Bobsledder Cynthia Appiah: “I Looked Phenomenal, but I Felt Absolutely Terrible”

Bobsleigh pilot Cynthia Appiah shares this candid essay about her experience with body image issues in elite sports.

I remember taking my braids out. They had just been freshly done a few days prior, but I needed to remove any extra weight before stepping onto the scale. When I saw that I had only lost two kilograms, I was on the brink of tears. I felt defeated.

It was December 2015 and I had been diligently watching my eating for months in order to compete in bobsleigh.

I came to the sport after leaving the world of track and field in 2013, where I competed in shot put and hammer throw. I was a thrower for nearly a decade, but it became clear that the Olympic Summer Games weren’t going to happen for me. After watching brakewoman Shelley-Ann Brown medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, I decided to move to bobsleigh. I soon learned that to slide without getting my team disqualified, I had to lose at least 13 kilograms.

During my time as a track and field athlete at York University, I had put on 18 kilograms of mostly muscle as a result of my training. There was no pressure to be a certain weight, but in throwing, the bigger you are, the farther and faster you’ll throw, so it aided in my performance. At the same time, there is this pressure, particularly on women, to avoid looking too muscular or masculine. That always played in the back of my mind. I had this internalized fear of looking too big or being seen as “fat.” When I learned I had to lose weight to become a bobsledder, my first instinct was, OK, I get to be skinny again.

I worked with a nutritionist, cut back on snacking and made sure that I balanced the rice, meat and vegetable portions when enjoying my family’s Ghanaian meals. As I transitioned into bobsleigh, people noticed the weight coming off and I got a lot of compliments. It was positive reinforcement that thinner was somehow better.

But in August 2015, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) cut the women’s weight limit by 15 kilograms, apparently to encourage a wider range of body types to enter the sport. But my body was perfect for the old weight limit. These new measures meant I had to lose even more weight. I was shredded, had washboard abs, my speed suit fit me in all the right places. I looked phenomenal, but after months of trying to lose more weight, I felt absolutely terrible. I was eating the bare minimum of what I needed to sustain my body, nearly half the calories that I average today. I did not have more weight to lose.

I ended up being paired with a pilot whose weight, combined with mine, allowed us to meet the new regulations. I made the team, but that moment on the scale stuck with me. I vowed never again to let myself get to the point where I was missing out on team dinners or declining offers to go for ice cream—where food was the only thing I focused on. I’m not yo-yo dieting to get competition-ready. I’m a big foodie, and I love sweets, so I work at eating balanced meals so I can maintain my body throughout the year.

Even so, as a high-performance athlete, you constantly compare yourself to competitors and fellow teammates. So naturally, I ask myself questions like: “How do I look compared to the rest of the team?” “Am I too big? Too small?” These questions come up for both men and women, and for me, they were amplified during the pandemic, when access to gyms was restricted, limiting my workouts to one-hour blocks instead of my typical two- to three-hour sessions. I wondered if my body would be ready for the Games, if I’d be fast enough, strong enough. Am I going to be pudgy? These thoughts invaded my mental space.

But body image isn’t something that gets talked about in elite sports. I don’t remember ever having a conversation about insecurities or the pressure to look a certain way with other athletes or coaching staff. Even when I felt my worst in 2015, I was still performing well, so there weren’t any warning signs for anyone to step in and check on me. If they had, it might’ve led to a healthier relationship with myself and the team at the time, because it felt like I had no resources and I had to figure things out on my own. It shouldn’t require athletes talking about their struggles or experiences with disordered eating for teams to work with health professionals and start open conversations. Those types of support should be available at all times and athletes need to seek the help they need.

It took a lot of time and internal work for me to accept my body. I realized my body helped me propel my career and I can’t use societal beauty standards to knock myself down. And now my body is taking me to the Olympics in Beijing.

The Olympics bring together a wide variety of athletes. I hope these Games and conversations can help cast a wider net on what an athlete can look like. You can be skinny, short, tall, big, small, whatever—and still be great.

This essay is part of Best Health’s Body Talk package exploring the issue of body image within elite sports. Read more about the experiences of current and former Winter Olympians and Paralympians, and what is being done to make sports a safer space for all athletes, here:

“Fat Doesn’t Fly”: Inside the Culture of Body Shaming in Figure Skating 

Paralympian Brittany Hudak: “I Didn’t Think About Body Image Until I Became an Elite Athlete”

Alpine Skier Erin Mielzynski: “I Was Just Trying To Be Perfect”

Speed Skater Alyson Charles: “I Consider Myself Lucky”

Olympic Legend Catriona Le May Doan: “I Worried About How People Viewed Me My Whole Career”

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