A Lethal Quest for the Winning Edge

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Mary Wazeter announced she was going for a walk that rainy February night in 1982, her mother, Edith, became alarmed. Remembering New Year's Eve, when 18-year-old Mary had tried to kill herself by swallowing the pills and medicine in the family medicine chest, Edith urged her daughter to take along Rusty, the family dog. "I thought she'd never let anything happen to that dog, or leave her unattended," she explains.

With Rusty barking at her side, Mary marched to the frozen Susquehanna River, three blocks from her Wilkes-Barre, Pa. home and climbed onto a desolate railroad bridge. Halfway across, she stopped and stepped fearfully to the edge.

Only nine months earlier, in May 1981, Wazeter had placed eighth in a field of over 5,000 in the five-mile L'eggs Mini Marathon in New York, beating some of the world's top-ranked women runners. In June, after graduating from high school, she had set a national 20-kilometer record for 17-year-olds and won an important 10-kilometer race. Now, shivering as she stood poised to leap, Mary was in such despair that killing herself seemed the only solution. She was barely able to run around the block without becoming dizzy. Moreover, she had dropped out after one semester at Georgetown University and lost her athletic scholarship, a rude fall for a former straight-A student.

"I didn't want to jump into the river," she later wrote. But believing that "if I did turn back, it would be only to return to my room and resume those terrible thoughts," she counted to 10 and jumped into the void.

The "terrible thoughts" that drove Mary Wazeter to attempt suicide revolved around food. Striving not just to be but "to look like a serious runner," she equated thinner with faster and fell victim to the terrifying obsessions of anorexia nervosa, a pathological absorption with losing weight, and of bulimia, the uncontrollable gorging of food. Five lengthy operations and 18 months after her desperate plunge, Wazeter is eating normally, but she spends her waking hours in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down.

No one knows the exact number of athletes who take training and weight loss to an extreme and risk serious physical and psychological consequences, but experts in the field are voicing increasing concern. "Fad dieting, an obsession with ever-greater thinness, bingeing and purging, and erratic eating habits are widespread in women's sports, especially where excess body weight is a drag on performance," says Dr. James Peterson, director of sports medicine for the Women's Sports Foundation based in San Francisco. He lists running, gymnastics and cycling as the sports most affected.

"Sports that emphasize thinness and expose the look of the body tend to be conducive to the development of anorexia," observes Dr. Alayne Yates of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. Yates is one of three Arizona researchers who this year identified an "obligatory runner's syndrome," referring to men who feel compelled to continuously increase their mileage and decrease the percentage of fat in their bodies. One leading track club in the New York area recently invited a speaker from New York's Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia to address members after coaches realized some runners were skipping meals and sneaking in extra training miles.

Distance runners are particularly susceptible because extreme leanness is one of their ideals. "Virtually all serious runners force themselves into illness, injury or weakness at some point because of weight loss," maintains Tracy Sundlun, coach of the Warren Street Social and Athletic Club, a New York team for which Mary Wazeter often ran while in high school. Explains Bob Glover, coach of the elite Atalanta women's track team in New York and co-author of The Competitive Runner's Handbook, "The less a person weighs, the more efficient he can be over longer distances." But, Glover adds, "I know at least 20 women who take it, or have taken it, to where it becomes unhealthy and they can't stop. Most of them don't even recognize it. They go out of their way to tell other people that they're losing too much weight."

Glover believes that the physical demands of the sport may exacerbate a predisposition to anorexia nervosa in some athletes. Mary, now 19, agrees: "There is a weight consciousness among runners, but I was already extremely sensitive to it." Much as average girls may compare their figures with those of models, Mary used to pore through running magazines and compare her height (5'4") and weight (105 pounds) unfavorably with the skinnier frames of world-class women racers. At meets, she heard serious racers voicing a feeling that "If you're gaunt, you're in shape." At an Olympic development training camp before her junior year, Wazeter and the other girls were told that their potential as runners would diminish unless they were very careful not to put on weight as they continued to mature. During a recruiting visit to the University of Virginia in her senior year, she recalls, "There were weekly weigh-ins, and it seemed everything the girls ate was carefully monitored."

A gawky, uncoordinated kid, Mary had little interest in sports until the seventh grade, when her older brother, David, a middle-distance runner, encouraged her to take up the sport. She was won over when David, whose "word was God to me," suggested that running might eventually win her a college scholarship.

That struck a sensitive nerve. Her father, Leon Wazeter, made a modest income as an encyclopedia salesman, and the prospect of easing his load by winning a full scholarship possessed Mary. The Wazeters had managed to put their three older children—David, now 23, Judy, 28, and Gerry, 29—through nearby colleges without much help, but that wasn't enough for Mary. "I wanted to outdo them," she says. "I wanted to go to a prestigious school. I was a snob."

