Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.
Over the years I have witnessed many athletes fall prey to eating disorders, as we are controlled by diets and body weight restrictions. I had zero boobs and no hips. I resembled an apple, where my middle bits bulged a little outwards, skinny arms and legs sticking out awkwardly below. This wasn’t the right look for a world champion, hence my introduction many years before to the AIS nutritionist Louise Burke in Canberra.
Yet my performances were never affected; in fact, my body was always much happier with a soft layer of fat gently hiding my abs. With hindsight I should have hung on to this notion. It is not how you look, but how you feel. Performance should have been the driver.
In my head I was convinced we were supposed to be ripped and lean. Debbie Flintoff-King was the epitome of this. The photo of her winning the 400m hurdles at the 1988 Olympics was out of this world. Debbie’s body was so lean and fit, every sinewy muscle striation was visible. I looked like a prized pig alongside her svelte form.
I restricted my calorie intake and tried to conform. I got much leaner and grumpier. My performances certainly improved and instead of putting this down to increased experience and growing older, I associated it with my shrinking body. It was hard work, my knitting needles got a work out! Hence the multiple knitted garments that graced my wardrobe.
Listen: Jana talks to Mia Freedman about what it was like being at the peak of her career and suffering from bulimia:
I had had a girlfriend at school who was bulimic and I began to flirt with the idea of regurgitating certain foods or going for extra-long walks to burn off any foods I had stupidly consumed. It wasn’t very often and I felt I had a handle on it.
This year, 2004, something broke in me. Maybe it was the suppressed pain of breaking up with Rohan, or the pressure of being reigning world champion in the Olympic year. Perhaps it was my severe food deprivation, as by now I was having around 1400 calories a day and burning thousands more. Maybe it was my past coming back to bite me—my unpopularity at school, how few friends I had, the horrible night in the back alley. I had always overeaten chocolate. Even at fourteen I used to pop off to the shops and buy a family size block and eat it all myself. I sucked and loved every piece, it was just delicious and comforting.
I honestly don’t know what snapped but I vividly remember the day my strict eating became disordered. I started on a long and slippery road. I seemed to be living inside my thoughts all the time, with a little demon voice that bargained with me about everything. What I could eat, what I shouldn’t, what I was allowed to feel and what I should block out.
We had a huge pool session planned but I was extremely tired from the weeks of training. I stopped at the local IGA to buy some things for a salad. My heart didn’t want salad and I gravitated towards the confectionery aisle. The beautiful blue blocks of Cadbury chocolate just seemed to be calling my name. Ahhh . . . one can’t hurt. I can control myself. I’m sure of it. The year before, I used to have at least a row a day for one week and no chocolate the next week. It was a funny little game Rohan and I played, allowing us to indulge but not have too much. In fact, during Easter in 2003, all I ate for a full day was chocolate—it put me off it for weeks!