Women’s Cross Country Alumnae Speak Out on Culture of Disordered Eating, Injuries

This series was produced by sdz with the help of  fern,  melimaury,  gabs,  and  hen.
The 25 testimonials can be read here. The timeline of contact between the team and the Athletic Department can be found here.

 

The following is an open letter from Yuki Christina Hebner ‘17 to the Wesleyan community that speaks to a culture of body shaming, disordered eating, and high attrition rates on the Wesleyan women’s cross country team. Yuki tells her own story and introduces the stories of 25 other women’s cross country alumnae.

In the testimonials, Head Coach John Crooke is alleged to have pressured runners to lose significant amounts of weight with little guidance and no nutritional training, leading to multiple cases of disordered eating and injury. The effects of Coach Crooke’s directives, delivered in meetings which the team colloquially called “fat talks”, have been long-lasting; some of these alumnae are almost 7 years out of college and yet still struggle with disordered eating and injuries from their time on the team.

Yuki’s letter is followed by a petition, signed by 36 alumni. Notably, the petition is not asking for the removal of Coach Crooke, but rather for the Department to advocate for its racing athletes by better understanding the risk factors associated with endurance sports and holding coaches to a higher standard of accountability, among other demands.

The issues presented in this series are two-fold. On one hand, it was Coach Crooke’s actions that so adversely affected each of these alumni. He forced runners to lose weight, played favorites, and fostered a dangerous culture of body shaming and disordered eating. But, Coaches come and go. The issues presented here will not be resolved simply by removing Coach Crooke, or by adding a few more assistant coaches. The systemic issues of body shaming and lack of accountability of coaches that face distance runners simply will not change from the efforts of one person, or scapegoating one person to protect an inadequate system. It will take a cocktail of reforms, as laid out in the petition below, to bring about any sort of meaningful change.

This is not the first time that these athletes have tried to voice their stories. They wrote about their experiences in coaching evaluations, spoke about them in meetings with their coaches, and even brought them to the attention of the athletic directors. And yet, their concerns were never taken seriously. The timeline indicates clearly that the Department had been made aware of the cross country team’s concerns since at least 2013, and yet there is reason to suspect that things have not yet changed as much as they should have. If this were not true, these alumnae would not be speaking up today. (A statement from the Athletic Department follows the petition.)

It took a great deal of courage for each of the alumnae to speak out about her experience on the team. As a community, it is our responsibility to listen now, because it doesn’t seem like anyone was listening then.

Read Yuki’s letter after the jump, and then be sure to read the testimonials. The story is incomplete without them.

My name is Yuki Christina Hebner ‘17 and I competed for Wesleyan’s cross country and track teams for 12 seasons. I am writing to share concerns about my experience on the team, particularly in regard to women’s health issues. This letter comes after many attempts to discuss these issues with the coaching staff and the athletic department administration. 

The women’s cross country team has long been notorious for attrition and injury: less than 50% of the girls who entered the team my year finished all four years. Of those who did, many spent their duration plagued by chronic injuries. The dominant narrative promoted by my coach was that if you were injured it was because you were not at an “optimal racing weight”. My coach was not trained in nutrition, yet he took it upon himself to have private conversations with women on the team about how our “nutrition” impacted our athletic performance. He advised us to lose weight in order to alleviate our injuries and realize our athletic potential. He regularly asked us to keep records of our diet (“food logs”) for him to review. He stated that every five pounds lost would correlate to 30 seconds off of our 5 km race time, without any acknowledgment of the diminishing returns of that dangerous equation.

I received the infamous “fat talk” at the end of my sophomore track season, which had gone quite well. I had broken a school record and my coach was strategizing with me about the next two years when he asked how much I weighed. I said 125 pounds, and up to this point in my life I had never struggled with body confidence. He replied that I had a shot of being All-American but only if I went down to 110 pounds. He did not guide me to do this safely nor did he seem to be aware of the fact that building muscle and losing weight are goals that are in direct conflict with one another. That summer I worked hard to lose 15 lbs in a rapid, irresponsible way. I was only able to lose 10. I also struggled to sustain my new weight when I returned to Wesleyan for the fall cross country season and resumed regular meals with the team rather than skipping them at home. There was an instance during practice when my coach overheard me telling my teammates that I had lost 10 lbs that summer, and he publicly corrected me by saying, “more like five.” 

