Finding My Balance

Photography by Perry Hagopian February 1, 2010

ms.jpgIn her new book, Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, Myself, Sarasota’s Monica Seles tells her story, from her rise as a young phenom to No. 1 in the tennis world to the 1993 stabbing that

derailed her tennis career—and her life. The stabbing, which was soon followed by her beloved father’s diagnosis of cancer and his death, plunged the 18-year-old Seles into darkness. As she struggled to rebuild her career, Seles turned to food for solace, alternating spartan diets and grueling workouts with eating binges that sabotaged all her work. With great candor, Seles describes her destructive behavior and the guilt and shame she suffered. When a foot injury sidelined her in 1993, she came home to Sarasota and finally began to deal with her grief and find her way back to fitness and health.

In the months after the stabbing, Monica began to recover physically, but her emotional health deteriorated. Depressed and anxious, she started to fill herself up with junk food. In the winter of 1994, Monica’s father’s cancer spread to his stomach and the family went with him to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was hospitalized and received chemotherapy.

After spending the day with my dad, I’d trudge through the mid-January Minnesota snow in my brand-new snow boots and make a late-night stop at the local Hy-Vee mega grocery store. The rush of air from the heating vents and the steady roll of my shopping cart’s wheels were a form of meditation for me.

I had reached the mid-160s, a solid thirty more than I’d ever weighed before, and the freezing-cold weather meant I could hide my expanding waistline under layers of sweaters and baggy track pants. Relieved to be away from sickness and the constant thinking about the worst version of “What if…?” I’d lose myself in the cookie and cracker aisle. I’d load up with Oreos, Pop-Tarts, pretzels and barbecue potato chips.

As I filled my cart with junk food, I knew what I was doing was wrong. First, I knew it wasn’t going to help me get back on the tennis court; second, I knew it wasn’t going to save my dad. I knew my behavior was extreme and unhealthy, but I just couldn’t stop myself. When I reached the checkout line, I’d unload my purchases onto the conveyor belt with my head down, hoping nobody would get in line behind me to gawk at the food. Not one nutritious calorie among the loot. I felt empty and damaged inside, and all I wanted to do was stuff myself with empty, damaging food.

While driving back to the hotel, I’d rip into a bag of potato chips, and within a few minutes it would be empty. In our suite, I’d wait anxiously by the toaster as my frosted Pop-Tarts turned a perfect golden color. I burned my fingers countless times because I couldn’t wait another 30 seconds for them to cool off before fishing them out of the toaster. My binges were done in secret. My family had no idea how much I was eating. I started having uncontrollable crying episodes, and I did those in secret, too. When I couldn’t sleep at night—which was becoming more and more often—I’d get up and lose myself in another bag of cookies. My dad was sick and I couldn’t make him better. My career was in tatters and I couldn’t make it better. My eating was getting out of control and I couldn’t stop it. By February, we were back home in Sarasota and I was exhausted. Mentally and physically I didn’t have anything left. My insomnia had grown worse, and I felt like a shell, a big, unhealthy, hopeless shell. I was tipping the scale at 174. I’d gained 40 pounds in less than a year.

Monica resumed playing and did achieve some success, rising as high again as No. 3. But she couldn’t succeed in losing weight, despite a series of trainers and nutritionists who put her on strict regimens and exhausted her with workouts. Baffled by her own behavior, she would stuff herself and regain any weight she lost, and the extra weight left her slow and vulnerable to injury. She did lose some weight before the Miami Ericsson in 2000, but lost to Martina Hingis in the semis in a humiliating 6-0, 6-0 match.  

After working my butt off for that month before Miami, I sabotaged all my progress in what had to have been some kind of record. The bowls of spaghetti and bars of chocolate didn’t erase my memory of the loss, but they did an incredibly efficient job of erasing my waistline. I knew I was hurting myself but I couldn’t stop. I wanted to feel better…right now. And food was my solution. Never mind the extra workouts that lay ahead or the slim chance of winning in Rome with that extra weight; just eat now and worry about all that stress later.

The bridesmaid’s dress [for Mary Joe Fernandez’s wedding] that had been so carefully tailored had to be let out not once but twice during those nine days. Twice! The first time the entire bridal party was together for our last fitting, I was embarrassed but laughed it off with a quip. “I guess eating pasta isn’t the best way to train for the Italian Open!” Ha. Ha. Not so funny. No sooner had I gotten the newly altered dress back than I knew I’d need it readjusted again. Why couldn’t I stop myself? Why couldn’t I get a handle on my emotions? What was wrong with me?

