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Olympic Skater Talks Frankly About Her Not-so-smooth Glide to the Top
July 05, 2009 11:38 AM
By Kim Zarzour
With her head in the hairdresser’s sink, the shampoo just rinsed out, Canadian figure skater Elizabeth Manley heard a gasp, then shocked whispers between her mom and the beautician standing behind her.
“Should we tell her?”
“Yes,” her mom said. “Elizabeth always wants honesty.”
And that’s when it all came out: the truth – and much of her hair.
They held out a mirror so she could see the back of her head: three golf-ball sized patches completely bald.
“Funny thing was, I didn’t even care,” Ms Manley recalls. “That should have been a sign, right there.”
But it was a sign they all missed – her mom, her coaches, and 17-year-old Ms Manley herself. It would be months before the young figure skater realized that the monster she’d been struggling with, that kept her secreted away in her apartment mysteriously losing hair and gaining weight, was clinical depression.
It almost killed her Olympic dreams.
Almost. But as everyone who remembers the 1988 Calgary Olympic games knows, the dream didn’t die.
And as she stood before a Thornhill audience Monday night recounting her roller-coaster battle with depression, it’s obvious the mighty but diminutive Ms Manley still has much to offer those who are also journeying through mental illness.
Ms Manley was addressing about 250 members of the mental health field, volunteers, community partners and interested residents as part of the Canadian Mental Health Association York Region branch annual general meeting.
The keynote address, sponsored by York Region Media Group, was part of the CMHA’s ongoing efforts to “break the silence” on mental health.
It’s a vow shared by the acclaimed figure skater, who says her teenage struggle with depression while climbing to the top of her sport was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
When she stood on the podium more than 20 years ago after a nearly flawless performance, few understood just how hard-won that silver medal was.
“It’s a medal and I hate to tell you this, but it’s in my underwear drawer and it’s every athlete’s dream, but for me,” she said, “it was so much more.”
An army brat from Trenton, Ontario, Ms Manley first took to the ice at age two, fiercely trying to outshine her hockey-playing older brothers. She was a natural, with a little help from a pack of Smarties.
“Mom would stand at one side of the ice and shake the box and I’d come flying across the ice and I’d get my Smarties. By the time I finished eating them and got my mitts back on and my toque, I’d hear her shaking the box from the other side.”
When she was 8, everything changed. Her family moved to Ottawa and her parents divorced. Her mother suddenly had to work, raise four kids on her own and foot the bills for Ms Manley’s blossoming skating career. By age 10 she was recognized as a potential champion – and was costing her mother $30,000 a year.
She offered to quit, but her mother told her to continue for as long as wanted. “I felt like I had ruined my mom’s life. I felt very guilty.”
But with her mother’s urging, she kept at it, and by age 15 was national champion, never fully understanding the enormous pressure she was soon to be under.
Then things started to fall apart.
She was told to leave her beloved coach; the Canadian Figure Skating Association had her moved to Lake Placid where she would live on her own and train around the clock.
When she wasn’t on the ice, she was alone. Loneliness made her reclusive, which made her lonely even more. She’d oversleep or undersleep or wake up sweating from nightmares.
One day she looked in the mirror to see a widening in her waist and hips – she was gaining weight Â- for a skater, the kiss of death.
She stopped eating but continued to “balloon” and woke up each morning to find her pillow covered with hair.
Then came that fateful day at the hairdresser. A month later, she had only half a head of hair.
She was hustled from doctor to doctor, but no one knew what was wrong and the national championships were in a few weeks.
“The Canadian Figure Skating Association called me and flat out asked me not to compete,” she says. “I would embarrass them.”
Bald, half-starving herself and carrying 30 to 40 pounds of extra weight, she was determined to prove them wrong.
In the locker room, just before the big event, a catty competitor asked her “oh, do you need some hairspray?”
Biting back the tears, Ms Manley looked up to the sky and thought “what’s happening to me?”
She finished a respectable fourth out of 20, but lost her place on the podium. She hadn’t even returned to her hotel room before she was asked for her world team uniform back.
That night, Ms Manley had the cry of her life. She moved back home with her mother to a life of seclusion, shoved her skates into a closet and kissed the sport good-bye.
It could have ended there.
But a couple from New York City, Peter and Sonya Dunfield, saw the untapped potential – and the depression. Former coaches to Dorothy Hamill, they asked her to give them a chance and to give “talk therapy” a chance too.
It was the first time anyone had even considered Ms Manley’s spiraling illness could be linked to mental health. She began seeing world-renowned sports psychologist Dr. Terry Orlick (free of charge) and began the slow climb back to normal Â- and back to the podium.
It wasn’t easy. There were many doubters along the way, vicious rumours and devastating media stories. But in February 1988, battling pneumonia and a blown eardrum (she’d been sick for weeks) she took to the ice and “I skated my heart out”.
Her performance won the silver medal and the nation’s heart, but standing on the podium she thought not of the medal, but the odds she’d overcome.
“Everything that I’d been through flashed through me,” she told the Thornhill audience this week. “I did it. I came back! It was the greatest moment of my life.”
Since then, Ms Manley has been national spokesperson for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ovarian Cancer Canada, and a spokesperson for Alzheimer’s Association Canada, plus a sports commentator and recipient of the Order of Canada.
And yet she still suffers through a roller coaster of life events – the loss of her mother last July, her father’s end battle with Alzheimer’s. Her teenaged battle with depression, she says, helps her get through.
“It made me a better person, helped me find myself, to understand the signs of mental illness, to know it’s nothing to be ashamed of – and that it’s okay; there is help out there.”
© Copyright 2008
Reproduced from http://www.theliberal.com/News/Regional%20News/article/94041