, who still coaches William today. In fact, George was among the group of supporters – which included family and friends – who nervously watched how William was going in Tokyo, from back home in New Zealand. Doing so actually meant those watching from home didn’t get to see William’s final long jump effort live.
When you chat with William, you begin to realise something about him. As much as we talk about Tokyo, William loves sharing his faith. And as we talk, he’s honest, real and vulnerable – he’s made an intentional decision to be that way whenever he shares his story – no matter who he’s talking to. Whether it’s amongst friends, or on the world stage in front of TV cameras, William wants to reflect Jesus.
In that light, it’s fair to say God has truly blessed William’s sporting journey too. In 2015, William was named Para-athlete of the Year by Sport Canterbury – before being named Junior Sportsperson of the Year by ParaFed Canterbury the following year. Then, in 2017, he was named Junior Athlete of the Year at the Canterbury Athletics Awards, and also shared the middle distance Athlete of the Year accolade. Just last year, he was named Para-athlete of the Year at the Canterbury Athletics Awards.
Pausing at this point in our chat, William wants to highlight the aspect of his journey that is Cerebral Palsy.
“Cerebral Palsy is something I’ve had since I was born, and even though it’s made some things harder, I’ve been really blessed in that I’ve never felt limited by it. And God has used my Cerebral Palsy to open up opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I had not been born with it.”
Cerebral palsy is caused when parts of the brain that control movement, balance and posture are damaged – and though it affects people in different ways, it can affect body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflexes, posture and balance. And that’s part of the encouragement William wants to offer readers who may be facing their own challenges. “If we give everything to God – even those challenges – He can and will take and use them.”
Rather candidly, William adds, “…as I grow in my faith and look at my own life, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that God has already been using my journey with Cerebral Palsy in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. “I honestly think it’s a perfect example of God taking an aspect of my life that could have limited me, and using it for good. My encouragement to readers would be to not let our struggles, or the things that could potentially hold us back, keep us from allowing God to use us.”
As we chat, William mentions Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (NIV). “It’s been so cool seeing how God has used something like my Cerebral Palsy, which could be seen as a hindrance, into something that I consider a blessing.”
His upbringing and early childhood is likely a major factor in the openness and honesty with which William shares his story today. He and his two younger siblings – his brother Luke, 19, and sister Isabelle, 17, were raised in a Christian home by their parents Phil and Cath. Phil pastors Christchurch’s Riccarton Community Church (RCC).
“I am so grateful to have had Christian parents,” William says. “It has given me a good foundation for different aspects of my life.
“Although I had grown up in a Christian household my entire life, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I think I fully understood, in a truly personal sense, what Christianity was about, the magnitude of what Jesus did for us on the Cross and how that should impact how we live.
“It has changed my life in a huge way.”
In terms of his journey with cerebral palsy too, William says his parents also instilled an “amazing” outlook in him. He was always encouraged by his whole family to do a range of physical stretches, which helped with mobility and flexibility. “I even remember, as a kid, having a star chart for doing them too,” William smiles.
“More important than just the stretches though, is the fact I was never raised to focus on deficit – or to dwell on or consider the ways in which cerebral palsy would stop me from doing anything.
“I mean, of course I was aware I was living with it, but my parents’ encouragement was to belike someone who just found a few things a bit harder. One of the most important things I learnt from living with Cerebral Palsy was that, with practice, I could learn to do a lot of things that I couldn’t do initially. This has set me up well for a lot of things in later life. My parents also encouraged me to develop a personal relationship with Jesus since I was little.”
As God teaches him more, William says he regularly thinks about a piece of Scripture in Ephesians – which both reminds him of what Jesus has done for us – and our subsequent part to play in being used by Him.
“I love Ephesians 2:1-10. “…as for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the Heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV).
“What does it mean to you to live the authentic Christian life then?,” I ask. “And what’s the importance of surrounding yourself with Godly friends and influences who point you to Jesus and help you do that?”
“Authenticity is something that I have not necessarily been good at in the past,” William says in an honest response. “It can be very easy to put up a facade for other people. But authenticity is so important, and is something that I do aim to live out in my life.”
“I’m definitely not perfect, but I want to be an example of that authenticity. I try to be honest with the people around me – I think shame or guilt can sometimes be a big issue for people – myself included – and being honest and open helps with that. More than that though, knowing that I’m secure in Jesus, and that He can use even my weaknesses, means that I have the freedom to be open. I don’t need a facade, because every failing He has forgiven says more about His love than about my ability.”
And William has no doubt that having Christian friends around him has also been key to helping him grow in his faith.
