By now many of you will have heard the news that Julia Lipnitskaya is retiring from competitive skating at the age of 19. The incredibly bendy, flexible darling of the 2014 Olympics and a heap of world class junior and senior competitions, she will not be forgotten easily by the current generation of skaters, nor those who aspire to be like her.
But if the wide scale media reporting is to be believed, she has been a victim of the demons of anorexia, for which, it is said, she has recently received treatment in Europe. For her sake – and for the sake of those who aspire to be the next Lipnitskaya, I feel compelled to write about the realities of this illness from the heart.
Firstly, anorexia is absolutely the most damaging and destructive of illnesses – to the body, the mind, to relationships with those you hold most dear and to your skating. It is perhaps the demands of the aesthetic nature of the sport which are responsible for the fact that a skater rarely overcomes the illness sufficiently to regain and indeed overtake their personal best and take their skating career to what would have been full potential.
The most innocuous of comments among athletes, parents and coaches can have a frighteningly deep impact on the skater suffering with, or predisposed to this illness and it is high time coaches at least were educated in its sensitivities which can actually make the difference between life and death. Because this illness has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is perhaps tragically ironic that she is best known for her portrayal of the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List.
But it is an illness, not a disability. Although the sufferer may have withdrawn from their social circle and find it difficult to communicate with or be around friends, it is crucial that friends remain both in touch and supportive. It is not easy to be friends with or even to love someone with anorexia. It takes devotion and dedication above and beyond. Above all, it is extremely difficult for the onlooker, friend or family member to even begin to try to understand the thought processes. But they can educate themselves in the best way to support their friend or loved one and be part of the recovery process simply by being there.
It is not about weight, or appearance, though these issues get thrown into the mix. A warped sense of self is created by the illness, and as it progresses, the undernourished mind makes it worse, creating a vicious circle of destruction.
Heaven knows that Julia Lipnitskaya has been in the media spotlight for years. Even without her sporting ability, such pressurised attention on any youngster approaching and then going through puberty under the public gaze will take its toll.
Julia’s mother is a single mum – as such she will, I’m sure, be strong enough to deal with her own role in Julia’s recovery from this horrific illness and I wish them both the strength to come through the other side with their mother-daughter relationship intact and their own health and mental wellbeing in a positive place. Let’s remember Julia as an amazing young skater who has achieved so much in a relatively short time – not as a victim of this horrible illness.
For coaches, friends or family who suspect that someone they know may be suffering please tread carefully and educate yourselves quickly in the best approach before tackling it with them. And make sure that you help your athletes to understand that healthy nutrition doesn’t mean taking things too far or giving up treats totally. It’s about a balanced system of eating and fuelling the body, of which so much is demanded when training and competing.
And for anyone reading this who might suspect they have disordered thoughts I urge you to seek help as quickly as possible. It can be beaten*. You can recover. But you need to act fast.