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In the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City, a blond, pigtailed 15-year-old girl earned the highest U.S. scores in gymnastics. She captured the hearts of millions of people around the world and changed the course of women’s gymnastics in the United States. That teenage athlete was Cathy Rigby, the first American woman to win a medal in World Gymnastics competition. She holds 12 international medals, eight of which are gold. While Cathy excelled in the Olympics, she also suffered from an eating disorder.

“We didn’t know very much about nutrition. Neither did the coaches,” Cathy said, recalling how her eating disorder started. The coaches would tell the athletes what their weight should be, somewhat arbitrarily. Cathy weighed about 94 pounds at the time and was eating one meal a day to maintain her weight at the prescribed 90 pounds. One night, near the end of training camp, the team went out for pizza to celebrate. “I had three pieces and panicked, knowing I would be weighed-in the next day.” Cathy knew one girl on the team was taking laxatives but had no idea it was her way of maintaining her weight. Another girl said she threw up everything she ate. That night Cathy tried the latter method, but it didn’t work. “When I hit puberty and went up to about 104 pounds two or three months later, I worked a little harder at either starving myself or becoming bulimic.”

Cathy’s recovery began in the early ’80s after she went through a divorce. “I tried to get professional help before that. Even the psychologists and psychiatrists back then, I think, had to look it up.” Her early experiences with treatment met with little success. It wasn’t until she remarried that a break came. Her desire not to repeat her past failed marriage, along with the persistent encouragement of the man who is now her husband, Tom McCoy, eventually led to a treatment situation that worked. “The two of us got help for it – him to understand it and deal with me and not try to feed me scrambled eggs.”

Today, a successful actress and mother of four, Cathy is free of her eating disorder. In her appearances at colleges and universities, she talks about her experiences in a positive way. “What I try to do is to lure people into the story,” she said. Gymnastics is “a sport that demands absolute control, both emotionally and physically.” It can be difficult to tell when the quest for excellence crosses over into obsession – when the passion for the sport becomes overshadowed by greed or abusive control. Cathy echoes the thoughts of other experts when she points out “the very thing that makes anybody a great athlete many times predisposes them to become affective-compulsive people.” The powerful emotions, interaction with the coach and parents and the strain of reaching for an almost unattainable goal can be more difficult to balance than any part of a gymnastic routine. “Even in the best of situations, it’s a little dysfunctional. It’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes
by David M. Edwards and Mary Allen