By Robyn Stevens

It was August 2003 when I picked up the phone and called my high school club coach, Claudia, whom I met in 1997 at a cross-country race in Dixon, my eighth grade year.

“If I don’t leave,” I told her, “I think I might die.”

By that point, I’d been struggling with an eating disorder for nearly two years. I was at college in Wisconsin, but the college coaching environment I was in was creating more problems with each passing week, a silent plague slowly taking control of my health and, ultimately, my life.

How did I get to that point?

It’s a long story, but if there was one moment, one trigger, that set things off, it was at an indoor meet in 2001 during my freshman year. Looking back, though, there were warning signs through high school that I may be susceptible to something like this.

I grew up in California, and my parents always had a very positive attitude to nutrition and mind-body health, a healthy balance of outdoor activity and academics, resourcefulness. My dad grew most of our own food in the back yard because he believes in nourishing the body properly. I was a good distance runner and race walker in high school, and was recruited by every top school in the country, including all the D1 and Ivy League.

Why did I opt for a small school in Wisconsin? It was the only college at the time where I could continue to do race walking and run through college.

Back then things were different, and I remember people used to always talk about how good runners claim the best weight is under 100lbs. These days, I realize how flawed that thinking was and it had not registered in my mind that muscle weighs more than fat, so at the time I remember when my weight hit 100lbs and I thought: Oh no, I’m slacking.

My chief goal in high school and college was academic success, and so I pushed myself hard, taking on a lot of credits. My credit load may have burned me out a little as my performances started going backward.

I was also living on cafeteria food, gained a little weight and breasts (and my first period) so I started freaking out. My coach was male and very catholic so I did not feel comfortable talking to him about women’s issues, like the fact I wasn’t getting periods until now, which meant I was not familiar with this body transition.

Before, I used to think if someone had an eating disorder, they were doing it for attention. How wrong I was. But I remember, as a kid, asking God that if something didn’t make sense to me, to please help me understand it.

What happened next helped me to finally understand.

Robyn Stevens ()

At that indoor meet in 2001, I was watching a race won by a girl from a different school. I thought she did a great job and my coach said: “Yeah, it was a good time, but imagine how much faster she would be if she was skinnier.”

That was a detail that had never come up through high school – a woman’s weight in regards to how fast she can go – and what really hit home was that the girl he was referring to was about the same weight as me.

If he’s saying that about her, that must be what he’s thinking of me.

At that point, during competitions on the road I’d be roomed with a girl who was anorexic and everywhere we went, she’d say how many calories were in certain foods. I never thought about calories before, just about nourishment, but after that indoor meet I pretty much woke up with an eating disorder.

I went to the cafeteria and suddenly I saw all these numbers over the food. I’d hear my teammate saying how many calories everything had. It wasn’t her fault, of course. She didn’t realize she was doing it and she was just trying to cope herself, but now I started to wonder: What do I eat?

I began severely under-eating and would feel really hungry all the time, then I’d get dizzy when I stood up and I fainted a few times, which led me to binging — a cycle. After everyone would go to bed, I’d eat something, just to make sure I had enough food, but it was always the worst type of food that happened to be left out for everyone to share and I’d overeat it, then feel terrible about myself because the type of food would make me feel super icky — it wasn’t nearly enough nutrition dense.

I didn’t want anyone to know – not my boyfriend, not my friends – because I had such pride in how strong and self-sufficient I was. I couldn’t talk to my coach either, so I just suffered in silence.

Robyn Stevens ()

But in August 2003, I had a realization: I don’t think I’m going to survive another year.

I had been dealing with it for about two years by that point and I said to myself: This is going to kill me if I can’t talk to anyone about it.

So I called Claudia, my long-time mentor back in California, and she helped arrange a transfer for me to San Jose State to help get me out of that unhealthy environment. I didn’t tell anyone there about it either but one day, a girl on the team came to me and said she had an eating disorder. She looked up to me as a leader and wanted my advice.

I told her to listen to her body, to nourish it, but I never told her I had a disorder myself because I did not want to put others at risk of mistaking an eating disorder for a normal and therefore “acceptable” trend for athletes.

By that point I didn’t know how to throw up, but the girl revealed something she was using to make that happen, and when trying to help her get better, I actually went to the store to get that same product. It was something you would only use for a specific medical reason, and could otherwise be dangerous. The bottle said it can cause the heart to stop, even with one-time use, but I used it anyway.

As I took it I thought: This is not okay, it’s dangerous but I have to lose weight.

After that I told my Mom what was happening and I promised her I wouldn’t ever do it again, but I did.

One more time.

I was super-stressed because of academic demands – I was taking on multiple degrees and pulling all-nighters – and I thought I was running slower because I was heavier. So I risked it again.

The thing about eating disorders: they can be hard for others to spot from the outside. Not everyone with an eating disorder appears skin and bone.

The mistake a lot of college coaches make is they only care about performance, they forget about the human, and they think eating disorders are only anorexia – that you must look skinny to have one. I wasn’t like that at that time, I was the heaviest I’d ever been, so no one suspected I had a problem.

