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Culture of silence leads to eating disorders, injuries for Wesleyan University cross-country team

Women on the Wesleyan cross-country and track teams suffered in silence for years

Wesleyan University is a small school in Middletown, Conn., of just a few thousand students. The school’s teams compete in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference. A former Wesleyan athlete, Yuki Hebner, recently published an open letter to the Wesleyan community regarding years of mental and emotional abuse that she, her teammates and other alumnae faced during their tenure on the running teams.

The talk

Mary Cain’s story of fat-shaming and emotional abuse at the hands of her Nike Oregon Project coach, Alberto Salazar, has resulted in many similar stories, such as this one, coming to light. Hebner, who is from Midland, Ont., ran under Wesleyan coach John Crooke from 2013 to 2017. Crooke has coached the Wesleyan cross-country and track teams for 20 seasons. Hebner’s experiences at Wesleyan, along with those of 25 other former Wesleyan runners, are detailed on the student-run university blog Wesleying. Hebner describes what she calls a “fat talk,” which Crooke had with many of his female runners.

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Hebner says Crooke had this talk with Hebner following her successful sophomore track season. He asked her how much she weighed and she told him 125 pounds. He said Hebner could eventually be an All-American—but only if she dropped 15 pounds.

Photo: Twitter/wesleyan_u
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Hebner spent the summer trying to lose the weight in an “irresponsible” way, she says. When she returned to campus the next fall, she had managed to lose 10 pounds, and worried that it wasn’t enough. In her letter, Hebner writes that, upon returning to school, Crooke overheard her mention to a teammate that she had lost 10 pounds.

“More like five,” Crooke interjected. This was the culture with which Hebner and her teammates lived. Hebner says she was “vaguely aware” that her teammates had had similar conversations—more fat talks—with Crooke, but it wasn’t openly discussed. 

RELATED: Mary Cain tells NY Times of abuse by Salazar & NOP

Keeping quiet

Hebner didn’t tell anyone else about her conversation with Crooke. Not long after returning to campus 10 pounds lighter than when she’d left the spring before, Hebner got a stress fracture in her femur. She convinced herself that this was because she was still too heavy and hadn’t shed the additional five pounds Crooke had prescribed.

Body shaming led to eating disorders for Hebner and many of her teammates. Hebner became anemic for the rest of her Wesleyan career and her running performance took a hit. When she finally told someone in the school’s athletic department about the abuse she was facing at practice, she was ignored and made to feel as if the situation wasn’t a big deal. Hebner says she felt crazy and even questioned whether she was being mistreated.

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“I definitely questioned this narrative,” she says. “I was like, ‘I might just be making excuses for why I couldn’t handle being a student-athlete.'” She says she knew how personally damaging it was, but the athletic departments reaction made her feel like it was a problem she had to deal with, not an issue with the system. When Hebner finally spoke with other Wesleyan alumnae, however, she knew it was not a personal problem and that she was far from alone in the struggle.

Ignoring calls for help

A timeline on Wesleying outlines the runners’ contact with administration and coaches regarding this issue. The first recorded instance dates back to 2012 when, Claire Palmer, another of Crooke’s athletes, met with Wesleyan’s outgoing and incoming athletic directors, John Biddiscombe and Mike Whalen. Whalen is still the university’s athletic director.

Photo: Twitter/wesleyan_u

After that 2012 meeting, other athletes attempted to start or continue conversations with administration and Crooke himself, but the issue was never seriously pursued by those in charge.

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Calling for change

Hebner and her teammates presented a list of changes that need to be made at Wesleyan so future runners and athletes in other sports don’t go through what they did. These changes include, but are not limited to: providing access to medical professionals to help athletes better understand eating disorders and RED-S syndrome (as well as guidance on how to maintain proper nutrition and bone health), having an “athletic injury care staff member” assigned to teams who can properly guide athletes in training and dealing with injuries, implementing “exit interviews” with athletes who leave the team to ensure it is not due to ongoing abuse, and to always have at least one female coach (head or assistant coach) on staff at all times.

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The full list can be found at the bottom of Hebner’s letter on Wesleying.

“We really wanted to emphasize and highlight the role of the societal refusal to take female physiology seriously, across all levels, although our letter speaks largely to sports and cross-country.”