A Onetime Olympic Gymnast Overcomes the Bulimia That Threatened Her Life

updated 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Before Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci there was Cathy Rigby. The first of the gymnast media darlings, the 4'11", 93-pound pixie came to public attention at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where she placed 16th. At the 1970 world gymnastic championships in Yugoslavia she won the silver medal, a first for an American woman in international competition. She competed again in 1972 in Munich, placing 10th. After retiring in 1972, at 19, Rigby parlayed her expertise into a career doing sports commentary and commercials. But the sport in which she had thrived since the age of 10 had a dire lingering effect on her. Desperate to maintain an "ideal" weight of 89 pounds, Rigby developed bulimia, the so-called binge-and-purge syndrome. During her athletic career, and for years after, she would consume large amounts of food and then force herself to throw up. It wasn't until three years ago, with the help of a psychiatrist and her second husband, actor Tom McCoy, 28, that she was able to overcome her problem.

Born in Long Beach, Calif. Cathy is the daughter of a retired materials analyst and her engineer husband, who are now divorced. At 31, the former gymnast has three children of her own. Sons Buck, 8, and Ryan, 4, are from her marriage to former NFL running back Tommy Mason; daughter Theresa, 20 months, is her child by McCoy, with whom she co-starred in a road show of Neil Simon's They're Playing Our Song. She hosts Alive & Well, a fitness program on Cable's USA Network, and is currently ABC's expert commentator on gymnastics at the Olympics.

Cathy believes it was her compulsiveness and lack of self-confidence that led to her problem. She met with correspondent Susan Champlin at her home in Fullerton, Calif. to talk about her battle against the disease that affects more than a million Americans.

I wasn't concerned about my weight until I went to an Olympic training camp when I was 15. I weighed 93 pounds and they wanted me to get down to 89, but even though I was training eight hours a day I couldn't lose. I was just obsessed with trying to be the perfect team member, and if it meant getting down to 89 pounds, by God, I was going to do it.

One night the team went out for pizza, and I ate two or three pieces. I was going to get weighed in the morning and I was frantic. A friend said, "Well, just stick your finger down your throat." I thought, "That's the most repulsive thing I could do," but I tried it. I tried again and again until I had broken blood vessels in my eyes, but I couldn't get rid of the food. The next morning I weighed a pound over, so I went back to the starvation routine.

The Olympics were a month later and everything was fine. I made a big hit and the media covered it. Then came puberty. When I turned 16 I went up to 105 pounds, even though I was just eating what normal high school kids eat—a sandwich and chips for lunch and a meat-and-potatoes dinner. My coach was on me—my father too—to get my weight down.

In the summer of 1969 I went to Europe on a tour with my coach's gymnastics team, and I spent three horrible days fasting. I got back down to 95 and swore I would never gain weight again. When I got home I worked on perfecting the art of throwing up. Eventually it just became an extension of eating, and I did it an average of six times a day. The binging and purging lasted through the '72 Olympics. I remember at times being faint during training, but I thought it was no big deal. My coach found out what I was doing. A lot of girls were this way, and he saw all of us eating a lot and then going into the bathroom. I remember him saying, "You're going to pay later if you keep doing this." My family also knew what was going on by then, but I wouldn't listen to them either. I was under a lot of pressure going into the '72 Games and I didn't want to worry about dieting.

The trouble really started after I got out of gymnastics, because I no longer had a goal and all I was doing was eating and throwing up. Everybody thought I had the most successful life: I had a career working with ABC Sports, I was doing TV movies (like The Great Wallendas) and commercials, and the money was coming in—about $300,000 a year. It was a dreamworld.

In the nine years we were married Tommy and I never had an argument. I would never complain or say no—I wanted to be perfect in my attitude and in my weight. Inside I was going crazy. I probably consumed 10,000 calories a day or more in fast foods. I took a voice lesson every week and I can tell you where every McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box was along the way—and every bathroom where I could get rid of the food.

One day in 1973 Tommy stood outside the bathroom door and heard me throwing up. At first he was very upset, then he just kind of ignored it. When he said anything about it I would hide it by running the water or turning on the shower. That was our life. We didn't communicate.

