This excellent article is one of what I hope to be a series of perspectives from clients, potential clients, athletes, and regular folks about their experiences with their bodies, behavior, and mindset around health and fitness. Andrea Ellen is a force of nature and I want to thank her publicly for having the courage to write about her experience. - Coach Stevo One June morning last year, I woke up feeling woozy and depleted, stumbling into the bathroom to step on the scale. It was the day before a local meet that would serve as a qualifying opportunity for USA Weightlifting’s National Championships. The scale said 59.6kg. After weeks of dieting, followed by strategic dehydration, I needed to hit 58kg in just over 24 hours.
See, because of the way the minimum qualifying lift totals were calculated, I didn’t have a shot at qualifying to compete in my (then) natural weight class at 63. However, the next class down - 58 - required a much lighter total, one that was within my capability at that time. So, at my coaches’ suggestion, I was trying to shrink my 5'7" weightlifter frame into an unnaturally light weight class.
As I stood on the scale, I looked into the mirror at my drawn, haggard face, noticing the dark circles under my eyes and my sternum jutting out enough to stir a wave of nausea through my empty belly. At that moment, I finally realized the full reality of what was happening:
[aesop_quote width="100%" background="#282828" text="#FFFFFF" align="center" size="2" parallax="off" quote=" I was starving myself for the chance to finish dead last in a competition I had no business entering, in some random faraway town I’d never heard of."]
And that’s when I stopped.
Deciding to go through with the competition as a usual local meet instead of trying to qualify, I texted my coaches with my decision, I ate my face off for 24 hours, weighed in at 61.1kg, and proceeded to have the best day of lifting thus far in my life. The next step? I left my gym the following week, began training alone, and haven’t competed since.
I’ve always been a competitive person, and I’ve always tried to gauge my next-level potential in any sport I’ve participated in. Even when I competed in high school public speaking, I only wanted to participate in events specially designated for championship competition. Sometimes my drive has been at odds with my ability level, which brings me to weightlifting.
I took up olympic style weightlifting by way of CrossFit. I’m not gifted by any means: my muscles are woefully slow twitch, my height seems comprised of mostly femur length, and I inherited my dad’s flat feet. But the cool thing about strength sports is that you can get better even within limited potential if you can commit to chipping away at it, little by little, over a long period of time.
The longevity aspect of weightlifting, along with the required precision and technique all appealed to me very much. What didn’t appeal to me was the idea of becoming a bigger woman as my strength progressed, having used every past form of exercise as a means of becoming smaller and thereby more societally acceptable. I didn’t address some underlying issues, including a history of disordered eating. Instead, I threw myself into being a competitive lifter, making it my goal to qualify for and compete in a national meet.
My problem wasn’t with competing; it was a matter of perspective, of misplacing a sense of do-or-die validation on a perceived level of acceptable competition. If I couldn’t even qualify for a national meet, what was I training for? Strength gains and PRs became sources of relief, not accomplishment. My training mentality turned more and more punitive over time. You have to be in a pretty punitive place to willingly whittle yourself away to meet an arbitrary competition deadline, rather than commit to a more practical long term goal.
Once my self-imposed break began, it took a while for the noise to die down, for flashes of every misguided eating thought and dearly held nutrition myth to run their course, for me to stop fighting my body, to be able to see the big picture. Only after months of a frustratingly cyclical process could I start to see things like my unhealthy sense of identity sourced from my competition weight class, or the act of cutting weight serving as a diversion from my messed up relationship with food. I also finally hit upon what should’ve been an obvious realization - that I was able to fixate on these seemingly all-consuming problems out of privileged luxury. That last one is still taking me a bit to process.
The turning point happened months later when I realized I was training with a surging sense of enthusiasm, despite zero outside accountability, and actually making progress without beating myself up. I realized in my heart that I truly love the olympic lifts, today more than ever. I’ve come to appreciate them as litmus tests for how well I’m taking care of myself, physically and mentally, adjusting as needed.
Will I compete again? Probably, but with my perspective solidly in tow. After all, it’s just exercise.