I was an athlete.
That’s who I had always been. That’s what my family legacy had always been.
My grandfather rowed for Canada at the 1960 Olympics at just 18 years old, and then went on to attend university in the United States on a football scholarship. My dad simultaneously juggled being on the varsity men’s basketball team, as well as the varsity rowing team while at university. He then went on to row for Canada’s national rowing team.
It was inevitable that I would fall in love with sport. While in high school, I was involved in a number of athletics including basketball, swimming and rowing. Following in my grandfather and father’s footsteps, rowing became my passion and what I fell madly in love with. I rowed throughout both high school and university. It consumed my life and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I missed my high school prom and graduation, as well as university homecoming events for regattas. But my identity as a varsity athlete, and my commitment to my teammates, always outweighed these milestones and celebrations.
There was a sense of belonging as a varsity athlete. While at Queen’s University, I spent most of my time not only with my teammates on the rowing team, but also with those on other varsity teams. I felt part of a very large, supportive family and was proud to show off the golden Q both on and off the water. And while that family and community had an incredibly positive influence on me both athletically and personally, my time as a varsity athlete also impacted how I would later view myself.
As an athlete, I had come to understand the body as something to train and push to its limits. There was always more emphasis on what it could do, and how fast it could go, rather than what it looked like – broad shoulders and strong thighs came with the territory of training multiple times a day. From my experience, that was the same attitude the athletes in the Queen’s community had as well. Negative body talk rarely ever made its way into the locker room. It wasn’t until I left university and varsity athletics, that the pervasive ideas of negative body image and shaming began to surface.
Graduating from university meant leaving behind my identity as a varsity athlete – and the physical body that had become intertwined with who I was.
My body – the one that had endured countless hours of 5am practices, weight sessions, and years of racing, was no longer serving the purpose that it had for 20+ years. In just a few short months after leaving competitive sport, my body felt completely foreign to me, I felt like an imposter in my own body. If I wasn’t an athlete, who was I? And if there was no longer a need to train and push my body the way I was used to, like for others who had gone on to higher levels of sport, why did I need these broad shoulders and strong thighs? The competitive energy and hyper-awareness of my body that I had once used to propel me to rowing success, I now used to fixate on what I thought my body should feel and look like post-sport.
This fixation turned into bulimia nervosa.
With bulimia, I felt like I could control my body in the same way I did with training. When I had lost a race, or didn’t reach a new personal best, I trained harder and typically saw the results I wanted the next time. Bulimia allowed me to control my body, albeit in a much more harmful way. When I made myself sick, it was a way to reassure myself that I wasn’t gaining weight after leaving athletics, in addition to being a punishment for no longer pushing my body to its limits like I had once known it to.
I struggled with bulimia on my own for two years before I reached out for professional help, as well as for support from my friends and family. It was the competitive drive in me that prevented me from reaching out sooner. I didn’t want pity from my friends, and I felt like I had failed my family who had worked so hard to instill in me a strong sense of self-confidence, which has always been heavily connected to athletics. Eating disorders were also not widely talked about during my time as an athlete, and especially post-sport they were not openly talked about. The vulnerability I was feeling made me feel like an outsider and silence was my way of fighting it.
With the support of friends and family, I started to see myself for what I was beyond being an athlete. And I learned that this was the way my friends and family had always seen me – and what they truly loved me for. With their support and encouragement, I gave myself space and time to explore a new side of me, realizing that I was allowed, and should feel empowered, to step outside of the athletic arena I had always used as my defining characteristic. It didn’t mean that I had to find a completely new identity for myself right away, but rather that I give myself time to reflect on what rowing had given me – and how I could continue to build an even stronger version of myself from those roots.
Speaking about my experience has reinforced for me that I am so much more than an athlete – but that having a team and community around me, one that I know I can lean and depend on, never truly goes away. I hope that sharing my story has continued to help open up a space for the athletic community to openly talk about the struggles of eating disorders, erasing the stigma and silence of them, especially after sport – and that fellow athletes know that their team will always be there for them, long after their last race.