After breaking out on the international stage with a pair of relay medals at the 2016 Olympic Games just months after her 16th birthday, Taylor Ruck emerged as one of the best female swimmers in the world in 2018 and appeared to be well on her way to superstardom at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Ruck won a record eight medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, including beating Australian Ariarne Titmus head-to-head in the women’s 200 freestyle, and four months later at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, she did the same to reigning Olympic champion Katie Ledecky in the 200 free.
But after that breakout, Ruck’s performances began to decline in the pool, and now she’s opened up on the reasons why.
In a report published in Saturday’s edition of The Globe and Mail, Ruck and several other Canadian Olympians talk openly about their battles with eating disorders and its effect not only on their athletic careers, but also on their mental health and overall well-being.
The article says that Ruck’s issues began following her 2018 success. She began to fixate on everything she put in her body, was convinced any extra weight would slow her down, and after hearing “offhand remarks” from coaches about whether she had gotten bigger, began to eat less and train more.
Ruck put a focus on keeping everything the same, the article says, thinking: ‘If I can prolong how much my body does not change at all, I can keep my success.’
“When you get to a high-performance level, there’s a lot of emphasis on doing all that you can do, just to take off one one-hundredth of a second,” Ruck told The Globe.
“I just thought, ‘I have control over nutrition. Why not do all that I can do?'”
A habit turned into a compulsion, and Ruck eventually began binging, and then, overcome by guilt, purging.
The article mentions a conversation Ruck had with one of her training partners on the way to practice one day, where she revealed the difficulties she’s been going through in regards to eating, and to her surprise, the teammate was going through the same thing.
“It just kind of came out,” Ruck said. “I was pretty surprised that she was going through the same thing – binging and purging. It made it seem normal.”
Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson says that looking back, the warning signs were there, but weren’t spotted early enough.
“There was a period of time where people were seeing things, not quite so sure what they were seeing,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson told The Globe that Swimming Canada has started to change the way it looks at eating disorders, with hopes of becoming more proactive in recognizing problems early on. He added that coaches are now being put through eating disorder training this month.
“We certainly have to be better at identifying it and hopefully supporting it,” he said. “We can all be better. We can all improve.
“Are we 100 percent there? No, we’re not. But we’re taking these steps towards being better.”
Ruck won a trio of bronze medals on the Canadian women’s relays at the 2019 World Championships while picking up three top-five individual finishes across the women’s 100 free, 100 back and 200 back.
At this past summer’s Olympic Games, Ruck only swam the preliminary heats in the Canadian women’s 4×100 free relay, and was left off of the 4×200 free relay entirely.
“I think it was for the best,” she said regarding being left off the finals team in the 4×100 free. “I think I was just too emotional at that point.”
Her teammates won silver in the 4×100 free relay final, giving Ruck a third career Olympic medal, and she went on to win a fourth after swimming the preliminary backstroke leg on the women’s 4×100 medley relay that went on to win bronze.
The 21-year-old said that the disorder led her to some pretty dark days, and hopes by shedding light on the issue she can positively impact those that deal with a similar issue in the future.
“I characterize myself as a pretty happy person, and I’d say I was more unhappy than not when I was eating less than I should have,” she said. “And it kind of got to the point where I was having suicidal thoughts.
“It steals everything from you. There’s no room for anything else in your brain.”
After taking a two-year hiatus due to the Olympics and the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruck is back training at Stanford University with eyes down the line on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. She notes that she’s still working through the disorder, but is beginning to feel stronger in the water.
The Globe and Mail article also featured stories of Canadian Olympians India Sherret (women’s ski cross), Kirsten Moore-Towers (women’s figure skating), Haley Smith (women’s mountain biking), François Imbeau-Dulac (men’s diving) and Gillian Carleton (women’s cycling).
According to a 2019 survey of Canadian national team athletes (all sports), 21 percent said they had an eating disorder, according to The Globe, compared to around three percent for the general population.