While there has since been a coaching change on the women’s lightweight crew team, Flynn stated that the culture on the team just three years ago was one in which it was “taboo” to discuss weight-related issues.
“I don’t really know whether it was an actual lack of awareness on the coach’s part that this was happening or if it was a tacit understanding that it wasn’t in the coach’s purview,” Flynn said. “I would never accuse any of the coaches of knowing and perpetuating this...but I think it was a tough topic to broach.”
While it may not have been in the team management’s purview, it is a recognized concern for the Crimson athletic department, said Harvard University Health Services Sports Dietitian Meg S. Schrier.
“Our first priority is always the health and wellbeing of every student,” wrote Schrier in an email to The Crimson. “We work directly and regularly with student athletes to ensure that they are receiving the nutrition education they need to stay healthy, in and out of their sport. As part of this work, we would immediately respond to the needs of any student athlete who demonstrates signs of nutritional deficiencies or disordered eating.”
However, in Flynn’s experience, taboos remained loud and clear within the team, largely silencing conversations on potentially harmful eating habits. What developed in its place was an undercurrent of unhealthy weight-cutting strategies, including completing additional workouts, skipping meals, and chewing gum to induce incremental weight loss prior to weigh-ins.
“There was this ‘healthy way to lose weight’ that everyone wanted to follow, and of course if you could do that, then you did it,” Flynn said. “Then there was the reality of the situation where if you still had a few pounds to lose before the weigh-in, you had to...skip a couple of meals.”
More than once, Flynn saw a situation go too far: what had begun as cutting weight for a sport, turned into a more prolonged, out-of-season eating disorder.
Similarly, in long-distance running, the perception that trimming one’s weight would trim one’s competition time has led some athletes to restrict their diets in ways insidious to both their health and their performances.
“For some people, there is an idea that being thinner is being faster,” said Daniella, a former long distance runner who was granted anonymity by The Crimson due to the sensitivity of the topic. “And to an extent, that’s true, but only for a limited amount of time, and only for some people. [A] lot of the people that do take the more dangerous path toward becoming thinner in order to go faster end up getting injured. It’s a pattern [and] it’s just not something sustainable.”
But while an athlete’s problematic eating habits may have become self-apparent, a lack—or fear—of communication between the athlete and coach led to the former racing, whether he or she was physically and psychologically ready or not.
“I wanted to compete, and I was really not going to stop at much to get out there because the reason I did crew was that I loved to race,” Flynn said. “From the athletes’ side, [the question becomes] how do you admit to [eating concerns] when you’re scared you might be pulled out of the boat because [the coaches] realize that you are nutrient deficient?”
According to Kate, this need to compete—and compete at the highest level—can drive runners to fixate on their nutritional choices as the one training area entirely under their control.
“You can control your muscle mass to some extent, you can control your training to some extent, but you can really control your eating,” Kate said. “If you want to eat less, and if you have the willpower, you just eat less.”
However, it’s not always easy to differentiate between what is needed to excel at a sport and what can be considered disordered eating. For some, the boundary between the two is blurred and always changing.