Taking a Break from Sport
with Kaitlin Hawayek
26 Sep, 2023
Kaitlin Hawayek is Team USA Ice Dancer and a 2022 Pyeongchang Olympian. She is a 5x Bronze Medalist at the National Figure Skating Championship, 2018 Four Continents Champion, 2018 NHK Trophy Champion, and 2014 World Junior Champion.
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With such immense success so early on in her career, Kaitlin shares with us how she navigated her ice dancing career and looked to take advantage of every opportunity she came across.
Kaitlin If there is the opportunity to pursue a career that you don't necessarily know how it's going to turn out, I think the best advice that I could give is to take the chance. Because you're never gonna look back and just say, I wish I wouldn't have spent those few months or that year trying.
Stef Even with great mentorship and excellent athletic ability, Kaitlin emphasizes that motivation and confidence are key factors in our performance and training.
Kaitlin One of the biggest things that I've learned over the year is that motivation and confidence isn't kind of an on-off switch. It's a spectrum and a constant like scale that you move on. Some days you have a lot of it. Other days you're, you feel like you need to find it a bit more and that's not neither good or bad, it is just where you're at.
Stef Because we are going deep today in Kaitlin experience and journey with disordered eating, we'd like to advise anyone listening that if you are struggling with an eating disorder, to connect with a professional either at Voice in Sport with one of our VIS experts or reach out to the National Eating Disorder Association there is a hotline you can access at (800) 931-2237. Please know that you are not alone.
In this episode, Kaitlin also goes on to share her personal experience overcoming an eating disorder. She guides us through her recovery journey, emphasizes the importance of building a holistic system of support through experts.
Kaitlin I mainly started with a nutritionist and I've had the same one for years, and she's been instrumental in helping me understand a healthy relationship with food.
Stef And at a point in her skating career, when she was preparing for some of the biggest competitions yet, Kaitlin faced near career ending injuries. Kaitlin honestly discusses with us how she struggled to realize just how much her injuries and declining mental health were affecting her. For all of us out there struggling with this balance, she walks us through how she realized that she needed to take care of herself first and foremost, even if that meant pausing her passion.
Kaitlin I love skating so much, but it gets to a point where you just realize that your life and your quality of life always outweighs your competitive sport and success. So I did end up taking a pause at the beginning of the year to help get my physical and mental health back on track and have been doing that since.
Stef Before we get started, if you love this podcast, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you are an athlete in middle school, high school, or college, join our community at voiceinsport.Com for free and gain access to this extended version of the podcast, Welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast, Kaitlin. We're so excited to have you here with us today.
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Kaitlin Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm really excited.
Stef Well, you are our first Olympic ice dancer from Team USA, so I'm very excited to dive into how you got into this sport and how you started. So let's go back to your childhood. What made you pick ice skating at such a young age of three?
Kaitlin So my entire family has history with being on the ice. Except for my dad. My mom grew up figure skating and she did it throughout her entire childhood. And then I have two brothers as well, and they both, both grew up being hockey players. So I was at the rink a lot as a kid, and I think my mom just thought it was a great way to keep her kids active.
And especially when my older brother was playing hockey, I was always watching the figure skaters. So my mom put me on the ice and I very quickly fell in love with it.
Stef It's incredible. Well, from age three all the way to where you are today, you are a 2022 Winter Olympian, a five time bronze medalist at the National Figure Skating Championship and the 2014 World Junior Champion. So, you know, you've had quite a journey along the way all the way back to when you started.
You also moved away from your, your home fairly young to go to Michigan. And that was part of your reason and part of your experience and journey. What was that experience like and what were some of those challenges that you had when you were making that decision at such a young age?
Kaitlin You know, I think at the time when I was making the decision, I didn't have the maturity or awareness to realize the, maybe the. The, the extent of the sacrifice and the commitment that I was making I think my parents did a lot more than I did when I moved to Michigan. I was about 13 years old, 12, 13. And we spent a lot of time in, in the car commuting back before between Buffalo, New York, where my family lived, and Detroit, Michigan. So it was about four and a half hours there and back every week that my parents would do. And we started out so I could continue with my freshman year of high school.
I would do Monday to Wednesday and school, and then I would do I would get my homework from the teachers for Thursday and Friday and I would be in Michigan Thursday to Sunday. And then after that year, became a little bit more obvious that I was going to continue to pursue ice skating and competitively. And that's when I decided I was gonna do fully online school. And I switched to Monday to Friday in Michigan, and then I would go home on weekends. So it was just a lot of movement and I think it was a lot more of a time commitment for my parents than it was for me at the time. I, I slept most of the drives that I would go back and forth to Michigan.
And my parents, they, they really didn't want me to be living with a host family at the time. Family is super important to myself as well as the rest of my family. And they wanted to have one of them with me so they would switch weeks and my dad would be with me one week and then switch on the weekends and my mom the next and vice versa.
And that was many years like that. So I think those early years where I first started to choose the career path of competitive ice dancer, it was, it was a lot more effort from my parents than it was for myself. I just kind of jumped into it a bit, doe-eyed and not really understanding the, maybe the extent of what we were doing.
And then I guess as the years went by, I realized just the amount of commitment that that took from my family. But yeah, it was, I, I would say the, the most challenging part was just finding that time to be able to be with my family. You know, it wasn't just myself that was splitting up time with my parents, it was also my brothers back at home and, and my parents between each other.
So just finding moments and finding time over the course of those years to just really be with each other. And that was the, I'd say the biggest challenge. And then just not having maybe a traditional school setting, finding friendships, and social circles outside of my, my skating world. That was probably one of the bigger challenges.
I would say that even to this day, I'm still working on, it's, it's easy to just kind of throw yourself into the community of the sport that you're in. So just finding little avenues outside of sport to also be involved in.
Stef Yeah. I mean, it's so hard if your, if your life revolves around your sport and that's at a, an early age of 13, most 13 year olds are not doing what you're doing. I think a, a lot of young women in the sport of skating in particular, since a lot of the women that go on to like the national level, they're quite young.
Right. So the sport, you start, start pretty young. What advice do you have to young girls today that are contemplating maybe this similar decision, like they might not be in a city or an environment with the right coach or the right training to accomplish their goals, and they're sitting here listening to this podcast and saying, maybe I, maybe I should try this if I wanna really pursue my goal. What, what advice would you have for girls if they're in this decision that you also had when you were 13?
