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Olympic Figure Skater Gracie Gold Lays Bare the Punishing Toll of Elite Sports

Took a lot of guts to write this. Hope this helps legions of other athletes either by avoiding this shit show or encouraging the folks who run the sport to do a better job.


Olympic Figure Skater Gracie Gold Lays Bare the Punishing Toll of Elite Sports

In a new memoir, the two-time U.S. national champion drops her ‘Barbie’ mask and delivers a piercing account of the risks of life as an ice-skating phenom


Heading into a fourth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games, Gracie Gold says she already had an eating disorder.


By Louise Radnofsky, WSJ

Feb. 4, 2024 6:00 am ET


It’s a peculiar reality of women’s figure skating that its athletes are trained to plaster on bigger smiles after a mid-program fall, selling the idea that everything is going fine even if their competitive hopes have just been badly dented.


For several years Gracie Gold was one of the best in the world—at skating, and at grinning through gritted teeth. Then came a public breakdown ahead of the 2018 Olympics, in which she opened up about everything she was really thinking, and raised new questions about the toll of high-performance sport.


Gold’s memoir “Outofshapeworthlessloser,” which will be published Tuesday, includes her explosive allegation that at 21 she was raped by a fellow skater at an event after-party—and that five years after the incident was reported to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, she has no idea whether the case has been resolved.


Just as devastating is the firsthand account of how beloved sports can become desperately unhealthy—and why athletes pursue them anyway. Gold is clear-eyed and sounds far from irrational as she tears down the sugary walls of an Olympic marquee event.


“Every U.S. Figure Skating national team member should be handed a single-spaced sheet listing the side effects that they can expect to experience in their ascent: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation,” Gold suggests in the book.


Gold’s point is that these are not just things that happened to her, but clear risks because of who top athletes are and what they are trying to do.


“Few people who enjoy the sport’s aesthetics are eager to be drawn into a conversation about how the skaters they love to watch stay so small or what body type is best suited to execute 3½ or four revolutions in the air in under a second…because the truth about how a skater becomes world class is not pretty,” she says.


“It’s almost inevitable that the obsessive behaviors that ensure our excellence spill over into our diets.”


It’s been almost three decades since Joan Ryan’s book “Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters” shattered soft-lens visions of both sports.


Gold said that when she read it, she thought that her memoir might have already been written. But her version is a 21st-century one, and comes directly from an athlete’s perspective, in which she details her own downfall as a snowballing, not triggered by a lone villain or single moment.


Gold doesn’t shy away from identifying herself as “a judgmental perfectionist whose self-destructive tendencies nearly killed me,” backed up by a family drive to do things “to the max” and a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to happiness. The danger, she says, was that the sport reinforced all of those traits. “Skating, with its emphasis on precision and perfection, was the ideal obsession for me.”


“Does the sport attract people with a few loose screws?” she wonders with her twin sister, Carly, who was a nationally competitive skater. “Or does it proceed to loosen them?”

Gold was billed as the great American skating hope for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, even though, she says, expectations of a medal seemed largely driven by a fixation on her last name.


After a fourth-place finish there in the women’s individual event, where she says “it’s a wonder my Barbie-doll face didn’t melt from the intense emotions that I was barely managing to contain,” she was hit with post-Olympic blues. Her eating disorder, which had started long before Sochi, grew to include laxatives. She struggled with the aftermath of an imperfect performance at the 2016 world championships.


Her next competitive season was a disaster, and the rape occurred around this time, Gold says, in a hotel suite where she and her sister were hosting an event after-party. With suicidal thoughts and after gaining more than 50 pounds, Gold arrived at a national training camp at the start of the 2017-2018 Olympic season. She left it for inpatient treatment in Arizona, paid for by U.S. Figure Skating, where she sought help for disordered eating and received a diagnosis of severe depression, anxiety, and moderate obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Some time later she told a U.S. Figure Skating official about the rape, and he reported it to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, as required after the Center was launched in 2017 to respond to sexual abuse claims in the Olympic movement. Gold says it was another two years before someone from the Center contacted her to find out more, that she’s heard nothing since, and all she knows about the case now is that it has a different case manager.


The Center, which doesn’t typically comment on specific cases, took the unusual step of saying it was looking into what had happened with Gold’s report.


“Based on the questions received, the Center is conducting a thorough review of this case and is determined to understand the reasons for the unacceptable delay. Our mandate is to hold accountable those who do harm, and we are also accountable to the athletes we serve,” said chief executive Ju’Riese Colón.


Gold’s career is harrowing reading, but so is the idea that with a few different details, much of the book could ring true for other skaters whose stories include training as a full-time job, home schooling, social media pressures, split families and cross-country relocations for coaching, and managing adolescent growth spurts in a sport that seems to demand a particular leanness. “I was a teenage girl in a body-conscious sport untethered from a traditional school and home. What could go wrong?” she asks.


Tracy Marek, the new chief executive of U.S. Figure Skating, praised Gold for her honesty and said she looked forward “to working with her in the future as we prioritize athlete wellbeing and safety in figure skating.”


“We hear Gracie. We respect her. And we are proud of Gracie and what she has overcome,” Marek said in a statement.


In an interview, Gold said that she didn’t set out to indict a sport to which she notably returned after her time in recovery, in part because she was curious if she could be a figure skater without jeopardizing her mental and physical health, and in part because she still loved doing it.


“The hardest part, I think, in writing the book was making it that people didn’t hate skating,” she said. “I don’t think that the act of skating is the enemy. I just think it’s a lot of the stuff around it.”


That “stuff” could be different, she thinks, offering ideas including a hotline for coaches working with teenage skaters, rethinking the connection between weight and jumping, and encouraging skaters to sit out a competitive season to address their mental health if needed.


“I don’t know why we just don’t talk about it in the sport, like: ‘this could be a potential issue,’” she says. “I have really high hopes that over the next 10, 20, 30 years we can see a lot of change.”


Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

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