- Matt Remsberg, ESPNHS
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Growing up, Mary Beck never felt more at home than in the pool.
She taught herself to swim at age 4. By 7 she was immersed in a club swimming program. And by 13 it had become so clear she was at home in the water that her family pulled up its roots in Colorado and made a new home in Austin, Texas, so Beck could join the prestigious Longhorn Aquatics swim program.
That's when Beck took her training to the next level. Pre-dawn practices started to accompany after school sessions. Meals and bedtimes became regimented. Eventually, her life stopped mirroring the lives of her fellow students at Westlake (Austin, Texas).
Simply the price of success, Beck thought. And her success was plentiful.
Beck broke the national prep record in the 200 individual medley as a sophomore, watched it get broken a few days later and then reclaimed it as a junior. She added the national public high school record in the 100 backstroke as a junior and won two individual golds at the 2007 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.
Scheduled next were the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, where Beck had a legitimate shot to earn a trip to Beijing. Just one problem persisted: Beck had pushed herself so hard to get to that point that her physical and mental health were suffering and her passion for swimming was being sucked away.
"My whole life I'd been swimming because I loved being in the water," she says. "But it seemed like the more successful I got, the less I wanted to keep going."
What began as an internal struggle quickly started causing external issues. The summer before her junior year Beck was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition that leaves her chronically fatigued and was caused in part by her extreme training schedule. As she dejectedly continued to pour 100 percent of herself into a joyless pursuit, her relationships with family and friends suffered as well.
"I was running on empty for so long," Beck says. "I kept telling myself that if I could just hang on until Trials then I would take a break."
But in April 2008, less than three months before the biggest event of her budding career, Beck hit rock bottom and indefinitely halted her swimming career.
For millions of high school students, athletics are life. And for many of those athletes, getting ahead means pushing their bodies to the limit. And beyond.
From steroid abuse and eating disorders to the problems associated with overtraining, high school athletes across the nation risk their health daily to win a spot on varsity, earn a college scholarship, capture state titles or accomplish any number of other goals, large and small alike.
"High schoolers will always think of themselves as invincible and believe their bodies can withstand anything," says Dr. Linn Goldberg, professor of medicine and head of the Division of Health and Sports Medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University. "That's only natural, but it's an issue that has been compounded in recent years by the conflicting messages they receive from the professional athletes they love and from all the misinformation floating around on the Internet, on TV and from teammates and coaches."
High school steroid scandals hit their apex in 2005. In February of that year, nine football players at Colleyville Heritage (Colleyville, Texas) admitted to steroid use. The following month, three members of the Daniel Hand (Madison, Conn.) football team were arrested for steroid possession.
More recently, a volunteer football coach at Hanover Park (East Hanover, N.J.) was arrested in March 2007 for dealing steroids, and an anonymous member of the team estimated to ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that six to 12 of his teammates were abusing.
With steroids posing well-known long-term risks such as heart and liver damage, four states -- New Jersey, Florida, Texas and Illinois -- enacted high school steroid testing in recent years in an attempt to combat what seemed to be a widespread problem. While the effectiveness of such testing and the severity of the issue is up for debate, the act of abusing steroids is far more black and white than many other dangerous behaviors high school athletes engage in to get ahead.
Disordered eating -- irregular eating habits that can lead to full-blown disorders like anorexia or bulimia -- comes in many shades of gray. When does a little diet cross the line? When does healthy eating turn into a daily obsession?
"High school athletes increasingly want their bodies working like fine-tuned pieces of machinery," says Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. "But at the same time many feel pressure to stay trim. That's a dangerous combination during what is a key developmental phase for their bodies, and it certainly isn't going to help them perform at their peak."
In addition to sabotaging the very performance the athlete is attempting to improve, the long-term risks of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia include osteoporosis and potentially life-threatening complications to heart, digestive and reproductive health.
Grefe warns that the same high-achievement trait that propels many high schoolers to stardom on the field can also work to speed up the transition between disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders. And while a 2007 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that one in five female high school athletes exhibits some signs of disordered eating, Grefe notes that diagnoses of male eating disorders are on the rise. Whether it's wrestlers going to extremes to make weight or other male athletes simply battling body-image issues, boys are not immune.
