Maren Lundby was the world’s top female ski jumper for three years, starting in 2018 when she won Olympic gold in South Korea.
At the Beijing Games, the Norwegian had the chance to become the first double Olympic champion in her sport. Instead, she decided to skip the World Cup season and a trip to China for the Olympics to make her physical and mental health a priority.
“I decided not to compete because I gained weight,” Lundby said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “I feel like I can’t compete at the level I want to.”
In recent months, Lundby has become an advocate for change in a sport that has historically caused athletes to develop eating disorders as teenagers, all in an effort to be as light as possible to extract some meters more of their flights through the air.
USA Nordic executive director Billy Demong, a five-time Nordic combined Olympian, said ski jumping is “one of the sports most affected by eating disorders” due to the desire to lose weight.
“Grease doesn’t fly, things like that. It’s not something I would let a coach say, but athletes talk to each other and they see it on TV,” Demong said earlier this season during a practice in Lake Placid, New York. “Some guys took it too far back then, in my time from 2000 to 2005 is when it was really bad.
“We’re talking about 6 foot guys that we weigh between 105 and 110 pounds. Wildly light. Some guys might do it and someone else would starve themselves the wrong way and end up in the hospital.
Lundby, 27, is the latest athlete to spark a conversation about the intensity of high-level competition – and what’s no longer working for athletes concerned about their health, physical and otherwise.
US star gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from the Tokyo Olympics for her welfare after a similar decision at Roland Garros by Naomi Osaka. American ski stars Mikaela Shiffrin and Jessie Diggins have spoken about their personal struggles. the latter also wrote a book about the struggles female athletes face when faced with unrealistic pressures to have a certain body type.
“Simone Biles, Mikaela Shiffrin, Jessie Diggins – those who have shared their stories with mental health – have been amazing,” said American ski jumper Casey Larson, who will be competing in her second Olympics in the coming days. “It has definitely helped us raise awareness for athletes who are struggling. It’s definitely a great story.
“But at the end of the day, ski jumpers have to be lean if you want to go far,” Larson added.
The International Ski Federation has tried to encourage athletes to make wise choices when managing their weight.
If jumpers have a body mass index of 21 or more, they can have skis as long as 145% of their height. The more ski area they have, the further they fly. But the FIS requires jumpers to use shorter skis if their BMI falls below 21, which is considered a relatively healthy number for both men and women.
One of the sport’s greats, Finland’s Matti Nykanen, was listed at 5-foot-8, 120 pounds for the 2010 Olympics; her BMI would be an “underweight” 18.5 with those numbers. Four years later, Sara Takanashi from Japan was 5 feet tall and weighed just 100 pounds, but a “healthy” BMI of 19.
Lundby said she thought it was important to talk about the weight issue and added that it was “really good to tell all young athletes not to make stupid decisions and suffer”.
“The changes have made it possible for everyone to be the right weight, but for some it’s still difficult and quite challenging for your long-term health,” Lundby said. “I would like it to be possible to jump to higher weights, but at the moment it is not like that. I wish there were rule changes that would make it easier for every athlete to be a ski jumper.
Ski jumpers tend to be tall and lean, taking advantage of their height to have longer skis and lighter weight to help fight gravity. They aren’t the only athletes being pressured to watch their weight, joining gymnasts, wrestlers and jockeys to name a few.
“It’s true that fat doesn’t usually end up flying very far,” Larson said. “But for the most part, USA Nordic has been great in giving us the help we need.”
USA Nordic, which develops American ski jumpers and Nordic combined athletes, is trying to stop eating disorders before they start. The organization has partnered with NYU Langone Health in part to educate jumpers about the dangers of weight loss.
“There will be consequences for not fueling your body the way it should, maybe not right away, but over time,” said Nicole Lund, a clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health who works with Nordic American athletes. “They’re young and they might not quite understand it yet, but it’s something to keep in mind.”
Even though Lundby is taking a break from competition, she remains connected to the sport. She’s been training in hopes of making a comeback next winter while traveling around Europe as a ski jumping TV analyst.
“I really want to be there,” she said of the Games. “I am an athlete and I want to win a gold medal. Not being there is hard so I’m looking forward to the closing ceremony.
Lundby will have to wait another four years for a chance to compete for Olympic gold, but some say it’s time to celebrate the courage she has shown by sharing her story.
“He’s a person that a lot of women, a lot of athletes looked up to,” Demong said. “I respect her a lot for having that kind of foresight six months from the Olympics that she was going to win, potentially.”
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