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Jenny Kirk on Figure Skating's Eating Disorder Epidemic (Part I)

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The National Championship for Ladies Figure Skating kicks off Thursday night, and by Saturday judges will have selected the U.S. Olympic team for 2010.

Yet beyond the bright lights of the competition, judges, coaches, competitors, and commentators are hiding a dirty secret few dare discuss or acknowledge.

In this exclusive two-part interview, figure skater Jenny Kirk offers a rare, brave and compassionate insider perspective on an eating disorder crisis threatening the future of the sport.

Kirk speaks from experience. To date, she is the highest ranked former singles figure skater to openly acknowledge her personal struggles with an eating disorder. In Kirk's 2010-01-20-jennykirk-Jennifer_Kirk_2003_NHK_Trophy.jpgcase, the disorder forced an abrupt and premature end to a promising career in which she won a World Junior Championship, medaled five-times at the U.S. National Championships, and qualified for the World team three-times. Her eating disorder prompted her to leave competition just months before the 2006 Olympic team selection.

Since hanging up her skates, Kirk enrolled in college, where she majors in Broadcast Journalism. She is also a commentator for Universal Sports. She covered Cup of China on the Grand Prix series in 2009 and will cover the upcoming Four Continents Championships before the Olympics.

In Part I of our interview, Kirk reveals that about 85% of skaters suffer from an eating disorder, discusses the reasons why, and shares insight into the mindset of a top athlete.

Lesleyann Coker: How pervasive are eating disorders in figure skating? In your opinion, what percentage of skaters suffer from the disease?

Jenny Kirk: Eating disorders are incredibly secretive. If one was to attend a skating competition, or even eat a meal with a skater, it would be really hard to pick out which skaters were and were not suffering from disordered eating. It wasn't until I was on tour, spending months at a time with the best skaters in the world, that I saw how prevalent disordered eating was amongst the top skaters in the sport. Based on my experience there, and after speaking with skaters after leaving the sport, I would say about 85% of skaters have suffered or are suffering with various forms of disordered eating.

LC: From your experience, how does the eating disorder start and when?

JK: Every individual who has struggled with an eating disorder has a different story to tell as to how the disorder started. The one common thread, however, is that an eating disorder isn't something that a person "comes down with" overnight; rather, it's a gradual progression where the disorder grows over time. For me personally, I started to control the types of food I was eating--think labeling foods "good" and "bad"--after a disappointing finish at the 2003 National Championships. At the time I believed that if I became very aware of the types of food that were going into my body, how hard I was working out off the ice, and how much I weighed, then I would be able to control my results on the ice. There are so many things in skating that a competitor can't control, particularly the judging, and I felt that if I were a certain weight, I would feel more in control of all those external variables. What really happened, though, is that the disorder started to control me, and it took over my life.

LC: Describe the lengths you and/or your fellow skaters went through to control weight, i.e. over-exercise, diuretics, laxatives, vomiting?

JK: Skaters, or any individual suffering from an eating disorder, will go through any and all lengths to control their weight. Particularly in a sport like skating, over-exercising is extremely common. When I was competing, I would skate three hours a day and workout at the gym every morning for a little over an hour. If I felt "fat" or if I ate something that I felt I shouldn't have, I would make myself go back to the gym for a few hours in the evening before bed in order to "erase" whatever I had eaten. I was also bulimic and would binge and purge regularly. Although I never used laxatives, they are very common in the skating world as well.

LC: Skating requires enormous muscle strength, yet eating disorders by definition cause the body to devour its own muscle. How do skaters cope with these diametrically opposed goals of strength and weight?

JK: This is what is so tough about athletes suffering with eating disorders. As a person's muscle strength diminishes, it becomes incredibly hard to find the strength and stamina needed to get through rigorous long programs and training sessions. I remember as I fell deeper into the disorder, it became increasingly difficult for me to find the energy needed to complete my run throughs. Although I probably should have understood that this meant I had to eat more, I punished myself, thinking that my stamina was lacking because I was out of shape and eating too much. For me, it didn't matter that I was losing muscle strength because every time I looked in the mirror I felt that my muscles were too big.

LC: Do you feel sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where light weight and the ability to contort one's body is considered an asset, promote eating disorders?

JK: I don't think the sport itself promotes eating disorders, rather, it's the people involved in the sport who promote these disorders. Some of the most talented skaters in the world aren't petite--think Tonya Harding--but those involved in skating, including fans, judges, and coaches, hold a strong belief that thinner is better . Often, once a skater goes through puberty their timing changes. This makes skaters freak out because what used to come so easily before they grew is now much more challenging. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on adjusting a skater's technique, it's common for coaches or parents to focus on a skater's weight and start pushing the skater to watch what they eat in order to ensure their body returns to a more "manageable" size. This can start a really tough cycle where a skater is constantly trying to achieve the size they were before puberty set in, which is incredibly unhealthy.

LC: To what extent does the new figure skating scoring system, which places increased emphasis on jumping versus artistry, contribute to pressures for skaters to maintain low body weight?

JK: It's true that it is a lot harder to execute triple-triple combinations and very difficult triple jumps when one's body is more womanly. Adding to this, many of the contorted spins that are rewarded under the new system, and the pressure for skaters to execute more difficult combinations and abstract footwork, lends itself to skaters falling prey to multiple injuries. We've seen this the past few years, particularly in the men's event. Until this system is tweaked, I don't see a change in the number or injuries and the pressure for skaters to stay at an unusually-small size.

LC: Do you think the pressures on female figure skaters are different than those for male figure skaters?

JK: There is equally as much pressure on male figure skaters to maintain a certain weight and ascetic on the ice as female skaters. The general public may not think that male skaters suffer from trying to keep their weight down and go to drastic measures to achieve a certain weight, but unfortunately eating disorders amongst male skaters are just as prevalent.

In Part II of Lesleyann Coker's exclusive interview (click to read now), Kirk explores the origins of eating disorders in figure skating, and suggests actions the USFSA and ISU can take to mitigate the problem. She also offers a preview of who to watch as the U.S. Ladies Olympic Team is selected at Nationals this weekend.

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