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Researchers say eating disorders are an underdiagnosed problem among athletes. The Globe and Mail examines its root causes - from a fear of failure, to questionable coaching methods, to a toxic culture that enables it


In the fall of 2020, Taylor Ruck sat in a restaurant staring at a plate of barbecue ribs. It was the kind of meal she often looked forward to – comfort food. But as she ate that night, the Canadian Olympic swimmer felt a looming sense of dread.

Two years earlier, Ruck had been at the pinnacle of her sport. She’d won a record eight medals at the Commonwealth Games and beaten some of the world’s best swimmers.

After emerging as a teenage phenom at the 2016 Rio Olympics – one half of Canada’s remarkable 16-year-old duo with Penny Oleksiak – Ruck’s sights were now set on the Tokyo Summer Games. It seemed as though nothing could stop her ascent.

But in the years following her remarkable success, Ruck had veered terribly off course.

Convinced that any extra weight would slow her down, and hearing coaches make offhand remarks about whether she had gotten bigger, Ruck began to fixate. She ate less and trained more, eventually developing a debilitating eating disorder that took hold of her mind and body. Now, even comfort foods brought no happiness.

Out with her teammates that evening, Ruck later ducked into a nearby café and forced herself to throw up the meal, telling no one. Purging had become as much a part of her routine as 7:30 a.m. laps in the pool.

“I was just very sad,” she said, recalling how she felt that night, unable to stop, but afraid to reach out for help.

On the way to practice one morning, Ruck told a teammate on the Canadian team what she was doing.

The confession drew no shock. Because her teammate was doing it too.

“It just kind of came out,” Ruck said. “I was pretty surprised that she was going through the same thing – binging and purging. It made it seem normal.”

Ruck reacts after swimming a heat at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Behind the glossy veneer of the Olympics, a significant number of athletes are struggling in ways the cameras don’t see. With athletes’ mental health increasingly coming under scrutiny, several Canadian Olympians who spoke to The Globe and Mail say eating disorders have become one of the most widely identified yet underdiagnosed problems inside the national teams and their feeder systems.

Although data are hard to come by, a survey of national team athletes, conducted in 2019 by researchers at the University of Toronto, offers a glimpse into the problem. The study anonymously polled 764 national team athletes and 237 recently retired ones. Of those, 21 per cent said they had an eating disorder. That compares with about 3 per cent for the general population in Canada.

Only 4 per cent of athletes surveyed said they had actually sought treatment or been diagnosed, an indication of how undetected they are.

In March, 2021, the problem ended up in the courts, when five athletes filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Canada Artistic Swimming, which governs the national synchronized swimming team, alleging psychological abuse that led them into severely disordered eating.

Beyond the limited research, much of the evidence is still anecdotal. And because the personal stories are almost always told in isolation of each other, the problem is rarely looked at in aggregate.

The Globe examined more than 40 cases of eating disorders in Canadian Olympians over the past five years, and the factors behind them.

Ruck emerged as a 16-year-old phenom at the Rio Olympics in 2016.Nina Riggio/The Globe and Mail

Few sports are immune to the problem, and it often starts early – flourishing inside the junior ranks where aspiring athletes can be exposed to misguided coaching, peer pressure, highly questionable sport science and a win-at-all-costs culture. While the specifics of each case vary, certain patterns emerge. In some instances, athletes under pressure hid their struggles; in others, coaches or staff openly encouraged excessive dieting and purging. At times, vigilant coaches were the ones who stepped in to get help. Too many looked the other way while athletes suffered.

“It’s a problem in almost every sport,” said Jodie Richardson, a clinical psychologist who treats Olympians, describing the prevalence of cases seen at her practice. “At one point we were like – we can’t meet the demand for athletes who have eating disorders.”

Alexia de Macar, a performance dietician in Montreal, sees a system unequipped to address the problem. “I have lots of colleagues and friends often calling me to say we do have a case on our national team, and no one knows how to manage it, or what to do about it,” she said.

