Winter Olympians Discuss This 1 Serious Health Concern That’s Been Hidden From the Public for Years

There are numerous pressures that coincide with a career as a professional athlete — especially an Olympian. For these athletes, their sport is their entire life, and few things will stand in their way of going for the gold.

One sport in particular, figure skating, breeds a serious health concern: eating disorders, which can crush athletes’ dreams by affecting both their mental and physical health. Here are some struggles these Winter Olympians have faced as professional figure skaters and how they hope future athletes can learn from their stories.

Gracie Gold

Gracie Gold performing on the ice.

Like many Olympic athletes, Gracie Gold struggled with the pressure of winning. | Mike Stobe/Getty Images for the USOC

She is a two-time U.S. national champion, received a bronze in the team event at Sochi, and was a candidate for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But Gracie Gold withdrew from her Grand Prix assignments and later from competing in the U.S. championships, which effectively ruined her chances to compete in the 2018 Olympic games.

Gold cited treatment for anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder as the reason she needed to take a step back from the sport. “It breaks my heart to withdraw from the 2018 U.S. Championships,” Gold said in a statement. “I have not had adequate training time in order to perform at the level at which I want to. It pains me to not compete in this Olympic season, but I know it’s for the best.”

Yulia Lipnitskaya

Yulia Lipnitskaya performing a routine.

Yulia Lipnitskaya had an eating disorder. | Mary Henriques via YouTube

Sochi Olympics Russian team gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya quit the sport after seeking treatment for anorexia. Her choice to retire arguably shocked both her competitors and fans; however, she cited her health as the primary reason.

“Anorexia is a disease of the 21st century,” Lipnitskaya said on the Russian Skating Federation website, according to Reuters. “It is quite common. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to cope with it.”

Akiko Suzuki

Akiko Suzuki smiling while at an olympic event.

She also was diagnosed with anorexia. | 2010OlympicVids via YouTube

Japanese figure skater Akiko Suzuki’s coach told her losing weight could help her jumps. But in about two months, she lost nearly a third of her body weight and was diagnosed with anorexia.

“There were all these younger skaters coming along with good proportions, and I started wishing for longer legs. I got a real complex,” Reuters reported her saying on Japan’s NTV network. “But since there was no way I could grow, the only thing I could do something about was my weight.”

Evgenia Medvedeva

Evgenia Medvedeva waving at a crowd.

Figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva understands that athletes are under tremendous stress. | Figure skating 2014 via YouTube

Evgenia Medvedeva, a two-time world champion, offered her view on how she handles the stress of the taxing sport while keeping her health a priority.

“I try to approach my relation to my body as responsibly as possible, because yes, now I can’t eat after 6:00 p.m like I used to,” she said, according to Reuters. “Sport itself is discipline. You have to control yourself every day, and when you give in to weakness you hate yourself.”

Why figure skating?

White ice skates on a white background.

The sport promotes perfectionism. | Lefthand666/iStock/Getty Images

Aya Nishizono-Maher, a professor from Japan, told Reuters her view on why this particular sport might lead women and men to compromise their health. She cited the drive and perfectionism it takes to compete in the sport as two personality traits that contribute to eating disorders.

“Perfectionism, the inability to feel one’s feelings or verbalize them to other people … And maybe the parents are very competitive or pressurize the daughter — usually it’s girls – t0 to highly achieve,” she said. “In some clubs, the coaches weigh you before practice. And still, some call the girls ‘pig’ or ‘fat’ when they gain [weight].”

Other figure skaters speak out

Johnny Weir skating on ice.

Figure skater Johnny Weir said the sport can be mentally unhealthy. | MrAGGOD/iStock/Getty Images

Two-time U.S. Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir called the world of competitive sports “not the most mentally healthy place to live,” according to Reuters. But he also said diets, when done in a healthy manner, are necessary for athletes.

“When you’re coming down with 100 times the force of your body weight on landing a jump, it hurts,” he told Reuters. “When I go skate and it’s been a little while and I’ve put on weight, you can feel every fiber of your knees and ankles reacting to this extra weight.”

Treatment and resources

Alex Myer skating in a rink.

Some athletes want to bring awareness to eating disorders in figure skating. | Alex Meyer via YouTube

The National Eating Disorders Association shared the story of Alix Meyer, an adolescent figure skater who eventually escaped the sport’s pressure and graduated college. Meyer said she learned to focus on herself and “to focus on what makes me happy, rather than worrying about whether my weight satisfies people like my coach, who will not decide how I live my life in the long run.”

The association teaches the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders, as well as how to help someone affected. Go to its website or contact its helpline for support, resources, and treatment options.

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