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Several of Canada’s top synchronized swimmers were driven to dangerous eating disorders in a system ruled by arbitrary metrics designed to make them thinner, but not necessarily better. What their stories mean for amateur sport

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Former Olympic synchronized swimmer Erin Willson and several teammates suffered dangerous eating disorders during their time on the national team. Willson now studies at the University of Toronto where she is seen poolside.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

It was time for a round of applause. As Erin Willson and her teammates on Canada’s national synchronized swimming team assembled by the pool in 2010, their head coach called for a celebration.

Whenever a swimmer on the team lost a significant amount of weight, coach Julie Sauvé ordered the others to gather around and clap. On this day, one of the women had shed a considerable number of pounds from her already slender frame in just a few short months.

“Her ribs were sticking out of her skin,” Willson recalls. “And the only thing our coach could say was, ‘Isn’t it great how amazing she looks?’”

By then most of the swimmers knew what was expected. Though already thin, they understood the consequences if the coach thought they were “too fat” or if they didn’t meet the harsh weight targets set for them.

Those targets followed every swimmer, and were codified into the contracts many of them signed when they joined the team. But The Globe and Mail found the prescribed weights meted out by the program were deeply flawed – based on numbers that were arbitrary and often subject to sharp downward revision without warning, and with little attention paid to the health of the athlete.

No one spoke openly about what it often took to meet those targets.

At international competitions, where swimmers roomed together, the reality was difficult to conceal.

It was obvious which athletes were eating as little as possible. And the sound of vomiting coming from behind the bathroom door, though muffled, was hard to mistake.

Willson, who was 18 at the time, came to the program as one of Canada’s top synchronized swimmers. In a sport that places high importance on aesthetics, every athlete knows fitness, skill, execution – and appearance – all play a role in their success.

But until she joined the national program in Montreal, Willson had never seen the focus on weight taken to such extremes.

In entries recorded in her personal diary, which Willson shared for the first time with The Globe, she wrote how athletes were pressured to shed significant amounts of weight, often by resorting to unhealthy and dangerous methods.

At practice, the coach “went around in a circle and told everyone what they needed to do to have a better body,” Willson wrote. “She told me I need to lose fat.”

Sauvé remarked aloud that Willson’s breasts were too big for the sport. And when the team travelled to a competition, she and a few other swimmers were left behind to “work on our weaknesses.”

It was coded language. If they wanted to be on the team, they knew what was being demanded.

As someone who grew up dreaming of the Olympics, Willson feared what might unfold. “I am concerned about getting myself into a pattern that could lead to an eating disorder,” she wrote. “I do not want this to happen to me.”

But it would.

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'In a lot of cases there was no way to get to the weight that was needed without taking drastic measures,’ Willson says.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

Willson’s case, and that of dozens of other former national team members, now forms the basis of a proposed class-action lawsuit launched in March against Canadian Artistic Swimming, which governs the synchro program. The suit, which began with five swimmers and now involves 50 of them, alleges widespread abuse, neglect and mistreatment by a series of coaches over the past 10 years, culminating in physical injury, anxiety, depression and disordered eating. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

But beyond the case itself is a story equally as troubling. As part of an investigation into eating disorders among Olympians, The Globe examined hundreds of pages of evidence and exhibits associated with the case, along with documents that are not part of the lawsuit, including athletes’ personal records, government lobbying files, and confidential audits of the systems in place to protect Canadian Olympians from abuse.

What emerges in those documents, and in numerous interviews, is a program that routinely pressured athletes to lose weight, often through completely arbitrary methods. The allegations are a worst-case scenario of an eating disorder problem in amateur sport that athletes and researchers say is underdiagnosed and, too often, hidden from view. It also exposes deep flaws in the ability of athletes to protect themselves in a system governed by a steep power imbalance, where a coach can determine their eligibility for the Olympics and ultimately the fate of their careers.