Some athletes believe a culture change is needed within amateur sport. In addition to Canada, the Australian, American, Russian and Norwegian Olympic programs have all been hit by high-profile eating-disorder problems in the past few years alone.

“I think this needs to be discussed more prominently,” said Gillian Carleton, a track cyclist who won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics while battling bulimia. “Probably a lot of [Olympic] athletes have at some point struggled with an eating disorder.”

As alone as Ruck might have felt, she was far from it.


When not swimming for Canada, Ruck competes for the Stanford University team, above. Ruck felt alone, but research shows many national team athletes have struggled with an eating disorder.Nina Riggio/The Globe and Mail


‘There might not be a spot for you’

India Sherret knew she had a serious problem when her hair started falling out.

It was 2015, and Sherret was a member of the Canadian ski-cross development team, trying to work her way up in the sport. At 19, she was already emerging as one of the country’s best. Her goal was to race on the World Cup circuit, and from there, the 2018 Olympics.

But for the past few years, Sherret had been quietly struggling.

The myth of eating disorders is that they only affect sports that place a premium on aesthetics, such as gymnastics or figure skating, or endurance events, such as running or cycling. In reality, the risk is everywhere.

Though weight is less of a priority in ski-cross, a punishing event where skiers race down the mountain over a series of soaring jumps, Sherret had convinced herself she did not look athletic enough, and that she needed to find an edge.

“I had this notion that if I was smaller, then I would be able to perform better,” Sherret said. “In my head [I believed] I could get stronger and lose weight at the same time.”

Struggling with anxiety over her race results, eating was something she had domain over. “I felt like I couldn’t control other areas of my life, so I would control food,” Sherret said.

India Sherret deferred to her coach, who urged her not to step away from the team to seek help because it would interfere with her training.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

But as she starved herself, she began to suffer injuries – small sprains and strains – more frequently. It also took a toll on her mental health. Exhausted and underfuelled, she realized she needed help. Sherret then did something many athletes are reluctant to do: She confided in her coach.

Behind every athlete’s quest for the Olympics is a coach that can make or break their career. They are highly influential gatekeepers, and this power imbalance can have a huge impact.

Sherret asked for time away to see a doctor. The development team coach talked her out of it. “I don’t know if he didn’t believe me, but he certainly didn’t understand,” she said. “‘I think you need to fight it off. Fight it in the fire,’” she recalled him saying. “‘You don’t need a clinical situation to deal with this.’”

Toughen up, kid – that was the message. It was bad advice, and quite possibly dangerous.

Sherret didn’t know what to do. She doubted herself. “He’s an adult. He’s my coach. He knows stuff,” she said. “Maybe I don’t have a problem. Maybe I do just need to suck it up and deal with it.”

There could also be consequences if she left. “He was like, ‘If you take time away from training voluntarily, there might not be a spot for you when you come back,’” Sherret said.

Sherret eventually sought treatment and is now working toward the 2022 Beijing Olympics.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Situations like these can have a chilling effect on athletes, experts warn.

“Often, athletes have a reluctance to come forward,” said Frank van den Berg, lead mental performance consultant at the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. “Sometimes it’s the performance pressure, or wanting to make the [team], not wanting that coach or staff to know that there is a problem.”

Persuaded by her coach, Sherret remained with the team to train. The situation only worsened. Her hair started thinning, she blacked out during training and she began to suffer heart palpitations. It seemed to go unnoticed or disregarded by everyone but her.

“I remember having this moment where I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘I don’t even know this person,’” she said.

It was only when she returned home to Cranbrook, B.C., a few months later that her mother saw what others had either missed or ignored. “My mom took one look at me and she was like, ‘You’re sick.’”

Soon, Sherret was checked into a residential treatment program in Vancouver. She was put on a mandated break from training, and learned to eat healthily again, one meal at a time.


‘It was never really made clear’ how much weight Kirsten Moore Towers’ coach wanted her to lose. ‘It’s often that the athlete needs to lose weight, but there’s not always a reason why.’Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail


Young and impressionable

Eating disorders in athletes have a troubling pattern: Too often, the problem starts early, in a culture with little scrutiny.