Running became her avenue, and although she credited herself only with possessing "natural stamina," she proved to be a talented runner and a tenacious competitor. Meanwhile, she hardly gave her weight a thought—until the spring of her junior year at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, when she pulled a hamstring muscle in her leg. Facing inactivity for the first time since seventh grade, Mary began to fear getting fat. Suddenly judging herself obese at 105 pounds, she started skipping meals, "only to gorge myself a few hours later."

Mary's exaggerated concerns over her weight echoed a family theme. Her mother, Edith, now 62, has always had a hawkeye for flab and still considers herself a borderline pudge at 5'1" and 98 pounds. "When I was growing up," Mary recalls, "I would hear her make comments about 'heavy legs' to my sister, and my sister in turn would tell me, 'Mary, you don't want to end up like me. Be careful. It runs in the family.' "

Mary also knew that her mother had been 43 when she was born, and Edith Wazeter admits, "I was not joyful when I found out I was pregnant." Mary had never felt rejected by her parents, but she says, "I always had inferiority feelings and was continually trying to gain acceptance." In her senior year Mary managed to eat regularly, but she became maniacally calorie-conscious. She limited herself to 1,000 calories a day—about 1,600 calories below the intake appropriate for her exercise regimen—while at the same time increasing her workouts with a vengeance. Mornings began before 6 a.m. with 100 sit-ups done while holding a 10-pound weight behind her head, and then a five-mile run. Breakfast was a piece of toast and half a grapefruit. Leon and Edith worried. "They always told me you don't have to push so hard," Mary says. "But I didn't listen. I had my mind made up."

Impressed with her athletic dedication, and viewing her sentimentally as the "baby" of the brood, the elder Wazeters did Mary's chores and her laundry, even shopped for her clothes. Leon drove her the half mile to school each day. "I felt sorry for her," he says. "I didn't see any point in her walking. She sure as hell didn't need the exercise." In 1981 Mary and Edith watched the TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, about an anorexic. Mary recognized herself and cried. "I thought our worries were over," Edith says.

Yet Mary was unable to save herself. Her weight slipped to 89 pounds before she realized she was too weak to run competitively. She forced herself to gain six pounds and recaptured her winning edge. But after graduation she became more withdrawn, fantasized constantly about food, and barely ate or slept. The week before she left for Georgetown in Washington, D.C., the family physician diagnosed her as suffering from "pre-college jitters."

Georgetown was a disaster. In less than two months her weight fell to 85 pounds and her ability to concentrate on anything, even running, evaporated. One night she found herself wandering around the city in a downpour, darting through the traffic of a busy highway, utterly lost. A psychologist saw her for a month and then she was admitted to the Georgetown University Hospital psychiatric unit. Behavior-modification treatments there caused her to go to the opposite extreme and begin gorging herself. Transferred to a Wilkes-Barre hospital, she was released at Thanksgiving into group therapy with patients who had alcohol, drug and marital problems. Her bulimia continued, leading to her first suicide attempt and further hospitalization.

Finally, however, Mary was able to enroll in a Wilkes-Barre business school. She arrived home from her first day in utter despair. That night she leaped from the railroad bridge, suffering six broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a broken arm and a shattered vertebra when she hit the ice 35 feet below. Ironically, lying in the hospital and fighting for her life did more for Mary's mental attitude than all the preceding therapy. "When I saw that the Lord had given me a chance to live," she says, "I really appreciated it, and I switched around my values." She began to work with a local church counselor and progressed further. "For me, it was a spiritual problem," she insists. "Knowing that the Lord accepted me for who I was helped me heal. None of the psychologists were able to reach me."

No one, it seems, had accurately gauged the depth of Mary's predicament. Tracy Sundlun, coach of the Warren Street team, had heard Mary talk about not eating, but he reflects, "To me, it was only a weight problem, not something that could lead someone to attempt suicide."

Leon Wazeter often feels bitter, especially since it's clear that Mary closely fitted the profile of the classic anorexic, with her desire to please, competitiveness and perfectionism; furthermore, she had a mother with similar tendencies and an admired older brother. "The day before she jumped, the psychiatrist said she was not psychotic and she was not very depressed," he says sadly. "As a lay person, you pay your money and you put stock in what they say.

"We went to parents' meetings," he adds, "and the message was always 'dedication'. But where do you draw the line between dedication and going overboard? Nobody ever told us, 'Watch your daughter.' "

Through her religious awakening, Mary has put aside bitterness. But she looks back on her running career in a new light. "It's okay to strive," she says. "But don't let it become your identity and reason for happiness. Even if you don't win all the time, you should be able to be joyful."

"Sucking weight," wrestlers starve and binge

Last winter 15-year-old Andy Geallis spent many of his evenings in the boiler room of his family's home in Pleasantville, N.Y. Wearing a rubberized suit in the 100-degree heat, he would skip rope for 90 minutes, then stagger upstairs to keep the sweat flowing in a piping-hot bathtub and finally drop into bed "really dead." His total food intake for the day: a small apple juice, a cup of yogurt, a glass of water and a very small salad—about 350 calories.

