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Leisel Jones: "We were actively encouraged to skip meals to lose weight."

An extract from Liesal Jones’ new memoir Body Lengths.

I am always on a diet, always counting calories, obsessing over food, and always, always hungry. I am insatiable. I cannot eat enough. I am still a teenager, with a break-neck teenage metabolism, and after swimming and training for hours each day, I never seem to fill myself up. And yet I still try to diet.

Body Lengths by Leisel Jones with Felicity McLean is out now.

Last year was ‘My Year Without Chocolate’, in which I didn’t eat a single square of chocolate. Not one piece. It was all my own idea and it nearly killed me – very nearly broke my spirit – but I’m sure it went some way towards keeping the kilos off. I don’t drink, I don’t eat cheese. I skip ice-cream, hot chips, burgers and pies. The sight of a piece of mud cake can reduce me to tears, worse if it has chocolate icing. Christmas is the hardest, because it’s peak training season. Nationals are in March, so I have to be extra strict at Christmas.

And all of this has to come from me. I am the one who has to stick to the regime. Beyond the beady eye of my coach, it is up to me. When I’m at home, when I’m out with friends, I have to be good. I need the willpower of a saint. But I am strong and determined.

Also, I am convinced I am fat.

Leisel Jones book body athlete swimming
“Trying to find my smile in Sierra Nevada, 2009.” Image: Supplied.

Whenever I have to stand on the pool deck in my togs, listening to my body being discussed like it’s an engine and not the arms, legs, thighs and stomach of a teenage girl, I am self-conscious and miserable. I think I am just too fat.

Part of the reason for this is that there is nothing strategic about my diet, nor about the diet of anyone who I know. Despite the ad hoc appearance of dietitians in our lives (such as at the Fukuoka World Championships, where they popped up with that salmon cake), we receive no sustained scientific dietary advice. The only dietitians in my life are affiliated with the QAS, and they’re seen as extraneous: outside help you can seek if you really need to shed some kilos or put on some bulk.

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They are not part of our ‘team’, not in the way our coach or gym trainer is. And seeing a dietitian is on a par with seeing a sports psychologist: not encouraged. Back when I swam with Ken, he never wanted us to deal with outsiders – coaches knew best – and his strategy when it came to diet was to put most of the girls in our squad on meal-replacement shakes at some time or another. Diet shakes, yeah, that’s a good idea for a teenage athlete!

Leisel Jones book body athlete swimming
‘This is my office. I know what to do.” Liesel at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Image: Supplied.

We were always getting weighed in, always being judged. We were actively encouraged to skip meals to lose weight. It is irresponsible and terribly damaging. And it’s a quick way to screw up a teenage girl’s metabolism, to say nothing about the state of her head. Even now at the QAS we are all weighed three times a week. Weigh-ins take place on the pool deck in our togs, and we are weighed in front of our squad (girls and guys together), plus a team of coaching staff. There are men there as old as our dads, all watching our embarrassment as we are publicly weighed.

Weighed, weighed and weighed again.

Some of the coaches at the QAS gym have a thing going called ‘6:1.20’. This is their code, their secret talk. They think we don’t understand when they call a girl – it’s always a girl – a ‘6:1:20’. But when she’s crying in the showers later, it’s because she knows that ‘6’ stands for the sixth letter of the alphabet, ‘1’ the first, and ‘20’ the twentieth. F. A. T. Doesn’t take a genius to bust that one open.

This is an edited extract of Body Lengths by Leisel Jones with Felicity McLean, Nero, $29.99, out now.

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