Photo: Michael Lyn

Eating Disorders and swimming – It doesn’t just happen to “other” people.

By Sara DiPaolo

We’ve all seen them. Sometimes they’re related to you. Maybe one day long ago they WERE you. Sometimes they’re your child’s friend, or teammate, or frequent opponent.

We’ve all seen them. The girl who maybe carried a few extra pounds a few months ago, or maybe she looked perfect (to everyone except herself) back then…but looks dramatically different now.

If you’re a coach or parent or teammate you might think to yourself, “Wow, she looks lean…”

And a few weeks or months later you realize, as she walks by, that she passed “lean” and now appears to be clinging, barely, to “skinny” and maybe, depending on your experience and awareness, a concern starts to form…and deepens in the coming weeks as she exits “skinny” and lands squarely in “that cannot be healthy.”

Or, if you only see a competitor every few months, you might react as my family did recently. A former teammate walked by and my husband, daughter, and I all looked at each other in shock.

What had been a healthy, strong young swimmer now looked frighteningly thin. And we all wondered if anyone close to her would intervene, or even recognize it. Because, even though we’ve all known someone suffering from an Eating Disorder, we know just how touchy a subject it remains to both a sufferer and her family.

Let’s be honest. Healthy teens in a normal weight range do not suddenly drop large amounts of weight absent a medical reason, and the line between “lean” and “uh oh” is very fine indeed.

This story unfolds all too often in swimming (and athletics in general), but it’s also a story most parents never expect to tell. Eating disorders affect “other” kids. “Other” people. “Others”.

Therapists will tell you that the child parents think they need never worry about – the responsible, mature, high achieving, competitive, focused child – possesses exactly the traits that leave her most vulnerable to the insidious hooks of an eating disorder.

Straight A, driven, competitive… “perfect”… all words a friend (let’s call her Amanda, as she’d prefer to remain anonymous) used to describe her daughter. “An eating disorder never entered the conscious as something to be concerned about,” Amanda explained. “We were not very educated about eating disorders (before the diagnosis).”

Outsiders recognized the signs before Amanda did, but in retrospect she can see them clearly. “There was fatigue, a look of unwellness.  The eyes no longer sparkled and were flat,” she described. “There was an inability to concentrate and a marked change in the desire for isolation.”  Her daughter’s swimming performance, long on a clear progression in speed, suffered.

Because her daughter, and the entire family, really, had always trended towards lean and lanky, Amanda attributed her daughter’s weight loss to genetics and the demands of swimming, and the personality changes to the traditional teen girl angst.

But after several months, and her daughter’s unexpected hospitalization, Amanda and her husband faced the stunning, unexpected news that their daughter suffered from Anorexia.

“We knew that something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was – after the stay in the hospital, the doctors ruled out pretty much everything else,” recalled Amanda.

To complicate the situation, Amanda’s daughter could not, or would not, accept that she needed help. “There was a great deal of denial, excuses, justification, and rationalization to point away from any eating disorder,” Amanda noted. “I don’t believe she even knew she had any issues.”

Amanda, reeling from the incontrovertible evidence that her daughter was in serious trouble, recalls the next steps starkly. “It was a nightmare to get help.  You are very much on your own in dealing with this, which is all that much more frightening because you are simultaneously dealing with the fact that your daughter is very very ill, but there is no clear path forward,” she described. “The illness (of an eating disorder) was all consuming and the focus of her life – she was the opposite of a willing participant.

Next: Amanda and her daughter’s journey to recovery, and interviews with health care professionals to help parents and coaches help their children.

Sara DiPaolo is a former competitive swimmer/water polo player and high school swim coach, a currently broken age-group triathlete, and a parent of one high school swimmer and one she just shoved out of the boat to swim in college. You can reach her at