And while the federal government, as of July, announced measures would be put in place to protect amateur athletes from precisely this kind of alleged maltreatment, including an independent mechanism to investigate complaints of abuse, The Globe has found the new system has troubling flaws.

The plight of the athletes inside Canada’s synchronized swimming program has implications for all of amateur sport, showing what happens when there is little recourse or ability to push back. It was a system dominated by two words – sports science, which were repeated to athletes who questioned what was required of them.

But on closer examination, The Globe found there was little to support the claim that sound science informed those demands.

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Members of Canada's women's synchronized swimming team practise in Montreal in 2012, while Willson was in the program.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Arbitrary measures

Eating disorders were an open secret inside the program, and the problem can be traced back to a pivotal number.

It is called the Target Competition Weight, or TCW. But it sometimes went by other names, such as Goal Weight, Competing Weight or Contract Weight. It was implied to the athletes that much thought, discretion and oversight had gone into determining the figure.

That is, the target weight wasn’t a random or arbitrary number, the athletes were led to believe. It was the product of sports science in a highly sophisticated national program.

At 5-foot-8, Willson weighed about 136 lbs, and was already in shape. She was assigned a target competition weight of 128 lbs, which team staff later unexpectedly lowered to 124.

It was a figure loaded with stress. “Some of the girls didn’t agree with their competition weight,” Willson wrote in her diary.

Given her fitness level, dropping further weight wasn’t easy. Usually the scales never moved. But she figured if she just worked harder, and trained longer, that goal was within reach.

She began watching her diet more closely, cutting back and scrutinizing everything she ate. If it meant going hungry some nights, Willson did, despite waking up before sunrise the following day for six- to 10-hour training sessions.

“Pretty much the only thing I thought about exclusively was how to lose weight,” Willson recalled in an interview. But the number on the scale didn’t budge.

Her team was weighed every Wednesday. Staff then read out the names of the women who were more than 4 per cent above their team-imposed target.

“I had been pretty good at watching what I had been eating and following my plan, but it wasn’t good enough,” Willson wrote in her diary.

“I was embarrassed. Now the entire team knew this … I started to get extremely stressed about my weight.”

Her performance in the pool wasn’t enough. Sauvé praised Willson for being a positive influence on the team, then pointedly added a caveat: “Except for your weight.”

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When swimmers lost significant weight, coach Julie Sauvé told them ‘keep going.’Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

As arbitrary as the targets seemed, there was an even bigger problem.

The TCW for each athlete was inserted into some of the contracts they signed with the program. Regardless of their talent or execution in the pool, they could be cut from the national team if they didn’t hit that number. And if they were removed from the national roster and left the program, a second contract stipulated they could be forced to pay back much of the costs associated with being on the team. “This includes, but is not limited to the following costs: facility rental, coach salaries, expert service fees, and travel,” said one swimmer’s contract, which was reviewed by The Globe.

The coaches instilled a three-strike rule: Any athlete more than 2 per cent over their target weight was given a warning. Three warnings and they were off the team.

Willson and the others saw one of their teammates expelled for missing her number. “If they could do that to her, they could do that to me,” an increasingly worried Willson wrote in her diary.

Soon she started getting warning letters. Eating next to nothing, she dropped a few pounds, but she was still 5 per cent above her mandated target. A month later, a more severe warning came: “At this point there will also be a further decision taken about your position on the team.”

For Willson, the threat was potentially devastating. According to the papers she signed, she could be forced to pay back almost $50,000 to the program. As an amateur athlete, she didn’t have the money.

Her eating disorder got worse. Willson dragged herself through training sessions on an empty stomach. The persistent hunger made her irritable and depressed.

Erin Willson and other swimmers received several warning letters if they were above the target competition weight they were assigned, though it was never clear how the program came up with those figures. A three-strike system was used to remove athletes from the Olympic team if they didn’t comply.

But the TCW wasn’t the only tactic that had dubious grounding in science.

