By ANNA CLAIRE O’CAIN
People in the Flowood area might know Olivia and Dr. Chris Kneip through their competing in triathlons, or from their work as a teacher and orthopedic surgeon respectively. But many do not know how God used difficult times in the Kneip’s lives to strengthen their faith and ultimately bring them together — or the story of their hilarious, divine first meeting.
One day 10 years ago, Olivia met her triathlon training group at the reservoir and was told a “newbie” was coming to swim. His name was Chris Kneip, he’d never done any swimming in open water, and Olivia didn’t know him.
“We get down to the pier and I look up, and (Chris) had put his wetsuit on backwards,” Olivia recalls. “I died out laughing and looked up at him and he goes, ‘This is on backwards, right?’
“And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s on backwards.’”
Chris got the wetsuit figured out, continued the triathlon training, and now he and Olivia are passionately running the race of life and faith hand in hand, alongside their four children.
Church vs. heart change
Though the Kneips did not meet until adulthood, their upbringings were similar. Being born into Christian families and raised in church, Olivia and Chris both made professions of faith at an early age. However, it was later in life when they committed wholeheartedly to running the race that God had laid out for them.
“My mom took us to church my whole life and I did get baptized as a little girl, but that was the extent of it,” Olivia says. “I thought that you did church on Sundays and Wednesday nights and that was it.”
Having a strong personality and being a “go-getter” as Olivia says, she stuck with the bi-weekly routine of attending church. “I just grinded it out.”
Sports were also an important part of Olivia’s upbringing. “(I) played sports, (was) super competitive, and so all through high school my whole life was surrounded by sports. It’s what kept me going.” She continues, “I feel like it was my relationship almost.”
Placing her identity in competing, Olivia says that no one told her that playing sports would one day come to an end. “When that ended, it was just like everything kind of went black and dark and I just started searching for the next thing.”
She was always looking for something else to fulfill her but could never find it. “I searched everywhere — definitely searched in the wrong places — and always kind of felt that void,” she says.
“Then in my 30s I had a horrible divorce — horrible marriage my first time around. … I was a single mom for five years, and finally I felt like I was drowning all the time.”
Though Olivia continued the routine of attending church, she still felt that something was missing. But one day everything changed for her. “All of a sudden, I had an encounter, and that’s the only way I can describe it,” she says. “I literally had an encounter with the Lord, and it was so personal and so real to me.”
Though Olivia says she did not know much scripture at the time, she says that looking back, “Everything that was so vivid in the encounter was all biblical and scriptural.” She continues, “When you say, ‘born again,’ those words are so real to me because I feel like I was born that day. I had never in my whole life seen somebody go from self-living to 100 percent surrendered.”
Like Olivia, Chris grew up in a Christian household and regularly went to church. “I grew up with a very faithful family — faithful parents who carried us to church all the time,” he says. “I had I think a fairly common story of (knowing) the Lord from a young age — (going to) Sunday school and (being) very faithful in the church.”
Chris says he gave his life to Christ and was baptized around the age of 9 and continued attending church throughout high school. But it was not until his adulthood, after experiencing hardship, when his faith in God became most real to him.
“(I) had a separate almost coming back to the Lord as an adult where it really became most meaningful, and (I had) a true heart change,” he says. “I went through a difficult personal struggle 12 or so years ago that really forced me to my knees and made me seek out the Lord on a much more personal level. … that is where I consider my real, true journey with Christ began in a true surrendered manner.”
‘I’m not dating anymore’
Though Olivia and Chris had personal encounters with the Lord, Chris says their individual experiences came only within a few months of one another.
“We didn’t know each other then, and we both had this same kind of encounter with the Lord through difficult times. (We) had fallen flat on our face and surrendered our lives to the Lord really for the first true time,” he says.
“I remember somebody saying one time, ‘If you want to know somebody to date, somebody to marry, run as hard as you can toward the Lord and then look around and see who is running next to you.’”
As Olivia and Chris chased after God spiritually, they both found a love for competing in triathlons. “Olivia had been kind of doing it for a little bit and I was new, and I just started to do triathlon races,” Chris says. “There was a little local triathlon group in town, and we met doing that. We had some mutual friends that did triathlon.”
Olivia says that from the “wetsuit day” forward, she and Chris grew their friendship as they shared their love for the Lord and triathlons.
“We would train together and talk about our experience with the Lord and just how good He had been to us.” She continues, “Literally the door was shut, and when we both opened it, He was there waiting on us. He was there waiting for both of us to surrender.
“Another part of that story was after my encounter with God, I basically said I’m not dating anymore. … I was a single mom of two and I had obviously gotten that (first marriage) wrong, and I did not want to date anymore.” Instead, Olivia had made up her mind that she was going to focus on her pursuit of the Lord. “I was just going to be in such a relationship with the Lord that I didn’t even need (a husband).”
But she continues, “One day my oldest came in crying, saying things like, ‘I want a daddy. I want a daddy to come home.’” During the tearful conversation, Olivia told her daughter, “‘I think it’s just going to be the Lord, and me, and my two kids.’
“I put her to bed, and I go to my bathroom and I’m just bawling crying, praying to God.” In her bathroom conversation with God, Olivia cried out to Him: “God, I don’t want to date. I don’t want to get married again. But if You have that plan for me, I need You to make it so clear that I know it’s from You.”
Two weeks later, she met Chris.
“Another thing that I think is funny is I always saw myself as a dad,” Chris adds. “I always had that desire in my heart, but I was nearing my mid-30s and (had) no kids or anything like that. … that very first day when we met and were laughing about the wetsuit being on backwards, her two (children) were there with her. I was just looking at them.”
“The way he was looking at them was like a dad looking at his kids,” Olivia says. “When he was looking at my kids playing, he looked at them endearingly. When I was helping him with his wetsuit, I said, ‘Oh do you have kids?’ and he said, ‘No, but I feel like I’m supposed to.’”
Now married for nine years, Olivia and Chris serve as an example of God’s love and redemption to their four children (two from Olivia’s previous marriage): Harper, 18; Laird, 16; Liam, 8; and Eliza James (EJ), 7.
“We were running hard after the Lord, and we kind of just turned around and said, ‘Oh look. Look at this person running next to me,’” Chris says. “We just always thought it was the perfect picture of redemption in so many ways. It’s always been a real beautiful story of surrender and redemption.”
Anna Claire O’Cain is a former English teacher and current grad student in the clinical mental health counseling program at Liberty University. She is married to her best friend, J.T., a teacher and youth pastor. Most of all, she is a believer who is passionate about serving God through missions and worship. Through MCL, she now uses her love for writing to serve the Lord in a new way.