Kaitlin I would say take the chance. I think a lot of people don't take the chance because they see all the obstacles as a reason not to. But for me the, the best advice I can give is take the chance if you have it. And obviously there comes a lot of circumstances and just nuances to that, those decisions. If, if it's can happen with finance, if it can happen with family. There's, there's a lot of. there's a lot of points to that, those decisions that need to be thought through before making a move or going somewhere else to pursue training. And I realize that that's, those aren't things that I take for granted, but if there is the opportunity to pursue a career that you don't necessarily know how it's going to turn out, I think the best advice that I could give is to take the chance.
Because you're never gonna look back and just say, I wish I wouldn't have spent those few months or that year trying. And, and then like for me, I look back and I, I say to myself like, man, I, I wonder what, where would, where would I be in my life right now if I hadn't just spent that first year driving back and forth to Michigan? And where would it have, like, where would my life be now? So I, I think just if you can. take the opportunity
Stef Well, you know, at such a young age, you got to a pretty elite level still as a teenager. So how did that, you know, I guess that impact your mental side of, you know, your mental health because there could be a lot of pressure. You know, I'm, I'm 40 and I'm still learning how to take pressure.
I think we're all like work in progress in this journey called life. But when you're that young and you're, you know, you have these goals to be at the elite level and you're in a sport in which that elite level sometimes comes at quite a young age, that pressure can be hard. So how did you deal with the pressure of being an elite athlete at such a young age, and what advice do you have for other girls out there today?
Kaitlin I think. Starting out I really leaned into people that were a bit older than me and had more experience to kind of learn the ropes of competing at an elite level. In a way. I had really great mentors in sport that that just shared with me their experiences that allowed me to not feel so inexperienced going into things because I think that's part of the hardest, that's one of the hardest parts of being a young elite athlete, is that you don't have years of experience to lean into when it comes to knowing the competitive realm, what it's like working through. all different sets of circumstances when it comes to competing. You never really compete in a vacuum or in a setting that's super consistent. The circumstances you compete in are always different, and the only way you can learn that is through experience. So I think the hardest thing for athletes that are gaining experiences, understanding how to work through different competitive circumstances. And for me, one of the best resources that I leaned into was just those older girls and older mentors that I had at the rink. And they, they really helped me just by talking and sharing what they learned and little things that you wouldn't necessarily know about when it comes to traveling and what to bring to competitions that maybe bring you a sense of familiarity and home.
And that was really helpful. And then I also always worked with a sports psychologist even since I was younger. And the purpose of the sports psychologist has changed and morphed as the years have gone on. But I've always realized and really I guess taken advantage of having resources for the mental side of sport. That's something that I've always known as a component. And that I'm really grateful that coaches and parents at a young age instilled in me that like the mental side of sport is just as important as the physical side of sport. So that's something I've always actively trained my, my mind, I've actively trained it.
And when I was younger, it was more just about learning how to bring a sense of calmness and kind of soothe the, maybe like the, the physical anxiety that I felt the butterflies you could say, at competition. And then as the years went on, it became more about learning how to kind of zone in my energy. And I was more familiar with the butterflies, but it was how I could kind of turn that tune down the noise of certain, like kind of having thoughts that run through my mind before competition or how to communicate things with my partner and, and not have little energy leaks that kind of fizzle in at the wrong time. And it, the, the sports psychology side of things has always been something that I've been interested to learn and grow as an athlete as well. So I would say those two things really helped me as a young athlete.
Stef I love both of those things so much. I mean, that is literally why I built the Voice in Sport platform, right, is to combine not just the mentoring aspect for young girls, but also the sports psychologists, and we're gonna talk about it today. Also, your journey with with nutrition, but also the nutritionist and the registered dieticians, like that whole ecosystem of support is what will help you have a healthier journey. And it's okay to have ask for help. And it's great to start that before you actually need any of it. And I think what a big part of what we're trying to do here at Voice in Sport is change the narrative about sports psychologists and nutritionists and all those things.
This is part of what it is to be an elite athlete. It is to look at all dimensions of yourself as a human and treat all of the things mental, physical, as equal importance along your journey. So I think you're a great role model for, you know, starting that early. And then I love what you said about it changing throughout your, throughout your journey.
And you were still very young when you became a world champion. So we're talking from like 13 when you moved away to 17 years old when you became a world champion. So, you know, Walk me a little bit through what led up to that moment and at that young of age, were you working with the sports psychologists and, and talking to the mentors and, you know, help us, I guess, figure out how did you get from that 13 year old self to that 17 year old world champion?
When you look back and reflect on that experience, you know, what would be your top things that you would want all other young girls to know?
Kaitlin Hmm. You know, I think I look back at my early career and it's not, I know for certain that it didn't happen by chance. Everything I have, I don't wanna say earned, but I have, I have stepped into every opportunity and every accomplishment that I've had in my career. And I've achieved it purposely. But I think at the time of early time in my career, there weren't many obstacles that I faced. And I think that, you know, I skated with a partner before my current partner for about a year and a half and or about two years. And that. It was all just about learning elite sport at that point. And then when I started skating with my partner John Luke, which I, who I've been skating for almost 11 years now. Things clicked so quickly for us, and it was within about five months that we qualified for our first or, but may, maybe about seven months before we qualified for our first junior worlds after teaming up. And that year we were seventh. And then the thing that I remember the most is just this like, commitment to believing in ourselves the year after. That we were seventh. So why would like a team that's brand new seventh in the world think that they could go from seventh to first in 12 months in our second season teamed up as a, as a skating team? I don't know. But I just, that was the thing that sticks out in my early career is just this commitment to belief in ourselves.