At 15, Kirsten Moore-Towers was told that if she was serious about figure skating, she needed to be small. At 4-foot-11, she was already petite, so she knew what that advice meant. But whenever the pairs skater dropped a few pounds, she was told to keep going. “You don’t look Russian yet,” her coach told her, comparing Moore-Towers with the competition. “Your work isn’t done.”

While skaters around her talked openly about wanting to be thinner, it was her coach at the time who encouraged her into a disorder. After weighing Moore-Towers at the rink one day, he told her exactly what to do if she was serious about losing weight.

She remembers the first time she stuck a finger down her throat, as he had suggested. “It just felt like the easy way out,” she said.

Moore-Towers thought if her parents found out, they would pull her from figure skating, so she hid what she was doing, and stopped going to the dentist. “They can often tell when you’ve been throwing up,” she said. “And I didn’t want them to tell my mother.”

But how much weight was she supposed to lose exactly? “It was never really made clear,” she said. “That’s a common theme in figure skating in particular, just based off my experience. It’s often that the athlete needs to lose weight, but there’s not always a reason why.”

It was all kept quiet. “We didn’t speak about it. I didn’t tell anyone,” Moore-Towers said.

Moore-Towers was subjected to comments about her weight from a figure skating judge.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

Her story is an example of how the problems can take hold at the junior levels of elite amateur sport, in a system with little oversight over the policing of a young woman’s body.

The skaters were weighed each week. It had a direct effect on how she saw herself.

“We were scared,” she said. “You’re just so elated when you step on the scale and please your coach. … The difference between a great day and a hard day was the number on the scale.”

Nor was this lack of oversight limited to coaches. There was nothing to stop figure-skating judges – who wield obvious power over an athlete’s trajectory – from offering an opinion.

Moore-Towers remembers a judge who observed her during training coming over afterward to give technical advice. He then remarked on how thin she looked.

“I was going to tell you that you needed to lose weight,” the judge said after eyeing up her body. “But I see you’ve already done it – good job.”

She had no comprehension of the danger she was putting herself in.

By the time Moore-Towers made the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where she won a silver medal in the team figure-skating event, she was several years into a disorder that was taking a deep toll on her body.

Her thyroid showed signs of distress, as did her kidneys. The purging was exhausting; and she’d been doing it so long that her body rebelled, and began defensively holding onto weight.

In her mind, no one noticed she was purging, “except for the people in the rink who were likely doing the same thing,” Moore-Towers said.

It wasn’t until she relocated to another rink that someone pulled her aside. Her new coach told her to change her ways – accept help or she couldn’t skate for him.

“I’m sure he saved my career that day,” she said.

Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro compete at Skate Canada International in October.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a culture that needs a reset, and younger athletes need protection, said Krista Van Slingerland, mental-health manager for Game Plan, a program run by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees to provide counselling for national team members.

“Toxic practices in sport, like public weigh-ins, body shaming – those things need to end,” she said.

The Globe sent questions to the International Skating Union, the sport’s governing body, asking what rules govern judges talking to athletes about their weight. The ISU did not respond.

Some steps have been taken, but the sport has a long way to go. Figure Skating Canada this year created body-image guidelines for coaches. The Globe reviewed those guidelines, which state that athletes should not be weighed by coaches, only medical personnel, though Moore-Towers suspects it still happens at clubs across the country.

Bad advice at a young age can have lifelong consequences, said Shaunna Taylor, a clinical therapist in Kelowna who treats athletes with eating disorders.

“The teen years are when you build bone mass for life. So if you are restricting, you might be setting yourself up for osteoporosis down the road,” Taylor said.

Moore-Towers sought treatment, working with a nutritionist and psychologist, retraining her brain to eat three meals and three snacks a day. Sometimes that felt impossible; the disorder was in control. She struggled at times to swallow a single raspberry.

The problem is never fully vanquished. When training shut down during the pandemic, the compulsion to limit her eating returned. Further counselling helped Moore-Towers through it.

