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Leaving the sport, gaining an eating disorder

Former athletes can be left vulnerable when they're cut off from the athletic pursuit that consumed them. An ex-UCLA gymnast's tale is informative.

July 28, 2011|By Melissa Rohlin
  • Alyssa Kitasoe, a former UCLA gymnast who became bulimic after leaving the sport during her sophomore year, battled with the disease for more than a year before seeking help.
Alyssa Kitasoe, a former UCLA gymnast who became bulimic after leaving… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Alyssa Kitasoe studied herself in the mirror, and the image was shocking.

She had been standing near the bathroom sink, vomiting into a plastic container. When she looked up, through eyes blurred with tears, she was disgusted by what she saw.

"It was like seeing a ghost of yourself, or a monster," Kitasoe recalled. "I remember just staring at myself."

A year earlier, Kitasoe viewed herself very differently. A striking young woman with long black hair and a radiant smile, she was strong and proud — the UCLA gymnastics logo on her clothes providing instant respect around campus. She even felt confident wearing a tiny leotard in front of the piercing eyes of judges during her routines.

That all changed when she quit her sport. Since the age of 7 she had devoted her life to gymnastics, and without it she felt a loss of identity.

She tried coaching as an undergraduate assistant, but shuffling mats and floorboards didn't fill the void.

So she developed a new fixation.

Her body.

Since she was no longer working out 25 hours a week, the pounds crept onto what had been her fit 5-foot-1, 115-pound frame — a frightening prospect for a girl who for nearly 10 years had endured weekly weigh-ins.

"You still have the mind-set that you need to be tiny," said Kitasoe, now 24 and four years removed from the most dramatic of her struggles. "You compare yourself to the way you were."

It was the start of a destructive cycle.

As soon as she awoke each morning, her thoughts were consumed by food. But she resisted eating until the evening, when she would gorge, at times devouring an entire pizza and large bag of chips.

Then, overcome with guilt, she'd induce vomiting.

She knew she was hurting her body, but she didn't care.

"If someone would have told me if I did it one more time I would die," Kitasoe said, "I don't think that would have stopped me."

Stops and starts

It's a common problem. At least one-third of female college athletes have some type of eating disorder, according to studies published in 1999 and 2002 by experts Craig Johnson and Katherine Beals, who together examined nearly 1,000 female student-athletes participating in various sports.

As Kitasoe knows, the struggle doesn't conclude at the end of an athletic career. Sometimes, that's where it starts.

"There's a competitive drive in that successful personality that's going to manifest itself somewhere," said Becci Twombley, director of sports nutrition at UCLA. "Eating fixations can happen."

What happened to Veronica Sykes is a prime example. The former University of California field hockey star nearly ran herself to death after a shoulder injury sidelined her during her senior year.

"The team is such a unit," Sykes said, adding that when she got hurt and was unable to contribute she immediately "felt like an outsider."

Needing a distraction, she decided to pour all of her energy into running. But before she knew it, that seemingly healthy quest morphed into something else.

"The same quality that made me great at sports made me want to get really skinny." Sykes, now 25, recalled. "I was going to be the best at running and not eating."

Running four hours a day while consuming only about 400 calories, she shed 21 pounds from her 5-7, 135-pound frame. She couldn't sleep and was constantly anxious.

When asked what ultimately led to her eating issues, she said, "I think the real issue is the depression when your sport ends. And that was never mentioned [in school]."

Kitasoe continued to binge and purge — often up to four times in a day — for about a year after quitting gymnastics. Her family and friends had no idea she was suffering from an eating disorder because she looked relatively healthy.

Inside, however, she was tormented. Eventually, she became reclusive, steering clear of even her closest friends and venturing out on campus only when she had to attend a class or practice.

"I didn't want to go anywhere or see anyone because I felt so gross, so ugly," Kitasoe recalled. "At my lowest point, I just wanted to cover everything up. It was hot outside, but I'd wear a hat, sweat pants, Uggs and big shorts."

Researcher Johnson, chief clinical officer of Eating Recovery Center in Denver, said one reason former athletes are at risk is that schools and coaches lose track of them once they retire. "The NCAA is focused on the athletes that are immediately in their purview," he said. "Once the athletes have moved out of their oversight, they don't really have the resources to follow them."

Beals, an associate professor at the University of Utah, suggested universities offer programs for athletes "to help them transition into the real world."

Trying to help

At UCLA, Twombley says she receives 15 to 20 calls a year from former athletes seeking nutritional advice, including some who are struggling with clinical eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

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