His throat would be so dry he had trouble sleeping, especially the night before his weekly matches. Then Andy would lie in bed and push his mind past the next morning's crucial weigh-in and the afternoon's contest to the evening and its glorious, once-a-week binge, "pigging out" on any food he wanted. "This time tomorrow," he would comfort himself, "it'll all be over with."

What Andy was literally sweating out was "making weight," a grueling ritual familiar to the approximately 350,000 American males who wrestle on high school and college teams. Straining to make the 132-pound limit—more than 20 pounds below his natural weight—Geallis would sometimes shed six pounds in the 24 hours before a meet. Wrestlers routinely compete below their recommended weight level, believing this will give them an edge in size and strength.

Last season, on the Sunday before a Wednesday match, Joe Monteleone, 18, a freshman wrestler at Western Maryland College in Westminster, Md., would consume "one normal meal." Monday and Tuesday, while having "maybe some Life Savers and nothing to drink," he'd run in a plastic suit and "take a steamer"—half an hour of push-ups in the shower room with the taps on full blast. Following his match, he'd gorge on steak or junk food, and await the inevitable diarrhea. "If I didn't get it," he admits, "I'd be upset, because then I'd have more weight to lose." Monteleone plans to go back on his drastic weight-loss regimen when the wrestling season resumes in the winter.

Wrestlers who "suck weight" are under "a misapprehension that making weight has no consequences whatsoever," says Dr. Charles Tipton, an exercise physiologist at the University of Iowa. In the hours between weigh-in and whistle, most wrestlers drink fluids copiously and believe they have rehydrated themselves. Not so, says Tipton: "You can't get rehydrated instantly." Not only are "endurance and performance compromised," but competing while dehydrated, he says, "stresses the heart, decreases blood flow to the kidneys and other organs, and risks heat-related disorders." Adds Dr. James Peterson of the Women's Sports Foundation, who is also sports medicine consultant to the U.S. Wrestling Federation, "If you're losing more than two or three pounds a week, the body starts cannibalizing muscle mass, not just fat cells."

A high school sophomore last year, Andy Geallis dropped from 160 pounds in the fall to 130 by December in order to find an open slot on the team. Dr. Tipton has found that "the people who lose the most weight are the youngest," and while "it's hard to prove," he is concerned that crash dieting may stunt many youngsters' growth.

When Geallis' grades dropped and he began to turn thin and "nasty," his mother, Terry, at first suspected he might be on drugs. She finally prevailed upon him not to starve himself. Looking back, Andy acknowledges, "I was pretty weak." His father, James, says he won't allow Andy to compete below 155 pounds this year. With school approaching, his mother remains vigilant. "I'm not sure he won't do it again." she says.

Gymnasts strive dangerously for the Comaneci look

Unfortunately, this mania of losing weight is spreading," says top gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi. "During the national championships this year I saw extremely skinny kids, and I know very well that that type of body style cannot be reached in a natural way. But nobody can prove it. It's just sad to see these girls."

Before he defected to the U.S. in 1981, Karolyi, 40, was head coach of Romania's national team and mentor to its star performer at the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comaneci. Nadia's elfin build (5', 86 pounds) and her stunning performance established her reed-thin physique as the new ideal for gymnasts. Too many coaches reacted, says Karolyi, "forcing athletes into severe diets to look like Nadia." As a result, Karolyi says, athletes "who cannot keep up with the hard work" are resorting to "artificial ways" of slimming, among them self-starvation, induced vomiting, or laxatives.

While a 1980 study by Toronto General Hospital researchers showed that about 7 percent of professional ballet dancers suffer from clinical anorexia and about 35 percent engage in some level of binge eating, vomiting or preoccupation with food, the evidence on athletes remains highly anecdotal. Marilyn Peterson, a registered dietitian and associate of the Sports Medicine Clinic in Seattle, lectures frequently to high school and college gymnasts. "Every time," she says, "a couple of kids follow me out the door and say, 'Can I talk to you? I have a problem and I don't know how to face it.' " Dr. William C. White, co-author of the new book Bulimarexia: The Binge/Purge Cycle, reports similar experiences when speaking about the dangers of overdieting to high school groups. "You see the coaches' faces becoming white and the kids' faces becoming relaxed," he says.

Not everyone agrees that obsessive weight control is common in female gymnastics. Jack Rockwell, a trainer for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, insists, "Among elite women, I've never seen any anorexia problems."

Elite is a key word. Most people in the field agree that problems are more likely among novices and intermediates trying to hang in against more talented competitors.

There is reason for optimism, however, because of the new approach Karolyi is trying at the large gymnastics school he now runs in Houston. Karolyi has introduced a new breed of "very muscular, explosive" performers. With several major victories this year and last, Karolyi's exemplars, Dianne Durham, 15, of Gary, Ind. and Mary Lou Retton, 15, of Fairmont, W.Va., could well launch a new trend among gymnasts. To Retton (4'10½", 93 pounds), anorexia "is the stupidest thing. You just mess your body up." Hers certainly is not messed up. As Karolyi admiringly puts it, "She performs like a little bomb."

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