“Health and psyche cannot be returned.” Article in Russian media about mental health issues figure skaters face in their careers, eating disorders, depression and panic attacks
Translation of the article in Russian media about mental health issues figure skaters face; with the comments from skaters themselves.
source: Championat dd. 13 March 2023 by Anastasiia Matrosova
Bulimia, panic attacks, and depression—each of these problems has living examples.
Figure skating is a beautiful but hellishly difficult sport. To show at least something decent on the ice, you need to give an enormous amount of strength every day. Not only physical but also moral.
In the course of the post-Olympic season, many skaters spoke openly about mental health issues, but there is still a feeling that this topic is perceived with hostility. That this is just the other side of the sport, which you need to accept and live with because such an order once developed.
This material is a brief overview of the mental problems that figure skaters face in their careers. Some are characteristic of any sport of high achievements, and some are very closely related to the specifics of figure skating.
Why brief? It would be possible to write a thesis, if not a book, about each problem separately; there are a lot of stories from specific people.
“If you want to be thin, shut your mouth.”
We open the “Eating Disorders” section with a phrase from the Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova. That’s how she answered her followers when asked about how she keeps herself in shape and looks so good.
This is a widespread problem, but few people voice it. After all, it’s “accepted”, these are traditions that have existed for many years. If you gain weight, you won’t rotate the jump, you won’t finish the free program, and your partner won’t lift you. Figure skating requires aesthetics, and not everyone thinks about how to provide this aesthetic in a healthy way. And can it be done at all?
This season, a story from the USA got a lot of attention: a fan approached the ice dancer Kaitlin Hawayek for an autograph and said that she needed to lose weight. The world community supported Kaitlin, while in Russia, experts mostly took the side of the fan.
“If they approached her and called her “a fat cow”, this would be a humiliation, and if they simply said that it would not hurt her to lose weight, you can be offended, but it’s better to lose weight. Still it’s ice dance, it’s a pity for a partner; it’s hard for him to carry her. He is such a fragile fellow,” said Alexander Zhulin.
Anastasia Skoptsova (a former Russian ice dancer) filmed a big movie about eating disorders last year and shared her personal story. When you look at this bright and beautiful athlete, you can’t even imagine what problems she had in her career or that her organs literally began to fail after the systematic use of laxatives. Severe stressful restrictions lead to compulsive overeating; overeating must be compensated with something, and everything develops into bulimia. And while you are struggling for your health and condition, you also regularly receive negative comments that you don’t even really want to quote.
In 2021, Elizaveta Khudaiberdieva (link) gave a big interview to Match TV, where she openly talked about her own weight problems: sometimes she ate 150 calories a day, weighed herself 10 times a day, and observed different interactions between coaches and athletes associated with weighing. At the time of the interview, Liza had already admitted her problem and noted that she wanted to convey the right attitude towards your body, the thought that you needed to love yourself. But at the same time, she understood that these things were with her forever and could backfire in the future.
“Health and psyche cannot be returned. I’ll never be the same, let’s say. I can go into remission, but I will never completely get rid of my problems against the backdrop of an unhealthy relationship with food.”
It will take a long time to list the figure skaters who suffered from eating disorders, and these are only those girls who spoke about it themselves, or the situation has gone to extremes (in the case, for example, of Yulia Lipnitskaya or Yulia Antipova being treated for anorexia in Israel).
And these are only girls problems; some guys can also have similar problems. Even less attention is paid to this, but boys are also criticized, and openly, sometimes even broadcast commentators, talk about it.
“I go on the ice, the warm-up starts, and I just can’t breathe.” Panic attacks
Another common problem that skaters face is various manifestations of anxiety disorders. Pressure due to results, nervous tension during competitions, mistakes in performing some difficult elements… All this can provoke such a reaction in the body that you can’t really control.
Stanislava Konstantinova spoke openly about panic attacks a few years ago. “I have had sleep paralysis several times, especially in competitions. There was one competition when I came to the Grand Prix amazingly ready and in a great mood, but I just couldn’t sleep through the whole competitions and caught sleep paralysis and panic attacks. I came to the skating rink and realized that I just couldn’t get myself together. That there is something wrong with me. I think at that moment I was very worried about the results; there was a lot of pressure, and it was hard,” said the skater.