They thought I had just gained the ‘freshman 15’ or had been partying, but I hadn’t. I’d do extra workouts on my own, over-train and tax my mind and body with pressure I put on myself. I never gave myself a rest. I developed a combination of bulimia and a hint of the female athlete triad: amenorrhea, disordered eating and osteoporosis.

I had qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2004 but because I wasn’t nourished properly, I popped my Achilles on a hill session and couldn’t compete. I took that as a sign it was time to move on with my life.

Robyn Stevens ()

The turning point to reach that decision came in February 2004, when I found out Al Heppner, a top male race walker, had taken his own life.

Just days before, he had missed making the US team for the Athens Olympics and that disappointment hit him hard.

Hearing the news made me re-assess my own life.

I considered him my race walk brother because we share the same birthday, and his death forced me to reflect. When I started this sport, I did it purely because I love it, but by then all I was focused on was my weight and I was not enjoying it any more. When I got the call about Al, I broke down in tears and thought: Nothing should be this important that it costs your health, your life.

I called my Mom and told her I had to step away from sports. I had no intention of ever returning.

My recovery from the eating disorder started that year, and I met a boyfriend, who I was with for four years, who helped a lot. He took away the weighing scale and made sure I ate properly — nourished as opposed to malnourished.

In 2009, I started to join the dots up of how my disorder originated. That was the year I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, which can suppress your hunger. I had been losing weight that year and I couldn’t understand why, so my doctor got me to keep a food diary and it showed I wasn’t eating near enough, my body constantly in the fight-or-flight mode meaning I often didn’t feel like eating.

She recommended group therapy, which I did with people who were experiencing all kinds of disorders, and I realized then how so many of them are linked. I developed a much better understanding of the causes, and how to prevent a relapse. But In 2014, when my dog died from cancer, it triggered another episode and I started taking medication for anxiety.

How did I find my way back to the sport?

It began in 2014 when someone asked me: “What is the happiest you’ve ever been?” I said it was my first year of college (outside of the coaching environment) when I was running and creating and not overthinking — performance didn’t matter because I wasn’t allowed to train with anyone fast enough to get me faster than I already knew how to run, so I merely did it for “fitness” (at that time to get skinny) and I had thrown myself into my art.

Robyn Stevens ()

I realized then that I really missed running, so I started doing a little with a local training group, simply as a social outlet and as a break from long hours at work in expensive Silicon Valley.

But in March 2014, I got a concussion after I hit my head on a doorframe, which left me with a migraine for many months. As I recovered from that, my doctor wouldn’t allow me to run but she did allow me to race walk, given it was lower-impact.

I knew I had unfinished business in the sport, but I decided then I wasn’t going to do it until I felt it wasn’t going to kill me. While I enjoyed it, I wanted to be careful, so I kept it a balance.

My new coach, Susan Armenta, showed me how to train and eat in a healthy, nourishing way for athletes doing high volume, and I lived with her for four months so she got to see me day-to-day. In 2015, I started competing again and in 2017, I realized I didn’t need the anxiety medication any more.

In recent years I’ve been working with a Spanish coach, Jacinto Garzon, and he has a great attitude to coaching: you can tell his athletes’ wellbeing is more important than performance and because of that, his athletes perform phenomenally. He has a very successful program.

My performance has improved year after year, now that I was finally feeding my body what it needed again (by listening to it) and maintaining a managed anxiety gave me a sense of balance and strength in life.

In 2019, I brought my 20K race walk best down to 1:33:34, and right now I’m just within the cut-off on world rankings for Olympic qualification. But I’ve learned from so many disappointments over the years that nothing is guaranteed, so I won’t truly believe I’ve made the Olympic team until I get selected and toe that start line.

My parents have also been part of this journey my entire life and they put so much energy and support into my sister and I, sticking with me through all the trials in life. I want to make it to Tokyo for them as much as for me.

Robyn Stevens ()

My boyfriend, Nick, is also chasing his own Olympic dream, and having him there every step of the way has meant so much. It’s been a hard year for us, losing some of our loved ones, and it would mean so much if we could make the team to give us some golden memories from 2021.

It’d mean so much more now than if I had made the team in 2004 or 2016. Why?

I know now that I’m doing it healthily. I’m doing this entirely because I love the feeling of being fit, and it’s being done with total gratitude. I always said if I go to the Olympics, I want it to be an honest journey – an indication of health, fitness and integrity.

When I came back I made a deal with Nick: The moment I’m fixated too much on my body over my performance, I have to walk away. But I haven’t got to that point.

Robyn Stevens ()

I know the things I’ve dealt with are issues I’ll have to monitor, and be aware of, for the rest of my life, but the difference these days is I know the potential triggers, how to avoid them or confront them when they arise.

For a long time, I didn’t have a good relationship with food, with my body, and that matters so much more than performances because health is the most important.

But it just so happens that when you take proper care of your body, and your mind, then the results follow.

This time my hunger is in an entirely different sense: to maintain the course, because now my golden dreams are my reality.