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Eating disorders: The darker side of figure skating

Hannah Price

In a sport where half your score is based on presentation and how you look on the ice, BBC Three uncovers the pressure and abuse that can lie beneath the beautiful costumes, leading some young British skaters to starve themselves.

Emily Hayward was eight when she went ice skating for the first time in Sheffield. She quickly fell in love with the sport. As a self-confessed introvert she loved that when she stepped on the ice she could be confident doing all sorts of different performances.

"It’s something that I really got hooked on," she says.

At 18, after winning her second national championship as a junior, an opportunity came up for Emily to start pairs skating - one of the most dramatic disciplines in ice skating. But soon the toxic environment that came with it led to her risking her health.

"I thought this is my shot to do pairs, this is what I’ve dreamed of doing," she says.

Pairs skating, which is known for its jaw dropping stunts and jumps, often involves the woman being lifted and thrown above her partner's head.

Opportunities for women in pairs skating are rare because of a shortage of men in the sport. This means, in some cases, male skaters can be more picky about who they want to partner with.

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A recent picture of Emily, who is now 24.

Emily says as she began pairs, her training changed to include more skill work and upper-body workouts.

"My body kind of changed shape," she adds. "I got arm muscles that I never had before, and I carried on eating the same.

"I put on a very, very small amount of weight and I was then told that it was an issue.... and that I had to sort it out."

Emily says she was told by someone in the sport that her increase in weight would jeopardise her partnership and therefore the ability to be a pairs skater.

"[Before] I never once thought about what I ate or my body, or anything like that, because naturally I am slim. I’m not broad and I have a small frame," Emily says.

After the comments, she began cutting back calories, over exercising and obsessing about how she looked: "I lost a large amount of weight in a very short space of time.

"Consciously I thought I was just being mega 'healthy'. That’s what I thought I was doing because I just wanted to do pairs so badly."

'It completely broke me'

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Emily trains at the ice rink in Sheffield.

After a year, Emily‘s partnership fell apart.

"I was left having done this drastic weight loss, and now having this incredibly uncomfortable relationship with food, with my body, with how I should look, and with my career," she says.

Emily says she was experiencing body dysmorphia - where she thought she was too heavy and had a false illusion of what she actually looked like.

"It completely broke me, I was at rock bottom.

"It was this internal mental battle to the point that I quit competing. I quit skating full stop, because I was so poorly."

Ruth Micallef, a mental health therapist from Edinburgh, says she sees people of all ages who have been involved with ice skating who present with eating disorders.

"These are often toxic, unhealthy environments where the athlete is a second thought to what they could achieve," she says.

Ruth adds that eating disorders can present in all professional athletes.

Judged on how you look

Emily, who appears on BBC Three’s new documentary series about British ice skating, Freeze, believes that the nature of the sport, especially in pairs skating, can create a dangerous environment for eating disorders to fester.

"There’s something about being lifted that I think puts you under a pressure to know that you are light enough to be lifted," she says.

"It’s your responsibility if the lift isn’t working, which isn’t right."

For all ice skating events in competition, including singles, pairs and ice dance, skaters are awarded two marks by the judges: one for the technical elements and another for the program components.

The program components’ score focuses on the overall presentation of the performance, including how the skater looks, and how they "physically, emotionally and intellectually" perform the choreography to the judges and the audience, according to the rules of the International Judging System.

Emily says one of the issues with figure skating is everyone feels the need to comment on how you look.

"In an ice rink, everyone’s going 'she looks good today'.

"At the end of the day you’re standing in the middle of the ice, in a teeny tiny costume, you’re going to feel self conscious."

'Mental and physical intimidation'

When Harry Mattick was five he suffered a severe brain injury, after being in a car crash that killed his father. Once he began to walk again, his medical team suggested that ice skating might be a good way to regain his balance.

Harry went on to become the first British skater to land a quadruple jump in competition, at seniors level.

After attending a camp in Europe, when he was 15, run by the coach of the best skater in the world at the time, Harry met a high-level Russian coach who offered to train him in America. Harry and his mum thought this was an incredible opportunity that they couldn’t turn down.

