“One thing I’ve learned as an athlete, and one thing I try to tell people, is a happy athlete is a successful athlete.” Interview with Meagan Duhamel
This is Part 2 of FS Gossips big interview with Meagan Duhamel. About issues with nutrition that skaters face, and a healthy approach to the sport. Meagan also shared her positive experience of healthy relationships with food and keeping fit as an inspiring example for athletes.
Here’s the link to Part 1 about current state and development of pair skating: “Pair skating is in a major rebuilding phase now” Interview with Meagan Duhamel
Pair skating probably has the most strict requirements for the athlete’s body: height, weight, body type. And here we come to the point of nutrition and keeping fit in figure skating. You have probably noticed that in a Russian speaking environment, the topic of weight is not taboo. Coaches even allow themselves to make public comments on athletes’ weight, bodies. I’ve heard many times that such things could have hardly been imagined in Canada or USA, that coaches are not allowed to make any comments about athletes’ weight, even personally. Is it true?
Meagan Duhamel: Yes. Oh yes, you can never… I think about myself as a teenager, and when you’re a teenager, your body is changing, right? It’s normal. You become a teenager, you’re maturing, your body changes. When I was a teenager, my coach would ask, “So, are you going to the gym?” and I would reply, “Yeah.” and I didn’t think much of it. As a 15-year-old, I didn’t think anything, but now when I go back, I’m like, “Oh, he was trying to tell me that maybe I was getting out of shape.” That was his message because he can not say it.
I trained at two very big training centers in Canada, and that’s my experience, so I can speak from my experience at those two major training centers. I never saw scales, and I never saw coaches yelling at skaters that they were fat. I’ve heard coaches say things like “Oh, you look tired at the end of your long program, so you need to train better cardio off the ice.” but never about a body. It’s really not something that we hear too much of in North America. I think that there are some exceptions; there are some coaches that cross the line a little bit, but no, we’re not talking about this. You’re not telling skaters this, and if somebody is getting a bit out of shape, you’re trying your best as a coach to give them a good training plan. Maybe they are skating or doing one extra hour of activity, and then you’re offering it to them – maybe if the skaters wants to see a nutritionist. You can’t make them, but sometimes the skater says, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to eat; I want to see a nutritionist,” so a coach will help athletes find a nutritionist to make them a good food plan.
But even though coaches in the US and Canada are not allowed to tell the skaters to lose weight, there are still plenty of cases of unhealthy relationships with food there. So where does it come from if not from the coaches? Parents? Peers? Comments from fans? Glossy magazines with their beauty standards?
Meagan Duhamel: Well, I’m sure it comes from kids talking to each other, first of all. Skating is an aesthetic sport. You’re going out there in a small little dress. Of course it’s going to cross your mind that you want to look good, when you wear this skimpy little dresses. The world is big, but the skating world is not big. My biggest worries are that kids in skating and their parents are seeing these interviews with this girls in Russia, who are champions. And they’re like, “Oh, I want my child to be a champion,” or a child wants to be a champion like this skater, and this is what this skater says they did, so I wanna do what they do. That’s my biggest worry. When I was a young skater, I’d read everything of Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen and all these great skaters, like Elvis Stojko, Kurt Browning, and I would want to do everything they did because they were champions, and I wanted to be a champion. But luckily for me the habits I’ve read from those skaters were very good habits and healthy habits. But I imagine a 12-year-old reading those interviews with this Russian girls saying, “I ate 300 calories a day,” or “I weight myself three times a day and I don’t eat anything,” and then little girls look up to that, and that’s what scares me.
Probably we need to put a disclaimer on such interviews: “Please never do that.”
Meagan Duhamel: Yes, maybe. Because parents read these things too. Not just what you’re translating, just in general, it’s talked about a lot. My experiences in Canada were always very good and positive, with encouraging coaches and coaches that cared about me as a human first and a skater second. I was very fortunate that that was my experience. I know that there are still coaches in North America who aren’t as positive and encouraging as the ones I experienced. That’s why I say that I can only speak for myself. But we hear so much about this, about not eating, about coaches weighing people, about abusive coaches, and I almost feel like we need to hear those stories because change needs to happen. I think that they do need to share those stories. But we also need to share some positive, loving stories of skaters who have come out of this sport well-rounded, instead of skaters who have come out of this sport ruined. I think it’s important to share those things. The sport burned me a lot along the way, and at the end of my career, I didn’t end my professional career the way I wanted to; I was burned by the people around me, and I still love the sport. I still have a positive experience with the sport. So I think we can still share these warm and positive things and that skaters have been successful and healthy at the same time.
