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Editor’s note: The following story portrays a young woman battling an eating disorder and depicts some specific behaviors associated with eating disorders that some people may find distressing. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorder Association for resources and support.
When 26-year-old U.S. Ski Teamer Alice Merryweather was in high school at Stratton Mountain School, she became intimately familiar with the trope of the “alpine girl.” She was, after all, one of them. Alpine girls eat a lot, have big and powerful thighs, and can probably do more squats than a football fullback. When she and her teammates would go back for seconds at the dining hall, their non-skiing peers would catcall them, “Another dessert for the alpine girls!”
Merryweather was confident. She loved food. She worked out a lot. She was proud to be an alpine girl. But somewhere along the line, she started to question all of it—and herself. When people would comment on how strong and big her quads were, she began to internalize that as a bad thing. She started to pare down her diet—eliminating things like gluten—all in the name of getting healthier.
“I started to put emphasis on how much I was eating,” she said during a recent Zoom interview from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she’s been training with other U.S. Ski Team athletes who are recovering from injury. She was casual in a black hoody and wore her long, curly hair in a messy bun. “My body image just deteriorated the more I thought about what I wanted to look like.”
In September of 2020, Merryweather was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. The 5’ 8” skier’s ideal race weight was 150 pounds, and at that time, she weighed in at a scant 128. Her routine blood test results showed preliminary signs of organ damage, and her coach informed her that she would not join the rest of the team to train in Europe. In spite of all of this, and the fact that her boyfriend, Sam DuPratt, also on the USST, had voiced his concerns to her in June of that year, Merryweather still had a difficult time accepting the truth.
“It was really scary,” she says. “It made me really mad—I blamed myself, and I felt like it was something that I could have prevented. I was angry, guilty, and frustrated, and knew those confrontations I was going to have with my team were going to be really hard.”
To say that Merryweather has always been driven is a gross understatement. This is a woman who deferred her acceptance into Harvard—the only school she applied to—because she made the USST’s development team and went on to ski at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018. Then she won the 2019 U.S. Alpine Championship downhill title at Sugarloaf, Maine, and, because Harvard wouldn’t let her defer another year, she enrolled at Dartmouth College so she could keep racing and chip away at her education.
“Alice is a perfectionist,” says Bella Wright, her teammate on the USST. “She’s getting through school and ski racing, both of which are full-time jobs. She gives 100 percent at anything she does. She’s super determined. Which is both a great and a tough quality.”
The “tough” part that Wright refers to is that Merryweather’s determination played right into her eating disorder, which she says was the most confusing part for her to process. The quality that had helped her succeed ended up threatening to destroy it all.
“I think how I’m hardwired to strive for perfection made it really easy to push myself over the edge,” she says. “I’d been struggling with body image for years. I had convinced myself so thoroughly that what I was doing was making me stronger and benefiting me as a person and as an athlete. I thought I was making myself the best version of myself.”
In rehab, she learned to differentiate between her anorexia and her authentic self. She learned to identify the “eating disorder voice,” which tells her that food is bad and pushing through the hunger is good, and to listen instead to her body, which knows it needs fuel. She learned about the neuroscience behind the disorder, which is similar to that of addiction, in which the brain wires itself with a fear response to food. “It was nice to know that I wasn’t just in my head telling myself lies, that there was some science behind it,” she says. “And that allowed me to understand why it felt so hard to combat that voice.”
The other discovery she made was just how much she’d missed out on when her disorder took over her life. Namely, joy.
Before her diagnosis, she was depressed, moody, and had lost her passion for ski racing. She wasn’t skiing fast, because she was underfed and underweight, and she considered quitting altogether. The memory of how miserable she was helps get her through her toughest days. “I remember the first moment I felt a true wave of joy at rehab,” she says. “I was sitting in a ray of sunshine in the treatment office. I felt happy. It was a true genuine joyful feeling. In appreciating that moment, I realized my eating disorder wasn’t just affecting my physical performance, but my ability to connect and feel joy and appreciate things around me.”
Her eating disorder, of course, is not an easy thing to talk about. Especially not to nosy reporters who’ve never met her in person. But being open about it has been one of the most crucial parts of her recovery, and now she even talks about it with strangers on the chairlift. “It’s a mental health disorder. Not being shy about it and treating it like an injury is the best way to go about it. That will mean there will be fewer people in my position, because they’ll be more aware of it.”
That openness has also allowed her to welcome a rich community of supporters. “I’ve received so much support and so many messages from people who have been really vulnerable with me and wanted me to know I’m not alone,” she says. “It’s just blown me away. I’m so grateful.”
Her gratitude doesn’t stop there—she feels thankful for her body and all the things that it can do for her. Thankful for her rekindled passion for skiing, which, if all goes well, will lead her to race at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Thankful for all the people in her life, including her family, her teammates, and her boyfriend. And thankful even for life’s most simple pleasures. “Like bread,” she says, laughing. “It’s so basic, but I eat bread again. It’s really good.”