American Personality: Allison Wagner

The Making Of The Perfect Swimmer


Nikki Dryden

Allison Wagner made her international swimming debut in 1993. At the Pan Pacific Championships she won the 200 individual medley in 2:12.5, barely a second over the world record, and had the entire deck buzzing about the 16-year-old sensation from Gainesville, Florida.

Four months later at the 1993 Short Course World Championships, the 5 feet 7 inch, 120-pound (1.67 m, 54 kg) teenager broke the world record. An international baccalaureate student with a 4.0 GPA in high school, Allison was a model student and athlete. Polite, kind, quiet, and hardworking, she appeared perfect, and that is exactly what she strove to be.

Anorexia is known as the "good girl problem" because good girls, like Allison, don't turn to drugs or alcohol during difficult times. Instead, depriving their bodies of food becomes the ultimate form of self-abuse and self-control. All the traits that made Allison a world class swimmer also made her susceptible to an eating disorder: she was perseverant, goal-oriented, and exacting in her methods of attaining them.

Allison's obsession with food began at the age of 14, the same year she placed fifth at the 1992 US Olympic Trials. The obsession wasn't triggered by her own body's changes, but rather by her coach's unguarded comments. "He would always criticize my competition and the other girls on my team who were fat," she remembers. "And he would link their poor performances to their weight." At home Allison's parents were on diets, and her father was always drinking SlimFast. When she announced she didn't want to eat food with fat in it, her mother prepared all her meals virtually fat free.

Allison Wagner finished second in the 200 and 400 IM at the 1994 World Championships
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

At the 1994 World Championships, Allison finished second in the 200 and 400 IM behind Chinese swimmers. Two weeks later, the 400 IM winner tested positive . "I never thought of the people on steroids, it was too hard to think of that reality because I couldn't control it. The whole thing with the drug issue is that I felt helpless. I was beaten by these people on drugs and I had no power over it." But later she would find the one thing she could control: food.

Months after the Worlds, eating non-fat foods did not keep Allison thin, and as her food intake increased, so did her weight. She gained almost twenty pounds and was starting to experiment with laxatives, vomiting, bingeing and purging, all stages of bulimia. During this time Allison was also working to graduate from high school a semester early so she could join her coach at the University of Florida. Training a minimum of 18 km a day on her own and taking 8 courses, the stress became overwhelming. No one knew it though; that year she won NCAAs unshaved as a 17-year-old.

As the 1996 Olympics approached, Allison knew she was overweight. Her coach reminded her constantly that she needed to get fit, to get back to the form of her younger days. These pressures triggered Allison's descent down the long, lonely road of starvation and, eventually, full-blown anorexia. "I knew the Olympics were coming and I figured I had to lose weight because I thought the leaner I was the faster I would swim. I stopped eating and I starting drinking a lot of caffeine." As the days dwindled before the Olympics, Allison ate almost nothing and with little or no nutrient intake, she grew very weak.

"Two weeks out of the Olympics I was losing about a pound a day. In the two days between my events in Atlanta I lost five pounds," she says. Her rapid weight loss and the subsequent deterioration of her body's muscle left Allison with little strength, and her best event, the 200 IM, suffered because of it. "Although I didn't know it at the time, looking back I realize I just had no power to race the 200."

At the 1996 Olympic Games, Allison won the silver medal in the 400 IM and was devastated. "I was living in a warped situation in that if I didn't win two gold medals in world record times I was an absolute and complete failure. I blamed myself for not performing, that I had buckled under the pressure, but that wasn't the case, I just had no energy. My whole life, my whole self-worth rested on those swims."

Allison Wagner was one of the hardest-working swimmers in the world. At 4 am she woke up to run before swim practice. She cycled between workouts and lifted weights afterward. She trained at least six hours a day, and at the peak of her training she covered over 230 km at two-week training camps. No one at the University of Florida had ever seen Allison physically break down or mentally give up, but eventually, even she grew weary and lost her motivation. "For two years I hadn't had more than two days break. I had focused my whole life on the Olympics," she says. "After the Games I was so tired. I needed time off, but my coach wouldn't let me take any. I had to go back to college for the Georgia dual meet. I was burned out."