Ice skating athletes of all ages, including under 18s, often travel to train outside of the UK. This can mean young people are left in vulnerable positions without their wider support networks.

For over three years, Harry trained with this coach. Looking back he says there were red flags from the very beginning: "There was a lot of name calling."

Harry says his coach would call him an "idiot", "stupid" and a slur for a person with a learning disability on a daily basis. He would tell Harry that without his coaching he was "nothing" and he would achieve nothing.

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When Harry turned 18, his coach encouraged his mum to return to the UK.

"A lot of the time he would say he was going out of his way to do me favours and I should be really grateful to him for all of that. While at the same time he was treating me really badly and isolating me," Harry says.

"It was very much mental intimidation, as well as physical... There were horrific consequences of doing badly in training."

Harry says his coach would weigh him every day, sometimes twice a day. But if he gained even a few grams he’d be punished severely.

"He was very pushy at me to lose weight. If my weight was lighter he’d be nice to me, if my weight was heavier he’d be just awful to me."

Harry says that his coach would make him do extra running, extra training and even wear a sweat suit in 30 degree weather if he gained as little as 100g.

Harry says the bullying and abuse completely changed him as a person.

"I went from being a very confident, very outgoing, very self-assured individual and the way he treated me brought me very, very close to suicide."

"It ended up triggering a full-blown eating disorder that resulted in anorexia and bulimia," Harry says.

"I’d have massive panic attacks over glasses of water because I thought that would put my weight up. I developed a massive phobia of drinking it that lasted for years."

One training session Harry recalls, he lost his temper at his coach and answered back. As a result, Harry says his coach took him off the ice and punched him hard in the stomach.

Harry says his coach had manipulated his mindset so he believed that he could only continue to ice skate with him as his coach.

"I thought if I can’t deal with his training, that’s because I’m weak.

"I wanted nothing more than to succeed at ice skating, and I’d been conditioned to believe that I could only succeed with him," he says.

Harry landed his first quadruple jump in training on 3 August 2011, and then became the first British skater to land it in competition. But Harry says breaking that record isn’t his greatest achievement because he couldn’t sustain the jump due to his weight loss.

After three years of abuse, Harry changed coaches and returned to the UK.

"I landed the quad again in training in 2017, and I was a healthy weight. I proved that you can land a quad healthily and that is what was really important to me. That’s the achievement I’m most proud of," he says.

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Harry and his pairs partner Lydia skate for Great Britain.

Harry is now part of a pairs team that is hoping to compete in the 2026 Olympics.

"My training was inflicted on me before. It was something that I had to do. I had to get up and go training because the consequences of not were horrific. Whereas now it’s something enjoyable, that I can be excited about," Harry says.

Change on the ice

After leaving the sport for over six months Emily’s supportive figure skating coach coaxed her back onto the ice.

"It took me a long time to get myself to a point where I thought; I look strong, I look fit, I look healthy and to realise that food is fuel. Being healthy is much more important than being a number on a scale," she says.

Emily thinks things are starting to change, as more people have started talking about the pressures of body image in the sport.

"There’s a wave of skaters coming through that don’t conform to the cookie-cutter shape and size that a figure skater is 'supposed' to be and I think that’s great," she adds.

"It’s so inspiring for the younger generation to know that we can’t all be one shape, it’s not normal."

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Emily, who is now 24, says the pressure will always be there so it is the responsibility of skaters and coaches to stamp out toxic comments and behaviour that might lead to eating disorders. She has taken up coaching herself, to help support her own skating financially.

"It’s my job as a role model and as a coach to turn around and call it out, and to talk to younger skaters that are struggling," she says.

British Ice Skating told BBC Three they are committed to ensuring the sport is a place that every participant can enjoy without any form of discrimination, bullying or body image pressures.

They added: "One key tool in tackling body image pressures and eating disorders in ice skating is education.

"We require all coaches to complete continuing professional development sessions in order to be accredited to the organisation.

"These sessions cover a wide range of topics to enable them to support the skaters they are working with, including nutrition and identifying eating disorders."

They encourage any skater that has experienced pressures regarding body image to raise their concerns to them. 

Where to get help

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece then help is available.

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