“It’s important that we understand we need to change the course of where this is going, because this can have lasting damage on athletes. Certainly for me, it affects the way I live my life every day, and likely will for the rest of my life,” she said.

“It’s a bigger problem than most people are aware of.”

Now vying for Beijing 2022, one of her biggest regrets is not being a better role model for younger skaters. She remembers sitting in change rooms with impressionable athletes nearby, talking about the things she couldn’t eat as a top skater.

“It only takes one time, where somebody impressionable can hear something that can spark a new way of thinking for them, which can be truly catastrophic,” she said.


Moore-Towers, shown at home with her dogs, credits a new coach for forcing her to seek help for her eating disorder. ‘I’m sure he saved my career that day.’Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail


Red flags

Nine months before the Tokyo Olympics, mountain biker Haley Smith collapsed.

She was in the Czech Republic preparing for a race when suddenly months of gruelling training, undereating and lack of proper rest – particularly during a pandemic-condensed competition schedule – came crashing down. “I just kind of collapsed on the floor,” Smith recalls. “It was just like – emotional collapse. A complete breakdown. I had no energy.”

The warning signs were there: She was depressed, she wasn’t sleeping, she was underperforming in training. But as many athletes do, she simply tuned it all out amid the relentless march toward the Olympics. Even obvious red flags – like an unusual twitch in her leg – should have set off alarms.

Now, she slumped on the floor, unable to move. “My husband was just saying, this isn’t right, this isn’t you. There’s something wrong,” she said.

Haley Smith in the women’s cross country mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics.Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Team doctors diagnosed Smith, 28, with relative energy deficiency in sport, a condition known in the athletic world by the shorthand acronym RED-S. It occurs when athletes burn far more calories than they take in, impairing proper body function. As a diagnosis, it only entered the broader sports lexicon in 2014, when the International Olympic Committee put out a warning about the condition.

Until then, the term used in the sports world had been “female athlete triad.” Popularized in the 1990s, the triad identified three interrelated problems caused by overtraining and underfuelling – extremely low energy, decreased menstrual function and poor bone health. But the triad had two massive blind spots: First, it looked only at women. Second, it left out many risks. After watching both men and women struggle with everything from stress fractures to heart problems, researchers realized it was insufficient.

RED-S is now linked to a wider range of concerns, including lower immunity, difficulty building or retaining muscle, impaired hormone production and depression.

Since then, experts have started to identify problems in numerous sports not typically associated with disordered eating. In sprinting, for example, a 2018 study by Canadian researchers found 39 per cent of female athletes showed indications of RED-S.

It is particularly deceptive, experts say, because it can happen accidentally. “It could be an unintentional lack of calorie intake – an unintentional mismatch in what they’re eating versus what they’re burning that goes on too long,” said Jennifer Sygo, a sports nutritionist in Toronto. She treats a spectrum of problems in Olympians, from disordered eating and RED-S to clinically diagnosed conditions such as bulimia and anorexia. “No single sign or symptom is necessarily definitive. It’s often when we see several of them starting to cluster together, that it really catches our attention.”

Disorders are particularly good at hiding in athletes, said Taylor, the Kelowna therapist.

“The definitions that we use to define a really committed athlete are actually some of the very characteristics that you see in an athlete that’s experiencing disordered eating,” she said.

They include the willingness to work beyond pain, the willingness to lose weight for a perceived performance gain and the ability to suppress emotions.

“This is the stoicism that we have required in sport culture for a really long time. And this is why it has flourished,” Taylor said.

Team Canada arrives at the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

For athletes needing treatment, though, options can be limited. Not every national program employs nutritionists or psychologists capable of addressing it. Sometimes, athletes are reluctant to be seen by staff inside their own program, given the sensitivity of the matter.

Going outside their organization means cost. The COC’s Game Plan program has emerged in recent years with limited funding for mental-health support, but the money is only available to senior national team athletes, not those coming up through feeder systems.

