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- July 15, 1996
- Vol. 46
- No. 3
The Chow of Champions
For Olympians on the Fast Track, Fast Food Is Just a Fond Memory. Setting the Training Table Is No Longer a Picnic but a Fiercely Disciplined Science
THE OLYMPIC YEAR WAS 1968; THE place, Mexico City. On the night before opening ceremonies—the eve of perhaps the most important two weeks in his life—U.S. high jumper Dick Fosbury, 21, was, frankly, partying. In fact, partying hard with two teammates, javelin thrower Gary Stenlund and swimmer Cynthia Goyette, plus pal Donna De Varona (a swimming gold medalist in '64 turned ABC sports announcer). The four hopped into Stenlund's VW bus and made their way out of the city to the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacàn guided by the glow of the Olympic torch, enthroned there for its dramatic descent to the stadium the next morning. "We stayed out there all night," recalls Fosbury. "People were cooking soup over campfires and yelling, 'Hey, Gringo! Come have some soup!' We shared their food and drank beer and crashed out in the van or slept in the pyramids—I don't really remember. The next morning, we got caught in this incredible traffic jam and missed the opening ceremony. But that night at the pyramids, I'll always remember it. It was wonderful."
Back then, the Olympics really were anything-goes games rather than winning-is-the-only-thing game plans with seven-figure commercial contracts at stake. Wine and Mexican beer were on tap in the Olympic Village (alcohol is not served there any longer), and despite his night of carousing, Fosbury went on to take the gold. But today eating, like every other aspect of preparation, requires phenomenal dedication. Many U.S. teams and even some individual athletes have their own nutritionists.
Dominique Moceanu, 14, a California-born daughter of Rumanian immigrants, is mending from a mid-June stress fracture of her leg but still hopes to fulfill the great expectations predicted for her: America's first gymnastics gold since Mary Lou Retton in '84. She works uncomplainingly under the rigid eight-hour-a-day regimen of Bela Karolyi, 53, who trained Retton and (before coming over from Rumania himself) Nadia Comaneci. On the day of a competition, Karolyi allows his entrants a lunch of a four-ounce chicken breast and half cups of steamed broccoli and white rice—spartan gruel compared with the caviar (preferably red) Olga Korbut stoked up on in the early '70s. "This was a Russian trade secret," says Korbut. "Caviar is very high protein. Every morning, I ate a big bowl of it, lots and lots of caviar." But her coach, Renald Kynch, did put her on a one-step program to kick another craving. One day, he presented her with a huge cake and told her to eat that—and nothing else—for the next three days. The reprogramming worked—it was years before Korbut could even nibble cake again.
At the other end of the scale, weightlifter Mark Henry, of Silsbee, Texas, has been under the expert supervision since high school of two kinesiology professors from the University of Texas at Austin: Terry Todd, 58, a national weightlifting champ in the '60s, and his wife, Jan Todd, 44, a former world-record holder in powerlifting. Eight weeks before Atlanta, they took Henry to their island redoubt off the coast of Nova Scotia to eat organic produce from their own garden, their own fresh catch of the day plus locally bred organic beef. The ambience, explains Terry Todd, is "nutritionally healthier than Texas."
When these and other Olympic athletes recite their vital stats, they include percentage of body fat, cholesterol levels and daily consumption (in precise grams) of protein and fat. "Eating is like a chore," says wrestler Matt Ghaffari, 34, of Colorado Springs, who is fed five or six balanced meals a day, all high in protein and carbs. So far, Ghaffari has gained 36 pounds to reach the 286-pound maximum for the heavyweight class, while reducing his body fat from 27 percent to 19.5 percent. He also scarfs down 30 vitamins and supplements a day at a monthly cost of $180 and is dubbed Mr. Pharmacy by teammates.
Marathoner Anne Marie Lauck, 27, of Marietta, Ga., says that for long-distance runners, monitoring body fat is far more important than counting calories because a single superfluous pound of fat (instead of muscle) can add fatal minutes to her time. Lauck, who stands 5'6½", reports that her weight (fluctuating between 107 and 112) contains only about 8 percent fat, compared with about 20 percent for the average woman of her size and age.
