Making the Olympic Team: An Unrealized Dream

5 years ago

It was August 16, 2005, 151 days before the 2006 U.S. Olympic figure skating team would be announced, and my head was buried deep in a toilet bowl.  Bulimia had taken over. Again.

I had never been a graceful bulimic: I’d scream into the bowl as my fingers ferociously jabbed the back of my throat; the vomit would splash up into my face and drench the strands of blonde hair that hadn’t made their way into my haphazard ponytail.  These were my darkest moments, the moments the fans, the judges—no one—was privy to. Afterward, I’d lay down and cry on the bathroom floor.  My tears would come in waves and work to wash away my shame and assuage my fear of failing to make the Olympic team.  I’d let myself stay in a little ball on the floor until all my feelings, like the food, were erased and my tears purged.  Then, I’d methodically clean up the toilet, making sure to eliminate every trace of my most private nightly ritual.

But tonight things were different.

As I got up from the floor dusk settled outside, making the bathroom virtually dark. I steadied myself on the counter in front of the bathroom mirror and slowly allowed my eyes to take in my reflection.  My face was oddly puffy around my jowls; my eyes bloodshot and swollen; my skin sprinkled with pimples from the grease that had seeped into my pores.  There was a steady stream of snot dripping from my nose that I quickly wiped away with the back of my right hand.  I looked pathetic.  I looked like an addict, like a scared little girl.  I looked like someone who needed help.

Figure Skates via shutterstock

My childhood dream of making an Olympic team was so close to coming true, yet every night I found myself staring in the mirror, wondering what it would take for me to stop hurting myself.  While I knew it’d be a fight to win one of the three spots on the team—the first would probably go to Michelle Kwan and the second to Sasha Cohen—that third and final spot was open, and I believed it was mine for the taking.  I wanted it so badly, had been training so hard. But, I had lost all control over my mind and body.  I just couldn’t stop the bulimia.  I just couldn’t get myself to chew, swallow and digest three meals a day. And, worst of all, I had no idea why.

It was a riddle I could never figure out:  Either my dream had destroyed me or I had destroyed my dream.  Whichever it was, this was no way to live. No matter how much denial I was swimming in, I had to concede to what the disorder had done to me: My teeth were rotting; my hair was falling out; and my body was screaming for nourishment, rest and attention.  I knew the only way out of the cycle of self-abuse was to devote myself full time to fixing this thing.  Unfortunately, I also knew recovery would mean no more skating, no Olympics and no more dream.

I slipped my hair out from the ponytail and turned away from the mirror.  The bitter taste of defeat filled my mouth and choked my throat. If I left the sport, who would I be without skating?  What would I do without my dream?  What would happen to me? The questions bounced around in my head.  I had no idea what was waiting for me outside of the confines of the eating disorder and figure skating.  Even though it was hell, the eating disorder had become an odd source of comfort, and skating was all I knew.  Every day for the past eleven years I had dreamed about walking in the opening ceremonies at the Olympics, skating for my country and being a part of something so few people get to experience.  My dream had become my reason for living, but I just couldn’t spend another night on the bathroom floor; I just couldn’t keep hurting myself.   Dread sat heavily in my chest.  I knew it was time for me to fight my way out of this mess and get some help.

I never returned to the rink after that evening, and I retired from competitive skating a few weeks later.  My decision to leave the sport was the most painful and best decision of my life.  It was also a decision I never could have predicted would happen as suddenly and dramatically as it did. I don’t think I’ll ever know what exactly precipitated my fall into an eating disorder.  No one ever told me to lose weight; I was always very thin.  At first it was a game: how much weight can I lose in x amount of time, how small can I get—yet I didn’t take any of it too seriously.  I had seen so many of my peers struggle with weight issues and vowed that would never be me.  Watching what I was eating and spending some extra time every week in the gym seemed harmless, like it would only make me a more toned and competitive athlete.  I believed I was in control and, at the start of the eating disorder, I was: I allowed myself cheat days, didn’t count calories and, for the most part, was the one driving the bus.  But about a year into my new routine of watching my food intake and increasing my workouts things shifted.  I switched coaches, moved to LA, and life became, in a word, chaotic.

When I moved to California, I was coming off the best season of my career.  I had placed third at Nationals, had made the world team and had spent the spring touring with Champions On Ice.  It was a year and a half before the 2006 Olympic Games, and I was in a prime position to make the team.  However, with my move to the West Coast came independence and a host of responsibilities.  My sister had been living with me for the past two years in Michigan and working as my assistant but decided not to make the move to LA.  Coordinating my career would now be up to me.  Even though I was unsure of what it would entail, I didn’t think handling my career would be too hard, and I was hungry for some freedom.

