Drowning in Numbers
by Lena Lang
“You’re just one away, just pass the girl in blue,” my coach yelled as I rounded the final turn.
“Catch that girl!” a different coach screamed at the girl only a breath behind me.
“She’s behind you!” a parent screamed this time.
“Keep your eyes on Claire!” My coached yelled again as my legs began to drag.
But two more people passed me before I stumbled across the finish line.
Back at the team tent, my six other teammates were already rallying together, smiles plastered on their faces. “We did it! There’s no way we didn’t make it to sectionals.”
At the districts cross country meet, only the top thirty placed individuals and the top four teams would advance to sectionals. Our team managed to place second, so my season would not be cut short. However, as the thirty-third finisher and the only runner on our school’s team to not qualify individually, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure.
People always say that life is about learning from your mistakes, so, as I watched my teammates huddle together, showing off their new medals, I wondered where I fell astray. There were so many things to point out-- the lack of sleep from the last three months of school, the way my foot hurt when I ran too much, and maybe even the passion I was losing for a sport I once loved. But looking at the other six runners bundled together in a tight embrace, there was one thing that caught my eye more than anything else-- the way my teammates looked in that victory hug with their small frames and skinny limbs. Even looking around at other girls that had passed me in the race, there could be no other explanation for their speed except for their oddly aerodynamic bodies that sliced through air smoother than a knife through butter.
A week later when we lined up for sectionals, I weighed five pounds lighter. Even though my head was spinning with colors I had never seen, there was this sense of confidence and pride in knowing I had beat that obstacle.
My performance at sectionals was considerably better than the previous week, but that didn’t dim the way I began to approach my body. From then on, it became an art form-- a science of perfection. My life was a series of numbers; calories, pounds, and inches were the only measurements of my life. As my world became consumed by my obsession with body image and food, friends, family, and happiness grew distant. I had this increasing feeling of loneliness, like I was drowning in tumultuous ocean waves with miles of shark infested waters for comfort. There was no one to see me, or save me, as I grappled for a lifeline back to shore.
But the truth is, I was never alone. Although it was never a topic brought up at team meetings or pre-race pasta dinners, I slowly began to hear the whispered struggles of other athletes.
In a school hallway, I found myself listening in on a conversation between two wrestlers. One claimed his diet for the next three days was nothing more than half a piece of bread. To put that into perspective, that clocks in at about .8 percent of his expected diet. Later, when I finally built up the courage to actually talk to fellow student athletes, multiple people came out with stories similar to mine.
“I feel like the stuff that is said goes over your head until you personally have gone through an experience with body image issues. Then you take notice,” a varsity tennis player noted when I approached her about the topic. She claimed that she also struggled with body image at one point. “I had a foot injury and was sidelined for five weeks. That’s when some of the calorie restricting stuff happened.”
Even among professional athletes, it doesn’t take much searching before issues of body image and eating disorders begin to emerge. Yulia Lipnitskaya, a fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater who won a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi olympic, found herself struggling to keep up with skating. In 2017, after her release from a health clinic in Israel, she announced her retirement from figure skating and spoke out about her struggle with anorexia.
“Anorexia is a disease of the 21st century, it occurs quite often… I only regret that I did not [speak out about] this earlier, because this is not the first year this has been going on, nor the second or third year.” Lipnitskaya claimed in a translated version of an interview posted on the Figure Skating Confederation of Russia’s website.
Emma Abrahamson, a former collegiate runner with a strong social media presence, posted a video on YouTube in which she claimed, “Body image is probably the number one thing I’ve struggled with in college… No matter how many times people told me I looked okay, there was always something in the back of my mind that told me I was not fit enough or I didn’t look good enough.”
In the end, body image is definitely a prevalent issue in competitive athletics. From students participating in high school sports to professional athletes in the olympics, finding this emerging issue wasn’t difficult.
(But) Despite how common body image problems were among athletes, I had felt so alone in my struggle with food. Encased in a routine of counting calories and stepping on a scale every morning, I was distanced from the world around me. Looking back, it should have been easy to see the half-eaten meals of my friends. It should have been easy to come together and talk about something we were each dying to say. But none of us had the courage to approach each other. None of us were taught how to cope with our mental hurdles or how to talk about something that felt so private. Instead, we were all secretly drowning in numbers-- quietly waiting for a lifeline to pull us out of our oceans of isolation.