Cara Button, Game Plan’s senior national manager, acknowledges the cost of treating disorders is usually much higher than the $1,000 a year offered by the program to each athlete. “You and I both know that if you have an eating disorder, chances are, $1,000 isn’t going to be enough,” Button said. “Right now, I’m closing my eyes and holding my breath that my budget is going to cover all the mental-health support that I need it to.”

Smith knows how disorders can fool the body. An overachiever who played multiple sports in her youth, she battled similar problems at the age of 14. But even as she starved and worked herself to exhaustion, she just thought she was more dedicated than others. “One of the hallmarks is denial,” she said. “I didn’t ever think I had an eating disorder.”

After her breakdown in the Czech Republic, Smith was able to recover and regain strength as she built toward the Olympics. In Tokyo, she placed 29th, which she counts as a triumph.

“For me, getting there was huge,” Smith said. “It was almost a relief.”


Diver Francois Imbeau-Dulac, shown at Montreal’s Olympic stadium in November, hid an eating disorder from his teammates, which landed him in the hospital. He competed at the 2012 London Games.Adil Boukind/The Globe and Mail


The lie

Whether athletes are pushed toward disordered behaviour through questionable coaching, or engage in it themselves in a misguided attempt to gain an edge, the situation eventually reaches a breaking point.

As a diver on the Canadian national team, François Imbeau-Dulac knew he had everyone around him fooled. But eventually, he could no longer mislead himself.

In the fall of 2011, Imbeau-Dulac checked himself into a hospital in Montreal. He told his teammates it was just food poisoning. But in reality, his problems with eating, in a sport that can be ruthless about body image, had finally knocked him down.

On paper, diving is judged on skill. But Imbeau-Dulac said divers know it’s only part of the equation. The vulnerability of standing before the world in a tiny, skin-tight bathing suit was one thing; the feeling that his appearance somehow factored into his marks from the judges – even if this wasn’t explicitly stated in the rules – was another.

“Usually the judges, if there’s a diver that is out of shape, they will never give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they do the dives incredibly well,” Imbeau-Dulac said. “If they’re debating in their head [a score of] 8 or 8.5, they’re not going to give an 8.5. They will judge the entire aesthetic.”

When asked if a diver’s weight impacts their scoring, the sport’s governing body, the Swiss-based Fédération International De Natation, pointed to the official’s manual. The guidelines, FINA noted to The Globe, state judges should not be influenced by any factor other than “the technique and execution of the dive.”

But Imbeau-Dulac’s experience at competitions told him otherwise – even if it was difficult to quantify. He got used to starving himself to change how he looked.

Imbeau-Dulac and Jennifer Abel compete together in 2019.Clive Rose/Getty Images

It began when a teammate pinched him by the pool, and joked that he was grabbing fat on Imbeau-Dulac’s diver-slim body.

It was far from the truth, but that single word – “fat” – had a cascading effect on his life. He was already working with a nutritionist to monitor his diet, but suddenly a voice in his head told him it wasn’t enough – not for the Olympics. Soon, Imbeau-Dulac was eating two-thirds of what he was supposed to, getting by on little more than a banana, an egg and coffee all day. “I was surviving with caffeine,” he said.

“Oh my god, you look good,” divers would tell him, before praising how his performances had improved. They hadn’t necessarily; he just looked thinner. But it was all the encouragement he needed. “It was like kind of a tap on the shoulder saying ‘what you’re doing is good,’” he said.

Some dives became easier in the air, but over all, he lost the strength and energy needed to execute them properly.

“I could not press the board any more. Pushing [the diving board] and trying to throw my arms – everything was just incredibly demanding. … I was kind of collapsing when I was hitting the water.”

Cases of male athletes like Imbeau-Dulac are often under-represented in research on eating disorders.Adil Boukind/The Globe and Mail

While, anecdotally, female athletes appear to vastly outnumber men when it comes to eating disorders, experts say this isn’t the reality.

For a variety of reasons – including the belief that men are generally more reluctant to discuss a disorder or ask for help – males are underrepresented.

“When we look at scientific data, we don’t have much on male athletes,” said de Macar, the performance dietician. But nearly every athlete The Globe spoke with said they’ve seen male athletes in their sport struggling.