In September of 2001, Monica went to Bahia, Brazil, for a tournament. The World Trade Towers fell that week, and with all  planes grounded, she had to spend a few extra days at the hotel. One afternoon I walked down to the ocean as the sun was setting lower in the sky. I’d been there for a week but hadn’t yet walked the 70 yards from my hotel to see the water. Between the incessant television watching [of the World Trade Towers coverage] and my matches, it hadn’t even dawned on me. The Atlantic looked glassy and the water was comforting and warm on my tired feet.  Suddenly I heard a rustle nearby. A man was leading a horse up to a lean-to shack.

“Hello!” he called.

“Hi, there!” Two other horses were tethered under the palm frond roof of the lean-to.

“Would you like to take a ride?”

Would I like to take a ride? I hadn’t been on a horse since I was eight years old.

“May I?” I was already jogging across the sand toward him.

“Of course. They belong to the hotel. You may take them for as long as you like. I will be your guide.”

“Great, let’s go,” I said, as I stroked the silky mane of a white horse. With a steady hand on her saddle and a bare foot solidly in the stirrup, I hoisted myself up and swung my leg over. We took off in a trot down the pristine beach and our horses weaved in and out of the incoming tide. To the left, all I saw were rows and rows of coconut trees. To the right all I saw was the ocean. Paradise, After a few minutes my guide told me I could take her into a gallop.

Off we went as I held on for my life. Jumping out of the water in one fluid movement, she found solid ground on the hard-packed sand. Perfect terrain for giving it her all. We soon fell into a rhythm together, and I was no longer white-knuckling it to the saddle horn. I had total faith that she knew what she was doing, and I was just going to trust her and enjoy the ride. The sound of her hooves hitting the ground sent goosebumps down my arms. Her power was staggering. We flew down the beach and I felt something I’d never felt before: weightless. I’ve heard about the healing effects of horses, the spiritual connection they have with humans, but I’d never experienced it for myself. That night, as the sun gave way to the moon, I got it. My feet felt no pain in those stirrups and I couldn’t stop smiling as the sand and ocean spray hit my body.

[After their ride, her guide picks up a coconut from the ground and shows her how to open it and drink the juice and eat the meat.]

“Do you want to go down for dinner?” my mom asked when I got back to my room.

“No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” I wasn’t. The coconut and horseback ride had filled me up in every way. I got ready for bed, left the television off and picked up a book. Cuddled up in bed, I could hear the distant sound of waves crashing outside my window. I fell asleep before I turned a page of my book.

Seles’ next tournament was in Japan, and she decided to go to her first sumo match. I was in shock. These guys not only had superhuman size but also the superhuman strength to back it up. After the match, I couldn’t wait to meet the star wrestler. Right after the introduction I asked, “I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this question, but I’m dying to know one thing: What do you eat?”

He chucked and graciously replied, “I’m on a very strict diet.”

“A strict diet! How strict?” If this guy was on a strict diet and still weighed over 400 pounds, I was going to give up all hope.

“I am on a strict diet of 15,000 calories. I must eat that every day. I am not allowed to eat any less or I’ll risk losing my size. And I must lie down as soon as I’ve finished. That is very important in helping with fat production.” He went on to describe all the other rules and how they helped him stay in top sumo shape. I kept a mental checklist to see how I compared:

Rule No. 1: Skip breakfast. This slows down your metabolism and keeps it down for the rest of the day, making it harder to burn off the calories you ingest at lunch and dinner.

Verdict: not guilty. If unsatisfying and tasteless protein shakes count, then I’m a breakfast eater.

Rule No 2: Eat two big meals a day. Starving all morning and then gorging yourself in the afternoon is a surefire way to get fat. It ruins your energy and wreaks havoc on your metabolism.

Verdict: guilty. I ate next to nothing during the day and then, just as my metabolism was reaching its slowest pace in the evening, I’d consume a mountain of junk food. Living in those extremes guarantees serious weight gain.

Rule No. 3: Nap right after eating.

Verdict: guilty. Is there anything better than passing out after Thanksgiving dinner? It’s fine to do it once a year in November, but I fell into a food coma nearly every night.

Rule No. 4: Exercise on an empty stomach.

Verdict: guilty. In my extreme training phases, I was down to 1,200 calories a day (before the evening binge) so even if I’d just eaten a meal, I was starving while working out.

