Balancing diet, exercise often a struggle


Independence (Thompson's Station, Tenn.) senior Kathy Kroeger
has always been small. And she's always been fast.

But for a while, the 2006 Foot Locker national champion
thought there needed to be a correlation between the two. "I wanted to be
as fast as possible," she says. "So I thought I had to be as light as possible."

Throughout the duration of her championship season, Kroeger burned
hundreds of calories per day while training but hardly replaced them,
dropping down to 85 pounds by the end of the season.

Then between cross country and track campaigns, Kroeger went to her
doctor for a routine physical. She left in tears.

"My doctor said that I was far too lightweight," she says. "I wasn't
getting enough calories to meet my exercise. He told me to sit out that
track season and gain 20 pounds if I wanted to be healthy again."

In hindsight, Kroeger admits something was off even if she says it wasn't
an eating disorder. "I don't think it went that far, but I definitely had a
problem," she says.

While Kroeger was able to spot her problem quickly with the help of a
doctor, many high school girls aren't as fortunate.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), nearly
10 million females in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders and 40 percent
of newly identified cases of anorexia are found in girls ages 15-19.

What's scary is those numbers don't even tell the entire story.

"Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness," says Lynn
Grefe, CEO of NEDA.

"The exercise piece of this is pretty dangerous," she adds. "I know of a
family who had to take turns doing watch at a child's door because that's
how she was expressing her eating disorder -- through exercise. A lot of
these people wouldn't say it's an eating disorder, but remember it's not
about the food -- it's about control and controlling that weight."

The control aspect caused Cypress Bay (Weston, Fla.) senior Mariana Lucena
the most grief. Lucena now admits she was anorexic as an eighth-grader, but
when she battled the illness it wasn't as easy to come to grips with.

"It was a strive for perfection," she says. "When you fail, all
you want to do is punish yourself. That's where it started. My
parents used to tell me, 'You're skin and bones,' but when I
looked in the mirror, all I saw was a not-skinny me."

Lucena was always cold. Even in the middle of the humid
Florida summers, she'd wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts or
sweaters. She was always tired and felt terrible.

At one point, Lucena dropped down to 65 pounds. She
was eventually admitted to a hospital, where she was forced
to stay for 10 days. Doctors fed her through a tube in her
throat. "I probably gained 10 or 15 pounds," she says. "But
when I got out, I still rejected food."

It wasn't until a family vacation to Tennessee when
something -- she still doesn't know what -- finally clicked.
Lucena started eating normal again and regained some
confidence. She wanted to focus her newfound energy on
something productive once her health returned, so she
decided to run.

Family and friends were initially hesitant to let her,
fearing Lucena would fall back into a cycle of trying to lose
weight. So she made a deal with her parents.

"I had to gain weight if I wanted to run," she says. "That
made it hard. It's kind of two extremes. But I committed
myself to pursuing what I love and gaining weight at the
same time."

Lucena ate constantly, and it worked. Since then, life has
never been better.

"I feel amazing," says Lucena, who now weighs a healthy
110 pounds and is one of Florida's top runners. "I am so
happy. Every day I kiss my dog and I hug my mom. Part of me
is glad I went through this process. I feel so much stronger
and more confident."

Like Lucena, Kroeger has recovered fully. But she had to
miss her sophomore track season to do so.

For 2 months, Kroeger ate as much as humanly
possible while her teammates and rivals continued racing.
Kroeger avoided desserts and high-calorie foods before
her doctor's orders. Now all of a sudden she was eating all
sorts of cheeses, meats and granola.

"If you're not providing nourishment, you're not feeding
your heart, your kidneys -- everything suffers," Grefe says.
"It's extremely dangerous."

The 2-month break didn't slow Kroeger down much at
all. As a junior, a much healthier, 110-pound Kroeger won
the Foot Locker South Regional and finished second at the
National Championship.

Now a senior, Kroeger is looking to add a second Foot
Locker national title to her resume.

Lucena is also hoping to qualify for nationals this fall,
though she'd settle for something else.

"I wish I could talk to every girl who's dealing with this
right now," Lucena says. "I wish I could tell them that their
choices could put them in a death bed."

Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.