For Imbeau-Dulac, hiding his disorder wasn’t difficult. When he joined the team for meals, he ate in front of them, knowing he would later purge.

Inside the sport, no one asked what was going on. But when he checked himself into the hospital, doctors immediately saw a problem. They put him on an IV drip just to stabilize his body.

When he could no longer handle the secret, he told his coach in 2013. He was among the luckier athletes: In his case, the team got him help.

“Lying to others, that was the easy part,” he said. “It was lying to myself that was the hardest part.”


Gillian Carleton, middle, races in the team pursuit with Canadian teammates Tara Whitten, left, and Jasmin Glaesser at the 2012 Summer Games in London.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press


Dangerous talk

As an Olympian, Gillian Carleton was surrounded by a culture that encouraged disordered eating.

“I remember, for years, knowing which of the cyclists had very severe eating disorders and you could really tell the ones who were anorexic,” said Carleton, who won bronze in 2012 in team pursuit cycling. “At the surface we all spoke like, ‘Oh, I hope so-and-so gets better, I hope that they get the help that they need.’ But I guarantee that every single one of us internally was like, ‘I wish I could do that.’”

Athletes who could starve themselves were quietly glorified, while those who resorted to binging and purging were seen as weaker. “It was a mark of control,” Carleton said.

At major competitions where athletes eat together, a simple trip to the buffet was heavily scrutinized by competitors and coaches. Certain people only ever took salad. Others were scoffed at for taking carbs, regardless of their training regimen. Meanwhile, coaches were candid about wanting to alter Carleton’s body, which, at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, was considered too big for certain events.

All of it fed Carleton’s disorder.

Carleton, middle, stands with Whitten and Glaesser as they hold their bronze medals for team pursuit in London.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Now working toward a PhD in biochemistry, Carleton is skeptical of the metrics and axioms that rule cycling. Lightness is prioritized, even if it detracts from an athlete’s physical health, mental well-being and their ability to perform.

“We know that weight affects performance. But focusing on it also causes all these other issues that are extremely problematic,” Carleton said.

If an athlete breaks down in the pursuit of those metrics, then what is the point?

Taylor, the clinical therapist in B.C., said certain practices need to be challenged more. “Why is your national team physiologist saying that the average thigh circumference of a middle-distance runner is this?” Taylor said. “Why are you even measuring thigh circumference?”

Across multiple different sports, athletes told The Globe it is common to have their bodies policed or inappropriately scrutinized. Sometimes it was by a coach or staff member with questionable advice; other times it was the public lobbing insults.

After returning from Tokyo, where she set a record for the most medals won by a Canadian Olympian, Penny Oleksiak vented on social media about the constant scrutiny.

When she posted a picture on Instagram of her snacking, Oleksiak was hit by a deluge of criticism.

“U really don’t care about your figure,” one person wrote.

“Don’t gain too much weight,” said another.

“Just posting this to show the messages I get pretty much daily,” Oleksiak said. In October, she posted bluntly on Twitter: “I’m not on this earth for people to look at. I’m here to achieve bigger and better things. I don’t care if I’m not skinny enough or if I’m too muscular for you. I’m not trying to impress you.”

She later deleted the tweet.

Christine Nesbitt, shown in 2009, chose not to follow her team-prescribed diet.Jeff McIntosh/Globe and Mail

Gold-medalist speed skater Christine Nesbitt remembers the team nutritionist requiring her to keep a weekly diary of her food intake. It was like a report card, with comments scribbled in the margins, Nesbitt said. “I remember on one, she wrote in capital letters, “GAINING WEIGHT?”

However, Nesbitt and several other speed skaters felt their prescribed diets were insufficient to fuel the gruelling workouts they were doing.

Rather than slash their caloric intake to a level they believed was unhealthy, they started falsifying their food diaries, claiming to eat less than they were. The last straw for Nesbitt came when she was told to cut back even further – from the fake amount she had already written down.

