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Photo by Charlotte Observer, Getty Images.
Photo by Charlotte Observer, Getty Images.
Charlotte Observer, Getty Images

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Olympic Spotlight: Alicia Sacramone Quinn

The gymnast who lead Team USA to silver in Beijing opens up about struggles with body image and the importance of nutrition

It's no secret that Olympic medalist Alicia Sacramone Quinn has battled more than just a tough balance beam or pole vault. Quinn, who entered the gymnastics arena at 8 years old and then joined the U.S. national team at 17, isn't a stranger to criticism when it comes to performance. She even admits to condemning herself, especially when it comes to her leadership as captain of the USA team and their performance in Beijing. But the struggle Quinn had on the competition circuit with nutrition and healthy diet is something that she fights to make sure isn't a factor for other gymnasts every day.

"Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I had a harder time keeping my weight regular and steady while training and competing," says Quinn, who retired from the competition circuit in 2012 after she wasn't named to the U.S. women's team for the London games. "I really wasn't making better choices for myself. I had some struggles with eating disorders that stemmed from that."

Quinn, who ultimately sought out the professional aid and advice of a certified nutritionist after returning from Beijing, says there's an inherent obsession with body image in gymnastics got to her.

"Everyday I would struggle with this image battle — having to be in a leotard and looking good, while not making choices to starve myself. I needed to want to eat but not feel bad about it," she says. "It was time for me to get my head out of my butt and to be healthy and do well in competition, to work with myself and not against myself."

Quinn helped her team earn silver at the women's team artistic gymnastics final floor event in Beijing. Photo credit Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Quinn helped lead the women's team to a silver finish at the artistic gymnastics final event in Beijing.

The struggle with eating well and remaining healthy, however, didn't start with Quinn alone. Lifetime coach Mihai Brestyan, also coach to Quinn's lifelong friend and Rio 2016 competitor Aly Raisman, didn't hold back when it came to nutrition in his gym in Ashland, Massachusetts, which opened in 2000. Quinn feels that he wasn't sensitive to the subject of body image before eating disorders in gymnastics became a topic of international interest later in her career.

"I really do love Mihai, he's like my second dad, and is the coach I worked with the longest in my life," she said. "But he was old school in how he handled things. When Mihai first came over I'm not sure he really knew how to handle issues, things like eating disorders. I was definitely the learning curve for him."

Now a coach herself, Quinn always keeps this in mind with the Level 4 Compulsories group she trains, in which 9- and 10-year-old girls are competing in local state competitions. After marrying retired football quarterback Brady Quinn in 2014, the two moved down south where she began coaching at TAG USA, a local gym offering gymnastics and cheer education in Weston, Florida. Drawing on past experiences, Quinn asks herself how she would have wanted others to broach the subject of nutrition and weight management when she was young.

Quinn hugs Brestyan after finishing a beam routine at the 2010 VISA Championships in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Quinn embraces lifelong coach Mihai Brestyan after finishing her beam routine at the VISA Gymnastics Championships in 2010.

"I tread very lightly around the subject of weight with my girls. It's never, 'Hey, you're fat,' because that never will help anyone, not the coach or the athlete. It's 'Let's try to get in better shape for your performance.' It's about safety precautions and being healthy in this sport, not trying to make them feel bad about it. The last thing I want to do is traumatize these girls."

While body image has been a national topic of discussion in many respects recently, Quinn isn't sure that the stigma of gymnasts needing to look a certain way on the floor is completely gone. Quinn believes many girls think in order to perform well they need to look a certain way, as she once did before finding professional help.

"It was common for people, even fans, to make fun of girls who were buff or had any sort of muscle on their body. It was seen as unattractive," she says, comparing modern gymnastics to years past. "People expected success from a thin, small girl. It's different now, to have muscle is more socially acceptable and not as stigmatized as before. We're moving away from being super skinny with no muscle to having strong legs and muscle tone, and that's good."

Quinn, recently inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, is gearing up for a new challenge in life: motherhood. Quinn and her husband are expecting a baby girl in August, and being nine months pregnant, Quinn has resigned herself to supporting the USA team from home and will not be traveling to Rio.

She's also earning a professional degree in fashion studies online in an executive program with Parsons School of Design — past experience in fashion merchandising has always been a motivator for her interest in the industry. Unsurprisingly, she's interested in active lifestyle wear and hopes to enter the "workout clothes" space soon, moving away from corporate sponsorships like the 2008 ad campaign she did with Gatorade and her contract with Covergirl as well.

Quinn's good at keeping her options open. "You figure out what you're doing when you grow up, and for me and many gymnasts, it comes at retirement. Suddenly it's a whole new world."

Learn more on Alicia and other Olympians here


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