The 2021 Summer Olympics are just a few weeks away! Many have been reflecting back on previous games and the inspiring feats that have been performed. Among Team USA’s proudest memories is the 1996 Women’s Gymnastic team. They were known as “the Magnificent Seven” and the first and only American women’s team to take home the gold. Just this past week one of the members of that 1996 team released her memoir about the darker side of that triumphant time in her life and opened doors to see how many in the sport fought similar battles.
Dominique Moceanu was a history-maker. At the age of 14 she was the youngest gymnast in history to win an Olympic gold medal. She was a fan favorite and known for her charming smile. This amazing athlete is all grown up now. She’s a wife and a mother of two. She just released “Off Balance,” a book detailing her struggles as a young gymnast. Specifically she relays the abuse she took from her famous coach, Bela Karolyi. Moceanu explains how her coaches severely restricted her diet and called her names like “picky” and “fat.”
Disordered eating is a common problem among gymnasts and it’s devastating to hear it can be the result of a coach’s prodding. However, is that always the case? In Moceanu’s it was true, but it’s refreshing to learn that not all coaches and gyms take young athletes down this dangerous road.
Kristi Eaton is a journalist for The Associated Press. Before she turned to journalism, she had an extensive career as a young gymnast in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Eaton also had a severe bout with anorexia during this time. Curious if Moceanu’s experience with her coaches and their restriction on her diet was normal, Eaton explained it was just the opposite in her case.
“My coaches were actually very different than other coaches. They didn’t tell us what to eat and actually were very adamant that we had a life outside of gymnastics,” she told us. “When I started showing signs of anorexia, my coaches were very supportive and actually talked to my parents about their concerns. That’s not always the case, though. I had some friends in gymnastics who went to different clubs. I know they were regularly weighed. (We were never weighed at my gym.) My coaches also never had us practice more than four hours a day whereas other clubs regularly practiced six or seven hours (sometimes before AND after school) and used conditioning as punishment.”
It’s refreshing to hear that not all gyms push their athletes beyond a healthy limit. However, despite the healthy coaching Eaton received, she still fell into the common trap of an eating disorder, something so many gymnasts face. Eaton explained how the sport can fuel these unhealthy issues, despite the coaches.
“Disordered eating is very common in gymnastics, but not the club I went to. We regularly had parties with snack foods and went out to dinner. I do think gymnastics fueled obsessive personality in that repetition and perfection is a big part of the sport. If we were told to do 5 beam routines, I’d do 10 and nobody thought less of me. In fact, I was seen as someone super determined! This fueled it so I would perform 15 on my own the next time.”
Eaton attributes the cultural obsession with being skinny as more of the culprit for her anorexia, not gymnastics.
“I think society was more to blame with my disordered eating. I’d spend hours reading all the latest magazines and books about “healthy eating.” Little did I know that those books and magazines were made for 40-year-old men who are 100 pounds overweight, not an 11-year-old gymnast who weighed 60 pounds.”
Eaton explained how gymnastics may have contributed to her anorexia, but she believes her personality would have chosen some unhealthy habit, even if she weren’t a gymnast.
“I believe gymnastics fueled my anorexia but was not the cause of it. If I had been older and a little more worldly, I may have turned to alcohol, drugs or other destructive means. I needed an outlet in some way and because I was in gymnastics, that became it.”
It’s a fine line. We want our kids to be healthy and active. We also want them to shoot for the stars should the chance come along. It seems Eaton was clear that gymnastics is not the enemy, but the competitive nature behind the sport has clearly caused great health struggles for many young athletes.