Food and Body As a Paralympic Cyclist

April 18, 2024

Looking back, much of this started with a presumably simple question, “What do you think about trying to be a lightweight at C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints?” When it comes to rowing, an athlete can race as an open weight or a lightweight. At the time, I had been rowing for six years and finishing up my senior year of high school, in preparation to head  off to the University of Central Florida on a full athletic scholarship. At 5’9”, I was considered on the shorter side for rowing, and as an athlete, I had always looked for ways to take my game to the next level. I wanted to see how much more I could elevate my rowing status and go into my freshman year of college with even more confidence. So, I figured, if height wasn’t on my side, maybe my weight class could be.

The problem? I had two months to lose a good sum of weight. I’m a competitive person by nature and nurture, so this challenge didn’t faze me. “I can do this to see if being a lightweight is the way to go.” We made a paper chart for weekly check-ins to track my progress, which also served as a countdown to the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints, or the Indoor Rowing World Championships, held in Boston. I’d wake up early to row on the erg in our basement before school, attend training sessions after school, do extra workouts when and where I could, and keep track of what I was eating so that the food I consumed wasn’t negating the calories burned. In a way, food became the enemy, and I would ask myself, “Why would I eat more and sabotage all my hard work?” As time went on, the time between meals started extending, which led to eventually skipping a meal here and there. As a result, I weighed lighter the next week, and the euphoria took over. Little did I know it wasn’t euphoria. Seeing that number decrease each time I stepped onto the scale ultimately turned into exercise bulimia.I’ll just do an extra 2,000 meters for this ice cream. Too many honey-roasted peanuts; I need to do another workout today.” A couple of weeks went by before I began taking part in behaviors that qualified as disordered eating. I remember skipping meals, and then hours later, standing in front of the pantry binging on honey-roasted peanuts, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice. 

Two months later, my family and I made the trek from upstate New York to Boston for my brother and I to participate in our first ever C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I weighed a few pounds over my target weight that night before the race. I had to lose these few pounds to compete in the lightweight category at the race. I ended up losing five. I also had to get my dad’s help off the erg—- picked up and carried. There’s a photo of me from after the event –and to this day, I still know where I can find it even though I can’t bring myself to look at it ever. It serves as a reminder to never be that person again. 

I still have body image challenges I am working through: I still hate the scale and stop myself from panicking when I see a number that isn’t what I’ve determined is the “ideal” weight based on no knowledge and I still have my moments of seeing myself heavier if I think I’ve had too many sweets. But I also know these hurdles, eating disorders and body image challenges – aren’t from my time losing those pounds. It’s taken a long time to learn that food wasn’t the enemy – and I am still learning – chasing perfection and too much control was. I’ve battled with having physical permanent damage to my right leg and having days where I imagined two perfect legs that could run for miles like I used to before the surgeries that left me with a shorter and smaller right leg and an ankle that can hardly move. And I’ve battled with feeling like I needed to control more things to make up for the things I couldn’t fix or control, thinking that I could control everything. 

When my rowing career ended in college, I found cycling again – another sport with a stigma around food and ideal race weights – before finding para-cycling a couple of years later. And even though I found my true passion again, it took time to find the courage to face my relationship with my body image and myself. It took time to change my relationship with food, to see it as the fuel my muscles, heart and body needed to give my best self every day. It took time to find the right people – dietitians, nutritionists, sports psychologists, and friends – to support and encourage me along the way, to re-establish a metabolism on and off the bike, to show me it was okay to be kinder to myself. It took time to stop comparing myself to what everyone else was doing by appearances alone and to stop using food to find control when I felt too many things were beyond or out of my control. It took time to truly love food again for the benefits it provides. 

Food isn’t the enemy, and neither are sweets. Now, I fuel my body to be a world champion athlete, to be my best friend, to take care of my body, to be present in the moment, to keep my brain functioning properly, and to keep nutrient deficits to a minimum. I still fall into the traps of being afraid to step on a scale, comparisons, and trying to find control. I still have harder days than others. But that’s okay. Now I know a number on the scale isn’t indicative of the athlete I am, that I’d rather be my strongest than fit a smaller jean size, comparisons can be internal and used to find areas I can strengthen to be better than I was yesterday, and that there are things I can control and to not focus on what I cannot control. I know that I’m not completely free of the struggles, but that I can control how I respond. As I train toward earning a spot on the team roster for another Paralympic Games, I know I am giving my best self because I have put in the hard work to be stronger, to love myself, and to fuel my body so that I can enjoy giving my everything to do something I love. I also know that if I make that roster and step off that plane in Paris, I’m treating myself to a macaron to celebrate my journey to get there.