Judy Marie Guzmán Pérez, age 17, a high school track star in Ponce, Puerto Rico, knows how to lead the way—and she has the medals to prove it. But Judy Marie is leading in more ways than one. In an area of the world where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not well known, Judy Marie takes the opportunity to share her beliefs and live as an example to other youth.
On 28 February 1998 Judy Marie Guzmán Pérez was one of some 800 young athletes from 200 schools on the islands of Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and St. Thomas invited to a prestigious athletic competition at the University Inter-Americana. The athletes were divided into three groups and judged on personal characteristics such as effort and overall performance as well as on race times. The judges selected Judy Marie as the most outstanding athlete in her group. During her athletic career at Jardines de Ponce High School, she has collected 110 gold, silver, and bronze medals and 6 trophies; but, she says, her plaque from the University Inter-Americana is one of her most prized possessions.
Judy Marie’s mother, Judy Pérez Collado, is her inspiration. She has been running since the age of 14; she ran in the 1966 Pan-American Games, and she still competes today. Like her mother, Judy Marie is a sprinter. She normally runs the 400-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 4 x 400-meter relay, 4 x 100-meter relay, and 4 x 200-meter relay.
She has learned that success on the track comes only after hard work. She practices with her team almost every day, running at least three kilometers in practice, as well as running sprints and stairs and doing other exercises.
The Word of Wisdom teaches people the principle of caring for their physical bodies. Participating in athletics has helped Judy Marie realize how important this principle is.
Despite her talents and hard work, Judy Marie sometimes gets nervous before big competitions. Before races, she prays, “Heavenly Father, I pray Thou wilt help me and my friends, that no accidents will happen, and that we will enjoy this and do a good job.” She knows praying helps: “I feel good when I pray; I feel the Spirit with me.”
When Judy Marie wins, she acknowledges God’s help. But even when she doesn’t win, she takes it all in stride. “I know I can’t win all the time,” she admits. “Some of my competitors are very fast!” She sees some other athletes get upset when they don’t win. “They say, ‘Don’t talk to me! Get out of here!’” But Judy Marie doesn’t like to get angry. Win or lose, she finds that prayer helps her stay calm after a race: “I pray, ‘God, please help me, and always stay with me.’”
Judy Marie’s bishop, Concepción Molina of the Ponce Second Ward, Ponce Puerto Rico Stake, is a physical education instructor at another high school in the area. “I first got acquainted with Judy Marie not in my work as bishop, but in my professional work, when I saw her competing for her school.” While Bishop Molina has always been impressed with Judy Marie’s competence as an athlete, he is equally impressed that she can win so many honors without becoming prideful. “She has always been a humble, calm person, even before she was a member of the Church.”
When two missionaries knocked on the door of Judy Marie’s home in 1996, they found a humble family, ready to listen to the gospel. “The missionaries spoke about the gospel, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon,” she says. Although Judy Marie; her mother; her brother Javier, age 13; and her sister, Marie Carida, age 12, heard the discussions and accepted the gospel together, Judy Marie’s own conversion was a deeply personal experience. “When I prayed, Heavenly Father gave me answers,” she says. “It was very beautiful, and I felt the Spirit very strongly.”
Judy Marie compares the story of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 8 [1 Ne. 8] to her own conversion. “When the missionaries taught us about the gospel, they showed us the fruit and brought us out of the darkness,” she says. “I remember when Elder Joshua Carter baptized me and Elder Joshua Smith confirmed me. I felt I was born again, mentally and spiritually. I know I am a daughter of God.”
As president of her Laurel class, Judy Marie tries to help other young women understand what it means to be a daughter of God. She tries to help less-active members of the class feel welcome. “Sometimes it is hard because I have been in the Church only a short time and I don’t know them well. But my teacher helps me. We call them or visit them.”
Judy Marie finds strength in associating with other Church members. “They are my best friends!” she says. She and her friends enjoy watching movies and eating pizza and ice cream. They find support by reading scriptures together and giving one another advice. Judy Marie and some of the others attend seminary every morning at 6:00 A.M.
But some of Judy Marie’s friends know very little about the Church. As a stake missionary, she feels the responsibility to be a friend and example to them. “She is active, outgoing, and caring,” says Bishop Molina, “and is an example for the other youth in her school.”
Judy Marie admits that sometimes it is difficult to share her feelings about the Church. One of the greatest challenges she and her LDS friends face is explaining their faith to others who tell them the teachings of the Church are false. Although hearing such comments is not easy, it does not shake her faith. “I don’t care what other people say. I say, ‘No comment,’ or I tell them what we believe and that it is true. I try to clear up their doubts.”
Time spent serving friends doesn’t keep Judy Marie from serving at home. In 1996 her family adopted two disabled women into their home: Gloria, who is 35, and Elba, who is 31. Gloria and Elba are sisters, and they are grateful to live together with a family. They listened to the missionary discussions and were baptized with the other members of the family.
Judy Marie’s mother cares for the two women, and Judy Marie helps teach them to read and write. “Sometimes it’s difficult,” she admits, but she adds that her desire and ability to help and teach them come from the Spirit. This desire to help others has motivated Judy Marie to want to go to college and study nursing.
“The gospel has changed our family,” says Judy Marie. “I listen to my mom more. Our family’s relationships are stronger.”
Her mother, who serves as the ward Relief Society secretary, agrees that the gospel has blessed her family beyond measure. “We have come to know many things we didn’t know before,” she says. “We know we have a Heavenly Father. He is in our lives and understands our problems. If we ask Him, He grants unto us whatever we need. We aren’t alone.”
Although they live several kilometers from the meetinghouse, Judy Marie and the other members of her family walk to the chapel for meetings when other transportation is not available. “They are a very humble family,” says Bishop Molina. “They are not wealthy, but they serve others. They fulfill their callings. They are special people.”
While Judy Marie’s strong legs bring her success as a runner, it is her strong testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will bring her spiritual success and happiness. Her favorite scripture, Ezra 10:4, reads, “Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it.”
“I like that scripture because it talks about being strong,” Judy Marie says. “I want to do a good work with the gifts God has given me.”