When the team conducted bone scans on each athlete, Willson’s tests showed she had low bone density. Experts say decreased bone density is a warning, particularly among women, of an eating disorder. Withholding nutrients can lead to injuries such as stress fractures and osteoporosis. It should have set off alarms that something was wrong.

But Sauvé saw it another way. “My coach was like, Erin, your weight should be even lower – because you definitely have one of the lightest bone densities out of everyone. So I don’t understand why you are too heavy.”

It was a glaring example of the highly suspect measures being deployed. When The Globe ran that story past an expert who treats eating disorders in athletes, her reaction was one of disbelief.

“My gosh, wow,” said Alexia de Macar, a performance dietician in Montreal. “It’s a pure example of misunderstanding a medical situation. Decreased mineral density doesn’t mean you should be weighing less.”

Running out of time to meet her target weight, Willson consulted with a team nutritionist, begging for help. The advice was limited – and potentially harmful: Eat less, train more. And so she did.

But it wasn’t enough. Unable to get below her target weight, Willson was benched from the national team and placed on the reserve squad, jeopardizing her chance at the Olympics. She would now have to compete with other swimmers to get back onto the main roster. It became clear weight was the deciding factor.

Worried about her future, Willson starved herself, dropping 14 lbs in less than three months. Sauvé was pleased, but not satisfied. “I said, ‘Are you happy with me now? I’m at 122 lbs,’” Willson recalled saying. “She said, ‘Yeah, but you can keep going.’”

Sauvé now wanted the swimmers below 120 lbs. There was no justification given for the new target. At least one swimmer left the team to get medical help. But Willson pressed on, dropping further, to 118 lbs.

Meanwhile, her teammate, Chloe Isaac, was told her legs were too muscular and she was “too fat.” Isaac resorted to purging, according to court documents.

“It becomes your competitor,” Willson said, describing how swimmers saw their target weight. “Your only value to your coach, as a person, is what number you can produce on the scale.”

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Her time on the national team took a steep mental and physical toll on Willson. She is now a PhD student studying abuse in sport.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

Though weight loss was celebrated with applause, eating disorders were never discussed. “Our coach would be proud of the outcome, but she would never ask about the process,” Willson said. “She would cover herself by saying, ‘Oh, well, I would never want you to be unhealthy.’ But in a lot of cases there was no way to get to the weight that was needed without taking drastic measures.”

Canadian Artistic Swimming (CAS) won’t comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, which is awaiting certification. Sauvé, who had battled cancer in the past, left the program in 2012 and died last year before the allegations became public.

Through documents and interviews, The Globe found the TCW was not supported by data. Swimmers say it was an arbitrary metric chosen at the whim of the program, which ultimately has total say over each athlete’s Olympic trajectory.

The Globe submitted a list of questions to CAS in early December. When asked to provide information on how the Target Competition Weight was determined for each athlete, the program provided no information on the methodology. “The CAS national team training program is built around the commitment to athlete health and well-being. Proper nutrition and rest are paramount to optimal performance,” CAS spokesman Joel Mineau said in an e-mail. The Globe pointed out that CAS had not addressed the question about how target weights were calculated, and repeated the request for information. CAS did not respond.

“I don’t have an answer for how they came up with those numbers,” Willson said. “I think they were just kind of numbers that were just given to us.”

Isaac still suffers nightmares about her time in the program, and has spent thousands of dollars on therapy for her eating disorder, which has only recently shown signs of abating. Willson, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, still has trouble talking about her dramatic weight loss.

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Former synchronized swimmer Gabriella Brisson at a pool in Calgary. Brisson said athletes were given unhealthy advice about what to eat during training sessions that lasted six to 10 hours.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

A spoonful of almonds

Changing the coach didn’t diminish the team’s obsession with weight, or its use of arbitrary measures.