"Teens think, 'It could never happen to me. I'm not at risk,'" Grefe says. "It's a very secretive illness, so if you're hiding it from everyone else it's easy to deny there's a problem."
Neither nutrition nor performance-enhancing drugs was an issue for Beck, but she was carrying a secret. For more than two years, she paid the cost of being a world-class swimmer while hiding an inability to enjoy her success. Well beyond being burned out, Beck showed symptoms of a condition known as overtraining.
Exhibited most often by runners, swimmers, cyclists and weightlifters, overtraining is a result of the body not being allowed enough time to recover between strenuous workouts. In addition to stalled progress, the athlete is constantly sore, tired and irritable. The most effective way to get back on track is to take an extended break.
"It was hard to see the situation clearly when I was in the middle of it," Beck says. "It seemed like there was no good answer. But once I was able to take a step back, I could tell right away it was the right thing."
The Columbus (Columbus, Wis.) boys' soccer team won the program's first state championship last fall, and coach Jason Adams thinks he knows the secret that pushed his team over the top.
"We didn't kick the ball any better and our strategy wasn't any different," he says. "We were just physically and mentally stronger than we've ever been before."
For that, Adams credits the groundbreaking Athletes Training & Learning to Avoid Steroids program. ATLAS for short, the program encourages healthy lifestyles through proper nutrition and exercise. It also details the negative effects steroids, alcohol and other drugs have on the bodies of male athletes. There's a companion program tailored toward female high school athletes as well: ATHENA (Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise & Nutrition Alternatives).
Researched for more than a decade before officially being launched in 2005, ATLAS and ATHENA are the only anti-doping education programs endorsed by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The programs consist of a series of classroom sessions in which training and nutrition facts are explained and myths are debunked. What makes the programs unique is that students lead sessions in a fun and relaxed environment rather than having adults give fiery lectures.
"High school athletes are hungry for this kind information," says Adams, who oversees the implementation of the ATLAS and ATHENA programs at Columbus. "The information out there about exercise and nutrition is constantly changing. You could ask 100 different trainers what you should be doing and get 100 different answers. So to have a definitive source of information like this that kids can trust is phenomenal."
A partnership with the NFL has brought credence to ATLAS and ATHENA. Through its Youth Football Fund, the NFL has donated $2.6 million during the past two years to reach 40,000 students in 80 high schools around the country. For high school athletes looking to safely get ahead, ATLAS and ATHENA are a good answer.
"My friends and I, we all thought we knew what we were doing with keeping our bodies in shape," says Lenny Hernandez, a Columbus sophomore who has been through the program and hopes to make the varsity soccer team this fall. "But ATLAS was a real eye-opener. Some of the littlest changes can make a big difference."
The 2008 Olympic Trials turned out to be the furthest thing from Mary Beck's mind last June. After stepping away from the sport just months earlier, she quickly started to make substantial lifestyle changes. She got a retail job at the mall, started going to movies with her friends and took her first non-swimming-related vacation in years -- not coincidently to a ranch in the landlocked state of Montana.
"I let things get away from me and it spiraled out of control," Beck says. "Looking back, I never should have let it get to that point. My body was telling me to back off, but the pressure to keep going was so strong."
Beck went nearly six months without entering a pool before her passion for swimming started to return. But she didn't immediately dive back into her old routine. Instead, she started with a couple practices per week and incorporated more dry-land training to help make up the difference.
Beck graduated from Westlake a semester early in January 2009 and enrolled early at Cal-Berkeley, joining the women's swim team in time to help it win Pac-10 and NCAA championships last year.
Beck's times haven't returned to the record-breaking levels she reached a few years ago, but she was still fast enough to register three top 10 finishes at the Pac-10 meet in what should have been her final semester of high school. And though the Olympics remain on Beck's radar for 2012, she believes her current outlook on swimming has her on a wiser, safer and more fruitful path.
Ultimately, she's most excited to once again feel at home in the pool.
"It seemed like everything was taking a back seat to swimming before, and I wasn't happy with myself as a person," Beck says. "Now that I've made the right adjustments, I feel like I have my life back."
Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
A willingness to push their bodies to the limit is what makes many athletes great. But for some, that compulsive desire to be the best can push them over the edge.