Leaving Gold for God -- An interview with Sally Ward
Rhythmic gymnasts face extraordinary pressure to be thin. It's nice if you're talented and can do the best tricks, but if you're not skin and bones, if you're an ounce overweight, you're not going anywhere in the sport. In rhythmic gymnastics especially, you have to be ultra-thin and have no body fat. The motto of rhythmic gymnastics was, "You are what you weigh."
At the World Championships in Paris, some of the coaches who were assigned to me-not my personal coaches, but coaches from countries like Spain-said they would only let me compete on a certain event if I lost 5 pounds in the next 3 days. Since I didn't lose the weight, they pulled me from the event. It's ironic. My last competition, World Championships, I didn't get to compete in one of my events because I didn't lose the pounds.
How did these pressures related to weight and the body affect you?
At the time my career ended, I was under 105 lbs at 5'5", and I was by far the heaviest on the team. I even went below 100 pounds at one point on the tour and I was still, according to my coaches, not thin enough.
When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was someone who was insufficient. I didn't have an eating disorder at the time, because they watched and limited how we ate. I was so hungry from working out, but there was always the pressure of becoming thinner and thinner. I was thin and athletic, but I had a more womanly figure than the other girls. We were all around sixteen years of age, and my body was really fighting the whole development process.
Then after you retire, your body changes dramatically, and it's difficult to deal with the changes to your appearance. I was on all sorts of medications to heal from the mono, and I needed medical care to help my body produce everything it needed in order to develop at that age. It was really difficult. You're no longer training and eating in the same way, but those attitudes toward food and the body remain. So I ended up developing eating disorders. Rhythmic gymnastics had left its claim on my mind and not just my body.
The only way I got free from the anorexia and bulimia and everything else in between was by turning to God and finding my identity in Christ. During my gymnastics career, the coaches always focused on my weight instead of my talent. It was drilled into me that my weight was the most important thing about me, so when I got out of the sport I really focused on that.
Of course, my parents taught me that God was the most important thing. But after I retired I obsessed about what I had heard in the gym everyday: "You are what you weigh."
How was the pressure to lose weight communicated to you?
Some coaches did not do these things, and some did. We were weighed every day. Some coaches would tape measure your waist and your thigh. My teammates get upset with me when I talk about this, because they don't think it's abusive. They went to the Olympics and they're happy about how their careers worked out.
Yet some of the things some of the coaches did were extreme and unhealthy. After 8 hours of practice, we would run a mile or two for conditioning and then get in a sauna. We wore the outfits wrestlers weigh in order to sweat and dehydrate their bodies. We had food journals where we wrote down everything we ate, and we were not allowed to eat until our coaches arrived and could approve what we were eating and how much. One of my coaches once told me that if you have the day off from practice, then you only need to eat 1 tablespoon of honey that day. For 100-pound teenage girls, those things are dangerous. They made me obsessed about it, and that had even more harmful consequences later.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.