“If you want to be scientific, be scientific. Don’t give me pseudo-science,” Nesbitt said. “Everyone told me that good nutrition is important. But at the end of the day, what they were telling you was, ‘Don’t be fat.’”

Right before the Vancouver Olympics, Nesbitt remembers a team staffer – unsolicited, and for no apparent reason – telling her she looked “heavy.” But she felt strong.

Two weeks later, she won the gold medal in the 1,000-metre race. Asked if she could have won if she had followed her prescribed eating plan, Nesbitt is unequivocal: “No.”


'There’s strength in a story that can impact other people and help them live better lives,' Taylor Ruck says of her decision to share her story now.Nina Riggio/The Globe and Mail


‘We can all be better’

The problem starts small, insidiously, and that’s where Taylor Ruck’s troubles began.

Following her success in 2018, Ruck became fixated on keeping everything the same, including her weight, even as her body matured.

“If I can prolong how much my body does not change at all, I can keep my success,” she thought.

So she fought her body.

“When you get to a high-performance level, there’s a lot of emphasis on doing all that you can do, just to take off one one-hundredth of a second,” Ruck said.

“I just thought, ‘I have control over nutrition. Why not do all that I can do?’”

It turned into a habit, then a compulsion. When the hunger became unbearable, she broke down and binged, only to be overcome by guilt and fear. Purging was a way to undo it. The next day, the terrible cycle began again.

The six-foot-tall swimmer, already in peak shape, shed almost 20 pounds from her frame. Some of that came while she was away at university and continued back at the national program. The seemingly endless praise on social media as she became thinner only made the situation worse.

Looking back, John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s national coach and high performance director, said the warning signs of a problem were there, though not spotted early enough.

“There was a period of time where people were seeing things, not quite so sure what they were seeing,” Atkinson said.

In an interview with The Globe, Atkinson said Swimming Canada has started to change the way it thinks about eating disorders in light of Ruck’s situation. “We certainly have to be better at identifying it and hopefully supporting it,” Atkinson said. “We can all be better; we can all improve.”

He said the program must become more pro-active, rather than reacting to problems after they arise. As part of the shift, coaches are now being put through eating-disorder training this month, Atkinson said.

“Are we 100 per cent there? No, we’re not. But we’re taking these steps towards being better.”

When it came time in June to select the Olympic team for Tokyo, Ruck was prequalified based on her past performances. But she wasn’t her old self at trials. Weakened by the disorder, she failed to meet the Olympic standard in the freestyle, her specialty race, and only managed to qualify in the backstroke.

She held out hope in Tokyo that her performance in the 4x100 freestyle relay would bring redemption. It was the same race in which she helped Canada win bronze as a 16-year-old in Rio.

But after struggling in the heats, where she couldn’t find the same powerful stroke that was once her signature, she was replaced for the final.

“I think it was for the best,” Ruck said softly, though she admits it was a tearful conversation.

“I think I was just too emotional at that point,” she said.

When her teammates won silver in the race, Ruck cheered from the sidelines.

Ruck, top middle, at the Tokyo Olympics with Kayla Sanchez, left, Rebecca Smith, right, and Penny Oleksiak, bottom.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

At her lowest point, Ruck said the disorder drained so much energy that she found herself in an unusually dark place.

“I characterize myself as a pretty happy person, and I’d say I was more unhappy than not when I was eating less than I should have. And it kind of got to the point where I was having suicidal thoughts.”

It’s her warning to other athletes.

“It steals everything from you. There’s no room for anything else in your brain,” she said.

Ruck has never talked about the past few years in detail. Asked why she’s telling her story now, her answer is similar to that of the other athletes who spoke to The Globe. “There’s strength in a story that can impact other people and help them live better lives,” Ruck said. “This interview, it’s important for that same reason.”

Ruck, who competes for Stanford University, is now focused on the 2024 Olympics. She’s still working through the disorder, but she can feel her stroke returning.

“This week was actually a pretty good week, training-wise,” she said recently. “I’m happy to kind of be feeling that strength again.”

