For Many Female Olympic Athletes, The Path To Glory Is Paved With Disordered Eating

Extreme over-training and food restriction is common in nearly every sport that ladies compete in, it's just more noticeable in skating (or gymnastics) because costumes hide precious little.
Publish date:
November 6, 2013
eating disorders, olympics, female athletes

Did you ever completely lose yourself in something so deeply that even the dysfunction of it appears to be perfectly justifiable, if not totally normal? Of course you have, who hasn't been there at least for a minute or two?

Back when I was fresh out of high school and trying to figure out who and what I wanted to morph into, I found myself sucked into the world of figure skating. I'm not talking about the frou frou skating from the 80's that had bad costumes to match the exact same hairstyle on every little chick that graced the ice. I'm talking about the era that began in the mid-90's, when the sport was a million dollar industry and network television was bombarded with specially made competitions simply to feed the hunger of the multitude of fans.

I was completely obsessed with ice dancing but realized pretty fast that I was about 15 years too late to becoming an elite competitor, so I settled for something that still brought me as close as I could possibly get to the skating world -- I decided to cover the sport as a journalist. I was lucky to find success pretty quickly and ended up spending plenty of time in Olympic training areas such as Lake Placid, NY (home to the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Games).

It's interesting how you really do become what you affiliate yourself with, and while I wasn't on the ice training 5 hours a day, some of those skater habits rubbed off anyway. To put it bluntly, I wasn't about to be the fat chick in athlete-ville, so I shrunk myself to a size zero, did thousands of crunches a day and ate as little as possible. I saw these girls as perfection and took a sick sense of pride because I was able to physically blend in.

Did I have other issues brewing beneath my self imposed disordered eating patterns? You betcha, but I felt a sense of normalcy amongst equally screwed-up young women. We were all aiming for a sense of perfection that is pretty impossible to achieve. I didn't have a coach making me hop on a scale to publicly shame me, and I didn't have my mother counting calories out loud for me in a restaurant before I could order either, but I didn't need those things. I was perfectly capable of doing a real number on myself without needing anybody whispering in my ear, challenging me to stick with my whacked out body image.

I can't tell you the specific moment when I woke up from my self imposed workout prison, but eventually it happened and I can honestly say that having a child really ripped me out of my self-absorption. I was left with a new baby and a ton of weight to drop, but being strong enough to juggle my daughter and all of her stuff totally beat out my need to be a waif by definition. Now, years later, I still cover the sport but man, has my perspective changed.

On a recent trip to Lake Placid there was a regional competition going on. In order to have any hope of ever getting to U.S. Nationals these skaters have to do fantastic at the regional level so, needless to say, the pressure is really on. The current crop of skaters on the rise are generally in their mid-teens and are known as “baby ballerinas” because that's what they resemble. I easily recall the food restrictions and daily workouts that I was surrounded by in the past, but as the required technical levels grow, so does the training and deprivation.

For the first time I purposely made myself pay attention the way that an outsider would. I listened to the conversations around me as if I had no clue what this elite sport is all about. I overheard teeny tiny girls wishing they had already skated so that they could get a watered down hot chocolate from the arena snack bar. I also happened to catch two girls discussing how to get rid of the bloat that comes from laxative use.

I think the saddest moment of my few days in the mountains came as I left our hotel room to grab coffee at the crack of dawn. I was still groggy as I stood behind a mother and her teenaged daughter at the counter of a little hole in the wall coffee shop and listened as mom dictated breakfast.

She grilled the worker on the caloric and carb content between a muffin and a bagel and seriously held up the line that eventually formed before finally deciding that her daughter would have a muffin for breakfast and then a bagel with jelly for lunch. I think before that very moment it never had really occurred to me how the parents really do feed in to the disordered eating patterns. While this young girl was probably fixated on getting through this competition and hopefully walking away with a medal, I'm sure she had absolutely no idea that long after the skating ends she'll be carrying those food issues with her.

As a mother that really pissed me off. I understand that even young athletes need to live their lives a bit differently than some of their regular friends, but aren't parents supposed to give their kids the best start possible rather than restrict the simplest of things -- like food?

What's interesting is that several skaters have opted to speak out, admitting that the sport as a whole really does have a problem that starts at the coaching level. Jenny Kirk was a World Junior Champion and competed on the international circuit before retiring from competition in 2005. She has spoken at length about food issues within the sport and she estimates that about 85% of all skaters suffer from sort of disordered eating pattern. They are taught to think about every single calorie and most will over-exercise or use laxatives to make sure that they don't gain an ounce by the end of each day.

It's not just in figure skating either. Extreme over-training and food restriction is common in nearly every sport that ladies compete in, it's just more noticeable in skating (or gymnastics) because costumes hide precious little.

It doesn't help that the changes that puberty brings cause fabulous skaters to become lackluster almost overnight. Curves throw off the timing of jumps and generally will slow down even the fittest of girls. It's considered crushing when a champion phenom begins to develop and her natural ability is lost so coaches really grill it into their students that they need to do whatever it takes to keep their bodies as compact and manageable as possible. Ironically, it takes muscle strength to pull off powerful jumps but eating disorders completely take away from that on a regular basis.

Every weekend from now until the Olympic Games in Sochi you'll find skating on television. The current crop of medal contenders are absolutely amazing and for every one Ashley Wagner (the U.S.'s best shot for a gold medal in ladies skating in Sochi) there are thousands of little girls showing up to their home rink at the crack of dawn determined to be just like her in another 4 or 8 years. They will watch her set foot on Olympic ice and spend the next several years dreaming of having a similar experience. If they are lucky they'll have an elite coach, a sponsor and a skating parent to help fund and fuel the dream.

There can only be one national champ each year and one Olympic Champion every four years, and what lies in between those lofty goals are a multitude of broken bodies and mental issues that can last a lifetime.