Protecting her athletes

STEPHEN DUNN / Hartford Courant

Eastern Connecticut cross country and track coach Kathy Manizza had her female runners read a book over the summer about nutrition and fitness programs tailored specifically for women athletes.

The book was “Roar: How To Match Your Food and Fitness To Your Unique Female Physiology For Optimum Performance, Great Health and A Strong Lean Body for Life,” by Stacy Sims.

“It talks about the importance of energy and Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S), which encompasses men and women,” said Manizza, the Little East Conference cross country coach of the year who has coached for more than 25 years at Eastern and the University of Hartford.

“It means you’re not eating enough calories to support your activity. So her book talks about that a lot, (women) losing (their) period, about using your period to your advantage, that you’re often stronger in the first couple days of your period and maybe adjusting your training in those few days before that. It was good for them to read because we talked about it a lot during the season.”

Earlier this month, running prodigy Mary Cain was featured in a powerful opinion video in the New York Times, alleging that she was “emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by (her former coach) Alberto (Salazar) and endorsed by Nike,” who ran the now-shuttered Oregon Project.

As one of the top runners in the country as a 17-year-old, Cain opted to skip college and become a professional runner with the Oregon Project. She was allegedly urged by Salazar — who was banned for four years from coaching by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in October — and his all-male coaching team to lose weight. Cain became injured and said she lost her period for three years and broke five bones due to decreased bone mineral density. Her performance dropped off dramatically. She said she began to cut herself and had suicidal thoughts.

The story has lit up social media, with multiple former Oregon Project athletes such as two-time Olympian Kara Goucher corroborating Cain’s account of the Oregon Project’s culture of demeaning female athletes. Salazar has denied that he encouraged Cain to maintain an unhealthy weight in emails to the Oregonian and Sports Illustrated, however, he wrote to the Oregonian, “Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.” Salazar is also appealing the doping ban and has denied permitting doping within the Oregon Project.

But the questions brought up in the Cain story continue to resonate with female runners and coaches. What is an ideal training weight? And how is it best maintained? Is it better to have female coaches coaching females or at least more women involved in athletics?

“It did come as a shock, watching that video, when they’re telling her, you’ll be faster if you lost weight,” said Eastern Connecticut senior cross country and track runner Nina Pasqua, who is from Bristol, Conn. “Well, you know, that’s not always the case. That’s not what we implement here (at Eastern).

“I’m a sport management major and, as a woman, seeing Mary Cain had a team of all men, and a staff of all men, was disheartening. I think it’s important to have women in the sports industry, in the athletic department, because men can only understand so much when it comes to training, but at the end of the day, because the anatomy’s different, only a woman is going to truly understand another female’s anatomy. It was rough to hear and watch Mary Cain talk about no women being on the team and how the men were pushing her to lose weight.”

Pasqua, a team captain, is a sports management major. So is her teammate Rachel Osak, a senior from Portland, Conn. Osak is a self-admitted stubborn, Type A personality who said she was underweight in high school and was injured.

“I did a paper for my Sports in American Society class on athletes and mental health,” Osak said. “I talked about eating disorders and for distance runners, eating disorders are common because we have perfectionist, neurotic-type personalities. We’re very precise in how we do things and a lot of times there’s a misconception that the smaller you are, the faster you’ll be able to run.

“But when a distance runner isn’t eating enough, we lose our menstrual cycle, our bone density gets lower, we’re more likely to get injured and we’re more likely to stay injured if we get overuse injuries. The Mary Cain story broke my heart because she broke five bones.”

“We’re 21, turning 22,” Pasqua said. “(Cain is now) 23. We’re still figuring out our bodies. I’ve learned a lot about my body in the cross country program. I think this school does a pretty good job of offering resources. We have both male and female athletic trainers. We have female and male coaches. Female (athletic) directors. That’s really important.”

Manizza, whose women’s team won the Little East Conference championship this month for the second time in three years, pushes her athletes to refuel their bodies after a hard workout.

At UConn, there is a snack area at Greer Field House for athletes, with a sign next to it, urging athletes to “Fuel. Perform. Recover,’ and offering suggestions of what to eat before, during and after workouts. UConn also has a nutritionist.

Former Glastonbury star Lindsay Crevoiserat, who ran cross country and track at UConn and Oregon and then New Mexico as a graduate student, is in her first year as the head cross country coach and assistant track coach at UConn. She was on the U.S. team which went to the IAAF Junior World Championships with Cain in 2012.

“I’m glad people are talking about it,” Crevoiserat said. “From an athlete standpoint, I’ve never had an experience with a coach that really pushes weight or anything, it’s just that you want to be healthy and feel good. I never had an issue at Oregon or New Mexico or Iowa State (where she coached before UConn).

“You’re going to run the best when you’re the happiest. It never occurred to me that you have to be a certain weight when you’re racing. I never really talk about weight, as a coach.”

Mia Nahom, a UConn junior from New Milford, finished fourth at the NCAA New England regionals and qualified for the NCAA cross country championships Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“In terms of my own experiences, I’ve been very lucky,” Nahom said. “I’m grateful I’ve had good experiences and hopefully going forward, female sports will continue to be a better environment for everyone.”