I got pregnant with my oldest son, Bucky, in 1975, and I gained only 11 pounds. It was a time when not gaining weight was really in. The doctor said, "Boy, Cathy, you're doing a great job." And I was very proud of myself. But Bucky weighed only five pounds six ounces at birth, and I lost all my milk because I had no body fat. I nursed him for a month at most. During that time I wasn't eating anything and I lost even more weight—I went down to 82.

People around me got very nervous. My mother was worried, and friends would say, "Cathy, you look terrible!" I finally went back up to 89 and stayed there until 1979. I thought I looked great but in reality I looked awful. I was always tired and cold and I just wanted to lie around all the time.

I remember one day after Bucky was born I was sitting on the floor, crying. I had just eaten and thrown up, and I looked in the Yellow Pages and called this doctor. I told him I was scared to death—my husband was gone a lot, I had this little baby and a problem. I was a public figure and I didn't know where to go or what to do. But he didn't do anything for me because he had no knowledge of how to treat bulimia.

Tommy and I wanted another baby but I could not get pregnant. I kept trying, which was another pressure. After four years I took Clomid, a fertility drug, and got pregnant, but I was still bulimic. In my fourth month my electrolyte balance went haywire. When that happens your heart flutters, you perspire, you're twitchy and your hands shake. I went to the hospital but I didn't tell them I was bulimic. They thought I was just under a lot of stress, and they gave me an IV and filled me with minerals and fluids.

After that I thought, "I'm never going to do this again. It's not worth hurting my baby for." I tried to eat a balanced diet and I ended up gaining 25 pounds. I nursed Ryan for four months, but right after that I went back to bulimia. I wasn't meeting my children's emotional needs because food was my first priority and I felt very guilty, which just made me want to eat more.

It was a very simple thing that really turned my life around. I had been working on singing and acting for 10 years, and in 1981 I got the chance to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I had to sing in front of an audience for the first time and I was terrified. But I got great reviews and my self-confidence soared. All of a sudden I didn't need this crutch, the bulimia. I finally realized that I had always let others—a father, a coach, a judge—determine how I felt. If I got a good score and was skinny, I was good. If I didn't, I was bad. I also realized that it was time to get out of the marriage and start doing what was important to me.

Tom, my second husband, came into the picture a few months after the breakup. (We'd met during The Wizard of Oz; he was in the ensemble.) We fell in love immediately. One day he asked me if I was bulimic. I just cried. I said, "Yes, and I don't know what to do about it." He said, "We'll take it slowly and get help."

Tom was very supportive. He never bothered me if I felt the need to eat something and get rid of it—we just talked about it afterward. Vanity also played a role. He said, "You want to look better but you've got circles under your eyes, your hair is falling out and you look older." For the first time I listened to somebody.

In 1981, I went to a psychiatrist who specialized in eating disorders. I went on and off for about a year. Basically we would just talk. I learned that although I had let other people make all my decisions for me, I felt resentful about it. The bulimia was a kind of rebellion. It was the one way I could be in control. The more I took control of other areas of my life, the less I needed the bulimia.

When you're used to throwing up water because you're afraid you're going to gain weight, putting anything in your stomach is frightening. It was a slow recovery process, but once you start understanding why you do something, it's easier. You don't just stop the obsession immediately—sometimes you go back to your old habits. But when I did, I didn't let it get to me. I would just think, "Okay, I did it that time, now let's get back on track." The hardest thing to get over is accepting that gaining two or three pounds is not bad. I remember how scared I was to get over 94. It's not really the eating that's the problem; it's the emotional side. After that it's all behavior modification: Instead of reaching for three burgers at McDonald's, I'd eat something like a salad that wasn't so fattening, and I wouldn't feel the need to get rid of it.

For the last three years I've been all right—I just can't believe I don't want to eat all the time. Tom and I got married in 1982. When I became pregnant with Theresa I gained 28 pounds, which I never would have thought I could do. Now it's not a big deal to sit down and eat. Not that there aren't times (like holidays) when I would like to stuff, but there is no longer the need to constantly eat and throw up. I weigh 100 pounds and there are times when my stomach gets a little pouchy, but it doesn't panic me.

I am driven sometimes. That's why I went so far with my gymnastics. But when it comes to eating—and everything else—I have to remember to take things in moderation.

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