Tear-stained and trembling in a cold and grey Eastern European coal town, it began to dawn upon biathlete Erin Yungblut the pursuit of her Olympic dream had brought more strife than she could possibly imagine.
At 19, she had moved to Canmore to train with the best. She was the top teenage female biathlete out of Ontario, whose grit and stellar marksmanship impressed her coaches. Yet her passion led to a maelstrom of hypothyroidism, disordered eating and anxiety, as she buried herself in training, dismissed advice and ignored warning signs.
“Last winter, I got weaker and weaker, and slower and slower. I ended up having a mental breakdown, burnt out and suffering from anxiety around my races. I knew I wasn’t skiing to my potential. Because I was trying so hard, I was coming into the range just a mess.”
Yungblut’s story is unfortunately common in Nordic sports. Canada’s small talent pool has been ravaged by health problems such as hypothyroidism, disordered eating, amenorrhea (loss of menstruation) and low bone density, affecting everyone from junior athletes to Olympic champions, and forced governing bodies to change the conversation on women’s health.
Every year, more skiers share shocking stories of their silent struggles.
“I actually went eight years without having a period. At the time, I didn’t think about it so much. I knew in the back of my head it was not a healthy thing,” said U.S. world cup athlete and Olympian Holly Brooks said in a post-retirement interview with FasterSkier. It took eight months of hormone therapy to get her cycle back and a year’s work with a fertility specialist. She and her husband had twins this past September.
Janelle Greer sent ripples through the Canadian ski scene with a blog post on Sept. 10, 2017. Reserved and soft spoken, Greer had trained in Canmore until 2013 with the Alberta World Cup Academy, and attended three world junior championships, where she was top Canadian twice. Well liked and happy around her teammates, she was on her way to becoming one of Canada’s top skiers, but did so while combatting depression and disordered eating. At 19, Greer would binge eat desserts for a dopamine rush, then make herself throw up as a form of punishment. At first, Greer said the binges were to combat depression. Then things got worse.
“I was having a particularly bad day and I remember feeling an overwhelming burst of frustration with myself and I took the serrated knife that was in my hand and pressed it right into my ‘love handle.’ It didn’t cut the skin but I remember wishing it had. I was so mad, I just literally wanted to cut my fat off,” wrote Greer.
No one talked about body image or eating disorders on her ski team. She paid close attention to talks from the team dietician, but did not tell her coaches or teammates what she was experiencing. Her photos from training show a very fit and trim skier, but she believed her BMI was too high.
“I know a lot of girls and guys who struggle with body image and self love. I am always surprised how taboo it is to talk about,” Greer said. “Maybe one or two athletes that recently retired would talk about their struggles with anorexia, and the pressure to stay in shape and small after the sport. But a lot of other skiers... You can kind of tell sometimes by comments or actions - you could tell there was something going on.”
The struggle persists because of a lack of communication, Greer believes.
“It’s not something we want any of our teammates to be struggling with. If we started discussions at the start of training, or when introducing athletes to the team, and knew it was something our coaches were aware of, it might help,” Greer said.
Yungblut is a perfectionist. Her immaculate condo is the perfect high performance sanctuary, with neatly organized equipment, and motivational notes on mirrors and light switches. Impossibly polite, conversations with her often devolve into a string of ‘thank you’s’ and apologies, yet that trait is counterbalanced with the 24-year-old’s love of gangsta rap.
She didn’t discover biathlon until she was 17, and felt behind many of her teammates who had practiced the sport since they were 12. Once in Canmore, she pushed herself so hard to catch up, it wreaked havoc with her hormones. Soon, she stopped eating properly. She stopped menstruating. But she was getting faster, and to her, that was all that mattered. Disordered eating coincided with her hypothyroidism, which affected her energy, metabolism and performance.
“As an athlete, it’s so much easier to focus on things that are going well with your body, and push things to the backburner that aren’t going well. I knew that I didn’t have my cycle. Maybe my hormone levels weren’t where they needed to be, but it wasn’t something I was worried about. Why should I worry about something that’s not bothering me right now?” Yungblut said.
By the beginning of the 2015/16 season, Yungblut’s thyroid had completely bottomed out. She was put on desiccated thyroid medication, and ignored advice to take three months off from a former Olympian.
“Because I had been training so hard I thought ‘why would I throw this season away?”
She kept racing. She took her fatigue as a symptom of training.
“I was running on sparkles and no physical mitochondria,” Yungblut said. “Now that I look at it, and know the symptoms of hypothyroidism, I knew I was experiencing them for a year leading to the diagnosis. I just thought it was normal training fatigue, or that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. That made it worse, faster,” Yungblut said.
The medication began to help her thyroid recover, but her other hormone levels did not. Even though she would have good days where she kept up with her teammates, it was unsustainable. She still wasn’t menstruating or eating properly, and felt increased pressure, as her results weren’t up to her exacting standards. Training 680 hours a year, working part-time, and battling health issues took a toll.
In 2016, she switched teams, discussed her problems with her coaches (Yungblut didn’t have low bone density, but did have disordered eating and amenorrhea associated with female athlete triad), began monitoring her period and her hormone levels more regularly, yet hadn’t fully recovered.