At 19, Allison was 105 pounds (47.7 kg) and had five-percent body fat. She had had only 3 menstrual periods in her entire life. Ultimately, it was the team doctors and trainers who stepped in, forcing her to go to counselling and take birth control pills to stimulate her menstrual cycle. "I hated the side effects and I wouldn't take it properly. When the doctors told me about an eating disorder clinic, I decided to go. I didn't think I had a problem, but it was my only way out of the pool."

Allison dropped out of school and spent the next three weeks at a clinic for women with eating disorders, but not before she was ordered by her coach to formally apologize to her teammates for letting them down by leaving in the middle of the season.

At the outset, Allison hated the clinic for its strictness. All meals were individually planned, and the women were observed to make sure they ate. Allison was assigned a doctor, nutritionist, psychiatrist, and psychologist. She spent her days in individual and group therapy sessions and, eventually, began to enjoy being there. "After one week I loved it. I didn't want to leave, there was so much support, so much help...I am so glad I went," she says. During her three weeks at the clinic, her parents attended three meetings. Her coach had only two telephone conference calls with Allison and her doctors.

But when she went home, she started to eat and inevitably gained weight. It was then that her bulimia developed, seemingly unchecked. Living at home, she was depressed and too embarrassed to hang out with her friends. The only thing holding her together was continued therapy sessions she attended four times a week.

In January of 1997, she went back to school, only to drop out again after a week because depression was killing her concentration. Soon afterward Allison enrolled in an Outward Bound program. For three weeks she hiked through the Californian desert learning about basic survival needs.

"It was a very enlightening experience, and I was finally ready to swim again after Outward Bound, but when I got back to Florida I was 40 pounds heavier than when I had last been in the water, and my coach kept telling me 'Let's get F-I-T, not F-A-T.'" One year later Allison left Florida and her coach.

The underlying cause of Allison's eating disorder was her low self-image, and for the past two years she has been working on her self-esteem. "When a coach tells a swimmer she is fat and that the leaner she is the faster she will swim, it's wrong. When I was my leanest (at the Olympics), I swam my slowest. You have to be healthy to swim fast, it is true you don't see obese swimmers, but you need to have a healthy balance, and coaches need to be open to educating themselves."

Unfortunately Allison has been unable to maintain that healthy balance, and she is now suffering from serious health problems. In January she fainted and suffered a mild seizure while training at altitude in Colorado Springs. Abnormally fatigued, she is currently back in Florida awaiting the results from an EKG and an ultrasound of her thyroid.

A 1996 U.S. survey conducted by Griffin and Harris shows that 99% of coaches believe that an athlete's weight is important and a majority believes it is important to their performance. The same study showed that although nearly 25% of coaches believe that there are athletes with eating disorders on their teams, only 6% recommended their athletes see a nutritionist.

Anorexia itself is a psychological disorder and thus sports psychologists are best equipped to handle the behavioural changes necessary for an athlete to recover from a severe eating disorder. According to Dave Johnson, the Swimming/Natation Canada (SNC) club programs have access to a sport psychology/mental skills registry from which they can choose a sport psychologist to work with their swimmers. "Both Etobicoke and Edmonton have a female sports psychologist working with their teams," he says.

Dr. Judy Goss is a sports psychology consultant in Toronto who works with Etobicoke and Cobra. She prefers to use the designation "disordered eating" when talking with athletes. "A lot of athletes have eating problems that do not fall under the clinical definition of anorexia or bulimia, so I like to use the phrase ‘disordered eating,' which refers to people prone to engage in unhealthy eating and weight management. These disorders can fall into many categories and each athlete must be evaluated on an individual basis."