Canadian figure skater Kirsten Moore-Towers said after the Olympics that she faced panic attacks in her career because of the twist: “Whenever I thought that my body would have to do this thing, which is absolutely meaningless to my mind, I had feelings of fear and aggression.”
Everyone was surprised by the sudden withdrawal of Isabeau Levito from the Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs. The American figure skater was second after the short program, had good chances of winning, was already warming up before entering the free program, and it suddenly became known that she was finishing her performances at the event. The official reason, voiced by the figure skating federation, is malaise. According to The Skating Lesson (citing several sources at once), the reason for the withdrawal was that Isabeau suffered a panic attack the day before, and a similar story happened at the US Championships. Information about this was published in a closed account for sponsors (I guess the author means Patreon account), from which the fans took it to social networks.
Serafima Sakhanovich faced a panic attack after leaving Evgeni Plushenko’s academy. In his interview, the coach spoke quite harshly about the athlete’s departure, and this caused a very sharp reaction in her body.
“I was very upset. I cried. The coach reassured me, as did my mother, but I did not want to listen to anyone. I go on the ice, the warm-up starts, and I just can’t breathe. It must have been a panic attack. I cried, I suffocated, and I was taken to the hospital. I had a pinched respiratory nerve in the cervical spine,” said the skater, noting that it took her another two weeks to recover after that.
“All the time, I have the feeling that I don’t understand why I’m doing all this.” Emotional burnout and depression
Long, hard, and, in a sense, monotonous work in training often does not pay off because there is only one gold medal … Sometimes the athletes themselves drive themselves into a corner from which they cannot get out. They train even more if they cannot achieve the desired result, and that doesn’t always help.
This winter, there was a cry from the heart of Morisi Kvitelashvili—the skater frankly told how hard the post-Olympic season was for him.
“It’s pointless to make plans, but I understand that it’s hard for me to skate now. All the time, I have the feeling that I don’t understand why I’m doing all this. Burnout must have happened. It’s like I’m working, but there’s no result, and that upsets me even more, and so on in a circle. This season, I’m very emotional, with constant self-reproach,” admitted Morisi.
At the same time, Kvitelashvili would not want to turn to a psychologist for help; he is used to treating such a condition with even more work. “My option is to plunge into work and forget about it; then everything will pass. But for some reason it doesn’t pass.”
Sometimes a difficult mental state is exacerbated by a lack of support. Gabriella Papadakis shared a story about depression. She encountered this condition when she decided to have an abortion in order to continue her career and did not receive any support from her partner and coaches. “It’s one thing when they tell you, “There’s a problem here. We will have treatment.” Another is when you feel bad and in response, “We’ll give you a little time; come on, take care of yourself.” Gabriella went through this difficult path alone; now she is an Olympic champion.
How do the skaters cope?
American Gracie Gold has probably collected everything that is possible in her story: severe depression, panic attacks, and overweight problems. Now that she is 27 years old, she competes at the international level, trying to compete with younger competitors and jumping a 3-3 combination in the short program. Long therapy and redefining yourself in figure skating helped Gold come back. Most importantly, she no longer perceives figure skating as torture. I wish there were more examples like Gracie.
Statue of Liberty of Russian women’s single skating, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. In a letter to her 16-year-old self, she mentioned that she had problems with food while growing up. “During puberty, I lived in permanent stress: you always need to watch your weight and how much you eat. If you overeat, you need to starve the next day. I understood that weight is important in figure skating. You can’t get away from this, but you can’t get away from your nature either. If I had not had an emotional disorder with food then, then perhaps such changes in the body would not have happened,” Liza noted, adding that the most important thing was to learn not to overeat.
Liza was able to overcome recessions and difficult periods in her career thanks to the comfortable environment around her: her understanding coaches, their comprehensive support, and their willingness to go through all the trials together. “I want to treat sports and life like Tuktamysheva,” almost every young figure skater in our country can say so. And such examples give hope that the other side of figure skating may not be so scary.
Related topics: Adelina Sotnikova, Anastasia Skoptcova Kirill Aleshin, Elizaveta Khudaiberdieva Egor Bazin, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Gabriella Papadakis Guillaume Cizeron, Isabeau Levito, Kirsten Moore-Towers Michael Marinaro, Moris Kvitelashvili, Serafima Sakhanovich, Stanislava Konstantinova
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