Angel Martino of Americus, Ga., at 29 the oldest member of the women's swimming team, shudders when she recalls the diet of her rookie days, which included scads of Big Macs, milk shakes and fries. Now under the tutelage of her husband, Mike, 30, an exercise physiologist, she breakfasts at dawn with a mix of cottage cheese, nuts and green apples, and lunches on tuna sandwiches (with low-fat mayo on whole wheat). Dinner is chicken or fish and vegetables. Martino confesses that as much as she longs for a medal, she also dreams of the time when it's all over: "I'm going to have chocolate chip cookies every single day for the rest of my life."
For athletes competing in specific weight classes, hell is the few weeks preceding the weigh-in, generally held the day before the opening match. Mujaahid Maynard, 25, of Colorado Springs, wrestles in the 105.5-pound division, although at 5'6", his normal weight is 132 pounds. During the season, he drops easily to 123 and then skimps, taking in only a protein shake for lunch, a mini-dinner and jugs of water and juice. When he reaches 116, Maynard really cuts back: to just a daily small chicken breast and rice or noodles and only enough water to replace lost fluids. Finally, during the day between making the official weight and his bout, Maynard rehydrates like crazy and gorges on pasta in four meals a night, sometimes setting an alarm at 2 a.m. so he won't miss a chance to rebound to his fighting weight of 118-120 pounds. "I know this isn't healthy, letting your weight bounce up and down," he admits. "But it's a temporary thing."
Needless to say, eating disorders can be a serious problem for jocks. Judo contender Liliko Ogasawara, 24, of San Jose, binged and purged for years. "I felt like crap," she recalls. "I looked very pale. I'd walk around like a zombie." In extremis after trying every other technique to make weight, she would move on to "systematic spitting." "You'd chew gum to get your saliva going, and then you'd try to fill a cup. It's really gross. But you can move a good half pound that way." In '92 she so depleted herself that she lost in the U.S. team trials; then after another athlete suffering from eating difficulties went into convulsions at the start of the competition, Ogasawara was shocked into modifying her habits. This year, on a rounded regimen and moving up 11 pounds to the 145-pound class, Ogasawara has a good shot at judo gold.
Judy Nelson, 52, who has a master's degree in nutrition from Cal State, Long Beach, is nutritional coordinator for the U.S. Olympic Committee based at Colorado Springs and serves teams training throughout the country. She doesn't have authority to enforce a dietary routine but reports some success by encouraging athletes to keep a food journal: They detail what they ate, how they felt and how they performed and then study the entries for patterns. Most athletes in training need 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight, Nelson says. The number of calories depends on the individual and the sport, from a minimum of 1,200 to 1,400 to as much as 7,000 for weightlifters. "The more muscle you have, the more calories you need," she says. Although her office shelves are full of high-protein drinks and energy-boosting supplements, Nelson says she isn't a big fan of these products (most were given to her by visiting sales reps). "There's just this notion among a lot of athletes that they want to take a lot of supplements—some magic bullet—vitamins, minerals, herbs and other ergogenic aids that, most of the time, don't have any [proven] effect," she says.
Athletes have to be especially careful about what they consume just before the main event. Even Adam Saathoff, 21, of Hereford, Ariz., who needn't follow a strict diet training for his nonaerobic sport of moving-target shooting, has to fast the last 12 hours before shouldering his rifle, because "you don't want to be up there burping." Lisa Leslie, 24, of Ingle-wood, Calif., abstains from some foods "because they have things that could make us test positive for drugs," like poppy seeds, which could falsely suggest opium use. The star, slam-dunking 6'5" center on the U.S. women's basketball team is actually underweight at 170 pounds and scarfs down extra carbs before games for energy. But, after Atlanta, she faces another world of eating extremes in her other career: On the fashion runway since age 10 (she hit six feet in sixth grade), Leslie has just signed a modeling contract with New York City's prestigious Wilhelmina agency. Leslie hopes she will not be asked to stop lifting weights, which she calls both "the key to our success on the court" and a regimen for all-around fitness and firm (though not unfeminine) good looks.
While today's athletes are better tuned nutritionally, they could still learn from stars of yore like Steve Fraser, 38, head coach now of the Greco-Roman wrestling team. "If you're not enjoying something, you're not going to do that great," says Fraser, a gold medalist at 198 pounds in Los Angeles. But he doesn't necessarily endorse the old Fosbury approach. "Only when you're coaching," jokes Fraser, "is beer good."
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