We would have all these little mantras and phrases when we'd train and, and we truly believed and that we could win. And you know, we went into our season and we had a couple events that we won early on and that fueled that belief. And then we had what is called the Junior Grand Prix final, which is, it's kind of like we have our Grand Prix and our Junior Grand Prix series where you compete in two events and if you place high enough in those events, the top six qualify for the final of that series. And we won both of our Junior Grand Prixs qualified for the Junior Grand Prix final, and we were up against six other skaters and we got beaten terribly at the Junior Grand Prix final that year. I think the team, the Russian team that was first that year beat us by I think about 17 points. Which is a lot in figure skating, especially ice dance like where you don't see big discrepancies. And the, the belief was still there though. Like we just kept kind of saying our mantras and believing that we could, like we had this vision and we would always say like, early on our careers, we would take the team that was kind of the the team that was supposed to have the like, kind of the edge to win and we would take the person's name and then in front of it we would say like the Great Wall of, and then that team. And we always just, I don't know why it kind of kept that way through our, the beginning years of our career where we just had this vision that we could overcome like these teams that initially people thought that we couldn't beat. So that's the thing that sticks out to me in my early career, is just this really unexplainable commitment to our believing in ourselves.
And I do think that having success and le lack, maybe lack of obstacles, made that easy to continue to believe and that belief has gone at over the 11 years there's been waves of it, especially as we've had obstacles faced and learning to stay committed to that belief in ourselves throughout challenges and highs and lows.
That's something that's been a really great learning experience. But yeah, we started our career with just this fire and like really just this huge belief and it led to some pretty quick success.
Stef That's amazing. Okay, so what do you do though if you don't have that fire or you don't feel confident and you don't believe in yourself? What, and I'm sure you've had some moments along the way now after many more years of the sport, but what do you do if you don't feel like you have that confidence?
And we know that confidence is one of the reasons why that young girls drop outta sport. So if you could whisper to a young girl today that might not be feeling as confident, or they might not be believing in themselves right now, what would you wanna whisper to them?
Kaitlin One of the biggest things that I've learned over the year is that motivation and confidence isn't kind of an on-off switch. It's a spectrum and a constant like scale that you move on. Some days you have a lot of it. Other days you're, you feel like you need to find it a bit more and that's not neither good or bad, it is just where you're at. And there's so many different layers that lead to that from the physical, mental, social side of things that affect your motivation and confidence. So the first thing I would say is, rather than saying I'm not feeling confident today, that's going to lead to something or motivated today, that's going to lead to me not performing well or not ab not being able to succeed X days in the future.
I try to stay really present with my level of motivation and confidence and say, this is where I'm at today. What do I want to achieve today? And how can I work through where I'm at physically, mentally, spiritually, to boost that up by 1% or continue to find a way to bring the trajectory of my motivation and confidence in an upward manner.
And sometimes that comes from understanding like what I call my energy leaks are. So where, what is causing me to feel a little bit physically run down? That could be leading to maybe a lack of confidence in my, my technical ability or have I had social balance outside of my sport that's providing me a sense of encouragement to want to go into my sport and succeed. Where is my mental state at and I, I tried to kind of understand the layers of where, what might be contributing to my motivation and confidence. And then from there, those are really tangible things that I can work to applying. Like, okay, maybe I need to give myself some more rest today or, do a little bit more stretching and foam rolling, or maybe today I just need an emotional outlet, watch a good movie, or listen to good music, have some time with friends. And just having that full awareness of where I'm at as a collective person then allows me to take really small steps on that day to be able to bring my motivation and confidence up.
Stef Oh, I love that so much. I, I've talked about it before on our podcast, like buckets where, what bucket is full and which one is leaking. And like, you wanna look at your life in many dimensions, and you're calling them layers, but sometimes buckets for me, just like, is like a really easy visual to be like, all right, I have my bucket over here of like friends and social, my bucket over here of like self care my, my bucket over here of physical activity and like, what, where is my energy being drained and which bucket needs to be more like full right now? And, and that comes with a lot of mindfulness practice, right? And just awareness and taking a step back and really trying to listen to like, where are you and where is it that you're feeling the pain?
And sometimes that can be hard to find on your own, which is why it's great to have a team of sports psychologists, friends, and family mentors that you can really lean on. So I'm wondering if, like, for you, in your next experience, if it was, if it was really hard to be where, where you went next because you, you had a slightly unconventional college experience because you did not compete in the NCAA like a lot of our young girls do in our community. You are actually still earning your degree in psychology online from Penn State University World Campus Program. So what is it like to do an online school while competing professionally? Have you found other ways to kind of get that social aspect into your life to, to help with the balance?
Kaitlin You know, I, I would say that over the course of my career, that has been one of the biggest challenges that I've worked towards and I am still working towards. I know for myself I've had multiple kind of sides of the spectrum where I, I love the community that I'm in, so it's really easy to fuel my energy and time into those people. But if I put all of my eggs into the community of figure skating basket, it can at times feel really isolated and kind of tunnel vision in a way. And that has been probably the, I would say, the greatest challenge of doing online school. There's so many things that online school has provided me that I love. A sense of accountability. I think that's a huge one that people don't really talk about, because you are, in a sense, your own teacher, your own planner, your own syllabus. You're, you're having to stay accountable for all of those things as well as flexibility of schedule. Those two things have been hugely beneficial for me, but the social side of things is something that I've had to, and have to still kind of really keep an eye on.
It's, it's easy to say like, oh, well I'll just do my online school and I'll do have my friends in skating, and that's good. But something that I've noticed for myself, especially since qualifying from the Olympics this year, is I finished that and that had been my focus for so long that then I started to see like okay, I'm not retiring tomorrow, but retirement does happen at some point. And although I'll stay in the skating community, I want to make sure that I have balance outside of my life. And that was big, a big awakening for me since this past, like qualifying and competing in the Olympics, is wanting to have balance and avenues outside of my sport.
And, and since school doesn't provide that, I've had to get a bit more creative in finding that, finding friends through different hobbies that I've do, that I do. And just willingly putting effort into making time for those people in that social side of my life because it's easy in a way to just stay within the skating world. It feels comfortable to me, and especially that's something that I've had to overcome is a bit of social anxiety of worrying that people outside of my sport, I might not have something in common with them. But something that I've learned is that as a human, I have a lot more to provide to conversation than just sport. And pushing myself out of my comfort zone to meet people outside of sport has honestly been one of the most gratifying and fulfilling things that I've been able to do. Because then it provides me more balance, a bit of mental unloading from sport, being able to hear people talk about things that have nothing to do with what I pursue as a career, and it, it has been really important to me. So even though it hasn't been easy with school, it's, or with doing online school, it's, it's been something that's been very, very fulfilling to, to do.
