This week is significant to cross-country skier Jessie Diggins.
It's almost a year to the day that she and teammate Kikkan Randall won gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Secondly, Diggins is currently competing at the world championships in Seefeld, Austria. Finally, it's Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 25-March 3), which has come to hold incredible meaning for her.
Shortly after being featured in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue last June, Diggins, 27, had the confidence and support to bring her story public in an effort to help fight the stigma of disordered eating and encourage anyone who struggled to seek support.
On behalf of espnW, Annie Pokorny -- Diggins' former teammate at Stratton Mountain School T2 Team who also battled disordered eating -- caught up with the gold medalist to discuss her journey and recovery.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
espnW: You are this accomplished athlete; most people wouldn't think that you are battling disordered eating.
Jessie Diggins: Well, eating disorders don't discriminate. Before high school, I never had issues with my body. I was the kid doing all of the sports, calling the boys weenies because I was stronger than them. And then I became a teenage girl. I suddenly felt ashamed of my muscles. I couldn't fit into prom dresses or jeans, and I felt like something was wrong with me.
espnW: Being in an endurance sport probably didn't help.
JD: Probably not. You can't give someone an eating disorder, but genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger, so to speak. You know me, I'm a Type A person with a perfectionist streak. With everything I did in school and life, I had to do it 100 percent. If I was going to take a class, I had to get an A; if I was going to play in orchestra, I had to be first chair. That all-or-nothing attitude gave me some really great traits when it comes to skiing, but it also put me at risk for developing an eating disorder.
espnW: When did you start to develop symptoms, and did the skiing environment trigger you?
JD: Experiences in skiing planted the seed, and trying to cope with pressure helped it grow. I distinctly remember going on my first world junior championships trip, until which point I had been pretty darn confident, and all the other girls were meticulously cutting the fat off their steaks at dinner. I remember looking around and thinking, "Wait, am I doing this wrong? Why am I the only one drinking hot chocolate?" I started to believe this false narrative that said that in order to be successful in skiing, I had to stop eating fat, stop eating dessert, stop eating anything, for that matter.
espnW: Yeah, I have one of those distinct "oh wait" moments, too.
JD: It totally changed the way I saw the world. My very black-and-white brain couldn't see that there were different body types racing on the World Cup. My young eyes only saw the skinny ones winning, so I started trying to eat less. I didn't know anything about eating disorders or nutrition, and I convinced myself that I was doing what was best for my career. First, I started over-exercising. I would have a snack -- we're talking a bowl of wheat grain cereal here -- and I would go for a 45-minute run afterward, between two-a-day training sessions, to run it off.
espnW: Did you have another "oh wait" moment when you realized you had an eating disorder?
JD: Not at first, especially because I was still carrying quite a bit of muscle, so I didn't look like these emaciated teenagers I'd come to associate with eating disorders. I thought I was training extra for my sport, being lean for my sport. That went on through my senior year [of high school]. After graduation [in 2010], I developed bulimia and made myself throw up for the first time. Up until then I was totally in denial, but then you make yourself throw up and you can't deny it.
My black-and-white brain was like, "This is bulimia: You feel like you eat too much, you feel ashamed, and then you make yourself throw up."
espnW: And then?
JD: And then I didn't stop. I was starting my career as a professional ski racer [joining the U.S. Ski Team in 2011], and so much felt out of my control. I had no idea if I was going to perform or if my training would pay off, and I was putting pressure on myself to be a perfect athlete and daughter.
I was exhausted -- half because I was training so hard and half because making yourself throw up is violent, and I remember lying on the couch not feeling anything. I realized why people can get addicted to drugs, the experience of not having to feel or process emotion was addicting.
espnW: It's really scary when you know you're in danger but you're also afraid to break the cycle.
JD: I wasn't stupid. I knew that I could die. I felt so ashamed because I was lying to my family, and yet the control side of me told me that I couldn't live without the eating disorder -- that if I started eating again, I'd get fat and boom! My career is over.
"You can't give someone an eating disorder, but genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger."
espnW: So how did you break free of that mindset?
JD: I committed to recovery when I realized the impact I was having on my family. Growing up, my parents always said the right things -- they never criticized my appearance or their own and always celebrated my accomplishments over how I looked. When I first started over-exercising, my mom urged me to work with a therapist, but I wasn't ready to heal. When I got to the worst part of my eating disorder, my parents approached me with an option to go an outpatient program called The Emily Program. My mom had been setting an alarm in the middle of the night to check and see if I was still breathing. That broke my heart. I had to try.
espnW: How did treatment go?
JD: First of all, it was nothing like I expected it to be. Rather than being clinical and cold, The Emily Program was warm and welcoming. I met people that I immediately trusted, and became educated on eating disorders and how my problem wasn't about being thin. I was never going to be thin enough. It was a control and compulsion issue. I was in daily treatment for two months, then worked closely with therapists as I tried to extend the time between using symptoms while developing coping methods for stress.
espnW: While still training?
JD: My priority was recovery, but, yes, I kept my goals in skiing.
espnW: Were you able to disconnect disordered eating from skiing?
JD: Yeah, I guess I'll always be in recovery. It wasn't like I went to treatment and popped out like "Ta-da! I'm recovered!" I'm in a sport that praises lean body types. We know that all different sizes and builds can win on the World Cup, but still, lean is accepted. For me, it was initially really hard being in recovery around this sport because if a race went poorly, my first thought for years was that I had to lose weight. What made a difference for me was working with a sports dietician at the USOC staff because she helped me focus on food as fuel for skiing and my immune system. I learned that I had to have enough body fat to absorb training and not get sick in order to have longevity in my career.
espnW: You learned that disordered eating is not a training plan.
JD: Right, I now know that of all the things that make you a great skier, your body composition is so far down the list that it is pretty much negligible. In the short run, some athletes might get super skinny, have an amazing year, get a stress fracture, get sick and leave the sport. I want to get better and better throughout my career.
espnW: What made you decide to tell your story?
JD: When ESPN approached me for the Body Issue, I had a lot of reservations. I always thought that at some point I would want to share my story and help change this super negative stigma around eating disorders, but I didn't want to do it while I was competing because that's not what I wanted to be known for. All that, and I didn't want people to look at me like "Oh, she went to the bathroom, is she puking?"
espnW: Then the 2018 Winter Olympics happened.
JD: Exactly. The Olympics were a huge catalyst in deciding to go for it. After that, no one can say that I don't have the right body to win. The Olympics helped me have more confidence in myself and what I was doing -- and if there was ever a moment to come forth, the hype around the Body Issue could be my platform. People were listening, so it was a moment to educate parents and coaches while also encouraging athletes who needed help that it was OK to seek it. What better launching pad for this message?
espnW: Thank you for being brave, and thank you for sharing your story.
JD: It's been a long road, but I think I look good, and I have other things I want to do with my time. I care about getting girls in sports and I care about climate change and I care about being an ambassador to skiing. What I look like is just not that important at the end of the day, and I hope that message spreads.
For information on disordered eating treatment and recovery, please visit The Emily Program.