- Weighed several times in three-hour training sessions.
- Told to eat low-carb diets.
- Needed medical care after suffering panic attacks because of the intense pressure.
- Ordered to keep food diaries and present them to trainers on a weekly basis.
Now their parents are calling for governing body British Gymnastics to crack down and make sure all coaches abide by a strict code of conduct.
Amber’s mum Cherry-Ann, from Garsington, Oxfordshire, said: “Gymnastics is meant to be fun.
“In fact the sport was destroying their mental and physical health because of the way in which the coaches approached the sport as though it was life and death.”
Rhiannon, now 18, from Milton Keynes, was enrolled in a gymnastics class aged four. When she was 14, she was ready to compete at an international level.
But as training became more intense the pressure mounted. She said: “I was told I was getting too heavy. If I had even put on a kilo I was told I was too fat to do a tumble.”
At under 9st she was a healthy weight but comments about her size were relentless. Rhiannon said: “It made me feel scared and I got into quite a state one session. I believed what I was being told about my weight because the person was in a professional position. I started crying. I said, ‘I don’t know how you expect me to do this in a healthy way’. Comments about my weight made me feel I should restrict my calorie intake.”
Rhiannon put herself on a 600-calorie-a-day diet – the recommended daily intake is 2,000 calories for women.
At 18 Rhiannon was about 6½st, which is seriously underweight, and could barely walk.
She said: “If I walked more than 10 steps, my legs would seize up. There were about four times I was hospitalised because I fainted and blacked out.”
Her parents Yvette and Paul realised something was seriously wrong and she was referred to Cotswold House, an NHS-run eating disorder rehab centre in Headington, Oxon. She had to be put on a drip several times.
In July Rhiannon was discharged after recovering, with her weight returning to a healthy level. She is now happy and positive about the future.
Amber’s mum Cherry-Ann knew something was wrong when her daughter, who had been a healthy 9st, started suffering night terrors and sleep- walking. Amber, then aged 13, who represented Great Britain three times, said she had been harangued about her weight at training.
Cherry-Ann claimed: “She was continually told, ‘The reason you cannot do certain elements of gymnastics is because you’re too heavy’. She was devastated and would cry all the way home after every training session.” After Cherry-Ann withdrew her from the sport Amber was very down and her weight dropped. She then began to binge-eat, gaining more than two stone.
She recovered after Cherry-Ann confronted her about the issues and is now a healthy 10st for her height of 5ft 8ins.
The girls’ parents complained to British Gymnastics but felt their concerns were not thoroughly investigated.
Cherry-Ann says: “Amber has recently opened her own art exhibition depicting curvy women. It’s been cathartic and instrumental in her recovery. It’s a huge relief that something good has come from something so awful.”
Dr Pippa Bennett, chief medical officer for British Gymnastics, said: “Gymnastics has been identified as a potential high risk sport for eating disorders and we have liaised closely with specialist centres in Loughborough and Swansea to provide support to our gymnasts. If an issue is raised our welfare and medical departments can be contacted for advice.”
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