The Darkness Before Dawn: Body Image & Sport

1st February 2013

By Siobhan McCarthy

Once upon a time there was girl who grew up by the beach and fell in love with waking up every morning to rush out the door to swim or to run or do anything that would see her catch the first part of the day before the rest of the world.

She loved the adrenalin rush of running and swimming so much and along with her competitive nature she found love and some success in the sport of surf life saving. Looking for a new challenge, she found triathlon and along with it she found new friends, an amazing way of life and new goals she didn’t think she could achieve. After that she found success at many a –race, learnt from her mistakes and never made them twice.

She travelled the world with her bike in tow and raced in some of the most amazing races, with some of the most amazing athletes alongside her, which led her to become a world champ.After that, she retired from the sport and lived happily ever after.

Ok, so I didn’t get my fairy tale ending, but I got an ending and at the time it felt like someone ripped the last few pages out of the book and since then it has felt like I have had to quickly scribble the last few sentences on the back page just for the story to make sense.

When I first started this wonderful sport, I am not going to lie, I was very happy with the weight loss that came with running, swimming and riding my way through life. I am not really sure when I went from happy to lose weight to being completely obsessed with it.  But I do know that I got on that train and I couldn’t get off. Losing weight, what my body looked like and what I was going to eat, consumed my every waking moment.

What would I do?

I was petrified of carbohydrates and I would eat only just enough so that I knew it would fuel me for my next session and despite always being hungry I would avoid carbs like the plague. I took great pleasure in getting out of the pool first thing in the morning, not feeling hungry and hoping a coffee may fill me up until lunchtime. I would avoid eating ‘real’ meals and snack on nuts or anything that would give me energy to last a session but what whatever it was, it would be something that I considered healthy but would provide very little fuel. It became this vicious cycle – because I wouldn’t fuel my body properly, my body became so stressed and I began to retain kilos and kilos of fluid and gained weight.

So what did I do? I ate less.

I never mentioned to anyone my internal battle that I fought every single day. Coaches had advised me to go to nutritionists in the past, like I know most triathletes do to balance get the balance right. I went, I sat there and listened to everything that they had to say. They would give me these incredible meal plans that would detail the most amazing array of foods that I was able to eat to get my body to do what it needed to if I wanted to train and race. Walking out I would feel in control knowing that if I followed that plan, I would train better, feel better and I wouldn’t have to fight with myself everyday, and that was exactly what I wanted.

Each time I went to a nutritionist, following their plans would only last about two weeks before I would revert to my old ways.  A ‘good day’ would be when I could get through a day of training only eating a quarter of what I was meant to eat. I didn’t know when to stop, but looking back, I am thankful that my body did.

In September last year, I wrote for this magazine telling my tale of the stress fracture in my hip – one of the strongest bones in the female body. In conjunction with that, I had not had a proper menstrual for almost three years. Following a lengthy rehabilitation of my hip, the joint started to calcify and I was left with some really scary realisations.

I could be developing osteoporosis at 25 and I may not be able to have children… all in the pursuit of sport?

I couldn’t go through that turmoil anymore and faced with those scary implications of what I was doing to my body, enough was enough and it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back.

I have hung up the bike for a while and as fate works out I turned my attention to my career as a journalist and landed a job as a sports editor in Armidale NSW – a welcomed distraction that has seen me able to become much healthier.

Unfortunately at the moment ‘healthier’ does not include my number one passion -triathlon.

I am scared I will do stupid things again, I am scared that I will go back to those days of being totally consumed by what I am and not eating.

I know that as triathletes we are always looking to improve, we are over achievers and we become so focused and so driven that we will sometimes sacrifice everything, including our health to achieve our goals.

I do look forward to getting back to triathlon and loving the sport along with all that wonderful things that it brings to my life without the fear that for so long dominated my every thought.

It is always darkest before the dawn, and hey; who knows, I may even get my fairy tale ending one day.

Siobhan McCarthy is a sports journalist, beetroot lover, flower thief, coffee snob and knee-high to a grass hopper. Her words, not ours – Ha!

twitter: @Siobhanann