“I clawed my way to the surface with the Rocky Mountain Racers, but because I didn’t listen to the strong advice I was given, I never completely pulled myself out of the hole,” Yungblut said.
A study published in the British Medical Journal found 18.7 per cent of female junior skiers and biathletes in Norway have disordered eating, manifested in restrictive dieting, compulsive eating or skipping meals. The study concluded that disordered eating had adverse health effects, and led to early sport dropout rates, and was most common in sports schools.
World cup cross-country skier Maya MacIsaac- Jones, 22, said she wasn’t prepared for what she saw at the top level of the sport.
“From my experience I had on my first world cups, I had a tough time and was really stressed out because there was just so much conversation about what people were eating,” MacIsaac-Jones said. “I had to figure out how to handle this information and still be happy with myself, too.”
She now takes a more conscious effort to talk to her teammates and coaches.
“It’s a very common thing. A lot of female athletes deal with hormonal issues and menstruation. Eating disorders can happen to any one, regardless if you an athlete or not. In sport, it’s particularly difficult, because in one sense you want to eat healthy and be lean. On another, you want your hormones to stay in balance,” MacIsaac-Jones said.
The Cross Country Canada Women’s Committee is acutely aware of the problem. They held an open discussion at the 2017 Ski Nationals in Canmore, attended by 40 coaches and 40 athletes. They frame the issue as one of energy, in hopes of fostering more discussion.
“I think we lose a lot of very talented female skiers, maybe through the teenage years, maybe when they are older, because of a negative energy balance that they start with a body image issue. They try to lose weight to change their body composition, and they end up exhausted. They can’t handle the training and it looks like they’re over trained,” said former CCC Women’s Committee chair and Olympian Madeleine Williams. “I think if we can take some of the athlete we have coming up now, as juveniles and junior girls, we can get this issue less stigmatized, and coaches to have a better understanding of how they can be helpful.”
In a sport that maximizes the talent of each and every athlete it gets, Williams said it’s vital the organization address this issue.
“The no carb diet craze impacted a lot of athletes over the years. The exhaustion is leading to a lot of people leaving the sport and definitely decrease their performance,” Williams said.
She’s encouraging teams to discuss energy, which acts as a catch-all for many issues, and is providing more information on the CCC website.
“You need calories to have normal functions. Maybe a 14-year-old is not thinking about having a child, but maybe they will think a little harder about this,” Williams said. “Endurance female athletes have for a long time received the message that when you’re training, it’s normal not to have your period. Our conversation about energy needs to include that that is not normal. It means you don’t have energy.”
Many young female athletes don’t realize there is anything wrong with their energy levels, while others aren’t comfortable talking with coaches.
“Especially with teenage girls, body image is extremely sensitive. In particular, the majority of our coaches are male, so a 14-year-old coming up to a coach and saying ‘I think I’m too fat,’ well, that’s not going to happen,” Williams said.
Greer is finishing her nursing studies, and originally wrote the blog after completing a mental health rotation in Terrace, BC., where she cared for young girls with eating disorders. After seeing how apparently small mental health struggles can snowball into full blown issues, she started writing. She expected 300 skiers to read her tiny blog. It hit 5000. “I got a comment from a close teammate. She appreciated it and said she wished we were open with each other as teammates, so we could have all supported one another with love,” Greer said. “A lot were going through something similar, or had internal struggles.”
Her old coach also contacted her.
“He said he never knew or understood what I was dealing with and that it really opened his eyes. It encouraged him to have a conversation with his current athletes,” Greer said.
She plans on finishing her training this year in Ghana, and perhaps working overseas. She skis for fun, but does not regret her decision.
“I miss daily training, but no part of me wishes I was still doing that.”
After her breakdown, Yungblut took the rest of the season off. She nearly quit, then decided to take one last shot at biathlon. Four years later, she’s still recovering. She didn’t make the Olympic team, but has a deeper understanding of herself, and her training.
“To be faced with a winter of no results was a wake up call. If I was going to do this, my only shot is if I’m 100 per cent healthy, listening to my doctor and reset my system,” Yungblut said.
Twice-annual blood tests are now every six weeks. Before, she would hide health issues. Now she speaks freely about the need to monitor health.
“The reason I stuck with the sport is because I love it. Make sure you find your passion and follow it, but have balance along the way. I wanted success in biathlon so bad, I pushed myself too hard in so many ways,” Yungblut said. “I honestly think in endurance sport in Canada, there is a lack of communication. We track such complicated data in the sport, but if someone had asked me ‘are you getting your cycle every month… that’s a simple thing to track.”
After her final race last season, Yungblut went to Costa Rica to volunteer at a sea turtle research centre. It was the farthest thing from biathlon she could find, yet still she found analogies to sport.
“One of my favourite things was to get up at 5 a.m. when we would defend the baby turtles from predators, and go for a swim. In the rough surf, these little turtles bobbing. One in 200 survive, and they are trying to get out to the ocean. A couple might make their ultimate goal, but the rest of us are fighting through the surf.”