Taylor Ruck has returned to swimming for Stanford University.Nina Riggio/The Globe and Mail


In data: Athletes and eating disorders

To see how prevalent eating disorders are among Canadian athletes, researchers at the University of Toronto held an anonymous poll in 2019 of 764 current members of national teams and 237 retired members. Here are some of their findings.

Correlation of criticism with the development of eating disorders among athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

Negatively criticized about body or weight

68

53%

37

27

10

5

Occasionally

Frequently

Often

Eating disorders*

28

22

20

16

4

3

Thought about

engaging

Engaged in

behaviours

Diagnosed

*Roughly one in five athletes surveyed reported eating disorders. Above is a breakdown between current national team athletes and those that have retired in the last 10 years.

Harmful behaviours most frequently experienced by athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

Shouted at

in an angry or

critical manner

39%

31

Gossip/

told lies

about you

32

29

Put down/

embarrassed/

humiliated

35

26

35

Intentionally

ignored

25

31

Criticized as

a person

22

26

Removed

from practice

18

26

Weight

criticism

18

17

Sworn at

16

25

Called

names

15

Athletes who have had suicidal thoughts

Current athletes

Retired athletes

35

33

20%

19

13

9

Had suicidal

thoughts

Sought help

Felt supported

SOURCE: GRETCHEN KERR, ERIN WILLSON AND ASHLEY STIRLING / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, PREVALENCE OF MALTREATMENT AMONG CURRENT AND FORMER NATIONAL TEAM ATHLETES (2019)

Correlation of criticism with the development of eating disorders among athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

Negatively criticized about body or weight

68

53%

37

27

10

5

Occasionally

Frequently

Often

Eating disorders*

28

22

20

16

4

3

Thought about

engaging

Engaged in

behaviours

Diagnosed

*Roughly one in five athletes surveyed reported eating disorders. Above is a breakdown between current national team athletes and those that have retired in the last 10 years.

Harmful behaviours most frequently experienced by athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

Shouted at

in an angry or

critical manner

39%

31

32

Gossip/ told

lies about you

29

Put down/

embarrassed/

humiliated

35

26

35

Intentionally

ignored

25

31

Criticized as

a person

22

26

Removed

from practice

18

26

Weight

criticism

18

17

Sworn at

16

25

Called

names

15

Athletes who have had suicidal thoughts

Current athletes

35

33

Retired athletes

20%

19

13

9

Had suicidal

thoughts

Sought help

Felt supported

SOURCE: GRETCHEN KERR, ERIN WILLSON AND ASHLEY STIRLING / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, PREVALENCE OF MALTREATMENT AMONG CURRENT AND FORMER NATIONAL TEAM ATHLETES (2019)

Correlation of criticism with the development of eating disorders among athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

Negatively criticized about body or weight

68

53%

37

27

10

5

Occasionally

Frequently

Often

Eating disorders*

28

22

20

16

4

3

Thought about

engaging

Engaged in

behaviours

Diagnosed

*Roughly one in five athletes surveyed reported eating disorders. Above is a breakdown between current national team athletes and those that have retired in the last 10 years.

Harmful behaviours most frequently experienced by athletes

Current athletes

Retired athletes

39%

35

35

32

31

31

29

26

25

22

Shouted at

in an angry or

critical manner

Gossip/

told lies

about you

Put down/

embarrassed/

humiliated

Intentionally

ignored

Criticized as

a person

26

26

25

18

18

17

16

15

Removed

from practice

Weight

criticism

Sworn at

Called names

Athletes who have had suicidal thoughts

Current athletes

35

33

Retired athletes

20%

19

13

9

Had suicidal thoughts

Sought help

Felt supported

SOURCE: GRETCHEN KERR, ERIN WILLSON AND ASHLEY STIRLING / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, PREVALENCE OF MALTREATMENT AMONG CURRENT AND FORMER NATIONAL TEAM ATHLETES (2019)

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Dangerous Games: More on The Decibel

Listen to reporters Grant Robertson and Rachel Brady as they discuss their findings about athletes and eating disorders, and a former Olympian shares her personal experience. Subscribe for more episodes.

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