You know what scares me the most when I read all those interviews about how girls fight with their bodies? Not even the methods themselves, but how easily and openly they talk about it, like it’s not a big deal at all…
Meagan Duhamel: I don’t know why, because if I think about Russia, they are so far ahead at the game in a lot of other things. You would think that they would have been ahead in the nutrition field too. I used nutrition as fuel; I could recover from a day of training faster than anybody I know, and it’s because of what I ate. I used food as part of my training, it helped me recover so I could train harder the next day. And it’s such a simple thing to use and bring to your training. I just have such a hard time imagining that as great as Russia is at so many things, they’re just ignoring this really crucial thing.
Coach is their nutritionist…
Meagan Duhamel: Yes, that’s what they say. The coaches are the psychologists and the nutritionists. In Canada the coach is the coach and they send you to a psychologists, and they send you to a nutritionists, people who studied this. I love to coach, but I’m not a psychologist. If somebody needs help with their mental training, I have to find them somebody to help them.
I’d like to say that there’s this positive, encouraging coaches, environments and partners in Russia, but I don’t know that there is. If anyone reading this article wants to come forward and share their great encouraging experience, that would be fantastic because you’d be teaching younger skaters that it’s possible. That’s what it should be about.
You’ve found the right model of nutrition for yourself. At what stage of your career have you realized that nutrition is a very important part of your training and lifestyle?
Meagan Duhamel: About 2009. I was skating pairs, I was 8th at the World Championships that year, I was fairly successful, and I was injured a lot. My energy was up and down. I was sleeping well sometimes, not sleeping well sometimes and just always I had some sort of injury. I started studying holistic nutrition, and I studied nutrition for 4 years. I did two different certifications in holistic nutrition, and I learned how to use food – the right food to give me energy before training, to help my energy during training, and to recover well after training.
I ate a lot of things with purpose, I’d say. Like in the morning, I ate my meal with chia seeds, blueberries and almond butter with the purpose of having long term energy because I trained a lot in the morning. But I also sat on the couch on Friday night with a bag of potato chips with my husband, who was my coach, and he didn’t even blink.
I was very strict with my nutrition, but I also allowed myself some treats at the end of the week, on a Sunday, or something like that. I always had cake or cookies in my kitchen. But I was very good at doing things like if I ate cupcakes I would eat half of a cupcake and the next day I eat the other half. I wouldn’t eat 10 cupcakes in one day, but I always had treats, always because I have a sweet tooth, and I always allowed myself to enjoy it. And I would usually have it in the morning because it would make me feel really happy. In the morning, I’d have one cookie with my coffee, then eat my breakfast, and it would make me happy. I never didn’t allow myself something; just instead of eating 10 cupcakes, I would have a half cupcake, and the next day I would have the other half.
You said that you had only positive experiences in sports. Could you please share it as a good example for young skaters?
Meagan Duhamel: I think that one thing I’ve learned as an athlete, and one thing I try to tell people, is a happy athlete is a successful athlete. I was always happy to go and train; I loved it. I loved being an athlete. And any time that I didn’t compete well or skate well, it was usually because I was unhappy about something. So coaches should focus on having happy athletes because when the skaters are happy, they will work harder, they will improve faster, and there will be results.
I was in a positive environment, and I always had great coaches around me, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t challenge me, and push me, and want me to be better. But for an example, if I was training and my run-through of my short program was really bad, when I arrived back at my coach, the first thing they would tell me was something that was good. Even if it something stupid like that spin was good, your camel spin was in unison today, and then they talk about what needs to be better. You always start with the positive. That is also very important for the athlete’s mindset, so it is the way the coach delivers the message. That was always a big thing for me, and I found myself saying it too. For example, in training, Eric and I did something really bad, and I would tell him, “But this was good!” This one thing was good, and we would laugh. It was like keeping the environment light and happy. It makes a big difference. Because I saw some really great skaters who should have been much better than me but never achieved the results I did because they had bad communication with their partner or their coach or some bad habits or they took it too heavy. So there’s something to be said about a happy athlete being a successful athlete.
So not to be that focused on the results first.
Meagan Duhamel: I remember the Grand Prix Final one year when I won, and I did an interview with a Russian network. The first thing they told me was, “You said you love skating. Tell me more!” They were shocked. “Of course I love it!” I said. “I’m 30 years old and I’m still skating! Why would I do it if I didn’t love it?” They seemed completely shocked that I would say I love skating.
Yes, for them, it’s a job they do since the age of 5…
Meagan Duhamel: Exactly. And for me and for the older skaters that are still doing it in North America, they are doing it because they love it. Simple as that. But I was laughing so hard when this lady asked me that. “So you say you love it, please explain to me!” And I was like, “What is there to explain? I love everything about skating.” So yes, I think that’s so important.
