About ten years ago, purely by chance, I went out a couple of times with a former Miss Ohio, who flinched oddly when I said something about “being pretty skinny most of my life.” I thought it was an innocuous, offhand sort of thing, just meaning I had always wished to be bigger and stronger, but I was doomed to go through life an ectomorph.
She was very quiet and gloomy after that, and trying to figure it out, I said something like, “You are certanly trim,” thinking this is something women always like to hear. She started crying. So, somewhat flustered, I mumbled something like, “But you’re not too thin or anything – it’s not like you’re anorexic or anything like that,” I exclaimed reassuringly. The dam burst, the waterworks gushed forth, I was an idiot.
She HAD been anorexic, had nearly died, had ruined her health, had taken years to really recover, and still had to stay on top of it. Though still a beautiful, talented, intelligent young woman of around 35, she was one of the saddest people I had ever met, as if her mojo had been stolen, and indeed it had.
I was very happy for her that she had recovered, regained her life, but the missing mojo was a steady drizzle efficiently extinguishing any smoldering interest. And I’m sure she thought I was weird anyway.
I thought of this incident for the first time in years when this came in:
- When T-Mobile professional bicyclist Dotsie Cowden arrives at the starting line this week in Redlands, California to compete in two road racing events that will determine who will represent the United States in this summer’s Olympic games in Athens, Greece, she’ll have more on her mind than bike racing. She’ll be thinking about a frail 16-year-old girl in Toronto, who is struggling to overcome anorexia. It was just over five years ago that Cowden herself struggled to overcome severe eating disorders, which nearly claimed her life.
In recent months, Cowden disclosed her personal demons in interviews published in several cycling media outlets and via her own website. By revealing her past, the former model, who discovered a passion for cycling during her recovery, hopes to encourage and inspire others that are waging their own battles to overcome eating disorders. People have contacted Cowden through her website to thank her for coming forward and to ask for help for themselves, for a student or for a loved one. One such email was sent by the father of a 16-year-old female cycling fan in Toronto, whose daughter was hospitalized because of her anorexic condition and dangerously low weight. Once the girl gained enough weight to earn email privileges, she and Cowden exchanged email every other day for two months. The girl began to respond to therapy and her health improved.
Earlier this month, Cowden competed in the Tour of Montreal and in a World Cup race there. The girl, who had gained enough weight to be released from the hospital to continue treatment as an outpatient, traveled to Montreal with her father to meet Cowden. Cowden spent two days with the teenager, who stood with her father in the cold rain atop a mountain to watch her idol race.
“When I saw her face for the first time, I could see in her eyes that she is a fighter. She will beat this disease,” said Cowden, who herself had to beat anorexia and bulimia. “Ever since she and I connected a few months ago, whenever I’m suffering in a bike race or while training, I think of her. It makes me push harder because I know firsthand how incredibly hard the battle is that she is now fighting. As a cycling fan, she looks up to me, but she doesn’t know how much I look up to her. Being able to be there for her, to talk to her and her family, and to offer encouragement and hope is an incredible blessing. It makes the tremendous pain that I experienced and that I put my family through worth it.”
Cowden, a 31-year-old Los Angeles resident, who races for the U.S. National Team, Team T-Mobile, will compete Thursday (June 17) in the individual time trial and Saturday (June 19) in the road race, hoping for a berth on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. It would be an incredible thrill for Cowden if she makes it. However, serving as a role model in the fight against eating disorders has become an even greater mission that Cowden hopes to spend the rest of her life trying to fulfill.
More from Cowden’s site:
- Born and raised in a conservative middle class family in Louisville, Kentucky, Cowden was close to her parents and sister. Her parents made sacrifices so she could ride saddle-bred horses competitively, which she did nationally and internationally from the age of five through seventeen. But Cowden was also a rebellious thrill-seeker who liked to test the limits of what she could get away with. She started smoking cigarettes as a twelve-year-old and often got into trouble growing up. Desiring to expand her horizons, Cowden headed north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend Villanova University, where she majored in communications and minored in philosophy. She wanted to be a television journalist.
During her sophomore year, Cowden joined the crew team and her naturally lithe figure began to bulk up. By the following year, she grew tired of the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls and left the squad. However, her appetite continued as if she were training and her muscular physique began to turn to fat. She started dieting and skipping meals, but it wasn’t really a problem, at least that’s what she told herself. The summer before her senior year, Cowden landed an internship with a veteran entertainment reporter at the local NBC television affiliate in Philadelphia. In just those few short months, she realized that she no longer wanted to pursue her chosen career path. Faced without a direction in life, Cowden felt lost and disillusioned.
“This really was the beginning of my problems,” Cowden confessed. “Time was moving on and I had no control over it. I was about to enter my senior year of college and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.” She wasn’t eating enough and she still didn’t see it as a problem. “I was in complete denial the first year (of anorexia).”
To help offset some of the costs of school, Cowden started modeling in her senior year. After graduation in 1995, she moved to New York City and worked steadily in the modeling world. “The whole lifestyle was so unhealthy. When I wasn’t working, I was up partying all night and then I’d sleep all day. I used drugs recreationally and cocaine fueled my eating disorder.”
Her mother organized an intervention, but Cowden wasn’t ready to get healthy yet. “It was obvious to everyone except me that I had a problem,” explained Cowden. “My parents sent me to a treatment facility where I underwent group counseling. The problem with that was that the patients traded secrets about getting away with your eating disorder. It’s common, but you actually end up learning how to better conceal your illness.”
Over a five-year period, Cowden saw four different doctors while battling her eating disorders (she stopped using drugs on her own). No longer able to work as a model, Cowden got into the production end of music videos and television commercials, working on high profile projects with No Doubt, Julio Iglesias and Visa. In 1997, she moved to Los Angeles, California where she continued her work in that field. “Somehow I was functional throughout my illness. I was doing pretty well with work, but it wasn’t my passion.”
It was about that time that she had that pivotal moment and she decided to live. Cowden attended a lecture by Dr. KRS Edstrom, a renowned doctor, author, columnist and speaker, and she connected with what she heard. “I bought some of KRS’ tapes and started seeing her a couple times a week.” The two worked closely, intent on helping Cowden recover and get healthy. At the same time, Cowden decided to utilize her university degree and pursue a career in hard news. She took a job at a Los Angeles television station and began to build her demo reel while continuing to dabble in production.
With her health recovering, some of Cowden’s friends convinced her to train for the 1998 California AIDS Ride, a nearly 600-mile bicycling fundraising adventure from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which she completed. She enjoyed the hours she spent on her bike and the following year she decided to try racing. Her first race was one of the biggest and toughest races in the U.S.: The Sea Otter Classic in Northern California, where she raced in the rain on a challenging and technical course. Cowden tasted racing and, like so many others, vowed never to do it again. But she came back….
And obviously recovered her mojo and then some. I hope the girl is as fortunate, and I wish all former Miss Ohio’s the best as well – I would guess, but don’t know, that eating disorders are not particularly unusual among pageant veterans.