Eating disorders present a significant challenge for many people in today’s society, but for athletes, the problem of maintaining a healthy attitude about weight can be especially acute.
Fit and thin have long been synonymous in the field of competitive sports, where the idea of an athlete carefully monitoring his weight remains a largely unchallenged assumption. Like athletes everywhere, those at Yale often have to work to find a balance between remaining competitive in their sport and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. While some Yale athletes said eating disorders are a potential problem, they do not blame them entirely on the pressure to fulfill weight requirements, but said health problems must be evaluated on a case by case basis.
Colleen Lim, associate director of varsity sports and the University’s NCAA compliance coordinator, said instances of eating disorders do occur among athletes at Yale.
“I won’t lie, it is definitely a concern we address annually,” she said. “We’ve addressed this with many teams on a year to year basis, but it’s hard because it happens on such an individual to individual basis.”
While eating disorders can stem from a variety of social, cultural and psychological reasons among members of the general population, athletes often have more concrete motivations to lose pounds: weight budgeting is sometimes intrinsic to their sport. Wrestling and crew, for example, have regulations setting participants’ maximum weights.
The varsity men’s lightweight crew team follows Ivy League Circuit weight maximums, which is 160 pounds for lightweight oarsmen.
Manuel Gonzalez ’08, the team’s coxswain, said every rower is required to weigh in the Friday before each race, which is then held over the weekend. The 17 to 20 hours between weigh-in and a race give rowers a chance to hydrate and take in calories before the competition, team members said.
“You go into it knowing you have to lose weight,” said a lightweight crew team member who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s just where we have to be.”
While lightweight rowers said they accept their sport’s requirements, a member of the women’s crew team expressed concern for some rowers’ rapid weight loss.
“You see some of these guys during the summer with a walking weight of 180 pounds,” she said. “Then, season starts and they lose 30 pounds. It can’t be healthy.”
But rowers disputed the perception that the team fosters pressure to lose weight in a unhealthy way.
“People assume that we have eating disorders because in certain ways we control what we consume,” lightweight rower Alan Chin ’06 said. “Other people control what they eat, but since there is no outside pressure or structured guidelines to their actions, they’re just ‘dieting.’”
In contrast, the women’s open weight team, which competes in the NCAA, does not set a maximum weight for rowers. Coxswains must be at least 110 lbs, and those who fall under the minimum must make up the difference by carrying sandbags on the boat. Nevertheless, coxswain Emily Cleveland ’07 said weight is still a “hypersensitive issue.”
“Coaches for the women’s team have always been extremely supportive and rational about questions of weight,” she said. “I’ve always been told to be healthy, but to support my team, I want to be near the weight minimum.”
Cleveland said she was “significantly heavier” at the beginning of her freshman year, but gradually reached her targeted weight of 110 pounds over the course of the next three years. However, her already small frame did not require her to resort to extreme measures.
“It’s a physical fact that I’m 5’1, so being 110 pounds is not that small,” she said. “We’ve had coxswains in the past who were 5’6, and they were told to not try to be 110.”
Members of the men’s and women’s cross country teams said conforming to the demands of running sometimes leads to significant weight loss. Cross country runners report running an average of 50 to 60 miles a week, former captain Vanessa Mazandi ’05 said.
Kathryn Schlekser ’08, a varsity cross country runner, said that in high school, she was once approached by a teacher who was concerned that she had an eating disorder. She said she imagines other girls on the team have had similar experiences.
“A lot of people look at girls on the team and assume they have problems,” Schleckser said. “But when you run as far as we run, it’s almost impossible to gain weight. A lot of times you’re eating healthy, it’s just a function of how much you run.”
Mazandi said the team emphasizes nutrition. Though weight loss is not always associated with having an eating disorder, any member found to be too thin will be asked to sit out practice and refrain from competing until they reach a healthy weight again, she said.
“If you’re really skinny, even if it’s not on purpose, we keep an eye on it,” she said.
The issue of eating disorder detection is complicated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects the privacy of the information shared between student athletes and their doctors, Lim said.
Mazandi said athletes must undergo pre-season physicals to test for iron and therotine levels. But the reports are not made available to coaches or trainers because of confidentiality restrictions.
Lim said that because of the law, she often does not know whether or not students are sick.
“Many times, from an administrative point of view, I know whether a student is on disability or not, but I don’t always know why,” she said “It’s personal, and we try not to intrude on that.”