Soon after I acquired a stress fracture in my femur. I now know that this fracture was indicative of low bone density due to the combination of inadequate nutrition and high volume training; however, at the time, I believed that this had happened because I had failed to lose the excess weight my coach had pointed out in me. Instead of focusing on healing, nutrition, and rest, I doubled down on my efforts to become lighter. I resorted to bulimia because I didn’t know what else I could do. I became debilitatingly anemic for the rest of my time at school, accumulated injuries, and menstruated only erratically despite being on the oral contraceptive pill. My athletic performance stagnated and then declined. My sense of self and belonging on the team had always been tied to my ability as a runner, which was deteriorating. I was constantly tired and I spent a long time feeling very sad and not like myself. There is persisting pain from a growing understanding that this experience was not unique to me in any way. 

The prevalence of female athlete abuse is increasingly acknowledged but remains severely unaddressed. It is facilitated by institutions that continuously hand positions of power to men while forfeiting relevant supervision and education. My coach, like many others across athletics, disproportionately relied on his understanding of male physiology while training women and recklessly compromised our health in the process. There were clear signs that the health of his female athletes was plummeting: the vast majority of us were anemic, did not have periods, and acquired stress fractures. Failing to adequately address these signs is especially dangerous within the context of endurance sports, like running, in which the intensity of an athlete’s training and lifestyle is hailed as the singular key to success. I was proud of not properly menstruating and being anemic because I believed it demonstrated my total devotion to the sport. It was this pervasive mindset that made it easy to convince myself that what my disordered eating progressed into was reimagined dedication and not bulimia.

I have only recently learned that the concurrence of anemia, amenorrhea (irregular periods), and osteopenia (decreased bone mass leading to frequent bone injuries) is a well-characterized risk for female athletes – especially in endurance sports where leanness is glorified and disordered eating is prevalent. It strikes me that this was critical information that the participating athletes, coaches, and injury care staff should have been operating with, as many of my teammates presented with all three of these symptoms and quietly struggled with disordered eating. Instead, this was normalized and encouraged by a coach who exclusively recognized our dedication and value to the team by our race times, and freely misled us to equate our athletic potential with our weight. 

My teammates and I were proud and dedicated athletes, but we were also developing women. When my body began changing at 19, I was led to loathe and harm my adult body rather than learning how to adjust and harness strength from it. Many of us experienced a plateau in our race performance that accompanied these changes, yet my coach insisted that this was due to a lack of effort or excess weight. I felt out of control, ashamed, and punished by my body. My teammates and I were incapable of supporting each other through changes we did not understand and struggles we could not acknowledge. I avoided conversations with teammates that were visibly struggling with eating disorders to avoid being honest with myself about the same issue, and so we struggled silently and alone. I damaged my relationship with my teammates, my sport, my body, and myself. I refuse to believe that this is an acceptable and inescapable fate for high school girls that transition into Wesleyan athletics.

This letter is not to disparage or oust the coach, but rather to shed light on a highly toxic culture that has gone unaddressed at Wesleyan for generations and continues to damage women long after they leave the program. While competing collegiately is a privilege, it is also the responsibility of the school and its athletic program to provide the framework to prevent a single person from mismanaging the bodies of athletes, especially when there is demonstrated incompetence and a fundamental lack of knowledge, support, and compassion regarding the developing female body. The lack of response from the athletic administration despite years of innumerable feedback forms describing this culture, extraordinarily high attrition rates, and low team success is not only negligent; it is dangerous. 

The stories of my teammates were collected and are included below. We ask that you finally listen to the voices of so many young women who have suffered at the hands of this program, and meet the following demands to prevent it from continuing. Wesleyan must challenge itself to foster an environment of excellence through support rather than shame.