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Elizabeth Thank you for listening to the Voice in Sport podcast. My name is Elizabeth Martin, producer of this week's episode. If you enjoy hearing from Kaitlin Hawayek and would like to get the chance to talk to athletes like her, go to voiceinsport.com/join to sign up for a free membership and gain access to exclusive episodes, mentorship sessions, and other weekly content.
Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok @voiceinsport. Now, let's get back to the episode.
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Stef So you went on to qualify for the Olympics in 2018 as an alternate, and then in 2021 you were set to have an amazing shot at the Olympics, but you fully tore your A C L and also suffered a concussion six months before the 2022 Olympics due to an accident during a partner stunt, you ended up going to the Olympics and then coming back and getting right into your next seasons starting in August, but you know, your full story is that you ended up taking some time off completely from the sport in order to recover from your injuries. So walk us through that sort of, eight month period of where you came back from the Olympics. And still continued to train, but then ended up needing to take a pause.
Kaitlin I, like you mentioned, I had about six months after having the acute injury to prepare for the Olympics, and I would never have changed anything that happened because it got me my goal of being an Olympian. But in hindsight, I do think the process of recovering from the injuries in particular the concussion,
In order to get back to train to be able to qualify for the Olympics. And then after the come down of my season we finished the Olympics, then we came right back for training for our world championships. And then as soon as that was done, we went on about a month and a half long trip of just shows, events this post- Olympic tour per se.
And I got back from all of that at the end of May and I started to I don't wanna use the word crash, but things started to leak through the cracks or seep through the cracks a bit in terms of the quality of how I was feeling. Started to have really intense headaches pretty consistently, and over the course of that summer they only got worse and I started seeing somebody at the time to try and address the headaches and they initially told me that they thought I was just having migraines. I was at that time of my, like a time span in my life where a lot of women get migraines and they said, let's treat it for migraines. They were giving me medication for migraines. None of that was helping and I continued to push through my under a lot of, Pain and difficulties.
It was also really Im impacting my life outside of skating. I was having a lot of issues with my eyes still. A lot of visual issues. So going to the grocery shop was a challenge. Going to the mall in busy environments, driving anything that really needed my eyes was a very triggering and very challenging I think all in all, over the course of those, that summer, I started to feel like the, my quality of life really started to deteriorate and I wasn't enjoying what I was doing on the ice as well as off the ice.
And then we competed at our first few competitions, had really great success on paper. And then between our Grand Prix last year not many people know this, but I actually was in the hospital for a week with an infection with a bursa that got inflamed in my knee. And I was in the hospital for about a week.
So I had about a week between being in the hospital and going to my second Grand Prix to get back ready to prepare for the competition. And then qualified for the Grand Prix final, went to the final, got back from the final, and at that point I could really feel just the, the quality of my life was not there at that point. I was having migraine level headaches every day. And I was not really able to do anything outside of training.
So things really funneled in and became just skating. And I've always been a very diverse human, and I've loved doing things that have brought me balance outside of skating. So to only feel like I could do skating. Yeah, it just, my physical and mental health at that point started to really drop to a level where I didn't feel like it was safe or worth continuing to skate through the rest of my season.
I love skating so much, but it gets to a point where you just realize that your life and your quality of life always outweighs your competitive sport and success. So I did end up taking a pause at the beginning of the year to help get my physical and mental health back on track and have been doing that since.
Stef It's so hard. As athletes to, take a break, it, I think it's in our nature to push ourselves in practice and in competition and often it can be a downfall of this incredible mindset that's really helpful in a lot of ways for competition. It can be a really, like a downfall almost when you're, when you're dealing with an injury And when those injuries are something as serious as a concussion, that takes a long time and a lot of different support systems to, to really recover from it can be tough.
So what advice do you have for all the other athletes out there that you know, might be in a similar situation where, hey, they know that they're in a tough spot to recover but it's just really incredibly hard to take that, break. You know, You ended up taking January through March completely off from skating and in the middle of your season.
And that obviously is gonna affect your results from that season. So what advice would you have for other, other young girls that might be in that same spot and just feeling like they're unable to do it? Like how did you get, I guess, yourself to a place where it mattered more your health and who you are as a person than anything
Kaitlin Yeah. I think I got to that place just through seeing how low, this, I don't mean for this to sound dramatic, but I saw how low I continued to get as the weeks went on towards the end of the year. And I had never really experienced a depression before. So to feel that level of sadness and Not really wanting to go about my day. Like I woke up and I was excited to get to the end of my day rather than the excited to experience all of the in-betweens during my day. And that realization that I was no longer excited to be basically taking part in what I was doing in my life made me realize that being a healthy, balanced human was way more important than being able to say, I competed at my Sixth World Championships.
And as hard as it was I struggled a ton to, to make that decision because in a ice dancing, especially the sport is it's a challenging sport because you're not on a big team where they rely on everybody, but it's many people on a team and it's not an individual sport, it's just two people out there.
And I felt a lot of re responsibility to my skating partner at the time. But I think between the support that I had from my skating partner, my family, and my coaches who all saw just the progression of me getting it to this place of not being in a good head space as well as just. A core value of mine, which has always been physical and mental health.
Like I, I think that's really what encouraged myself and gave me the vulnerability and bravery to be able to say listen, I need to take a pause to be able to hopefully continue for more years in the sport that I love. I think that's something that could maybe help people who are in similar situations is just the realization that Longevity of sport. You need not only physical, but mental health. And if you want to have a long career you need to make sure both of those are there for you. And for me, like. When I looked at it I was at a place where I was like, I can push through this, but I don't know if I'm gonna get to the end of the year and say I'm done.
I don't want anything to do with this anymore. And that broke my heart because skating has been my favorite thing for the last 23 years. So I wanted to honor the fact that I knew I loved skating and give myself a chance to get back to that place where I could fall in love with skating again and hopefully allow my career to then continue more years after that.