On her first day in the national program in 2012, Gabriella Brisson remembers being lined up with a dozen or so swimmers from shortest to tallest. “The head coach at the time basically walked by and just looked at our thighs and kind of nodded her head anytime a swimmer’s thighs weren’t touching, and scoffed at those of us whose thighs touched,” Brisson said. “It was like, ‘Hey, welcome to the national team, let’s look you up and down.’”

The new head coach, Meng Chen, served as assistant coach under Sauvé prior to her departure. Brisson, who was 18 at the time, arrived in Montreal as one of the top young talents, consistently ranking in the top eight in Canada. Her weight had never been an issue with any other coach. That quickly changed. “You show up and you’re supposed to be the best athlete in the country, but you just end up being belittled, being told you’re too big, you’re not good enough,” she said.

Brisson was given a target to hit: Lose 10 to 15 lbs in two weeks. Where did that number come from? “Thin air,” Brisson said. “There was really nothing backing it.”

One swimmer was told to lose 20 lbs – but only fat, not muscle. Another was told to lose 40 lbs. One was told to stop riding her bike to the pool because her legs were getting too muscular. Whenever a swimmer would complain, or ask for the reasoning behind these decisions, the answer was the same: “Sports science.”

“She was just pulling these numbers out of a hat,” Brisson said. “We would say, why do I have to lose more weight? And she’d say, ‘Sports science.’ That was the reasoning behind everything. There was no science behind it. But it was sports science and that was the end of it.”

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‘We would say, why do I have to lose more weight? And she’d say "sports science,"' Brisson says.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Brisson trained up to 10 hours a day. At 5-foot-10 and 140 lbs, she ate very little, but she could never escape being called overweight by her coach.

“It felt like it always started with the number – and it was different for everyone,” she said. “And as soon as you would achieve that number, it would lower. The justification was, you don’t look like an elite athlete.”

Athletic ability mattered less. “I can’t think of one person who was talented enough that they were not affected by this,” she said.

Brisson turned to the team nutritionist for help in 2013, fearing her spot on the team was at risk. The nutritionist recommended limiting herself to a small snack at midday. She was told to eat a spoonful of almonds, or a handful of dry cereal.

She was shocked. Given the hours they were training, it would be impossible to take in enough calories at that rate.

“That was the expectation from an expert as to how we were supposed to be losing this weight. Basically starving ourselves. And it was never said outright.”

But something key had changed since the coaching staff was shuffled. The contracts that tied each swimmer to a Target Competition Weight were gone. Now there was no paper trail.

“It was always there, but it was never written down,” Brisson said. “It was never an exact number. It was just, if you don’t lose 20 lbs, you’re off the team.”

The thinnest swimmers were praised, while those considered not skinny enough were called into meetings with the coaches.

“I remember an individual meeting where she asked me, ‘What if you moved to Africa, do you think you would lose weight then?’” Brisson understood it as a reference to famine, and a suggestion that she and other swimmers couldn’t control their eating.

She was stunned. Brisson looked at the team official who regularly took notes during meetings.

“I just remember making eye contact with the manager at that point, just seeing her fingers hovering above the keyboard, and I knew in that moment that those kind of comments weren’t getting recorded.”

In a statement through her lawyer, Chen denied making the comment. She said the allegations against her “were not only surprising and upsetting, but also false and/or inaccurate.”

Chen said she followed the guidance of CAS coaches and medical staff on matters such as health and safety and nutrition. She denies telling athletes how much weight to lose.

“I recall discussing these matters with the athletes, and how they related to their performance – not instructing athletes on how to lose weight, or how much to lose.”

But Brisson remembers several occasions when she was told she was too heavy, and given a target number by the coach. And as some of her teammates restricted their food, while others succumbed to binging and purging, Brisson began to worry.

“It was beyond just performance and looking good. It was to the point where it felt dangerous,” she said.

“A lot of swimmers confided in me about what they were struggling with. It was very much an open secret. It was really, really hard to hide the fact that you were binge eating and then locking yourself in the bathroom for half an hour.”