My “guilty” tally was disturbing. Horrified, I realized that my habits bore an eerie resemblance to sumo training. Meeting that athlete was the most educational experience of my life. I learned more from him than I had from years of reading books and listening to trainers. I’d been living my life like a quasi-sumo wrestler! And the most important thing was that what you put into your mouth is more critical to weight loss than how much exercise you do. These guys were working out more than six hours a day but they were still enormous. If you are consuming thousands of calories, no amount of exercise can burn it all off you: You will be big. It takes one hour of intense exercise to burn off 500 calories, but it only takes one bagel with cream cheese to add 500 calories. Calories are easier to put on than they are to take off, which is why one of my half-hour binges would wipe off an entire day’s worth of hard work. I worked out in extremes and I ate in extremes. Nothing was in balance and my body showed it.

Early in 2003, Seles learned she had shattered a bone in her foot and would have to take six months off—no physical activity at all—to rest it with the hope it would recover. The news threatened both her efforts to revive her career and to lose weight.

By the time I could play again I’d be almost 30. In terms of fitness, recovery time, endorsements—everything, really—it meant the end was near. And I was still wearing my size 14s. Surely if I weighed that much while I was working out, I’d inevitably pork up while I was sitting on my butt at home. How did normal people eat? I was overwhelmed with the simple task of implementing a “normal” diet.

So I didn’t. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t plan any meals. I didn’t have a nutritionist or coach or trainer. I decided to wing it. It was scary, but I didn’t know what else to do.

The first couple of months went by quickly. I hung out with my mom, cleaned the house and read a lot of books. Of course, I had my share of freakouts.

Should I have this ice cream bar for dessert? I didn’t expend a single calorie in any cardio activity. Do I deserve to have it? Sometimes the answer was yes and sometimes it was no. But something groundbreaking was beginning to happen. If I did eat the ice cream bar, it didn’t launch me into an all-out feeding frenzy. I’d eat it, and then go into the other room and do something else.

By the end of the year I was down to 153. I’d lost 20 pounds in a year without trying. Well, I did try, but my efforts were so different from those I’d made before that it didn’t feel like I was “trying.” A few big changes I’d made in my thinking affected some deep-seated behaviors I’d struggled with for years. First, I refused to say I was on a diet. Being “on” a diet implies that I will one day go “off” it. I also banished the absolutes. Instead, I lived in the liberating and calming gray area of moderation.

I stopped classifying foods as “allowed” or “forbidden.”After all, what’s more tempting than something “forbidden”? If I wanted a piece of cake, I’d ask whoever I was with if they wanted to share it. If they didn’t and I really wanted it, I’d order it and eat a quarter of it and wait 10 minutes. If I still wanted more, I’d eat another quarter and wait again. Very rarely did I end up devouring the whole thing. It wasn’t easy—I had to work at slowing down during my meals—but it was empowering to begin to eat consciously. Taking the time to taste my food was nothing short of revelatory, and the more I did it the easier it became.

I’d lived my life in such extremes—seven-hour workouts followed by 5,000-calorie binges—that I wanted a change. I wanted less. I started carrying the concept with me everywhere, viewing the word “less” as connected to the word “lesson.” Every time I made a choice that emphasized the “Less is more” theory, I gave myself a little symbolic pat on the back.

I was learning how to live my life more fully by choosing less. At the grocery store, I filled my cart with less. I passed over the fat-free items for whole-grain options. Anything that advertised itself as being “free” of something didn’t go into my cart. Fat-free, carb-free, sugar-free? No, thanks. I wanted to stay as far away from processed foods as possible. A piece of multigrain bread with almond butter kept me fuller for longer than an entire bag of pretzels. The “less” theory affected my workouts, too. Even on days when my foot felt good, I didn’t go to the gym or hit the beach for a run. Instead, I walked—not at a furious pace with the intention of getting somewhere, but just to walk. It felt good to move my body without feeling like I was inflicting punishment on it. Henry David Thoreau once said that the moment his legs began to move, his thoughts began to flow. That is exactly what happened to me during my year of walks.

Step by step—literally—I was getting stronger and closer to knowing who I was and what I wanted. On these walks I slowly and sadly came to term with my life. I lost my dad too early and it was agonizingly awful. I missed him so much and I hated knowing that I could never again pick up the phone to tell him about my day. A part of my heart would always be broken, and the frustration over what “could have been” if I’d never been stabbed was still in my head; but as I wrestled with these emotions, something was growing deep inside within me.

In my very core, I finally knew that I would be okay on my own. I would be okay if I never played another professional match. I would be okay if I had to find a new purpose, find a new reason to get up every morning. As an athlete, the “no pain, no gain” credo was deeply ingrained into my psyche. But something totally unexpected happened during those evening walks in my Sarasota neighborhood. My walks helped heal the rift between my mind and body. Those soothing walks did more to quiet the demons in my head than any of the punishing workouts I’d endured. The weight loss I achieved that year felt almost effortless.

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