While my new life was exciting at first, I soon realized that with my newfound independence I also had a secret to keep: Upon moving to LA, I learned my dad had been seeing a woman who lived in the area.  Throughout the following year, he hid their affair partly by telling my family his frequent trips to LA were to visit me.  When I discovered what was going on, I was told to keep his actions hidden from the rest of my family.  Suddenly, my new life proved too much for me to take on.  I had money, freedom, a career to manage, bills to pay for the first time, a family secret to keep and an Olympic team to make.   I was only 19, and at times, it felt like I was drowning in responsibility.  I didn’t have the type of relationship with my dad or coaches that made me feel comfortable opening up to them about the stress I was harboring.  Instead, I kept it all inside.  The only thing that gave me solace and provided an escape from the stress was focusing on whether I would allow myself to eat.  Distracting myself with thoughts of food calmed me down; it made a chaotic life simple and gave me some semblance of control.  And, best of all, it made me not feel.

To be numb was the goal.  To the outside, I had appeared to have it all together, that I was the same as I had always been: in control and ready to attack.  But on the inside, things were so dark; I was caught in a twister of emotions.  In addition to the eating disorder, I began drinking nightly, and when that wasn’t enough of an escape, I used sharp objects to cut up my left arm. I had never known anyone who engaged in this behavior, and cutting was so shameful and terrified me.  While drinking made everything slightly blurry, tricked me into thinking I could handle life and was a capable adult, cutting felt like a splash of cold water in my face and was an instant emotional release.  Scraping the surface of my skin just deep enough to produce a trickle of blood allowed me to release my emotions without actually experiencing them.  As an athlete, I had always understood and could manage physical pain; complex emotions, on the other hand, were foreign and terrified me. The stinging wounds on my arm calmed my mind and, like the eating disorder, were oddly comforting.  Unfortunately, no one ever asked about the bandages or the gashes on my arm, which only made the cutting more frequent.  It was a vicious and neverending cycle.

Although what I was doing to my body was incredibly painful, the worst part of the self-abuse that I felt like I was living a double life.  Skaters are taught to be the epitome of congenial, to have a smile on their faces at all times because they never know where a judge or reporter may be lurking.  What happens, though, is that many skaters may start to split themselves as a response to these expectations.  They have their ‘skater persona’ (My dad and coach actually named mine. It was ‘TV Jenny.’) and then another part of their personality that may emerge, which is often a reaction to the stress of stuffing away their feelings and having to always appear ‘on’ and cheerful.  When you stuff down your emotions in an attempt to look like you have it all together, the pendulum is inevitably going to swing in the other direction.  What I was doing—through the bulimia, the escape of the cutting and the drinking—was releasing my stuffed feelings and coping the only way I knew how.  I carried so much shame because of the chasm between my public persona and what I was doing to myself in private.  I felt like I was lying to everyone.  I felt like a fraud.

Unfortunately, my guilt only fueled my eating disorder.  I was training three hours a day on the ice, putting in two hours at the gym and hardly eating anything.  At some point, when a person has been subsiding on so few calories, the elastic band is going to snap and self-control goes out the window.  My body was longing for fuel, which ignited the cycle of intense bingeing, followed by purging and then more starving.

When I was bingeing, filling my stomach to the brim, I felt whole, complete and loved.  Food served to fill up my stomach but also my heart. Love had always felt transient and conditional; it was dependent on accomplishments. As a child, if I skated well or won a competition, my mom would reward me with candy or presents and become extremely attentive.  But if I didn’t skate well, if I fell or missed the podium, I was intensely reprimanded and then given the silent treatment.  Even after my mom passed away when I was 17, I was terrified of messing up because I still believed mistakes meant love would be taken away.  Unlike my mom, however, food didn’t care if I won or lost.  I could always count on the euphoria that accompanied a Milkway’s chocolate melting on my tongue or an Oreo smashing between my teeth. But once all the sugar was consumed and the candy wrappers crumpled at the bottom of the trashcan, I immediately had to purge the feelings of love and comfort along with the excess calories.  Getting rid of the food and returning to a feeling of emptiness felt good, like I was suffering, and suffering had always been attached to love.

When I look back on it, I can see how the effects of my mom’s parenting played an acute role in what I was doing to my bodyIf adults continually tell a child—explicitly or implicitly—that a child’s worth is tied to success it can create an erroneous belief system.  With this type of parenting, if a child does well at an event, the child believes he or she is worthy of love and attention.  If a child fails, however, the failure becomes a parent’s failure, and the child has to handle not only the pain of losing but more upsetting, the pain of letting down a parent.  This can foster the belief that self-worth and love are tied to accomplishments, and in a sport like skating, where results are ultimately out of a skater’s control, skaters may search for control in other aspects of their lives.  Because I believed that skating and success were more important than my happiness, I was terrified to reach out and ask for help.  I believed my worth was directly related to winning medals and making others proud.

