In this series of articles, I speak with current and past female athletes to learn about their experience in their body. The goal is to promote diverse body types in sport and raise awareness of the female athlete experience.
In this first article, I speak with Kaitlyn Willette. Kaitlyn is current high school xc coach as well as an alumni of Ohio State University where she competed in track & field and cross country.
Hannah: Kaitlyn! I am so excited because you’re the first of many people that I’m gonna get to talk with and, I don’t know, I just decided to do this as like a fun project. It captures a lot of what I’m passionate about.
So basically, I have a few questions written down but we’re really just talking. That’s the goal. I want to learn from your experience, get to share a bit of your story, and hopefully encourage other people in the process.
Kaitlyn: Yay, I’m all for it.
H: Now, you and I are friends but for other people’s context, where did we meet, how did you get into running? Tell us about Kaitlyn.
K: Yeah, so I’m sure we probably crossed paths when we were competing in high school but I don’t think we actually had a conversation until after l college, right? When we went out for a run. So we probably met in high school, but we actually connected through your blog–one of your old posts. Then you reached out and were like, “want to go for a run?” And I said, “sure.” So we went for runs and became friends through that–which is kind of funny because we were in different states when we became friends, but we both came from Ohio.
H: Oh yeah!
K: On the running, I just kind of started in seventh grade. I was always, as a little kid, like wanting to do something hard. And most people hate running, so I was like, “why don’t I do that?” So I did that in seventh grade, did it in eighth grade, and really fell in love with it… Falling in love with it happened in high school because of my team, my coach, and the culture there…. I really fell in love.
[brief intermission to fix some audio issues]
H: You said–was it middle school or high school when you kind of fell in love with the sport because of coach and teammates?
K: High school, I’d say. So, I started in seventh grade, but then I really learned much more about the sport and then, like really at a great team and great coaches in high school that I think, or all factors. And like, pushing me towards just falling in love with cross country and track.
H: Okay, that’s so cool. Now, I would bet–because I know you’re very athletic–that you did other sports too, or I would think so. What did you do growing up?
K: Yeah, so all growing up. I did a lot of dance. So I did ballet, tap, jazz, and then cheerleading in gymnastics. And then I kind of took a turn because, without taking anything away from those sports, they’re all very like, “pretty sports.” There was a big focus on making it look beautiful. And then you have running…and it’s like every running picture, you see your face is … [makes a sweaty runner face]. You don’t hide the difficulty in running at all. So I definitely like different types of sports. But that was kind of like I said, it’s like seventh grade. I was like, “I want to do something that is different.” Like, “nobody likes to run. I’m gonna like to run!”
H: That’s so funny! So, I’ve always envied sprinters because they put on their makeup, they have their hair done so nicely, and they actually look okay in pictures because they’re running for like thirty seconds. Uh, yeah, not so in distance, right? [makes an equally sweaty runner face].
Okay, so then take me through after high school. You committed to run in college. Tell me a little bit about that and why you wanted to keep doing the sport.
K: Yeah, I remember it was something that I honestly didn’t think about. I didn’t think about going past high school until my coach–one of the coaches I mentioned, who is really one of the best coaches that I had–he (Ken Schuster) told me, “you could run in college if you wanted to.”
He actually told my mom first and then she told me and it was something I just hadn’t thought about. It was not because I didn’t want to but I was in high school and I was thinking about high school; I wasn’t thinking ahead in that way. Then, God opened that door and once he did, I realized it was something I wanted.
I didn’t want running to end in high school and I remember being very, very thankful after graduating. During the end-of-year meets senior year, I remember thinking, “I am so thankful that this is not the end like it is for some girls, like this is like the end of their own career.” You know, they might always run, but it’s not gonna be the same. It is something that my coach opened the door for and then my desire grew from there.
H: So then, where did you run collegiately?
K: I ran at Ohio State.
H: Yes, which is so awesome. I knew that, but wanted to clarify for those who will read this.
Okay, so I want to dive a little bit into the body image piece. Can you walk me through how you viewed your body in high school and then how that shifted in college?
K: That wasn’t a huge struggle in high school. But I know I had thoughts about my body that I didn’t like, or was like, “I need to change this,” it grew as I went into college. Once I was in college, I was like, “all right, like, if you want to be a good runner, like if you want to be healthy, this is how you have to look. You need to lose weight and look this way.”