 

The following is the petition written and signed by alumni of the Wesleyan Cross Country and Track & Field Teams:

Our demands of Wesleyan University:

  1. The Cross Country coach will be prohibited from advising athletes on the Women’s team about their weight or menstruation without the presence of a medical professional who is there to provide information and resources about the risks of disordered eating and RED-S syndrome, as well as guidance on how to maintain proper nutrition and bone health.
  2. An athletic injury care staff member will be assigned to Wesleyan’s racing teams (cross country, track, crew, swimming and diving) and trained on the specific risk factors and pathological symptoms associated with endurance sports. The same standard of care will be provided for the racing sports as the ball sports.
  3. The Athletic Administration will establish a protocol to understand the frequency and motivation of athletes who leave the team to increase awareness of detrimental coaching patterns.
    1. Administrators will conduct an “exit interview” with athletes who leave the program, or ask them to complete a written statement of their reasons for leaving. Records of these statements will be kept electronically.
  4. The University will be accountable for the appropriate assessment, record-keeping, and administration of both the coaching evaluations and pre-season athlete health evaluations.
    1. Coaching evaluations will be given electronically so that athletes are allotted sufficient time and space to give thoughtful reflections.
    2. The health of the athletes will be considered as a metric when evaluating coaches i.e. the vast concurrence of anemia, amenorrhea, and chronic bone injuries in a coach’s athletes will reflect poorly on that coach’s ability and expertise.
    3. If the school claims that the current system is sufficient, Christina Hebner asks that they gather and present her coaching evaluations and health evaluations from 2013-2017. 
  5. The University will commit to increasing the role of female coaching staff in the cross country program. At least one female cross country coach (head coach or assistant coach) will be employed at all times.
    1. When a head coach position is open, multiple female candidates will be interviewed before a hiring decision is made. In the hiring process, the athletic department will strongly consider the benefits of having a female head coach in providing a role model for the women on the team and increasing the likelihood of the coach understanding the physical and mental health issues that women face.
    2. Input from current athletes on the team will be used in the hiring process. An athlete from both the Men’s and Women’s teams will be present at all interviews and will assist the athletic administration in making hiring decisions.

Note: We define “female” as inclusive of all female-identifying people, regardless of their gender expression or sex assigned at birth. Trans women are women. In the hiring process for new coaches, we also encourage Wesleyan University to consider non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming candidates. A coach who identifies this way, and who demonstrates an understanding of the medical and psychological issues faced by the athletes on the Women’s Cross Country team, replaces the need for a female coach as listed in demand 5. Our priority is to hire a coach who is understanding of the needs of non-male athletes, and we embrace applicants in the LGBTQ+ community who may have an even greater understanding of being part of a marginalized community and ability to support LGBTQ+ athletes.

Signed, 

Lily Fesler ‘11
Maryann Platt ‘11
Haleigh Hoch ‘11
Jessica Levin ‘11
Tess Crain ‘12
Dessie Stefanova ‘12
Ceili Brennan ‘13
Sarah Hewett ‘13
Julia Mark ‘13
Nicole Lepre ‘13
Nellie Triedman ’13
Shivani Kochhar ‘14
Claire Marie Palmer ‘14
Brianna Parsons ‘14
Arielle Trager ‘14
(Sandra) Libby Lazare ‘14
Alanah Hall ‘15
Rachel Leicher ‘15
Dana Louie ‘15
Kerry Nix ‘15
Rachel Unger ‘15
Rachel Eisman ‘16
Haley Keyko ‘16
Margaux Sica ‘16
Joie Akerson ‘17
Yuki Christina Hebner ‘17
Sarah Lazarus ‘17
Julianne Riggs ‘17
Molly Schassberger ‘17
Althea Schenck ‘17
Morgan Findley ‘18
Sylwia Lipior ‘18
Christina Vyzas ‘18
Carina Flaherty ‘19
Julia Mitchell ‘19
Claudia Schatz ‘19
Joshua Signore ‘19

 

Statement from Athletic Director Michael Whalen ’83 on behalf of the Wesleyan Athletic Department:

Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our students, including our student-athletes, and for that reason I have overseen the development of holistic programs to improve the health and wellness of those who participate in Wesleyan Athletics. We take seriously any complaints about our work, especially allegations of misconduct. Over the past several years, I have taken steps to address concerns raised by alumni and current members of the women’s cross-country program. In light of new concerns emerging now, I have asked the University to open an investigation led by the Office of Equity & Inclusion. Wesleyan Athletics will fully cooperate with this work, and the University will report on its findings.

We have worked long and hard to foster a healthy environment for our student-athletes, including providing numerous trainings for student-athletes and coaches. We will continue to do so.

This series was produced by sdz with the help of  fern,  melimaury,  gabs,  and  hen. Special thanks to Yuki Hebner for all of her hard work and coordination, and for bringing this story to Wesleying.

If you have comments or questions, feel free to email us at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org or tweet at us @Wesleying.