In North America, Europe, coaches work with everyone who comes to the rink. In Russia, they have a selection. What do you think of such an approach?
Meagan Duhamel: Good question. I don’t know if we can really tell somebody that. But here in Canada, as a coach, you can’t even go… Imagine I’m a coach and I see a skater who is very talented, but it’s not my student; it’s somebody else’s. I can’t go and tell this child or their parent that your child has a lot of potential, they’re very talented. I can’t do this unless they’re my students. We are working in two different worlds, with North American and Russian systems. And when it’s your student, of course, you can tell them that your child has a lot of potential. But you can step too far over that barrier. You can’t say to a parent, “I promise I will make your child a champion.” We can’t make those promises. It’s not realistic. There are a lot of ways that we can’t communicate sometimes if we see somebody that is really good. You just hope they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
For example, a coach might say to a parent from the very beginning, “Your child doesn’t have the abilities for figure skating, you should try something else.” Do you think it’s a good thing that will save an athlete a lot of nerves in the future, or, on the contrary, wouldn’t we have seen a lot of great skaters because of that?
Meagan Duhamel: I think if parents ask, you can tell them or when you sit down with the parents to have some sort of meetings. Tell them something like, “Well, maybe your child is not ready to compete at the junior level. If they want to skate, maybe this is the better path for them?”
I’ve seen my husband have really good conversations with skaters that might be senior level skaters. They have been working so hard, and maybe they have just reached their potential and they are not going to get any better. And their potential was not to be the best in the world. For example, it was to make the National team. My husband is very good at telling them, “Maybe you want to think about this path in skating or this path. Maybe you want to go and do ice shows; maybe you want to try skating in a synchro team; maybe you want to try this or that.” So positively directing them down a different sporting path. Not saying “Well, you’re just not going to be good at pair skating.” In a very positive way, because these skaters still love skating, help them find a path that works for them. There is so many different things you can do within skating. Maybe you’re not going to be a national champion, but you can skate until you reach your potential, and then you can go and do shows; you can go and skate in synchro; you can go and skate in a non-competitive environment and still practice just not compete. There are so many paths.
Speaking about joy from skating, unfortunately, we don’t see much of it now at the major competitions… Among the top skaters, only the Japanese team Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara immediately come to mind. And it is this joy that causes people to fall in love with the sport, to follow it, and to cheer for athletes.
Meagan Duhamel: I also think so. It’s important to know that skaters like the Japanese just love skating. They love it. But they love to push themselves, they love to challenge themselves, and they love to overcome obstacles. They love the entire package of skating. They love competitions, they love the pressure, and they love to beat their personal best. They love this journey. And I think it’s so important because not everybody can win a gold medal. Why not do this for the journey?
When I’m talking to young skaters, sometimes I say, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” It’s about your experience, and not the end of the road. And I always say I made it to the ultimate journey, the ultimate destination, the Olympic podium, which is the ultimate place for an athlete to be. And when I stood on the podium at the Olympics, all I thought about was the journey. The days I’ve spent training, the running, the bad competitions, the good competitions, I thought about it all. And it made me so happy when I thought about the journey. And I was thinking, “Imagine if I didn’t enjoy the journey, and I’m standing on the Olympic podium, and I’m remembering all these things that I hated.” That would have been a terrible experience. I’m so grateful that when I stood at the Olympic podium, everything that flattened my mind and my body were these amazing moments. Even the bad moments, I love them because they helped me learn something. That’s really what it’s about.
You have so much knowledge and experience you can share with athletes. Have you thought of becoming a coach or consultant?
Meagan Duhamel: I like to help. I don’t think I want to be in a position where I’m the big boss, but I like to help everybody who wants help. What I really enjoy right now is helping skaters create off-ice training plans. And I love this. I’m doing a lot of training for athletes off the ice, but I’m also giving them a plan. Ok this day you do yoga, this day you do my training, and this day you do acting class. I have skaters working with an acting coach. A lot of coaches, at least here in Canada, they organize the plan on the ice, and that’s it. So I’m helping a lot of skaters create a plan off the ice, and I really love this. Because that’s what I know best, I think. I’m connecting skaters with the right people that they need off the ice. Not everybody needs an acting performance coach, but some of them do, so I’m giving them lessons with this person, or flexibility lessons, whatever the skater needs.
I would love to coach more, I just need to find the perfect environment to do so. I would also like to work on some position with the ISU as well, maybe on the technical committee. The person who is running the technical committee for pair skating has never skated pairs. And they are making the decisions about what is difficult in pair skating and what is not, and all the rules. I would like to be in some position like that one day as well.
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