“In my faith journey, I’ve certainly found having those friends to be so important. I attend the church my dad leads – Riccarton Community Church – and I’m blessed that I’ve met a lot of amazing friends through that avenue who do point me to Jesus. They’ve absolutely been instrumental in helping me continue to grow.
“I also have some great Christian friends through my studies at the University of Canterbury. I’m completing a four-year electrical engineering degree part time there, and I’m involved with Student Life – a ministry which runs on campus. My encouragement to readers on that front is to look for – and pray about – God bringing Christian friends into your life – they are such a blessing and help keep you accountable, open and honest.”
On the sporting front, it’s only really now, as William settles back into life in New Zealand, that he’s had some time to reflect on his achievements in Tokyo.
And he’s pretty happy.
“I actually thought the last long jump wasn’t very good,” he says of his first event. “ I’m not sure why – but when I saw the distance of 5.64m flash up on the screen I just couldn’t believe it – I was pretty shocked to be honest, it was a pretty cool feeling.
“I think the long jump is probably my favourite event,” he says of the track disciplines he competes in. “It’s quite technical but I certainly enjoy it – if it’s going to plan,” William says with a smile. “There are very small margins of error and actually, the 400m and the long jump are probably pretty similar in terms of ability.”
Part of reflecting on Tokyo, William says, involves saying thanks to the large team of people – coaching staff, supporters, family and friends for all their help.
“I’m so blessed to be surrounded by amazing people in so many spheres of life, and I thank God for that. When it comes to athletics endeavours, I value the friendship that my coach George and I have so much.
“Yes, he is my coach, but I just think we also get on so well – and that’s really important. In my mind, one of the most awesome qualities about him is that he’s always learning in terms of coaching and then passing those learnings on to me.
“He’s been an absolutely massive part of my athletics journey – he’s kind of the mastermind behind the training programme to be honest and it’s amazing that as I look back, I can see how our time training together has helped me improve when it comes to my abilities too. In a way, as we put in the work together, when I achieve my sporting goals George achieves his.”
“Do you still get nervous when you compete at such a level?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” William laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever not been nervous. But as well as George, I’ve got a big team behind me who help me stay focussed on the simple things like visualising jumps and concentrating on the task at hand. This is also where I find that the perspective that my faith brings really helps. ”
“Prayer is a big thing… there’s definitely a lot of prayer going on, all the time!”
As I ask William what he feels God might have for him next, he alludes to some “really exciting” things ahead. First though, he’s looking forward to “putting his feet up” for a short time over the summer holidays and taking a break from an, at times, gruelling training schedule.
“Well, off the track, I’m just so looking forward to spending some time with my friends.”
“Actually, my idea of a perfect day to rest and relax would be one where I spend it doing things like getting out into nature. I love the outdoors skiing, mountains and tramps. I also like playing the piano and the guitar.”
Most exciting of all though is the fact he and fiancée Annika Duke are getting married next month – they’re currently putting the finishing touches on their summer wedding ceremony.
“Annika and I met when we went to Middleton Grange School, a Christian School here in Christchurch, and we’ve been dating for about four years – since our final year of school,” William says.
I can tell how excited he is, as he shares a snapshot of their story. “She’s wonderful. I am so grateful to have her in my life.”
Athletics wise though – Lord willing – the next sporting step looks like the next Paralympics – to be held in Paris in 2024.
He adds he can see scope for improvement and “doing even better” than his results in Tokyo. He’s likely to be back in Tokyo next year too, at a World Championship event.
“Honestly, Paris is now only about three years away now – but on the other hand three years is a long time in sport. In the spirit of going where God could lead me over the next few years, I’m holding onto this pretty lightly.
“But my best long jump distance in Tokyo – 5.64m – and my race time 54.75 seconds were both below my personal bests for the events. My long jump personal best is actually 9cm further than what I managed in Tokyo, and to give you an idea, if I had jumped my personal best in the long jump I would have only been 3cm short of the Gold medal-winning distance in Tokyo. So, who knows where I’ll be in 2024!”
“I gave it absolutely everything in Tokyo. Especially so in the 400m race after winning the bronze in the long jump – following that race I can definitely say I had nothing left in the tank.”
As our chat nears its end, William offers one last thought.
“Above all, my approach has been remembering that sport isn’t everything – my faith in Jesus is undoubtedly what has kept me grounded throughout the ups and downs of sport and life in general over the last few years.
“It is ultimately the motivation for everything that I do. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says “…whatever you do, do all to the glory of God…”. I want to be the best athlete, friend, musician, or engineer that I can be – because I know I’m ultimately doing it all for God’s glory.”
Share this article
About the author
Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
Want more articles like this?
Read More Interesting articles
“I just want people to come to know Jesus.” As Malachi WIlliams and I initially chatted about this interview, those…Read More...