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How Rowing Gave Me the Strength to Overcome My Eating Disorder

The strength I gained from rowing saved my life.

I’m no stranger to competition. In elementary and middle school, I found as many ways to use my competitiveness as I could manage, playing every sport you can think of. Soccer, field hockey, ice hockey, ballet, gymnastics, volleyball, ballroom dancing, and even horse-back riding.

Once I hit 8th grade, my competitive nature started to have a dark side. I grew more and more competitive against myself, and fell into a downward spiral, striving for perfection. Before I knew what was happening, anorexia had taken hold of my life.

This same spring in 8th grade, I tried rowing for the first time. The sport was focused on power, technique, and strength. It helped me find a reservoir of mental strength I didn’t know I had; it ended up being the thing that gave me the strength to beat the disease. Rowing made me competitive against my anorexia instead of against myself; I was intent on making myself the strongest I could be.

I started rowing in 8th grade through an introductory program offered by my high school. For six weeks I woke up three days a week at 5:15 am to get to practice by 5:45 am so I could get to classes by 8 am.

Surprisingly, the early mornings weren’t a negative to me. They were a positive. 

Waking up early wasn’t hard, and the sport was so rewarding that I realized I wanted to continue even after the six week season ended. 

Once, I was told to draw a pie chart that diagramed the proportion time I spent thinking about food, weight, and looks in comparison to family, friends, and my hobbies. At the lowest point, my thoughts about food took up 1/3 of my mentality. It was overpowering my mind. And, yet when I rowed, all that chatter quieted down; all I would focus on was taking the next stroke. Following the person in front of me, one stroke at a time. There was no space for negativity, compulsive thoughts about food, or plans to skip my next meal when I was carrying a heavy boat or trying to remain in sync with my teammates.

 

It didn’t take me long to realize rowing was a sport for crazy people. It took me even less time to know I wanted to be crazy with them. 

In Boston, rowing on the Charles River has given me exposure to meet a diverse group of people who share a passion for being on the water. Meeting people I felt connected with at Radcliffe, CRI, or Cambridge Boating Club, I quickly learned I had stumbled into a fantastic and small world full of extremely competitive, supportive, and crazy people. I loved it. 

On a scientific level, rowing was beneficial not only because it helped regulate my stress levels, but also because it builds bone density. A major consequence of anorexia is osteoporosis, a disease characterized by weak, brittle bones that occurs from lack of nutrition.

Of course, I didn’t know this when I discovered rowing, and it wasn’t a factor in my choice to stick with it. That makes me so grateful for my decision. Rowing was helping me to build myself up for the future at a time when I was preoccupied with destroying myself in the present. 

After finishing my freshman year, I switched to private school and had the opportunity to row on the school’s team. By the end of that season, I had wholly recovered from anorexia, and I credit a good part of that recovery to rowing. Now, rowing does for me what my disorder used to: it helps me to cultivate laser focus and allows me to be competitive with myself. 

And now, I’m still rowing in college. The small rower I was in middle school no longer exists. Now, instead of worrying about eating too much, I worry about not eating enough.The possibilities of my body are endless– why would I want to ever hold myself back by not eating enough? 

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Author Elizabeth Foot

Elizabeth is a first year at Hamilton College and a member of the Women’s Varsity Rowing Team. Between coffee runs, library grinds, and real runs, Elizabeth can be found talking about her dog, why sunbutter is just as good as peanut butter, and how she is going to save the world through Zumba.

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