Stef Absolutely. And you mentioned this, but you can feel often pressure from like a coach or a teammate or in your case, like your partner about a decision that you know is like right for you. So what advice do you have for the girls that you know, they've gotten to the place where they know they need to take a break? That it is the best thing for them to do right now, but they don't know how to have that conversation. And that's like that one last step that they haven't done yet. So what advice would you have for the girls out there when it comes to just like vocalizing and voicing, the needs you have and that you do actually need a
Kaitlin I think the biggest thing is not shying away from the reasons why you need a break. If you just tell your coaching team and your support team, I need a break that's easy for people to make. Assumptions as to why? Or just guess as to why oh, are they becoming tired? Are they not as committed to the sport anymore?
There's all of those assumptions that can be made, but if, like in my case, when I went to my coaches, I was super honest with them and I told them like, I'm getting level eight headaches every single day and I can't anything outside of. And I can feel my mental health going lower and lower to the point where I'm not enjoying any part of my life.
And I think when I told them that, and they could see the fact that I was in a place that wasn't. Facilitative to being a good athlete. My coaches knew that they couldn't push me to a positive level if I was in this head or to a higher level, if I was in this head space. And I think at that point as well, they realized it probably wasn't very safe for me to be training where I wasn't physically or mentally really there.
As tough as it is to be vulnerable and be super honest I think if you do need to take a break, then that's the best way to have them be supportive and be on board and just accepting of your decision.
Stef Let's dive a little deeper into, your recovery for the concussion injury, because that is a really tough injury to recover from, and it is so important to both be creating a support system that is gonna focus on your physical wellbeing and your mental wellbeing. it's unfortunate that you have had to deal with this for so long, but I'm sure you have a lot of learnings that you could pass on to the listeners that have also been facing a concussion or might face one in the future.
What have you learned in terms about managing through the pain and the recovery process that you now, maybe you wish you would've known in the beginning, before you even went to the Olympics?
Kaitlin I think the first and foremost thing is that if there are symptoms or sensations that you're experiencing, they're there as a cue to tell you that your brain isn't healing yet. And I'm no, by no means a professional. So all of the scientific side of concussions, I only just know through my experience.
But one thing for me that I know I wasn't the best at was pushing through headaches all like consistently for pretty much a year straight. And never really listening to that as a cue to say, Hey, you need to slow down. Your body isn't processing this level of intensity that you are doing. And then also I would say recognizing and having the chance and the ability to talk to somebody about difficulties that you're having.
For me, like I mentioned before, some of the most cha challenging things have been visual, like the visual rehabilitation from the concussion. And when I explained that to somebody finally and was honest and vocal of the amount of challenge I was still having. Then finally the beginning of this year, I started working with somebody that was specifically trained in neuro optometry, and they were working with me on specific visual exercises to help me get back to place where I could read.
A couple pages a night and slowly I've gotten to being able to read a chapter a night or now I finally signed up for my first class in two years in university again, and I'm able to read a unit a week and do my assignments and but I wasn't able to do any of that at the beginning of this year just because of the lack of visual I guess rehabilitation that I was going through.
I think learning to listen to the cues that your body's giving you. And like you had mentioned earlier, it's very easy from sport culture to push through things. We're taught that oh, push through pain, push through tiredness that'll make you a stronger athlete.
But if I can give one advice when it comes to your brain, and if you do have a concussion, pushing through is not the answer. you know, you don't realize how much, you use your brain until your brain isn't functioning at its fullest capacity. And like I said, just listen to the cues that your body is giving you.
And speak up and find resources similar to how I said earlier in the podcast when I talked about eating disorder and finding resources that can help you with that. I think using resources is just so important in sport. You can take responsibility for your performance, but the, there's supposed to be a team that provides you resources to help with your competitive career. And the thing for me that really helped the most was when I found those resources at the beginning of this year, somebody to help me plan out my day, so my energy was going in the right ways, and I was able to do a little bit of everything at the right time when it was training, grocery shopping, figuring out how to put the blocks of my day together so I could get through everything.
And then also working with a neuro optometrist doing visual exercises. I have sticky notes all over my apartment. It probably looks like a murder scene, but they're just eye exercises, I swear. Those have helped me a ton. Like I said I'm back to being able to take a university level class again this fall, which for a while last year I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to get back into, so I just think the best advice is listen to your body.
Stef I love it. I mean you, you talked about it already, but that creating that support system is so important. That's why we created the Voice in Sport platform, so you could get access to sports psychologists, registered dieticians, expert actually in neuroscience in terms of sports psychology, so that you could work through some of the things that can help you through injuries.
And I think it's so critical and you're studying a really great example for young girls out there. Sport can be tough and. Life is more important and it's sometimes hard to remember that. And make sure that you're always taking a holistic view at who you are as a person both mentally and physically.
And that's what we hope to do with like the resources we provide at Viz. You're doing a great job of it and it's gotten you back, so it's exciting to see now that you're starting your season again in August here of 2023, what are you gonna do, differently when it comes to approaching your sport?
Going in, have had this experience with a pretty serious injury.
Kaitlin Yeah, I think there's a few things that I've learned. I've learned that, and I don't know if this is the same for everyone. I know that people's definitions of why they do sport is different, but I've always competed because I have a deep love for my sport. And I think one thing that was apparent to me is that if the love and the motivation to do my sport is not there there's something missing in the puzzle pieces. So going into this season, I think that's a huge goal of mine and a huge driving force and good check-in for myself just to ask myself like, are you loving what you're doing? Are you having fun? And that's the base, like the baseline for me to say, okay, if that's there, then I can keep going.
And I guess another thing that I've learned is to use my voice a little bit more. I definitely was one of those types of athletes that was the stereotypical push through it type of athlete. And I had a hard time using my voice when it came to saying no, I should slow down. Or I need to do a shorter session today.
Or My headache is a level. So and so today. I think doing a modified run through rather than a full run through would be better. Learning those small adjustments and using my voice to express what I need based off of what I'm feeling in my body. That's something that I'll really carry into this season as well.
And balance. I think that's something that became super clear to me through this whole experience is the importance of balance in my life. That sport is a part of my life, but it's not the whole puzzle. And making sure that I'm not compromising all of the other aspects of my life in order to train and making sure that training is just one part of my balanced life.
Stef Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and all of your incredible experiences with. The Voice in Sport community, I think what you've gone through is, unfortunately common with concussions and I really hope that many of the young girls out there find that they're not alone.
