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Learning to Rest with Alice Merryweather    

Learning to Rest with Alice Merryweather

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Jessica Schiffer

Alice Merryweather, an Alpine ski racer whose life has long revolved around speed, is learning the beauty of slowing down. After undergoing treatment for anorexia in 2020 that forced her to take time off the slopes, Merryweather wiped out on a glacier while training for the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and broke her leg in three places. For an Olympic athlete who has spent years focused on succeeding in her sport, it sounds like a double-whammy from hell, but Merryweather’s no-days-off perspective has shifted. 

“What I’ve learned is that rest is actually very good for you,” Merryweather told TLO on the phone from Massachusetts, where she grew up. “I've learned to have a lot of patience with myself and not to just listen to the voice that says ‘no you need to work harder, you should be going out for a hike or to the gym,’ and instead listening to my body and what it actually needs.” 

It’s a message we could all use as we head into the holiday break, where a sense of non-productivity can be jarring after the fast pace of the last few months. 

We spoke to Merryweather about how the pressures placed on professional athletes can impact mental health, how she’s learned to navigate time off from her sport, and the unique type of joy she gets from skiing. 

How did you first get into skiing?

Both of my parents skied recreationally growing up and they would take my brother and I skiing many weekends in the winter when we were little. We both absolutely loved it and would ski NASTAR courses, just lapping them all day long because we thought it was the best thing in the world. And so eventually, when I was 8 and my brother was 10, they signed us up for the race team at Attitash Mountain in New Hampshire, where we had spent most of our time skiing, and the rest is history. They figured we would do it for a few years and then maybe go play soccer or something, but both of us just continued falling in love with the sport. So, in eighth grade, we made the decision that I would keep pursuing skiing and go to [boarding school] Stratton Mountain School for high school so that I could ski 6-7 days a week in the winter and have access to more training programs. When I graduated in the spring of 2015, I qualified for the US Development team and have continued progressing through the ranks there. 

In 2020, you took a break from your ski career to focus on recovering from an eating disorder. Can you tell me how you got to that place?

When I started really struggling it was the spring of 2020 – Covid had just hit and the world was shutting down. I was taking a larger than normal course load at Dartmouth, but I was staying in Utah because everything was remote. I was struggling to find housing there and was living with my boyfriend because I couldn't find anywhere else to stay and was feeling very overwhelmed. I’d been struggling with body image for a number of years, especially coming off of each winter. I’d been performing athletically but, at the same time, was traveling around Europe and eating these heavy foods. Skiing is a gravity sport, so no one really talks about body image in that space and I started feeling really self-conscious to the point where I'd come off of each winter and hate the way that I felt and looked. So in 2020, I was having that similar postseason feeling and when all of those other stressors hit, it was a perfect storm. I ended up restricting and becoming hyper aware of everything I was putting into my body. It was a way that I found “control” and made me feel like I was being “productive” because in [every other aspect] I was drowning. 

That very quickly spiraled. Once I solidified those pathways in my brain to to treat food in that way, it became really hard to reverse. My boyfriend came up to me in May and was like, "Hey, you're really cold all the time, your moods change on the turn of a dime. I've Googled a lot of these symptoms and the first thing that comes up is an eating disorder." I kind of laughed him off and was like, "That wouldn't happen to me, I love food." I was aware that I’d been eating less, but I kept telling myself that it was good for me. By the time I went to training camp in the fall in Europe, it was horrible. I hated skiing because I didn't have the energy to actually do it. I was freezing even on days that I wouldn't normally be and I couldn't function. It was really disheartening but I still didn't think that it was related to food. I told myself that I just wasn't working hard enough, that I wasn't in love with skiing anymore and maybe I just needed to quit. Thankfully my coaches and boyfriend really stepped up and said, "Something isn't right." Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, which was horrifying. I still didn't understand how that could happen, especially as a gravity sport athlete, where we would always have conversations on the team like "oh, Alpine girls get on the speed diet, where, you know, they eat dessert and they like it and they don't feel badly about it." It's just kind of an assumed part of the sport. 

I couldn't really turn things around on my own, so my coaches and outpatient treatment team sat me down and were like, "it's time Alice." They didn't feel comfortable allowing me to go to Europe to race, so I went to a partial hospitalization program in Denver. It helped me learn what was actually happening in my brain and to my body and how quickly the eating disorder had taken over and become what I thought was my set of values. It was really enlightening and really hard.

Why was it important for you to speak out about your experience? 

I decided to share this journey because I know there are other people out there struggling and it would also be really therapeutic for me to talk about it. I thought I might connect with other people going through something similar, but who hadn’t taken the step to go to treatment. I wanted to open up that conversation and continue to destigmatize mental health and especially eating disorders in snow sports because it's really not talked about in the way it is in more aesthetic sports. I think there's some level of conversation about those things but not anywhere near where it needs to be by any means. In speed sports, everything is always focused on weight and mass and “wanting to be big,” and it was never addressed that some of that talk could be really unhealthy. So I just wanted to get the conversation going so that life can be better for a lot of athletes.

What was the response like from the ski world after you spoke out about it?

