A few months earlier, at Wesleyan University, Cain’s story had a similar impact on another group of women. In March 2020, 36 Wesleyan cross-country and track alumnae signed a letter detailing allegations of a culture of disordered eating, body shaming, and injuries that they experienced under their head coach, John Crooke. They said that Crooke had encouraged athletes to lose weight without guidance from trained nutrition professionals and had provided medically incorrect information to women on the team, leading them to believe that gaining weight caused stress fractures, excess weight led to performance plateaus, and the absence of a menstrual cycle was not a problem.
As a sophomore in 2012, Claire Palmer approached the then Wesleyan athletic director when she became worried about her teammates’ physical and mental health and safety. “That should have been enough for someone to look into it,” she says. Instead, Palmer says that her concerns were dismissed. “I lost my belief in the value of sports as a good thing,” she says now, looking back on that time. Palmer quit the team at the beginning of her junior year.
There’s an expectation that colleges and universities have their students’ best interests in mind, but many of the runners interviewed for this story felt that their schools neglected those responsibilities. “When you’re a student-athlete, it’s a contract,” says Yuki Hebner, a 2017 Wesleyan graduate who coordinated her team’s effort. “I will give you all that I have for the seasons I run under you. In return, you’re going to have my back, and you’re going to make sure that I don’t come out of this physically or emotionally tattered.” Hebner developed a femoral stress fracture and an eating disorder while in college.
At both the University of Arizona and Wesleyan, athletes say that the coaches defaulted to outdated coaching tactics, like fat-shaming and a “no pain, no gain” mentality, and they weren’t always equipped to guide students in a way that prioritized their health. “I can firmly say that weigh-ins and body surveillance definitely would not fall within effective coaching practices,” says Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. “These are not scientifically proven, effective strategies for getting the best out of your athletes.” To put it another way: “This is about a misuse of power,” she says.
When an athlete’s nutritional intake doesn’t meet their body’s needs, it can set off a domino effect, leading to higher rates of menstrual dysfunction, injury, and low bone density. These symptoms are indicative of two related conditions, the female athlete triad and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). The triad was first recognized in 1992, and RED-S was introduced in 2014, but awareness of these conditions remains low among medical professionals, coaches, and athletic staff. A small study of Division I coaches found that while 43 percent could name the three components of the triad, only 8 percent reported consistently asking their female athletes about their menstrual cycle. Another study, this one of high school coaches, found that only 14 percent were able to identify the triad components.
To make matters worse, there’s no accreditation or education specifically focused on ethical coaching practices, leaving coaches with tremendous power and control over their athletes. “Where else do we tell people to follow this person blindly?” asks Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and the CEO of Champion Women, an advocacy organization for girls and women in sports. “Don’t question your workouts. Don’t question how you’re treated.” This power dynamic allows emotionally abusive practices to thrive. Athletes need the ability to say no, she says. “If they don’t have a hard and fast no, then you’re going to have injuries and you’re going to have abuse.” The implications of this unequal relationship are reflected in some studies of female athletes. For example, Traci Carson, who investigates low energy availability and chronic stress in women, conducted research of both current and former Division I female runners. “Women could specifically pinpoint comments that coaches said five, six, seven, eight years back that were a trigger for food-restriction and body-image issues they were facing many years later,” she says.
For Whetzel, the environment at the University of Arizona exacerbated the eating disorder she had developed in high school. She claims that a university nutritionist scolded her for eating “fatty” foods, didn’t comment when Whetzel reported her continued weight loss, and asked her to list everything she ate during the day, down to the number of cheerios. From then on, Whetzel ate exactly 40 cheerios before every run, which became a team joke.
During her senior year, Whetzel says that the assistant cross-country coach chided her for consuming too much sugar, yet praised her when she dropped ten pounds from her already underweight frame, saying she looked “fitter.” (In a statement to Outside, the assistant coach strongly denied participating “in a ‘culture of overtraining, body shaming, and emotional abuse’” but did not comment further on specific interactions with Whetzel.) Over winter break, according to Whetzel and another teammate who spoke to Outside, the women’s team—all except for the smallest girls—was prescribed five to six hours of cross-training per week on top of running as much as 50 miles a week. The team took to calling it “fat camp.”
Although Whetzel’s weight yo-yoed throughout her college career and she stopped getting her period regularly, she claims she was not given consistent professional nutrition counseling. It wasn’t until her senior year, Whetzel says, that team doctors questioned her about her eating habits and tried to get her to admit she had a disorder. “You feel worthless and start to believe it,” Whetzel says. “You start doing things because you think you deserve the pain or deserve to be hungry. Or, if you’re small enough, maybe you’ll finally be good enough.” (University of Arizona officials denied allegations of improper medical care or treatment and said they were “unable to comment specifically on Whetzel’s claims [because] Whetzel declined to to sign a HIPAA or FERPA release.”)
Hebner, from Wesleyan, sees the dismissal of athlete concerns as a failure on all levels. Part of the problem is there aren’t always clear lines for reporting or protections for athletes, let alone a system of accountability. Athletes may not be educated on what kind of behavior is unacceptable, especially for emotional abuse, when it can be hard to pinpoint a specific offense. Student-athletes are left to protect themselves and those around them.
At Wesleyan, a four-month university investigation found that Crooke didn’t violate any policies. When school officials then put Crooke in charge of addressing athletes’ concerns, current team members protested, refusing to run for him. Crooke eventually retired in August. “We were distressed by the devastating accounts from several alumnae members of the Wesleyan women’s cross-country team reported last year,” Wesleyan officials said in a statement to Outside. Since the allegations surfaced, the university says it has put measures in place to promote the well-being of its athletes: discussions about student health will only occur with qualified professionals, and the university will provide more support services, nutrition resources, and information on reporting protocols to athletes. The university is also considering hiring an additional female-identifying certified trainer with expertise in endurance sports. (Outside was unable to reach Crooke for comment.)
In September, a month after Whetzel and others contacted the Arizona Daily Star, 12 more former University of Arizona athletes came forward with reports of the negligent culture. In November, the University of Arizona announced the retirement of head cross-country coach and associate head track and field coach James Li, but no statement on the reasoning behind the decision was released. (In a statement to Outside, Li denied all allegations and maintained that his retirement was for personal reasons.) When asked to comment for this story, University of Arizona officials said in a statement that the athletic department has actively reviewed all concerns submitted by student-athletes, and that “privacy considerations might impact our ability to share outcomes with students.”
But personnel changes are only one step toward addressing student-athlete concerns. They don’t root out outdated and unethical coaching practices or contend with the underlying system that can breed abuse. Thea Ramsey, who ran for the University of Arizona and graduated in 2020, says she’s relieved by the news of the coaching changes, but not satisfied. “When coaches are able to quietly fade into the night, there’s no accountability,” she says. “The college athletics system isn’t set up to protect individual athletes like us. It would be so different if coaches prioritized the well-being and success of women.”