In The Spotlight – Theresa Firestine

Theresa feels far from being an elite cyclist. She also doesn’t believe that she deserves the spotlight. However, she agreed to share her story with the hope to inspire others. Although Theresa didn’t come close to shattering a record, or draw any attention on her first attempt, she conquered her demons of being anorexic and is the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Time Trial Series Champion in Women’s Category 4. A journey worthy of sharing with others.

What was your first sport?

Theresa dabbled in sports as a child, trying ballet, gymnastics, and indoor soccer, but none became a passion. In gymnastics, she failed to tumble well enough to move up. In indoor soccer, she developed nothing but a fear of the ball, which came from every direction in legally being allowed to bounce off the walls.

Theresa preferred to read. In middle school, she read nearly every book on the school library book list. She passed tests on each book, which she read to earn a prize that was normally candy.  However, Theresa couldn’t ever eat the amount of candy normally given as a reward. Consequently, the librarian had to invent new prizes for Theresa to win. Theresa’s love for books over sports continued in her first year of high school.

It wasn’t until entering her sophomore year in high school that Theresa developed a passion for sports. That summer she joined the school cross country team. Theresa is not sure why she joined. At the time, the only girl she knew on the team was the one who bullied her during freshman year by making Theresa feel stupid and worthless. Surprisingly, that girl had been Theresa’s best friend leading up to high school, making the sting and pain even worse.

On her first run with the team, Theresa was left far behind. She kept coming back even after being left out of the week-long summer training camp that all the other girls attended.

Theresa was told she wasn’t good enough to be part of the team training camp.

Theresa stuck with cross country and joined the track team, running the 1- and 2-mile events. Her first year on the track team, the varsity runners in the 2-mile event lapped Theresa. Embarrassed, Theresa nonetheless kept running, picking up speed each year. By senior year, she made the cut to join the team at the cross country county finals.

During this race, Theresa’s struggle with anorexia showed.

Theresa felt wiped within the first minutes of that race and finished poorly. She remembers nothing from that race except her coach’s criticism of not letting someone else take her place to finish better. That criticism furthered Theresa’s struggle and greatly diminished her self-worth. (Read Brandon Hudgins’ blog on “Do You Really Care?” for the importance on inspiring others. Adults should always inspire children as words can carry a lifelong impact.)

How did you recover from your eating disorder?

Theresa continued to lose weight and fell further into anorexic patterns during her final year of high school. It even continued during her first two years of college. Theresa dropped to a dangerously low weight before anyone asked if she had an eating disorder and attempted to help. The college friend who asked persisted even when Theresa said she was fine. Thanks to that friend, a doctor saw Theresa and sent her to the hospital before it was too late.

Theresa denied having an eating disorder, but after being forced to take a medical leave of absence from school, she entered a treatment program. Completing the program was a condition for returning to college. Theresa admits she met the bare minimum in that treatment program, and then faked the remaining weight needed to return to school 1.5 years later.

Shortly after, she again dropped to a dangerously low weight, recovered lightly, but continued to struggle with anorexia for an additional 8 years.

Theresa says she’s still learning all the causes of her anorexic eating disorder.

Many factors contributed. According to Theresa, eating disorders are not always about achieving an idealized body type, as typically portrayed in the media. For Theresa, not eating became a way to deal with pent up emotions. Her father drank heavily. No one outside the family knew because he’d go to work the next morning. However, each evening he’d drink enough to fall asleep in a chair, often tipping out of it and spilling the beer he still held. His demeanor changed. Theresa says her father became demeaning to her mother and made her mother feel like she could do nothing correctly.

Watching this and not being able to help affected Theresa by the time she reached high school. Theresa remembers crying alone in high school and wishing she could ask someone for help. Several times, she almost did but instead remained silent. Not eating became an outlet; something Theresa could control. Theresa says it also became a way to punish herself for perceived failures. According to Theresa, comments people made about food made things worse (Read “29 Things People With Eating Disorders Want People at Their Thanksgiving Table to Know” for things not to say at the Thanksgiving dinner table or according to Theresa, at any time). Theresa remembers a student in college eating half a sandwich and remarking she didn’t need the other half. Theresa then questioned her need to eat a whole sandwich and cut back.