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‘I can’t think of one person who was talented enough that they were not affected’ by the threats over weight, Brisson says.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Though national sport programs are often staffed with sports psychologists, nutritionists and other consultants, access to resources like these is no guarantee of sound advice.

In 2015, struggling to meet her coach’s latest demand to lose 10 lbs – while training long days and eating very little – Brisson again asked the team nutritionist for help.

“He said, literally the only way you’re going to be able to lose weight is by being on a calorie deficit,” Brisson said. “I was like, there’s no way I’m not already on a calorie deficit. I’m eating an apple in the middle of my six- or ten-hour practice, and we’re working out constantly.”

But it was the only advice offered.

“It was basically, eat less, eat less, eat less. That was the solution.”

When the program brought in a motivational consultant to help the team, Brisson said athletes started revealing problems, including the unreasonable demands to drop weight.

But when the consultant brought these concerns to the attention of CAS administrators, the complaints were instead relayed to the coach, much to the shock of the athletes.

“I swam most of my life with one goal of going to the Olympics, and this one person, this one coach, holds all of the power over whether you attain that goal or not,” Brisson said.

“I think a coach who holds the power over an 18-year-old’s lifelong dream gives them too much power and puts the 18-year-old swimmer in an extremely vulnerable position to do anything and everything that coach asks of them, regardless of whether it’s helping them become better.”

The swimmers were told not to question the sports science that supposedly governed their weights.

“You have to buy in, or get out,” Brisson said. “And no one was willing to give up on their goal that easily. So you pretend that all this stuff is normal, and you just exist in this bizarre reality.”

She believes athletes need a better way to sound an alarm when the pursuit of winning crosses the line into abuse – without putting them at risk of retribution. What’s really needed is a better complaints system.

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After leaving the program in 2018, Brisson now works as a chef. ‘I think a coach who holds the power over an 18-year-old’s lifelong dream gives them too much power,’ Brisson says.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

The flaw in the system

The swimmers say their complaints of abuse inside the national program have ended up in the courts because, for years, those problems weren’t addressed by CAS.

Former freestyle skier Jennifer Heil believes amateur athletes – from the grassroots up to the national teams – shouldn’t have to turn to the legal system for help. “An athlete’s ability to file an abuse complaint should not turn on their financial ability to hire a lawyer,” Heil wrote in a letter to the federal government in July that was signed by 12 Olympians.

In recent years, several countries, including Canada, have set out to build independent complaints systems to protect athletes, borne out of the Safe Sport movement created after a history of sexual abuse was uncovered inside the U.S. gymnastics program.

Exactly how these new systems are being structured, though, is the crux of the problem.

When Ottawa announced in July that it had chosen an organization called the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) to handle independent investigations into abuse in sport, the government hailed it as a major step forward.

“It is crucial that victims feel that they can speak out, call attention to harmful behaviour and challenge the system to be better,” then-minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault said. “This new independent mechanism will give them the opportunity to do so in a supported environment.”

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A new system to investigate complaints of abuse in sport was hailed by former Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. But it has significant weaknesses.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

In some ways it was a big step. But in creating this new independent system, which begins operating in 2022, the government left a major gap, neglecting to make it mandatory for the more than 60 national sport organizations (NSOs) in Canada to sign on.

They will not have to use the SDRCC to handle complaints within their ranks, or subject themselves to its investigations. This new system is optional.

A national sport organization that chooses to opt out of the new system can hire its own independent third-party investigator to handle complaints of abuse, which is how some programs have already been operating. This raises questions about how independent those investigations are.

Some athletes question who benefits from this process. Heil has called on the government to implement a truly independent system that is mandatory for all sport organizations.

“A lot of these independent investigations are not truly independent. The organization is choosing the scope, the organization is choosing what level of information they release,” Heil said in an interview. The investigators are hired by the sport organization “and want their continued business,” she said.

“This isn’t something that should be a choice for organizations where we know there is a huge power imbalance and abuse is perpetuated.”