And if they'll listen to this podcast that they can reach out, reach out to you, they can reach out to people at Voice in Sport and not feel alone. That's the thing is you're not alone. There's a bunch of people out here wanting to help, but. As you said, using your voice is that first step.
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Elizabeth Thank you for listening to the Voice in Sport podcast. Before we jump into the VIS platform exclusive conversation with Kaitlin Hawayek, since we'll be talking about Kaitlin's experience with an eating disorder, we want to highlight The Voice in Sport platform has over 80 experts in sports psychology, nutrition, and women's health for our members, where you all can access one on one clinical sessions and non clinical group sessions.
These resources are available to support our community's mental and physical well being as we each navigate our own journeys. Now, let's get into our exclusive with Kaitlin.
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Stef Well, you are now 26 years old, so you know, still very young. But from that career journey of like where we started at 13, then 17, talking a little bit about your experience in starting online school. You know, between that ages of like 13 and where you are now at 26, you struggled with two kind of really critical things that a lot of our young girls in our community struggle with. And we're gonna kind of dive into those two areas now. One is recovering back from like what some would deem a career ending injury and another is disordered eating. And we know that among female high school athletes in aesthetic sports like figure skating, that 41.5% reported disordered eating. In addition, those women were eight times more likely to incur an injury than their non disordered eating peers. So you know how you fuel, your body is directly correlated with your physical performance and also the injuries that you may get.
So I wanna give you the opportunity to really talk about reflecting back on your journey and sharing with our community. When, when did disordered eating start for you? How did it start? And then we're gonna walk through sort of like where you are today, which is in a much better place.
Kaitlin Yeah. So for me, I first began that path in, in my sport, in with disordered eating, after receiving some kind of unmatchable requests from a coach of mine. We had been competing, my skating partner and I currently, John Luke, we had had our first season together and then starting our second season, my coach who came from a very Eastern European background, she would pretty much constantly weigh her athletes and she would kind of have check-ins and weigh-ins and talk about the athlete's weights. And I was about 16. Seven, about 16 when that second season started and my body was changing a bit, it wasn't even drastically, but my body had started to change a little bit and I think I weighed about 120 pounds at the time, which isn't that much. But my coach at the time told me, after having those weigh-ins and seeing things change a little bit, that she wanted me to lose 15 pounds, which was kind of unrealistic and un un unattainable.
And I have always had a very kind, of sticky mind in the sense that like if I feel like I have to do something or if it could poses a threat to my ability to succeed, it sticks with me. And that can be a, a topic for a lot of anxiety. And I remember feeling this sense of kind of like almost like threat management where I was like, if I don't lose weight, then I might not be able to continue my sport. And after talking with a lot of athletes, I think that's a big part of why athletes feel the need to move into an eating disordered behavior is because they think that it's the only way for them to be able to continue to do their sport. And for me, to this day, skating has been one of the biggest passions of my life. And the idea of not being able to do that brought me so much anxiety that it just continued to be on my mind. And I felt like I didn't know how to lose weight fast enough, or if I could lose that much weight. And it led to a lot of obsessive thought about like what I was eating, what it was doing to my body. And eventually that kind of anxiety and obsessiveness about what, where my weight was at led to me feeling like I had to do something more drastic. And it's, for me, it started out with a path of bulimia and that it kind of morphed and as it changed over the early career of my, my skating career where obviously I lost weight very quickly because it's felt what I felt like I had to do.
And I that was, it was pretty noticeable. And my parents love me and they care for me outside of skating and my parents and my skating partner after months of this behavior and about, about, about, about a year, they talk to me and they're like, something's going on. We can tell something isn't right. And kind of put me in a place where it's like, if you don't tell us what's going on, it's not healthy enough for you to skate anymore. And it was the same thing for me. I felt this panic of I might not be able to skate anymore. So I started working with a nutritionist and I started working on kind of recovering from the bulimia behavior. But to be honest, I didn't work with somebody on the mental side of things at the time regarding kind of the impact that disordered behavior can have long term. And it just led to kind of transferring into a different behavior where I was still terrified of losing skating and both the bulimic behavior as well as gaining weight still seemed like a threat to being able to skate. So it just led to me starting to restrict on my eating.
And even though I wasn't having, or I wasn't continuing to do the behavior that my parents and my partner had told me like that, that's not okay and we need to improve on that and like, we need to get help for that behavior. And even though I was improving on that, I just, I was still too afraid of being too big for the sport.
And, and that led to other behaviors and it led to anorexia and and obviously that's both are equally as problematic. And and yeah, it was a lot of years of my career where I just kind of, there were waving in and out of the behaviors and it, it ended up taking a lot of my mental and physical capacity.
And I'd never realized about that until I've had perspective out of the distorted behavior to realize how much it took in terms of the, the, the mental and physical time out of my days and weeks that the behaviors kind of stole from me in a way. And I think that that's part of the reason that I feel so passionate to talk about it for young athletes is that I see too many years later, the impact that it had on my life at the time. And if we can do things in sport to talk about that, to hopefully change the direction of kids feeling like that's the reason or the only way that they can meet aesthetic demands in sport, I, I think it could be so powerful to, to help athletes in that direction.
Stef Absolutely. Well, thank you for sharing that because I think your journey and just being really open about it will help so many other young people not feel so alone. You know, I think I wanna go back to the very beginning of where it started with, with the coach. And people weighing you and then essentially giving you direction on the amount of weight you need to lose.
Was that tied to any sort of conversation of, of science or, you know, where did that come from? And I guess if a young girl is in that situation today how does she speak up? What, what advice would you have for her to speak up for herself to her coach in that moment?
Kaitlin Well, I think the first thing, like overarching that needs to happen is that coaches and professionals in sport need to have an understanding that that's not their domain to talk about. So hopefully coaches should be more accountable to not bring it up in the first place, or to specifically reach out to the professional first the, like a nutritionist or a dietary professional first and have that person. Discuss it with the athlete. I don't think there should ever be a reason that a coach or professional in the sport should directly speak to an athlete about their body composition or weight management, anything like that. It's too sensitive a to of a topic, and if coaches don't have professional knowledge on the topic, they shouldn't be discussing it with their athlete. But I realize that not all coaching professionals have that level of education and knowledge to know that that shouldn't be the case. So for an athlete, if a coach makes a, a request or a demand, like in my case of a, of a, of a body composition change that needs to happen I think the first thing the athlete should say is what resources can you provide me professionally to be able to help me work towards that goal? And that is the, I think the first thing that all athletes should do is seek professional resources because it shouldn't ever be felt like it's put on the shoulders of an athlete to figure out how to handle things in that domain.
