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Woman to compete in Olympics 17 years after eating disorder forced her to quit sports

"I needed to choose life," Robyn Stevens said about walking away from competition in 2004.
/ Source: TODAY

Race walker Robyn Stevens is heading to the Olympic Games in Tokyo with Team USA this month 17 years after she retired from competition because of an eating disorder. Stevens, 38, who lives in Vacaville, California, talked about her health struggle and comeback in an interview with TODAY.

Robyn Stevens celebrates after winning the women's 20,000-meter race walk at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on June 26, 2021, in Springfield, Oregon.Charlie Riedel / AP

I showed signs that I could develop an eating disorder in my senior year of high school. I remember getting on the scale and seeing that I weighed 100 pounds — I had always been under 100. In my head, seeing the three digits just seemed like a lot. I was only 4 feet, 11 inches tall.

It fully developed in freshman year of college. I was at an indoor meet and when a girl won an event, one of my coaches said, “Yes, she did well, but imagine how much faster she would be if she were skinnier.” It registered in my head as something that might be a possibility for why I wasn’t going faster.

My goal was to go to the 2004 Olympics and race walk, but there were all these things going on with my body. I went through late puberty so I didn’t start developing breasts until that first year of college. I looked heavier. The coach would have weigh-ins in front of everyone.

I was binging and starving. I didn’t know a name for what my issue was. I wasn’t anorexic because I wasn’t starving myself intentionally. I would try to cut out foods that weren’t healthy, but with the limited options of cafeteria food, it was hard.

I thought, “I can’t stop myself from eating because I need to make sure I eat right, so I’ll just start running a lot.” I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and go for a run, then go to my classes all day, then go to the track and field training, and then go for another run at night.

I wanted to throw up, but couldn’t. I didn’t know how to purge. I was convinced I didn’t have a gag reflex because every time I tried, it wouldn’t work.

"I needed to choose life," Stevens said about quitting sports in 2004.Courtesy Robyn Stevens

I called my youth coach and said, “If I don’t leave, I think I might die. I’m on an unhealthy path right now.” I no longer cared how fast I was going. Now, all my attention was on just getting skinnier. I didn’t care about performance and I totally forgot about the Olympics. I just wanted to stay alive.

I came back home and transferred to another college. I was scared to eat the cafeteria food. I sometimes subsisted on two ice cream sandwiches a day. I needed 2,000 calories and they were about 1,000 calories each. I would eat one in the morning and the second for dinner. I figured I got my carbs from the cookies, and dairy and protein from the ice cream. You can tell I’m not a dietitian.

Another teammate confided in me she had been taking stuff to help her throw up. That day, I went to the pharmacy, bought it over the counter and tried it for the first time. It cleans your entire inside out and takes a lot of energy out — it’s very exhausting and scary. I remember curling up in a ball in my bathroom and feeling super weak. My whole body was shaking.

My last race was in 2003. I was really slow so I tried that stuff again one more time. The back of the bottle said even one-time use could cause the heart to stop.

When Stevens stepped away from competition, she had no intention of coming back. "The return was a total accident," she said.Courtesy Robyn Stevens

In February 2004, I learned that Al Heppner — a top male race walker — took his own life after not qualifying for the Olympics. I didn’t know him well, but I considered him my race-walk brother. When he passed away, I realized I wasn’t any different than him. I was just basically slowly killing myself.

I needed to choose life. I told my family I had to step away from track and field all together. There were times where I was so depressed in 2004 after quitting sports, but I’m fortunate that I have a really strong support system around me. My mom was basically my talk therapist.

I pretty much reached full recovery in 2009. Around that time, I took a group therapy class and learned I had general anxiety disorder. I started understanding nutrition better. I pay attention to what makes my body feel energized and good, and what makes it feels draggy and tired.

When I stepped away from competition, I had no intention of coming back. The return was a total accident. I had hit my head and had a concussion, leading to a migraine for four months. My doctor advised walking because running, swimming and biking would be a little bit too much for my brain. So I started race walking again simply for health reasons and accidentally qualified for the Olympic trials in 2016.

I took it as a sign that that part of my life wasn’t finished. I decided to give this another go. Qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team for Tokyo was surreal. After I crossed the finish line, when my mom hugged me and said, “You’re an Olympian now,” I broke down in tears.

I would tell other young female athletes facing the same pressures to pay attention to your support network. Who are the people who truly express and show they care about your well-being? Reach out to them if you’re having issues — don’t be afraid.

Be your own best friend. Whenever anyone begins to overly obsess about something, that's an indicator something is out of balance and there's a need to do a mind-body wellness check.

Trust yourself and don’t give up. If you get off track, do what you need to do to get back on, but realize everybody has their own course. What do you need to do that’s the healthiest for you? Don’t be afraid to do what’s best for you and take care of yourself.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder please call the National Eating Disorder Association at (800) 931-2237 or visit the website for a live chat. If you feel like you’re in crisis text “NEDA” to 741741 to talk with someone at the crisis text line.