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Olympic freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, shown in 2010, said athletes need a complaints system that is mandatory and fully independent.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In a statement to The Globe, the federal government said creating a single mandatory system is “complex,” since each NSO is an individual entity with autonomy.

However, the department does monitor the third-party firms selected by NSOs to conduct investigations. If problems are detected, Ottawa can withhold funding, government spokesman Daniel Savoie said. “It must meet high standards for independence,” he said.

But problems have been detected.

The Globe obtained a copy of federal lobbying documents submitted by the sport funding group B2ten, which uses private-sector donations to help Olympians improve their medal chances by providing resources for training and other athletic needs. Originally created before the 2010 Olympics, B2ten has since found itself also helping athletes confront abuse and mental-health concerns.

The lobbying document, marked confidential, is highly critical of Ottawa’s new system, which it sees as allowing national sport organizations to potentially investigate themselves if they choose to opt out.

The third-party systems used by national sport organizations are rife with conflicts of interest, the document says.

“In many cases the mandates of those independent third parties are so restrictive that the so-called ‘independent officer’ must report to the CEO or the Board of Directors (sometimes even seek permission from them) before they can initiate an investigation or move forward with any internal disciplinary process,” the document says. “Some ‘independent third parties’ are just complaint-intake services that answer the phone and fill out a form that is then sent to someone within the concerned NSO to handle.”

Concerns over that kind of power imbalance are what brought about the need for the SDRCC, the head of the new organization said.

“Athletes are the bottom of the food chain in the sports system,” CEO Marie-Claude Asselin said. “They’re the ones with the least decision-making authority – other than walking out. That’s the only decision that they can make freely, is walk out.”

Ms. Asselin said she hopes NSOs will see the importance of joining the new system.

When The Globe asked if CAS would sign on to Ottawa’s new independent investigation mechanism, the program was non-committal.

“CAS is eager to learn more about the new SDRCC safe sport reporting mechanism but at this time important information about the exact scope, the financial implications, and the implementation timeline have not been formally communicated,” Mr. Mineau said. “In the meantime, CAS has a robust, independent, third-party safe sport reporting system that is built on national policies that adhere to the requirements of Sport Canada.”

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Synchronized swimming team members practice in Montreal in 2012. The investigation into allegations of abuse at Canadian Artistic Swimming lacks transparency, former athletes say.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Insufficient evidence

The concerns raised by Heil and others are evident in how the synchronized swimming problems were ultimately investigated. When allegations of abuse and maltreatment, including punishing swimmers for their weight, emerged last year, CAS closed its training centre.

CAS hired a company called ITP Sport to review the program’s culture and conducted a survey of athletes and coaches. It found 44 per cent of athletes said they experienced or witnessed psychological abuse by coaches, staff or other athletes. And 50 per cent said they experienced neglect, which included “withholding nutrition.” However, ITP Sport was given no mandate to investigate those concerns. CAS turned over the actual investigation of abuse to another third-party firm, but has disclosed little about that process.

In March, CEO Jackie Buckingham released a statement that CAS was deeply saddened by the allegations, but said the lead investigator appointed by the organization “determined that they did not see sufficient evidence to conclude there is an unsafe training environment in the senior national team program.”

That report has not been made public. Any details about how the investigator reached those conclusions are hidden from view. “We continue to work hard with our athletes and all other stakeholders to build a world class, science-based training environment,” Buckingham said. After being temporarily suspended by CAS along with another coach, Chen was reinstated.

Asked why the investigation report is not public, CAS did not respond to the question.

The lack of transparency alarms Willson and Brisson. “This cycle keeps happening and they keep defending their actions,” Brisson said.

Brisson was still a teenager when she experienced the worst of it. Now 27, she wants to stand up for younger swimmers coming into the program. As an adult, she can see the flaws in how she was treated, and the damage it has done to her body. “But remember,” Brisson said bitterly. “There was always sports science behind it all.”

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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