And that was part of the reason that I took the path of disordered eating is because I did feel like I had to figure it out on my own. And I think if athletes can feel like they have more obvious resources for them to go to from professionals, then they would feel less pressure to have to kind of take those steps in, in the direction of disordered eating.
Stef Yeah, I mean, I think the, one of the first questions we should all ask if anybody's telling us to lose weight or do anything that is gonna change our body is why. You know, ask the simple question. If you can't get many things outta your mouth in that moment, why? You know, because like you said, you really gotta pay attention to who is making these comments.
What is it based on? And then the impact it's gonna have on yourself. Not just physically, but mentally. And we just worked with the New York Times on an article about many women athletes from the Voice in Sport community who have been told to either hit a weight or weigh in every day or had their body composition details shared across you know, across different athletes.
And there's just so many things that are inappropriate that are continuously happening for young women in sport. So when, when you take a step back and you have looked back at your experience, what do you want young women out there to know that is not okay to say to young women athletes?
Kaitlin I think the first thing out, out of everything is that your weight directly impacts your success. That is not true at all. I will I will go to debate with anybody that tells me differently because my career has proven me that, and it took me a while in my career to have the evidence to show myself that my weight doesn't directly impact my success. But I can to this day tell you that it doesn't because some of my most successful years, I've been at a higher weight than the years that I've been at my lowest. And so that's the, that's the main thing for me. Your success is not relevant and not directly correlated to your weight.
Also another thing just like that I have started to become very passionate about is languaging in sport. I think that there needs to be an e emphasis put on removing the stigma or the label of a sport being aesthetic or not. It can be artistic, but it doesn't have to be aesthetic. And I think that so many sports are coined aesthetic, which then makes them, you already think stepping into the sport that it has to be weight and body composition related.
Stef I wonder who came up with that term
Kaitlin I don't, I don't know, but I,
Stef and who deemed who deemed it. An aesthetic sport. You know, now that you say that, like some of the facts that we've found about some of these sports, they're all listed in that way. Aesthetic sports related to disordered eating, aesthetic sports, like figure skating.
Kaitlin Yeah, so much of what I've learned over trying to become an advocate more recently over within disordered eating and sport and, and just protection of athletes health is languaging. And I think a huge one for our, my sport specifically is this label of it being aesthetic. Why does it have to be aesthetic? It is a sport at the end of the day. It is an art as well. And those two things combine at the same time. But it, it is, is a sport. And that brings me back to what I wanted to say about that success in sport is not directly correlated to your weight because I I know for myself, one of the biggest things, and the thing I heard all the time growing up over the years, that put a lot of pressure on me because my weight was the lifts in figure skating.
You know, I do ice dancing, so I don't do the crazy overhead lifts that pair skaters do. But there's a lot of, lot of lifts, and that's a big aspect of my sport with my skating partner. And my skating partner and I are more close in size than some others. So there was always the stigma that if I was too close in size to my partner, that the lifts would be too difficult and my weight was then directly correlated to the ease and effortlessness of my lifts.
And therefore the success of my skating and what I've learned over the years is, the lifting aspect of my skating, 99% of it has to do with the timing and the communication within our physical bodies between my partner and I when we do our lift. Am I listening to the timing and the tempo of the way my partner lifts me into the lift?
And am I paying attention to when my partner starts to move his body? And how am I responding to the way that I move my body? And that is what I've learned over the years has the biggest impact in my ability to successfully be lifted and complete successful lifts in my sport. And that has nothing to do with a number. And I think that in general, there are so many reasons that athletes will or are, or are not successful in their sport that have nothing to do with weight.
Stef Yeah, I think it's, I think it's very powerful and the language we use with, you know, the people we love with our daughters and sons, with our athletes as coaches, all of that has an impact and an implication. So, you know, when you take a step back and think about the coaches out there or the moms and dads that might be supporting their daughters in the skating community, what is some advice that you have for them, whether it's the language they use or just how they support their young women in this sport?
Kaitlin Well, I think one of the things that I've learned over the years is that I can look at the people that have given me kind of certain blanket statement demands in sport that had led to eating disordered behavior. And I can give them accountability for the fact that they made those statements, I can't necessarily blame them for making those statements because at the end of the day, they might not have had the education and the knowledge to know differently. So I think that's the biggest thing for me when it comes to coaches and parents and people within sport, is I think there needs to be more education for them when it comes to understanding and knowing the languaging to use. And that's a grassroots thing that you need to build from the bottom up. It doesn't like, it doesn't come from the expectation that all parents and coaches can know the correct languaging. That would, that would be impossible because that would almost be like saying that they would've had to experience an a disordered eating to know differently, and that's not realistic. And since they haven't gone through the same experiences, they might not have the same knowledge to know how to approach a conversation differently. So that's where the education from the, from really the starting point of where kids start into competitive sports needs to happen for the people surrounding them and the athlete themselves as well, but also for the people that are part of their support system. So then the pressure and the accountability doesn't lie on their shoulders to have to just guess on how to talk about certain subjects.
Stef Well, and how do you think we create just a more positive culture and environment around the sport, you know? And what are some of those, like watchouts, if you are a parent trying to support your daughter in the sport of skating, like what are some of those watchouts that you just wanna be paying attention to so that you can catch if your daughter might be in a situation that you were in, where there's a coach giving her, you know, making certain comments about her body or, you know, tying her performance directly to her weight. Cuz you know, we're not as parents, I'm a parent too, of two kids, and it's like you drop them off, it's sports sometimes you seal 'em later and you pick 'em up. So what, what advice would you have I guess, to kind of paying attention to those, to those small things that might add up to a bigger problem later?
Kaitlin I think something that maybe would be powerful because I realize that like the level that kids share with their families and parents is not the same for everybody. So say somebody made a comment at the rink, it's not guaranteed that the kid is going to relay that to their parents.