In Canada, coaches are certified through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian coaches are given information in many areas including nutrition. Dave Johnson commented on how SNC tries to address these issues. "There is a greater understanding that the elements of high performance coaching need to be supported by continuing education. The NCCP level 4/5 has a specific task (Task 4) which covers all aspects of nutrition and nutritional guidelines. Task 16 covers long term development of athletes."

Unfortunately, disordered eating may start before swimmers are in their teens, and many coaches at the age-group level have not yet received this training. In most provinces a coach must only have NCCP level 2 to coach at the provincial championships. According to Dr. Goss, "...there is nothing in the material that addresses the issues of burnout, stress, or eating disorders, and it is completely missing the female aspect."

PLACE Gainesville, FL
HEIGHT 5' 7” / 170 cm
HOME New York
CLUB Badger Swim Club
COACH John Collins
  96 Olympics: 6th 200 IM 2:16.43, 400 IM 2nd 4:42.03
  95 Pan Pacs: 4th 200 IM 2:16.63, 2nd 400 IM 4:45.52
  94 Worlds: 2nd 200 IM 2:14.40, 2nd 400 IM 4:39.98
  93 SC Worlds: 1st 200 IM 2:07.79, 2nd 400 IM 4:31.76

Steps such as SNC's inclusion of a female coach at this summer's Pan Am Games are putting more women on deck; however, swimming is a sport dominated by male coaches. It is therefore extremely important that women swimmers have some other female support. Many female athletes cannot and will not approach male coaches with their problems. "Most girls don't tell anyone," says Dr. Goss. "It's often difficult to tell your parents, teammates, or coaches, so if you are worried about telling someone, seek out a person you feel comfortable with. Just make sure you tell someone."

Parents can play an integral role in their swimmer's mental and physical health by finding out what approach their child's coach takes to both coaching and learning. Dr. Goss advises parents to be proactive in assessing their child's health. "Parents need to be aware of their swimmer's eating habits and any weight loss. Kids can hide it very easily so parents need to pay close attention to the symptoms of disordered eating."

Despite all the work that still needs to be done to educate parents and coaches about disordered eating, athlete education is crucial. Swimmers who lack the information needed to start safe weight-loss programs on their own often turn to dangerous weight-loss methods because it seems easier. Allison Wagner is only one of many.

Last summer I conducted an informal and anonymous survey of the female swimmers on the Commonwealth Games team. I received several responses from girls who said they did or currently do suffer from eating disorders. Several more girls responded that they have teammates who deal with these problems. For three years I suffered from bulimia while in high school, and I have also seen some of my closest friends and teammates overcome by eating disorders, both in high school and at college.

There is a nutritional program offered to carded swimmers and SNC does provide such information to swimmers each year at national youth camps. However, there is a big difference between nutrition know-how and prevention of eating disorders; while improper nutrition can lead to poor performance and health problems, the risks of eating disorders are deadly. "The biggest health risk from eating disorders is death," says Dr. Goss. "Many people don't realize it but only 30-60 percent of people recover from disordered eating and most people suffer from chronic disordered eating for the rest of their lives."

Coaches, parents, and swimmers must all be educated about disordered eating. Until everyone learns to work together to alleviate these problems, the cycle will continue. The younger swimmers are when proper nutritional patterns are established, the healthier they will be.

"I haven't purged in a long time," says Allison. "I still freak out about food, just not as often. Eating disorders are a huge problem. When I was 14, I watched the girls in college puking in the bathroom every day...and I knew it wasn't the flu. I have teammates that are doing it, and it's a problem that needs to be addressed."

For more information on anorexia: surf the web at

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: noticeable weight loss, frequent use of weight scale, fatigue, cold intolerance, muscle weakness, depression, irregular or complete loss of menstruation, sleeping problems, overuse injuries, pale complexion, tooth decay, bloodshot eyes, dry skin and hair, and headaches.

MEDICAL COMPLICATIONS: cardiac arrest, cardiac arrhythmia, cathartic colon, infertility, anemia, electrolyte imbalances, insomnia, osteoporosis, kidney and liver damage, ulcers, dehydration, hair loss, and dizziness.