Man, she was so hungry. Her insides twisted in an almost crippling pain and her stomach rumbled, demanding to be fed. She ignored it, just like she always did. She was fat. The only way to make herself skinnier was by not eating.

For female swimmers, 35% are in danger of developing anorexia and 38% are in danger of developing bulimia.1 Eating disorders are very serious and can lead to many health problems, up to and including death.

She looked at herself in the locker room mirror. I look so awful in this suit, she thought. I am sure everyone can see how fat I am. She was determined to eat even less than before in order to lose more weight. She would be the best looking girl on that team, even if it killed her.

Because swimmers spend most of their time in a swimsuit, it is easy for coaches and teammates to see any weight changes and make comments about them. So much of a swimmer’s body is visible and it is very easy to see body shape, which can make female swimmers (and male swimmers too) very self-conscious about how they look and how much they weigh. In addition, many swimmers and coaches are under the impression that the less you weigh, the faster you swim. This is not true. By not eating enough or by weighing too little, a swimmer will not have the energy needed for practice or for competition.

Warmup was manageable, but the farther she got into practice, the less energy she had. “Hey, are you ok?” One of her teammates asked when she began missing the interval.

“I’m fine,” she said tersely back. Her teammate didn’t ask her again.

One of the key signs of an eating disorder is irritability. Additional signs include extreme exhaustion, frequently becoming ill, and hair loss or excessive hair growth, among many others.1

Eventually she began feeling dizzy and she could barely move her arms. She dragged herself out of the water. The world spun around her. Her coach and trainer ran over. “Talk to me, what is wrong?” Her trainer asked.

“I just want to lay down. I am so hungry.” She placed her cheek against the cool deck and closed her eyes. She lost track of time. The next thing she knew her coach was shaking her awake and her trainer was forcing a granola bar into her hand.

“She needs help. Look at how skinny she has become.” They thought she couldn’t hear but she was listening. They were wrong though; she wasn’t skinny; she was so fat.

One of the teams I was on in the past weighed the female swimmers once a week. This caused a lot of issues among the athletes. Our coach would also come up to use and tell us that we had gained weight or he would ask us if we had. He believed that the less you weighed, the faster you would swim. Situations like these put a lot of pressure on the athletes to lose weight, which over time can develop into an eating disorder. There is no specific weight that enables you to swim fast. Whatever weight works for you, even if it is more weight than your coach thinks you need, is the weight you should maintain. The important thing is whether you are eating well and consuming the proper amount of calories and nutrition your body needs to meet your exertion requirements.

“I don’t want this” She tried to push the bar back into her trainer’s hand.

“You need to eat. You passed out because you were hungry. How much have you eaten today?” Her coach asked her worriedly.

On the other hand, coaches should recognize when their athletes have a problem. They should communicate their observations with the swimmer’s parents or trainer, depending on the swimmer’s age. Additionally, it is important for swimmers to understand nutrition and how to get the proper fuel for practice and competition, as well as learning what to eat and when to eat it to get the proper nutrients.

“Enough, I have eaten enough. I’m fine. There is nothing wrong with me.” She was growing irritated. She tried to push herself into a sitting position, but her arms wouldn’t hold her weight.

“That’s it. You are off the team until you get this under control.” Her coach shook her head in sadness. “I am sorry to do this to you, but this is serious. If you hadn’t pulled yourself out of the pool before you passed out, you could have drowned.”

Seeing a psychologist can help swimmers, other athletes, and non-athletes overcome eating disorders. In extreme cases, a swimmer will be sent to an eating disorder clinic where they will spend time under the guidance of doctors and psychologists in order to gain weight and become healthy.

She lost it right then. Swimming was everything to her; her coach couldn’t do this. She had nothing anymore.

Eating disorders are very real and very dangerous. Because they change the way a person thinks about themselves, eating disorders are very difficult to overcome and can reappear later in life. People diagnosed with an eating disorder often deny they have one and it can be very difficult to convince them to seek help. They have an incredibly distorted body image and don’t see themselves the way other people do.

Many times people do think that in order to be skinny they cannot eat junk food (like candy, or cookies, or chips). This is false. Depriving yourself of things you enjoy can lead to you craving them more and binge eating. The important thing to remember is everything can be eaten in moderation! Don’t deprive yourself of things you love to eat.

There are many other types of eating disorders prevalent in today’s society and each can impact swimmers. Parents, coaches, and trainers need to educate themselves and their swimmers on nutrition and eating disorders in order to help prevent eating disorders from occurring.

Written by Charlotte Anderson

1http://www.usaswimming.org/ViewNewsArticle.aspx?TabId=0&itemid=4734&mid=8712