If they do, that's a very obvious signal that, that maybe the parent needs to say like, okay, well how can we provide you support or provide you resources to find the support, to know how to navigate those comments. But for parents that aren't being told those things or kind of understanding that certain demands are being made on their kids I would say one of the biggest things is just kind of body language.
That's a huge thing. Think there's like something that I've didn't even realize at the time were certain behaviors that I picked up from like kind of an a body insecurity standpoint was kind of constantly checking my body, whether that was in the mirror or kind of looking at my arms or like kind of feeling my arms for the level of muscle or for the level of what I perceived as fat and body gestures like that that could maybe give you an inclination that your kid is becoming more preoccupied with their body than necessary or that is healthy. And I think those are things that people could be more aware of that doesn't require the kid to share everything that's going on. That would be the thing at the top of my head, but I can, I'm also very aware that I, I'm not a parent, so I don't know the pressure of being able to have that awareness.
So I, I feel like I can't speak on that so much without the, the experience myself. But I know for myself there were certain be like gestures and behaviors that I picked up over the years that maybe if people were more aware of that could lead to just a recognition that a kid is leading into body preoccupation that isn't healthy.
Stef Yeah. I mean, you said it was kind of a year into it before, you know, you really started kind of tackling some of these issues with a support system, and so as you reflect back on it, I just wanna hit on one more time the importance of like, not only a registered dietician getting involved, but a sports psychologist and that sort of team, and talk about the power of like those two experts coming to together to help you and your experience.
Kaitlin Yeah, my path with disordered eating has, I, I don't know. I mean, I can't speak for everyone's, but I mainly started with a nutritionist and I've had the same one for years, and she's been instrumental in helping me understand a healthy relationship with food. But it wasn't until many years after when I'd kind of stopped the disordered behavior on my own more because I felt like the behavior was a threat to my ability to keep skating. That was the main initial reason that I stopped kind of heading into that, those behaviors. But it wasn't until several years after that I realized the, the things that lingered from a body dysmorphia standpoint and just a body confidence or just like a mental health standpoint. At that point, that was when I started working with a therapist that actually had no relation to my skating in my sport.
She worked with professional athletes because it's like you had mentioned earlier, there's a significant higher level of people in sport that have experienced eating disorders. So she had experience working with athletes, but she wasn't connected to my sport whatsoever.
And that was huge because I felt like her vested interest in me was as a human and what was at my health and my, at the end of the day. My health was her biggest importance and not having any relation to my skating. That led us a really deep sense of trust that she was looking out for my best interest, regardless of my success in sport and she started talking with my nutritionist cuz my nutritionist was more, I had the resource through my skating federation. So the two of them then began to talk and discuss. But I didn't add that psychology aspect in until later and down the line of my disorder, like the eating disorder history. And that has been such a huge, huge part of the recovery process that I can't underestimate enough the impact that that has had on my life and having somebody to talk to unrelated to sport, but just looking out for my, my physical and mental health made such a big difference.
Stef Well, that is such important perspective for any athlete to gain and great advice, right, because sometimes, you know, you get so caught up in your own world, within your sport community and having that outside person that you know, is just a hundred percent vested in you as a person and doesn't care how you perform at the end of the day. I think that's a huge, that's a huge part of a healthy recovery and I think that's a great lesson for a lot of young women to learn.
So I'd love to end the podcast with just your, your one piece of advice that you have for all the young girls out there in sport as you're reflecting on your holistic journey from starting skating at a very young age, to making an Olympic team to recovering from disordered eating and now, recovering from a concussion.
It's a lot. So I guess to all the girls out there, what's your one piece of advice?
Kaitlin It comes back to something that I've really learned through the past year especially, is to never put a limitation on what you think you can succeed. There's so many reasons to hold onto that tell you, no, I can't be successful in sport. Physical roadblocks, mental roadblocks , behavioral roadblocks, all these different things that you can choose to hold onto and say, maybe that could keep me from achieving my goals, but at the end of the day, all of those you can overcome. So hold onto the belief that your ability is limitless.
also I think the most important thing is to know your why. Like why are you doing your sport? And for me, my why is always because of the love for creativity and storytelling and I was told this by somebody the other day that I thought was such a clear and concise way to think of things.
And that was if your why is bigger than your problem, then you're on the right track. And for me last year that wasn't the case. My things like I couldn't find my why within skating. And if you can find your why and really find everything that aligns with that, find the resources, the support, that helps build you up and build your ability to perform and to live into that why. I think that you're on the right track.
Stef I love that and Voice in Sport is here to provide great resources to help young girls have a better journey in sport. But we're also here to actively advocate and drive change across the sports industry. So as you reflect on the skating world and think about the future of skating for women, what is one thing that you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports?
Kaitlin I think the, this is through my experience in sport that I would love to see more acceptance of female body as all types of body types, athletic body types are acceptable and beautiful. And that your body shouldn't define your capability in sport it should be a tool to help you be at your best in sport. So I think more acceptance over the female body and more empowerment for the female body. I think that's, Something that could, we could really keep working on in the future within sport.
Stef Incredible. Thank you so much, Kaitlin, for joining us on the Voice in Sport Podcast, and we're really excited to see what you're going to accomplish in the next several years in the world of skating.
Kaitlin Thank you so much and thanks for always having the opportunity and the platform for people to share their voices.
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Stef This week's episode was produced and edited by VIS creator, Elizabeth Martin. Kaitlin's early ice dancing career teaches us about the importance of mentorship and leaning into your support systems.
Kaitlin calls out the potential harm in labeling sports as aesthetic sports, but instead encourages us to join her in leaning into fueling our recovery and leaning into the artistic features of the sport. She guides us through an empowering journey of injury, resilience, self advocacy and recovery. If you liked our conversation with Kaitlin, please click the share button on this episode and send it to another athlete that you think might enjoy this conversation and also invite them to join the voice and sport community.
You can follow Kaitlin on Instagram at @kait_hawayek or on Twitter @KaitlinHawayek. If you're logged into Voice in Sport, head over to the feed and check out our article about how to avoid body comparison. And if you're interested in hearing more about sports nutrition, check out some of our incredible VIS experts episode #45 called “Fuel your body” with VIS Expert Angie Asche or episode #42 called “Demystifying Nutrition” with VIS Expert Maddie Alm. See you next week on the Voice in Sport podcast.
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