A few months before I quit skating, my dad and coaches found out about my eating disorder, but nothing was done to get me the help I needed.  This reinforced my belief that skating and my career held paramount importance over other aspects of my life.  Part of me can understand their reluctance to remove me from the sport and provide me with treatment. The Olympics were less than a year away, and at the elite level, parents and coaches have a lot invested in an athlete’s success.  Parents have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fostering a child’s career, and coaches are employed based on an athlete’s involvement in the sport.  That said, parents and coaches must pay attention to what’s going on in an athlete’s life and see that an athlete’s health is more important than the athlete’s career.  Parents and coaches also need to provide open communication and be available to skaters, so skaters feel comfortable coming to them with issues and concerns.  Had I felt there was a better channel of communication between my dad, my coaches and me, I would have been able to express what I was doing to my body and how much I was struggling.

I don’t want to finger parents and coaches as the sole instigators of health problems—particularly not my parents or coaches.  I did this to myself.  I take full responsibility for what I did to my body.  But I want to stress that parents, children—we all—need to be reminded that who we are is more than what we do. Although I had been living with adult responsibilities during the final year of my career, quitting skating was my true foray into adulthood.  Despite numerous warnings by others that I was making a mistake by leaving the sport, I trusted myself to find treatment and take control of my health and future.  Quitting skating terrified me, but it taught me that I can count on and take care of myself.

When you’re trapped in the cycle of addiction—an eating disorder or otherwise—it can feel impossible to connect with others.  You’re locked in a world where all that matters is escaping reality.  That final year of my career was the loneliest and most difficult period of my life.  There were countless nights like August 16 where I felt like I couldn’t get myself up off the bathroom floor, where all I wanted was to reach out and have someone understand what I was going through.  Because of that loneliness and the pain I experienced, I want anyone who is suffering with anything close to what I experienced to know that people get how you feel, that I’ve been there, I know how hard it is, and there is definitely a way out.  Even though it meant leaving competitive skating behind, getting help was undoubtedly the smartest decision of my life.

And to those of you who have made your way out, know it’s okay to forgive yourself.  The process of recovery and walking away from my dream showed me the importance of forgiveness and owning our experiences.  Own what you went through.  Owning it releases the shame, and shame is what keeps us stuck.  There is such power that emerges when we allow ourselves to forgive and let go of shame.  We never need to punish ourselves for trying our best in what at the time felt like an impossible situation.

Too many skaters leave the sport with intense feelings of shame, which can color their entire careers.  They’re tied to those moments when a slip of the blade kept them off the podium at a key event, a severed relationship with a partner or an injury forced them out of the ice rink doors.  They can live for years as I did, blaming themselves for an unrealized dream, or blaming the sport for emotional scars that won’t seem to heal.  But these scars can and must heal. The ending of a career is painful enough.  Carrying around that pain and living a life mired in shame or bitterness only keeps a person from reaching their true potential and will never amend what happened.  Life gets in the way.  Partnerships end.  People hurt themselves. Athletes get injured.  Things don’t work out.  Dreams may not come true, and that’s okay; it’s part of the lesson.  What isn’t okay is holding on to what could have been or punishing yourself for getting in your own way.  We are all trying our best.  A career doesn’t make you, you. I’ve learned to challenge the beliefs of my upbringing and can see that receiving love should not be predicated on what we do or how much success we achieve.

I felt the need to write about this topic because numerous people have contacted me expressing their struggles with eating disorders and retirement from elite athletics.  I spoke out about my experience a couple of years ago, and the conversation needs to continue.  We shouldn’t feel alone in our struggles, particularly when these struggles are unfortunately so common in and out of athletics and help is so readily available.  The shame of self-harm can silence so many people, but there is nothing wrong with asking for and giving yourself the help you need.  Our health and happiness are the most important things in life.  Nothing, not even the most cherished dream, should trump that.

In a way, I believe that dreams are like relationships.  Sometimes the happy ending you hoped for doesn’t come true, and you have to heal from the disappointment of one before you can truly give yourself to another.  I am hungry to foster a new dream, ready to embrace a new career and have started to use all the wonderful lessons I learned from skating to buoy me to this next stage in my life. Yet, part of me will always be sad when I look back on how my skating career ended and what I did to my body. Sometimes, though, when things don’t go as planned you end up with far more than you would have if life went according to script.  By walking away from my childhood dream I gained myself.  I learned the importance of taking care of my health, asking for help and owning my struggles. I’ve also learned that our dreams will always be a part of us, and in talking about our experiences and allowing ourselves to recover from heartbreak, we are given the opportunity to bring to life many, many more dreams in the future.

Jennifer Kirk


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