Former elite gymnast Vanessa Atler is speaking out about her eating disorder while training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy.
The now 35-year-old, known for her powerful tumbling on floor and vault, became a gymnastics sensation when she was just 15 in 1997. She seemed a shoo-in to make the 2000 Sydney Olympic team, but after dealing with injuries and what she describes as harsh new training, she was left off the roster.
In a new episode of gymnastics podcast GymCastic, Atler — now a mother and coach in California — talks about her struggles growing up and the pressure she felt to stay thin while competing.
Atler trained under now-coordinator for the United States women’s national gymnastics team, Valeri Liukin (father of Olympic champion Nastia Liukin), while at WOGA. Her struggles with bulimia first started after she underwent surgery and put on extra weight during recovery.
“Valeri freaked out about it like, ‘You got to get your weight down,’ ” says Atler. “That’s what coaches talk about, they see five pounds like, ‘Oh jeez, let’s get this off.’ ”
She adds: “If nobody said anything and I just started working out, it would’ve come off. It was this thing of, like, ‘We gotta get this weight off of you.’ I’d never been on a diet before … I’m such an emotional eater and if I’m stressed about something, I’ll just eat, eat, eat. It was the first time where if I wasn’t losing weight, I’d go and eat more food because I was stressed about it. It was just a horrible thing.”
Atler says she started “throwing up a little,” after feeling pressured by Liukin to stay thin.
“He would weigh us three times a day, which is insane,” she says. “You’d weigh in the morning, write down your weight and after workouts you’d write down your weight and at night time you’d write down you weight. Which is so stupid because it doesn’t mean anything.”
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The former gymnast says she was even told to avoid water.
“I remember they said don’t drink water because it makes you look bloated,” she says. “And after workouts, Valeri’s wife would take me to a regular gym to work out on a treadmill.
“I was just like, these people don’t know what they’re doing… ‘course I didn’t say anything.”
The bulimia and obsessive weigh-ins had lasting effects on Atler.
“I feel like I got really screwed up with my weight at Valeri’s to this day,” she says. “I’m still just messed up like I can’t not weigh it’s just a mess. I’m really sensitive to that … When I see coaches weigh their kids and things that like it’s just ridiculous.”
Asked to respond to Atler’s allegations, Valeri Liukin sent an exclusive statement to PEOPLE via USA Gymnastics.
“I am sorry Vanessa’s experience wasn’t positive during her time at WOGA. When asked to help during a difficult time for her, my intention as a coach was to help Vanessa achieve her dreams, not make her training situation more difficult,” says Liukin.
“My recollection of working with Vanessa is different and includes many positive experiences. Coaching techniques and perspectives have evolved since then, and I have grown as a coach through experience and expanding my knowledge. Today, I firmly believe an athlete’s focus should be on training smart, with increased education in the areas of balanced nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyle and communication. This is the basis for our approach in women’s gymnastics.”