Famous Athletes Who Have Struggled with Anorexia or Bulimia

adidas Soccer ball

Famous Athletes Who Have Struggled with Anorexia or Bulimia

This pressure for famous athletes to be thin results not only from some sports emphasis on aesthetics but also on the perception that weight-regulation will enhance sports performance [1].

As such, it is not uncommon for athletes to struggle with an eating disorder.

“Aesthetic” Sports

Gymnastics, dance, and figure skating are often referred to as “aesthetic” sports because of the emphasis that is placed on aesthetic evaluations, which often leads to disordered eating [1].

Nadia Comaneci

The first gymnast to receive a perfect 10.0 at the 1976 Olympics, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was a powerhouse.

These incredible accomplishments were sorely won, as Comaneci later revealed that she was struggling with both anorexia and bulimia at the time.

Living under a dictatorial regime in Romania, Comaneci was banned from ever leaving the country, forced to endure a grueling training schedule, and was constantly under surveillance [2].

Yet, Comaneci proved as emotionally strong as she was physically fit, finding the courage to defect and escape from Romania and build a happy and healthy life for herself and her family in Oklahoma.

Yulia Lipnitskaia

In August of 2017, 19-year-old Russian Gold medalist, Yulia Lipnitskaia, announced her retirement from figure skating due to complications from anorexia.

Famous athletes discussing how they struggled with anorexiaWhen the media speculated she was pregnant because she had gained weight, Yulia exclaimed, “Have a conscience. I can’t be 37 kilograms all my life just to make everybody happy. I have been dieting enough already; it’s enough! [4].”

Hailed as a “tiny genius,” “little legend,” and “the future of figure skating,” Yulia’s career was at its peak when she announced her retirement upon completion of three months treatment [3].

This courageous decision sends a powerful message: that no amount of success is worth punishing your body and sacrificing your self-worth.

Nancy Kerrigan

Nancy Kerrigan is a household name for many. The darling of 90’s figure skating, Kerrigan gained the title of United States Champion and numerous Olympic medals.

Kerrigan’s talents were overshadowed by a tragic incident in 1994. While training for the upcoming Olympics, Kerrigan’s right thigh was bludgeoned with a police baton in an attack planned by her rival, Tonya Harding’s, ex-husband [5].

She resiliently pushed through this awful experience to win a silver medal in the 1994 winter Olympics.

Kerrigan continues to show this resilience today, as she candidly speaks about her experiences with disordered eating, sharing that her disorder developed as a direct result of the 1994 assault, as she felt eating was the only thing she could control [5].

Today, Kerrigan is recovered and, in 2017, Executive Produced the documentary “Why Don’t You Lose 5 Lbs?” which focuses on the pressure athletes experience to maintain lean and “perfect” bodies.

Male Athletes

The pressure to do whatever it takes to be in peak physical condition does not solely impact women.

NEDA estimates that approximately 33% of male athletes that participate in aesthetic sports, such as body-building, gymnastics, swimming, and wrestling, are affected by eating disorders [6].

Bahne Rabe

Bahne Rabe was a successful competitive rower for Germany, with world titles on his belt and 2 Gold medals.

Yet, Rabe was fighting some powerful demons that eventually took his life.

Rabe struggled with anorexia and tragically died from pneumonia after being admitted to the hospital for extreme malnutrition.

Nigel Owens

Rugby player participating in his first match after bulimia treatment.

While not a famous athlete, Nigel Owens is a Welsh rugby union referee whose story is worth telling.

Now 46, Owens has been battling with bulimia since he was 18 [7].

He states these behaviors began when he was coping with repressed homosexuality and chronic depression [7].

Owens reports that, even as a referee, he is held to rigorous fitness standards. As he notes, professional rugby players compete in their prime, their 20’s, yet he is held to the same standard at 46 [7].

Owens is now involved with the Panorama program, sharing his struggle, and bravely working to reach recovery.

Those who compete athletically have an incredible work ethic, motivation, and passion. They should be able to put these valuable traits toward enjoying the sport they love, not toward abusing their bodies.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Krentz, E. M., Warschburger, P. (2011). Sports-related correlates of disordered eating in aesthetic sports. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 375-382.

[2] Arthurs, D. (2008). I’m a super-fit mum at 46, says former gymnast Nadia who stunned the world with her Olympic perfect 10. DailyMail. Retrieved on 12 Feb 2018 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1044249/Im-super-fit-mum-46-says-gymnast-Nadia-stunned-world-Olympic-perfect-10.html.

[3]Luhn, A. (2017). Yulia lipnitskaia, Russia’s youngest ever Winter Olympics gold medalist, retires at 19 after anorexia struggle. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/29/yulia-lipnitskaya-russias-youngest-ever-winter-olympics-gold/.

[4] Meyers, D. (2017). Yulia Lipnitskaia, the skating darling of Sochi, retires after completing treatment for anorexia. Deadspin. Retrieved on 12 Feb 2018 from https://deadspin.com/yulia-lipnitskaya-the-skating-darling-of-sochi-retire-1798520119.

[5] Anthem, N. (2017). Why Nancy Kerrigan developed an eating disorder. Cinema Blend. Retrieved on 12 Feb 2018 from https://www.cinemablend.com/pop/1646319/why-nancy-kerrigan-developed-an-eating-disorder.

[5] Pearson, C. (2011). Male athletes struggle with eating disorders. Huffington Post. Retrieved on 12 Feb 2018 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/eating-disorders-men_n_928206.html.

[6] Squire, C. (2017). Top rugby referee Nigel Owens reveals he still struggles from bulimia. Wales Online. Retrieved on 12 Feb 2018 from https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/tv/top-rugby-referee-nigel-owens-13372603.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 25, 2018.
Reviewed on June 25, 2018 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.