Twenty-two-year-old Beijing Olympian Hollie Avil today ended her elite triathlon career due to an eating disorder she says was sparked by a comment from a coach (not her own): “You’ll need to start thinking about your weight if you want to run quick, Hollie.”
As a former national squad gymnast, I had plenty of experience of what can be a lethal combination of sport, young women and weight. This is my story.
‘Right, I’m going to get anorexia, just to show him,’ I thought as a blunt comment about my weight hit a nerve. Weighed every week, as a group, my gymnastics squad were under no illusion we had to keep trim. The judges would take marks off if we looked unsightly in a leotard, we were told.
It hadn’t always been like this. The mid 80s ushered in a new era of weight-watching, alternative training techniques, and circuit training as the coaches came back from eastern European gymnastic camps full of ideas. Suddenly, some weigh scales appeared.
As a 14-year-old gymnast it was confusing trying to gauge what was natural weight gain for a growing girl and what was extra padding. In the end, I sensibly gauged what felt right, and looked okay from the ‘benefit’ of family videos used for recording competitions (although not my beam mount, apparently. My routine seems to begin with me standing on the beam).
As an overly dedicated child, when it was suggested we cut down on red meat, sweets and cakes I cut them out of my diet completely, thinking I was going the extra mile. I finally succumbed to some bacon at university… well, that smell! But, until then I had some odd eating habits.
At school I would make myself a dried mixed herb and brown bread sandwich – no butter; I’d microwave some cheese blotting the resulting splatted mess with a paper towel to remove the fat, spread some marmite in it and roll it up into a now cold and chewy pancake-looking thing.
Conversely, on a cheeky rare absence from the gym and with no family around, my piece de resistance would be to make what I called, a cake in a cup. I’d get a mug, put in a spoonful of flour, sugar, margarine and chocolate powder – blast it in the microwave and deliciously and guiltily eat it warm with a spoon.
But here’s the crux of it. I was aware an occasional cake in a cup was not the end of the world. I was aware I didn’t have the lithest of figures and had to work hard to stay in shape; I’m pretty sure there were no weight-induced illnesses in the gymnasts around me (although I recognise the point now that secrecy around food is intrinsic to the sufferer); none of us liked the weighing time at the gym – it’s bad enough when you’re on your own in the bathroom.
But then I wasn’t a huge fan of the race up the rope to the top of the two-storey-high gym, arms only, legs stretched out parallel to the floor; the dull, repetitive extra exercises necessary in strengthening my weak ankles; the press ups in handstand with legs resting up against the wall and myriad other exercises that would ultimately make me a better gymnast. And that was all that mattered to me.
Ultimately, once I’d got home from gym, with a ravenous appetite following training and a balanced meal in front of me, the last thing I thought was not to eat it. I was too tired and besides, there was homework to do and then sleep. Then, same again next day.
I loved and love my sport and will defend it to the hilt, but I recognise the potentially flammable combination of weight and sport and young women. My series of events meant that I didn’t carry out the threat of ‘getting anorexia’ – a phrase revealing my naivety of the disease.
I can’t imagine how Hollie Avil was even able to train – physically, her body weakened by her illness, and mentally, with the absolute exhaustion of the turmoil in her mind.
One of a thousand quotes from my coach was, “A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins”. I, for one, am glad Hollie has found the strength to know when to quit.
Read Hollie Avil’s full article in The Telegraph
If you think you have a problem or know someone who might be in trouble, the best thing you can do is seek help. For in-depth reading try the British Journal of Sports Medicine or immediate help the NHS helpline (UK only).