As It Happens

Russian figure skater's retirement highlights sport's problem with eating disorders, says survivor

When Yulia Lipnitskaya, 19, announced her retirement from figure skating after seeking treatment for anorexia, it brought back a lot of memories for Jennifer Kirk.
Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya (left) has retired from the sport at the age of 19 to seek treatment for anorexia reminds America's Jennifer Kirk (right) of her own history with both the sport and the eating disorder. (Atsushi Tomura, Jung Yeon-Je/Getty Images)

Story transcript

When Russian figure skating gold medallist Yulia Lipnitskaya announced her retirement from the sport at the age of 19 after seeking treatment for anorexia, it brought back a lot of memories for Jennifer Kirk.

"Something definitely needs to change in the culture," Kirk, an eating disorder survivor who retired from her own figure skating career in 2005, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

"This is something that's happening at local rinks, nationally and internationally. And this is something that needs to be discussed more frequently."

Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya competes during the Figure Skating Women's free skating Program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

Kirk, who has long been outspoken about her own struggle with bingeing and purging, is now a skating coach.

She spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about her own life story and why she feels "a lot of pride" for Lipnitskaya. Here is part of their conversation.

How common are eating disorders among figure skaters from what you know?

Unfortunately, incredibly common. Just in my history in being with this sport, there were two years where I toured with Champions On Ice here in the United States ... and I would say about 80 per cent of the skaters on tour had some sort of disordered eating.

Why is this such a pervasive problem?

You know, I've thought a lot about it. I think, obviously, the culture of skating is one which ... promotes a certain aesthetic. You want to look a certain way on the ice. 

The difficult technical requirements that these skaters are trying to achieve — you have to throw your entire body into the air and rotate as quickly as possible — so obviously, just in terms of pure physics, the smaller you are, the faster you're going to rotate.

Jennifer Kirk competes in Short Program at the 2004 State Farm U. S. Figure Skating Championships in Atlanta, Ga. (A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

But I think it goes back just generations and generations where it's something that's accepted. And a lot of the skaters become coaches and it's something that they grew up with, and then they, without knowing it, make comments and place it upon their skaters to look a certain way.

And nobody's really come out and talked about it. So when the skaters are struggling, it's something that they struggle with in secret, in private.

You have been quite vocal, though, talking about your own experiences with an eating disorder. Can you explain how it started for you?

One of my coaches would have us all line up and weigh us in front of everybody in the middle of a skating lobby and write [it] down every week in a notebook. So I was given the message that you have to be a certain weight or that the number is important.

Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya competes during the Figure Skating Women's Short Program at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Feb. 19, 2014. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

But I wasn't achieving the results on the ice that I thought I should and my weight was something I felt like I could control.

It started out really in a benign way, where I wanted to work out more and watch what I eat, be a little more healthy, And, suddenly, it became the one thing that I felt I could control.

I imagine, though, that as an athlete, you were losing your ability to control your athletic moves because you were diminishing your muscle strength. How did you cope with that?

The most insidious part about eating disorders or anyone who's gone on an extreme diet is, at first, you receive a lot of compliments. 

The first season when I was struggling, I had my best season to date. I medalled at U.S. nationals. I was on the world team. I medalled internationally. So it's something that you believe is OK.

Jennifer Kirk at the 2004 Women's Championship. (A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Towards the end ... the results weren't as great as they were that first season. I blamed myself. I thought if I could just be skinnier and more in control like I was the first season, I'd be able to get the results back — which is completely distorted thinking.

How easy was it for you to hide your disorder from others?

It was something where I think I was putting cries out for help many times and I was, in the middle of sessions, bingeing and purging. Fellow skaters I was training with [and] my coaches at the time knew what was going on.

And nobody tried to stop it?

I was actually told to wait until after the Olympic season to get treatment ... that I could probably push through. But it got to a point where I couldn't make it through a session. I was just self-destructing.

And what do you think about that now as you look back?

It makes me sad. And it makes me feel a lot of pride for someone like Yulia who was able to get treatment because I know how hard it is when this is your life dream.

This story has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Jennifer Kirk:

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