Most people have heard of anorexia nervosa, but anorexia athletica? 'People should know more and it is time to talk about it,' says Sian Murray, one of Britain's most promising rowers and a victim of the eating disorder. It came close to wrecking her sporting career and her life. Happily, Sian has fully recovered and is right now pursuing a place in the Great Britain squad. She tells JOHN BUCKLEY about her harrowing experiences. It is a cautionary tale and an inspiring story.
IT was after a superb achievement in 2001 that things started to go wrong for Sian Murray - just as they were supposed to get even better.
Her success at the age of 17 in being sixth at the World Junior Championships may have been overshadowed at Northwich Rowing Club by Matthew Langridge's gold, but being sixth best on the planet is not a bad place to be at all.
ARA coaches thought so and invited Sian to try for the Great Britain Under 23 lightweight squad. All she needed to do was shed a few pounds to make the racing weight.
Flattered, honoured and ambitious, she threw herself into training and dieting.
She was 10½ stone as a junior and needed to lose about 17lb.
Jockeys, boxers, gymnasts, wrestlers and rowers do it all the time and Sian thought it would be easy.
It turned out she was right. Losing a little excess weight was not her problem. Stopping was.
Without realising it, she became anorexic. 'And I didn't realise it for a long time,' she said. 'I didn't think anything was wrong.'
Pound followed pound. The lightweight mark passed and she dropped below nine stone, then eight, then seven.
'I was really thin. At my lowest I was 6½ stone. I was running on adrenalin. I didn't eat at all. I was surviving on watermelon and drinks.
'I was obsessed with losing weight, and not simply for my performance as an athlete.
'I looked in a mirror and didn't see someone who was ill or thin, but someone who was too big. I wouldn't go near a camera because I knew the picture would show someone who was just too big. You get a distorted image of what you look like.'
Sian, now 21, lives at Castle and is studying health sciences at University College Chester.
She took her A-levels at Sir John Deane's College and was a student there when her problems began.
Her chances of making the U23 squad vanished, though she carried on rowing at club level for a while, until becoming too ill to race.
'It took me over completely and I would do anything to avoid eating. Yet at the same time I was preoccupied with food and cooking. I'd make people meals but wouldn't touch one myself. And all the time they were eating it, I'd wonder why they were putting food into their bodies.
'I fell ill. I couldn't cope any longer physically or mentally. I was permanently tired, cold and suffered insomnia. I was prone to passing out. I looked jaundiced, most unattractive.
'It is hard now to look back and associate the things I did with me. Training, dieting - it was all I did. I was a robot.
'From having to reach a certain weight, it became about being as light as possible.
'Then one day I woke up and thought: Just a minute, this isn't right. That was the day I started to get better.'
That was about Christmas 2002. Sian's bleak regime had lasted 18 months.
'There was no trigger or revelation, I just realised what I was doing was not normal.
'My recovery took over two years. Part of me wanted to get better and another part said, no, you've got to get thinner,' she said.
But, with the help of doctors, counsellors and her relieved parents, Sian triumphed.
She got back in a boat again last spring after missing competitive rowing for three years.
'There were other issues affecting my life and my way of dealing with them was simply to lose weight. It is how I appeased myself.
'I made all the decisions myself. I did not have any professional guidance on dieting - I just didn't eat. I thought that was all there was to it.'
Sian was training to run a marathon a year ago when she tore a tendon.
'I couldn't run but I could row. I got back in a boat for the first rime and realised how much I missed it.'
She entered the Chester Long Distance Sculls Head in October and won - not just her division but overall.
Winter trials followed and now Sian is in the British U23 squad, some four years after being invited to try.
She has not been selected yet. Right now she is in Paris at training camp and is off to Belgium next week for trials, which will decide whether she makes the World Championships at Amsterdam in July.
Moreover, she has a professional training programme and a diet drawn up by nutrition-ists.
'3,000 calories a day,' she said enthusiastically. 'It is great - a full belly! '
And, of course, she is where she set out to be four years ago.
'I have to be aware of the anorexia still, but whatever I achieve now I want to do it healthily, by eating the right things, just as a heavyweight rower would.
'I can't believe how well it is going. It is so exciting. I watched the British rowers at the Olympics and I am training with them, at the same level.
'I love this sport and it is wonderful to be back at the club - among my friends again.'