World-class Skimo athlete Grace Staberg raises awareness about eating disorders after returning home to Summit County to recover for May 1 competition
Stubbornness, dedication, passion and hard work are often all characteristics that lead talented athletes to success in their sport, but, at times, all of the pressure and stress can also lead athletes to meticulously focus on their diet in order to be fit and fast.
This is especially true for endurance athletes who feel like the lighter they are, the faster they will be running, biking, skiing or swimming. For those who participate in endurance sports, the prevalence of body-image related illnesses is not uncommon.
Summit County local Grace Staberg is no stranger to the topic. She has openly discussed her diagnosis with an eating disorder to spread awareness and break down barriers in the sports world.
Staberg thought she had put that period of her life behind her since she was officially diagnosed five years ago, but while competing in Europe this past winter, she relapsed. It derailed the rest of her 2021-22 ski mountaineering season, which — up to that point — was going without a hitch physically.
“In past years, I have really liked how isolated it feels to be over in Europe at times,” Staberg said. “I came over to Europe (this year), and I felt really lonely and isolated. I think my eating disorder was a coping mechanism I knew pretty well — no matter maladaptive it may be.”
Staberg said her behavior of limiting calories and adequate fuel to perform was, at first, positively backed up by her performances in ski mountaineering races, where she was highly successful on the world stage. She has stood on World Cup and international podiums, even setting the North American women’s 24-hour vertical-ascent record.
She said she knew the behavior was not good for her long-term health, but her race performances at the time overshadowed the harsh, long-term affects of inadequate fueling.
When she broke down at the finish line of a ski mountaineering race in tears because of her performance and how fragile she felt, she said she knew was at a low point.
A few days before the race, she was consulted by a French doctor who warned that her body mass index was dangerously low. Staberg, however, chose to race, since the U.S. National team does not require medical clearance to compete.
Staberg crossed the finish line in last place by a wide margin and immediately decided that she wasn’t fit enough to continue with her season. Staberg made the personal choice to return home to Breckenridge to seek treatment.
“It reached a breaking point where I was miserable and really unhappy,” Staberg said. “Frankly, I was terrified by my health, so I think coming home felt like a really easy decision.”
Staberg returned back home at the end of January and immediately started to seek treatment in order to feel better. She started seeing a sports psychologist and dietitian, which has allowed for her to become both physically and mentally strong again.
Now, Staberg is seeing her life and the world in a fresh light.
Looking back, Staberg feels like besides the isolation in Europe, her eating disorder was also fueled by how small the margin of success is for elite endurance athletes and the pressure that results from top-level competition.
“It is really easy to turn to things that are easy to manipulate to improve your performance,” Staberg said. “I think I felt like, in a lot of ways, I was already training really hard and devoting myself to sport, so I think I felt like the other things I could do to be perfect was controlling what I was eating.”
Staberg is doing much better now, as she spent the rest of the winter skinning uphill, mostly at Copper Mountain Resort and Breckenridge Resort, feeling a sense of peace for being back in her hometown community.
Staberg felt she owed it to her followers to let them know what has been going on and to be honest about her experience.
“I remember crossing finish lines and being so worried that someone would see a picture of me and think they have to look like me to be successful,” Staberg said. “Athletes thrive in all different size of bodies, and I didn’t want anyone to see me performing well and say, ‘I need to lose weight to do better.'”
Staberg felt like it was essential to open up because, although she may have been excelling in competitions, she felt miserable.
“It felt like I had a responsibility to make it clear that the performances had come at a really big cost,” Staberg said. “I wanted other people to take my story as a cautionary tale and make people feel like they were not alone if they were struggling.”
Staberg feels she may be better than she was before, but she said she isn’t at a point where she feels fully recovered.
As is common with people who have experienced body image-related illnesses, it is often a lifelong battle to not go back to old patterns of behaviors. Staberg is expecting the same for herself.
She’s is preparing to race for the first time since January on Sunday, May 1, in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering team race in Zermatt, Switzerland.
Staberg took an extended break from structured training while recovering but has piled up some high-quality workouts at the tail end of her stay in Breckenridge.
“I feel like, right now, I am in such a good spot,” Staberg said. “Being here in Switzerland for this race, I just feel like I have had so many days where I can’t wipe a smile off my face because it is clear to me that I am racing for a good reason again.”
Staberg will begin the Patrouille des Glaciers on Saturday night for people watching in the U.S. Her progress can be tracked at SkimoStats.com.
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