Olympic Achievements

The Gathering Place’s executive director brings a fresh vision and experience

By Katelyn Bausman

» Hockey was everything to Paul Kobylarz as a child growing up in Detroit. He started playing at the age of 3, was on his first travel team by the time he was 5 and continued to play throughout his youth before going on to compete for the University of Michigan. “It was a dream come true to receive a scholarship from one of the country’s most prestigious hockey programs,” Kobylarz recalls.

Another dream was being asked to try out for the 1984 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team following the team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the heavily favored Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, the tryout didn’t go well.

“I came back from that tryout really disappointed and disillusioned because hockey was my identity,” Kobylarz says. “I had a performance-based identity, so the better I played hockey, the more I valued myself. My Olympic tryout crashed. My parents were getting divorced. I came down with mono. I had a horrible sophomore year, and I really questioned my life’s purpose when hockey wasn’t going well for the first time. I thought if hockey can’t motivate me, what can?”

That’s when faith entered his life. He accepted the invitation to Bible study from two fellow student-athletes. “It helped me with my parents’ divorce, my failed Olympic experience and the pressures of being a Division I college athlete at a major university,” Kobylarz says. “I learned how to use biblical principles to help me deal with the issues in my life.”

Despite his newfound faith, the hits kept coming for Kobylarz. His brother nearly died after being hit by a drunken driver. But it was his faith, he says, that got him through it all.

“All of a sudden, the worst year of my life became the best year of my life because I had changed,” Kobylarz says. “I found identity in my faith and learned how to love and accept myself unconditionally the way God does.” Though he didn’t make the Olympic team, Kobylarz says his Team USA jersey from the tryouts is very meaningful because of the journey it represents in his life.

After graduation, he played for the New Jersey Devils organization for three years and pursued a few business opportunities before embarking on a three-week hockey mission trip to Sweden, Russia and Finland. The group members shared their faith as they played games and reached out to sports clubs, schools, churches and communities.

While in Sweden, Kobylarz was recruited by professional hockey coach Sture Näslund, father of former NHL star Markus Näslund. The coach asked Kobylarz to stay and play professionally, so he could create a connection in the community between church and sports, which didn’t exist in Sweden at that time.

Kobylarz ended up staying for 20 years and started Sport For Life, a national church-based 501(c)(3) organization that hosted sports camps, consulted with churches to build sports ministries and offered sports chaplaincy to local clubs and at major events like the Olympics.

Sport For Life became nationally acclaimed in Sweden, which Kobylarz says is monumental because “the combination of faith and sport was taboo, but people were seeing kids’ lives changed through it, so it gained national recognition,” he says. “I give God all the glory for that.”

Through his work, Kobylarz was invited to serve as a chaplain at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Since, he has served at five more Olympic Games, for two of which he was the lead chaplain (Turin, Italy, and Vancouver, Canada). He recruited and trained international chaplains, organized their schedules and created a program for the athletes, including Bible studies, Sunday church services and one-on-one mentorship.

Faith in the Field

Kobylarz was in Indianapolis for a fundraising event at The Gathering Place (“long before I knew I would be working here,” he says) when he met his wife, Jennifer. “I met her the day before I had to make my decision to leave Sweden after 20 years and transition to Indianapolis,” he says. “She was a part of my decision to move back, not knowing if I would ever meet her again. I actually told her I had made my decision to move back after only knowing her for 20 minutes at this event, even before I told my new employer or my current employer at that time.” The next day, he formally announced his decision. Kobylarz arrived in Indiana to serve in sports ministry at Traders Point Christian Church for five years prior to being asked to join The Gathering Place at Community Church of Greenwood (CCG) as executive director in December 2014. Now, the couple have two young sons, Cameron and Connor, and live in the Hickory Stick Golf Club community in Center Grove.   

The Gathering Place, an 82,000-square-foot sports facility, opened in 2003 as a resource to the community. With an indoor soccer field, three basketball courts, a racquetball court, a walking track, baseball fields and more, the facility boasts four personal trainers, 47 fitness instructors, a world-class karate instructor and the capacity to host major sporting events and concerts.

He says relating to athletes personally is what motivates him in his work. “This is not just another sports facility,” Kobylarz says. “While helping people grow athletically, we want to help people grow in their faith and their life as well as serve others in our community.”

CCG member and personal trainer Aaron Nikou has seen the growth of The Gathering Place from its inception and says Kobylarz is just the visionary the center needed.

“As a Christian, Kobylarz understands who God is, the vision of the church and how to relate to people through faith,” Nikou says. “He started an entire ministry from scratch in Sweden and has the business skills to run our $10 million facility. He also has experience in sports at the Olympics and on a professional level. Kobylarz brings all of that together in one person with one vision and mission for the future, and he will lead The Gathering Place to have an impact in our community, our state, our country and internationally. He’s God’s man for this job, and he will take us to new heights.”

The Gathering Place has undergone a $125,000 renovation to the upstairs cardio, weight and group fitness rooms, and incorporated a new brand, with a revised logo, a new website and a new program called Fusion Sports.

“We want to fuse faith and sport together,” Kobylarz says. “We want to fuse church and community together. We want to fuse different cultures, local and abroad, together. We want to bring all these things together in order to bring excellence and purpose to everything we do across the board.”

Kobylarz also wants to help high school athletes “become all they can be … with faith as their foundation, teaching them to give God the glory for all they do.”

“Sports are the universal language that everyone speaks in one way or another, and we are bringing people from all walks of life together, so we can share the gospel in a unique way,” Nikou explains.