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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A credible voice, a painful agony

Skater Adam Rippon bears witness to the injury eating disorders can cause athletes.

American Adam Rippon performs during the men's short

American Adam Rippon performs during the men's short program figure skating Friday in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Photo Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

Adam Rippon has been one of the unexpected joys of these Winter Olympics. His performances and charisma have made the U.S. figure skater a revelation.

But words he spoke to The New York Times published as his fame soared were more revelatory, as Rippon talked about his struggles with body image. At one point, in an attempt to sculpt his body to better please skating judges, Rippon was surviving on three slices of whole grain bread with some I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter on top and three cups of coffee.

Per day, not per meal.

The interview also reminded that the Games in South Korea are missing two women skaters — Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya and Gracie Gold of the United States, both of whom are dealing with eating disorders.

It took me back more than 20 years, when I wrote a series of stories on the serious and often heartbreaking problems suffered by athletes with eating disorders. Girls and boys. Women and men. In a whole bunch of sports.

I remember the female soccer player from Suffolk County whose desire to run faster led to eating disorders in high school; in college, she lost 45 pounds by cutting back, throwing up and abusing laxatives, and she had to be hospitalized. Six teammates were bulimic.

I remember the elite gymnast who battled anorexia for nearly 15 years; she had an irregular heartbeat, almost went into kidney failure, was hospitalized many times, and had bone density 70 percent of normal.

I remember the three-sport star from Wisconsin, a young man hospitalized six times while battling anorexia and a compulsion to exercise.

I remember their voices, some soft, some strong, all haunted by an ordeal they wished on no one.

I stopped covering sports 12 years ago. But after reading about Rippon, I called Cynthia Pizzulli, an East Northport doctor who treats eating disorders in her psychotherapy practice, as she did 20 years ago. There is more awareness of eating disorders nowadays, she said, and seeking help is more acceptable. And while some coaches still make inappropriate comments, they’re better about getting support for athletes in trouble. But overall, Pizzulli said, it’s still the same: Athletes feel pressure to be a certain shape and size to be competitive.

Pizzulli has a 13-year-old daughter who plays four sports.

“I hear a lot of the talk with the girls off the field,” Pizzulli said. “All they do is talk about their bodies and weight. The ones at greater risk are gymnastics, ice skating. Wrestling for the boys, oh my God, that’s really bad.”

This isn’t just a sports problem, of course. Our nation has an unhealthy obsession with body shape, and it exacts a ghastly toll. At some point in their lives, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder. That’s what makes the attempt to block a proposed residence for eating disorder sufferers in Glen Cove so frustrating.

The cruel irony is that sports are supposed to be healthy. And most of them, for most people, are. But the risk of disordered eating creeps up in sports where winning isn’t based only on performance, where appearance matters, and where judging determines the outcome. The prevalence of eating disorders for female athletes in judged sports is 13 percent, according to the NCAA, more than four times the general population. Elite athletes are most at risk.

In 2017, Rippon broke his left foot during a warm-up. He suspects he had an underlying stress fracture due to his unhealthy diet. So he changed. A dietitian instilled in him the mantra that food is fuel, not foe. Rippon got stronger and less tired.

Now he’s talking, hoping to help others with his openness. That would be a bigger victory than any Olympic win.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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