But many skaters are more reticent. In recent interviews with nearly a dozen male skaters from the United States, Germany, Russia and Canada, each said he knew competitors who had battled bulimia, the binge-purge syndrome. But no one volunteered any personal details.
Ron A. Thompson, a consulting psychologist for the Indiana University athletic department, said there was a cultural component to male skaters’ reserve about discussing their body image problems.
“Males are supposed to be stronger and not need psychological assistance,” he wrote in an email. But he said that eating disorders and disordered eating “are not discriminatory, they occur in both genders in all sports.”
According to 2011 statistics cited by the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million American women and 10 million men will at some point struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder.
Jeremy Abbott, 32, a two-time Olympian who retired last year, strives for a healthy lifestyle, but he said that even now, “in all honesty, my body image is probably very low. I’m not in bad physical condition. I have the concept of that. But I still kind of look in the mirror and nitpick everything.”
Kelly Rippon, Adam’s mother, remembers when his first coach, a woman, informed her that her son, then 10, would never be able to execute advanced jumps because of his “heavy bottom.” The coach suggested that Rippon be steered toward speedskating.
The coach’s critique did not sit well with Kelly Rippon, a former dancer who remembers subsisting on sandwiches that consisted of two lettuce leaves wrapped around a tomato slice. She began to change her eating habits, she said, after the singer Karen Carpenter died from complications of anorexia in 1983.
After noticing that her son, in his teens, had adopted a diet of water-based vegetables, Kelly Rippon sat him down and explained why it was important that he mix in some protein.
“My mom understands because my mom went through the same thing,” said Rippon, who ate normally for several years and even bulked up through weight training.
Then he moved to Southern California in the fall of 2012 to train with Rafael Arutyunyan, a product of the Soviet Union’s coaching system. Arutyunyan took one look at Rippon’s muscles and sent him straight to an elliptical machine to start shedding pounds.
Rippon also adopted his draconian diet. “I’d do a few days having my three pieces of bread and then finish the whole loaf of bread and have 3,000 calories,” he said, adding that he would tell his coach: “‘Rafael, this is what I’m eating.’ And he said, ‘I know. It’s really hard.’”
Arutyunyan said he had since learned to address his skaters’ weight with a new vocabulary, in his nonnative English, and realized that he could not be as blunt as when he worked in the Soviet system and thought nothing of calling an athlete “fat.” In the United States, he said, he has attended seminars that drove home the point that “it’s kind of abusive or maybe they can get sick.”
So now Arutyunyan will tell his skaters that they look sluggish or that they need to be in better shape. “But basically,” he said, “same time I’m thinking, ‘O.K., how I can make elephant to fly?’”
Last year, shortly before nationals, Rippon broke his left foot while hopping to warm up his legs. During his monthslong recovery, he decided to address his diet because he suspected unhealthy eating had contributed to his injury.
“I think I had a stress fracture before I broke my foot,” Rippon said, “and I think that was absolutely because I was not getting enough nutrients.”
He started working with Susie Parker-Simmons, a sports dietitian with the United States Olympic Committee, and as he grew more mindful about eating, Rippon said, a fog of fatigue over him lifted.
“I didn’t realize I was so tired all the time,” he said.
Parker-Simmons’s goal was for Rippon to see food as fuel, not a foe. She promotes healthy relationships with food by encouraging athletes to plant seeds and eat what they grow. She will also play to their competitive natures by holding contests to see who can create the most delicious meals using nutrient-rich ingredients.
Body composition analysis is another part of the equation for Parker-Simmons, who educates the athletes on how to get the most out of their genetics, which in Rippon’s case includes his muscular thighs and buttocks.
“These athletes are so disciplined,” Parker-Simmons said, “and food is one of the things they can actually control when they can’t control other parts of their lives.”
The day after Rippon was named to the Olympic team in San Jose, Calif., he went to a restaurant and tucked into a lunch of leafy greens tossed in Caesar dressing and topped with pieces of seared ahi tuna.
“I don’t feel any guilt eating this,” Rippon said between bites. “But there is a part of me that’s thinking, ‘How nice. I’m treating myself to creamy dressing.’”