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Why Ex-Tennis Star Zina Garrison Is On 'The Biggest Loser'

Zina Garrison says she always had a different body type from other elite tennis players. Now at 263 pounds, she will be competing on "The Biggest Loser," which premieres Thursday night. Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Professional athletes train from childhood with the singular goal of dominating their sport. Their bodies are their moneymakers. Their physical capabilities determine, in large part, their success or failure. When your job requires a focus on fitness, there is no excuse for packing unnecessary pounds.

Easy for us to say.

The truth is, when it comes to weight and body image, athletes aren't immune to the issues facing an ever-growing percentage of the population. On the contrary, elevated expectations combined with media and fan scrutiny can exacerbate unhealthy tendencies lying just beneath the surface.

The 16th season of NBC's "The Biggest Loser," premiering Thursday night, is dedicated to former athletes who have struggled with weight during and after their playing days. Former American tennis star Zina Garrison, 50, will be one of the 20 contestants looking to reclaim a healthy lifestyle and pocket the $250,000 grand prize.

Garrison knows firsthand how difficult it can be to face body-image issues in the public eye. The former top-five player and Olympic gold medalist battled bulimia for much of her tennis career. She relapsed following her divorce in 1997 and has failed to maintain her ideal weight since, a fact that has not stopped her from opening up about her flawed relationship with food. She believes her story can encourage others.

"Everybody has something that they are dealing with," Garrison said. "The difference is that people choose not to deal with it, or they can be very skinny and still have problems. A lot of times society makes it seem like you're healthy because you're small, and that's not true."

During the height of her career in the late 1980s, Garrison walked the path blazed by fellow African-American player Althea Gibson. Garrison, in turn, helped set the stage for the ascent of Serena and Venus Williams, whom Garrison credits with redefining the typical tennis body type.

"I always had a butt. I always had thighs," Garrison said. "I didn't look like the other girls in their skirts. Back then, you were expected to be real thin. My genetics are not the same, and I'm not going to look the same. The great thing is that Serena and Venus have broken down so many barriers in that regard."

A former Fed Cup captain and U.S. Olympic team coach, Garrison signed on to mentor rising star Taylor Townsend last year. It seemed fitting, one of the best African-American tennis players in history helping to mold the athlete many consider a potential successor to Serena Williams. In addition to similar backgrounds, the duo has one more thing in common: their curves.

The United States Tennis Association denied Townsend funding for her trip to the 2012 junior US Open because of her weight. At the time, she was the top junior player in the world. Even after a successful first season in the pros, criticism of her fitness level has dogged the bubbly 18-year-old. As such, it was easy to wonder if her partnership with Garrison, who faces related challenges, would be a benefit or a hindrance moving forward.

"It's like a team effort," Townsend said. "[Zina and I] are helping each other to be healthy, to live healthy lifestyles, to do the right things both on and off the court."

As a coach, Garrison is doing her best to help Townsend navigate potential pitfalls in the world of pro tennis, encouraging her young charge to focus inward rather than listen to her critics.

"What we're working on now with Taylor is helping her to learn all she can about how to eat and work out properly, so she can do the best she can do for herself," Garrison said. "People don't know the dynamics. They don't know what her mom looks like or her dad or aunts and uncles. They don't know. They just assume."

Further complicating matters is the double standard for male and female athletes.

"You can be a guy and have a little extra something on your stomach, but if a woman has an extra five pounds, it's like she's the biggest thing since sliced bread," Garrison said.

US Open finalist and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki further explained the line female athletes must walk between peak performance and positive body image: "Men always want to be big and strong. They want to be packed. For women, I think it's more about being lean, being fast. I think most women want to look good as well and be strong at the same time."

"The Biggest Loser" came under fire in February after Season 15 winner Rachel Frederickson revealed a stunning, and by many accounts unhealthy, 59.2 percent decrease in her initial body mass. Had the quest to "look good" and win $250,000 overshadowed the pursuit of overall fitness? The controversy led to questions about the program's methods.

"On a show where the contestants' health and well-being is always our No. 1 priority, we routinely reevaluate the procedures and support systems," co-creator and executive producer David Broome said in a statement. "Season 16 was no exception."

With a starting weight of 263 pounds, Garrison is facing perhaps her toughest opponent yet as she joins "The Biggest Loser" cast. But she won't be shooting for extreme weight loss. Instead she's looking forward to using her athletic tools once more as she strives for a sustainable, healthy new beginning.

"I want people to know, especially at my age, that this show gives you an opportunity to start your life in a positive way all over again," she said.