It was incredible. I think I posted half way through treatment and overnight I got hundreds and hundreds of messages from ski racers and ex-athletes and random people that I didn't know, with so many people saying that they've had similar experiences and it was horrifying in a way to hear how many skiers I knew that had struggled with eating disorders themselves and either haven’t done anything about it or are working on it behind the scenes. It made me really sad that we haven't had these conversations but it also was really incredible for me to feel that support as I was going through it. It helped me feel like I was not alone – I had so many people behind me who had gone through something like this and come out stronger or who are working through it alongside me and we can offer each other support. 

Yeah, do you think there's something about skiing in particular or just being a competitive athlete that lends itself to developing an eating disorder? 

Yeah, I think it's being an athlete in general. We are trained to focus on our bodies because they allow us to perform our sports and we essentially want to be perfect at our sports. In order to do that, you have to train your body every day and when you’re in that headspace, it's really easy for that to turn. It can be really positive and really rewarding to work your body very hard. But on the flip side, if you push that too far, it becomes really destructive. That comes with being a professional athlete – finding that line and not going over the edge. I know a lot of people who have overtrained essentially where it's kind of an addiction to exercise or they just burnout because they've trained so hard that they just can't find joy in it anymore. It’s not necessarily specific to skiing, it's more just being an athlete. We strive for perfection and a lot of us are perfectionists, and it's easy for that to turn inwards. 

Yeah, and it seems like a lot of athletes struggle not just with eating disorders but mental health in general in the offseason. Have you learned anything through your recovery process to help you deal with those slower periods where you're not necessarily as busy as you're used to being?

Definitely. It's funny, the off-season sometimes feels like what I formerly thought was unproductive, like I’m working really hard and pushing myself, but it isn’t on snow. There's always that level of uncertainty where you’re like, is everything that I'm doing in the gym right now going to pay off when I get on snow? That can be kind of scary and it can also lead to wanting to push harder and harder in the gym. That’s where you can pass that line from healthy and productive to being really detrimental. What I've learned is that rest is actually very good for you. I've learned to have a lot of patience with myself and not to just listen to the voice that says "no you need to work harder, you should be going out for a hike or to the gym,” and instead listening to my body and what it actually needs. I know that it's okay and actually very good for me to rest at times – to take days off, calm down, and find other outlets for my energy. Instead of just pushing in the gym non-stop and focusing on my body and how to make it perform best, it's okay to rest. 

Do you think that that message needs to be made clearer amongst competitive skiers and the teams that surround them? 

I think it's slowly getting out into the community, but I think that there could be louder conversation around it. I got injured two and a half months ago now, and one thing that a lot of athletes who have been injured have asked me is, "what are you going to be doing as another outlet?" Because they know that the first time they got injured, they didn't have something [to focus on] and they became really hyper focused on their rehab and essentially burnt out because it was too much for them. I think that can be similar to the offseason or to dealing with a mental health issue. If you're still only focusing on your sport, you're not going to love it anymore. It's going to be really hard to find that passion. And I think that even coaches could do a better job of presenting that at all levels of the sport by saying, "Yeah, you need to work hard in order to keep progressing but remember that you're a human being, too. You're not just a machine, and you're not just an athlete." I think the conversation about identity, and having multiple outlets needs to be brought up a lot more at all levels of support. 

For sure. So how has it been recovering from your injury? Do you feel like you were in a better head space to go through that because of what you went through with your eating disorder recovery?

Weirdly, yes. It's been very strange how far I've come in a year, because I feel like I'm in such a good place to deal with this and to deal with life moving very slowly right now. Even the day after I got hurt, I was sitting in the hospital bed and a couple of my coaches had come down to visit me and were giving me all kinds of confidence messages and, like, "you've got this, you're going to do great." And I looked at them and said, "Well, last year I rewired my brain, so I can definitely grow some bones and heal some ligaments, this is nothing." It's pretty weird to have that perspective but I'm really grateful for it because I know now how to ask for help, I know how to be patient with myself, and I know how to fill downtime with other activities and outlets. So I'm able to still find joy in my recovery even when I don't have skiing. 

What are you filling your time with to get through this period?

I'm going to focus on school and I'm really looking forward to that. It's a great opportunity to have this much downtime to really work towards my undergraduate degree. I also get to spend more time with my family than I would in a normal winter and I have a couple trips planned – just taking advantage of having a bit more time, that I would normally. I'm also hoping to get to do speaking events more. I went to a high school a few weeks ago and shared my story which was really nice. I want to keep this conversation going – I want athletic communities and early education to open up this conversation. I think that we're making progress, but it can still improve a lot from where we are now. 

Even though you aren’t skiing right now, it’s obviously one of your biggest passions. What does skiing bring to your life that you love?

Yeah, when I was deeply struggling with my eating disorder last year I got no joy out of anything, but it was especially heartbreaking to not feel joy from skiing. Whereas this year, to love every moment that I was on snow was really incredible. With speed skiing, there is just something magical about going really fast. It's absolutely terrifying, but it's also the greatest adrenaline rush I've ever found and I know that I will ever find in my life. There's also just a very unique feeling to carving a really beautiful turn that, again, I've never been able to find with anything else. Part of it for me is also the connections that I've made through skiing, both with my teammates and with competitors from other countries, and the opportunity to travel that skiing has provided for me. It's really incredible and I have so much gratitude towards the sport for all of those opportunities. 

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