Not eating gradually controlled Theresa.

Theresa says she saw no reason to eat more the next day after functioning fine on minimal calories the day before. The next day became the next and then the next, with more and more restrictions. Theresa ignored and denied all the signs that she wasn’t functioning fine that first day or all the days after.

Wanting to find her potential as a runner saved Theresa. Theresa picked up racing again after graduate school. She eventually recognized that her eating disorder limited her endurance and strength. This recognition came from injury, feeling weak during runs, and failure to improve. It also came from a comment from her father. While visiting, Theresa participated in a running event, during which she struggled with an injury. Her father watched the event and afterward remarked it being great to see real runners. Real runners being those finishing first. Theresa became angry at being dismissed as a runner and channeled that anger into improving herself. Theresa began working with someone who helped her gain weight and build strength. While not always easy, Theresa has held on to that weight for the past 5 years.

Theresa says people caring helped her the most on her road to recovery. That came in the form of repeatedly asking if she was okay and offering to help. She refused all offers and denied all issues at first but eventually accepted help. She says it took a long time to commit to healing after first accepting help and repeatedly asking from additional people she met along the way.

You’re a vegan athlete?

Theresa became a vegetarian in high school and a vegan around 2007. Theresa comes from a meat and potatoes family but never showed much interest in meat. She never liked the thought of eating an animal or product from an animal. Theresa also eats a gluten-free diet, which resolved some health issues. Theresa has no second thoughts about being a vegan and has adapted well to eating gluten free. She keeps a log of what she eats to make sure she’s getting the right balance of nutrition and an adequate amount for training and racing.

Theresa says it always feels like she’s eating a lot, even when she’s not consuming too much. According to Theresa, the nutrition log keeps her honest. It helps her see when she’s on target and when she’s falling short of her nutritional needs. Theresa’s says products like the patented  Cocoa Elite vegan protein help fill her protein needs.

According to Theresa, it took time to ramp up her nutrition, be comfortable with it, and stick with it. Theresa remembers quite a few failures at the beginning. She says a big hurdle was accepting the need to eat while training and immediately after. Theresa tried, and her improved energy and performance from eating during longer training sessions helped her see the need to fuel. She likewise found that she recovered faster and performed better the next day by fueling after each training session.

What are you competing in now?

Theresa competed as a runner for a few years but switched to swimming and cycling after a few injuries limited her ability to run. The transition wasn’t smooth. One-sided back pain that medical professionals haven’t been able to identify limited her ability to compete in 2013 and since has limited her swimming.

Focusing more on cycling, Theresa tried a few cycling time trials in 2017. In 2018, Theresa returned to compete in all 5 races of the Mid-Atlantic cycling time trial series. Theresa was crowned the women’s Category 4 Series Winner. Humbled in her nature, Theresa says many women out-pedaled her and was fortunate to win the series title.  Although Theresa placed on the podium in all but one race, she feels her title win came from the best women not participating in all 5 races.

Theresa, however, feels accomplished with the gains she’s made in 2018.

She gives significant credit to her coach Chad Holderbaum of Durata Training. Chad commented that coaching Theresa was an exceptionally fun and rewarding process and is looking forward to seeing her chase her athletic goals and capitalize on new opportunities in 2019. “I could tell that Theresa had a lot of untapped potential, and given her struggles over the years, helping Theresa find a certain level of self-confidence was key to her success in 2018”, said Chad. Theresa continues to put in the work day in and day out, and we keep stressing to never think small, ignore the naysayers and keep working your tail off.

We think that Theresa is a clear winner both as the Mid-Atlantic Cycling Category 4 Women’s Cyclist Champion and, for confronting her anorexia demons. So if you know someone who is dealing with this condition, help them and, get involved. Make an effort to support them on their journey to happiness.

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