My body type is not and never has been the stereotypical really skinny, toned runner. I’ve always felt like I could lose a few pounds but when I went to college, our dietitian did a body comp on me and looked at the numbers. She looked right at me and was like,
Oh, do not lose any more weight.” And I was surprised because in my mind, if you are close to or at a healthy weight, you would look [unhealthy] and people could tell there’s something up. But I didn’t look like my teammates, and I thought it would actually be healthy to lose weight. So I was actively trying [to lose weight]. But then here’s a professional telling me to not lose any more weight–that I was right on the verge of not having enough body fat.
H: Wow. So then, how did you respond?
K: I didn’t listen to him. I continued trying to lose weight in unhealthy ways and subsequently struggled to stay healthy in college. And I definitely attribute some of that to not fueling my body the right way, because I had this image of what I should look like in my head.
H: Yeah, as athletes, [our coaches and dietitians] can tell us only so much. There has to be that connection and even seeing the body diversity in other athletes. Going back though, when do you remember first having a thought about your body. That’s something I find really interesting. Like, I was like, maybe five or six? Do you remember when you first had a thought?
K: I don’t remember quite the age, but I mentioned I had done gymnastics when I was younger and body image is a huge thing in that sport because your body is definitely very exposed–you’re in a leotard around a lot of other people who are super athletic. I remember having thoughts that my stomach needed to be more flat–looking down and telling myself to squeeze my abs to make my stomach flatter. I did gymnastics from age 11 to 17, so I would probably say pretty early on in that time frame.
You’re probably like 11 or 12 having these thoughts of [needing] to look different. For me, I thought, “something isn’t quite right. I want to look differently.”
H: Hmm. Wow. Yeah, that’s crazy. But not uncommon from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned. So, is that in your head now that you’ve entered into the role of a coach? Could you tell me a little bit about that? And then the follow-up question is: How young do you see the body image concerns or preoccupations start?
K: After graduating [college], there was an assistant position open at [Dublin] Jerome [High School] where I went. It was cool to think I could be coaching where I ran. I was a little hesitant because my sister was a senior on the team at the time.
H: Really? I didn’t know that. How crazy!
K: Yeah, I thought it would be awesome. She is one of my favorite people and I was like, “this would be so cool.” I didn’t know how she would feel about it, but then she actually reached out to me. So at that point, I met with the head coach at the time and I have been coaching ever since.
I definitely do see the body image struggle on the team. I also hear the way girls talk–”I woke up and I was like, morning, skinny this morning” or something that shows how being “skinny” is on their minds. We’ve had a couple situations of girls actually being diagnosed with an eating disorder. So I do see it, for sure. And I hear even just, you know, the buzzwords of our culture, “Oh, I don’t want to look like that”
For your question of how young do you see it start… Well, among the girls I coach, the youngest would be like 15 or 16. But one thought that comes to mind for me was actually not a coaching thing. It was one of my little cousins, actually. Years ago, she was probably six or seven and we were at a baseball game. The pitchers were warming up and one of them threw a ball to a girl in the crowd who was about [my cousin’s] age. My little cousin–like I said, she’s five or six–turns around and goes, “She’s prettier than me.” It starts that young!
H: And those are the moments when I went to take the little kid and hug them and say, “No, you’re beautiful! You’re so wonderfully made!” That stuff makes me want to just wipe those thoughts from their heads.
K: Yes, exactly.
H: Now, as a coach though, what do you do? Obviously, you spend a lot of time on the training, the prehab, rehab, all the race stuff. But then from a mental side, how do you help these young athletes understand their identity and bodies?
K: I think I could probably do a lot more in terms of addressing the mental side of body image because we don’t talk a whole lot about body image. We do a lot of education about fueling. There’s a team dietitian–a district dietitian–who we bring in every year to give a talk. And I talk every day at practice. I’ll say, “Go home, get some good food.”
H: Yes! That is so important.
K: They need to go fill [their bodies] back up! This year through Columbus Running Company, [a former teammate of mine], Sakiko Minagawa, came and gave a talk about food and how to fuel the body well. I think we could do more to address the mindset about how they feel about how their body looks. I think [those two concepts] definitely go hand in hand. If you can be at ease with your body image, then it might be a lot easier to eat without feeling anxious about it.
H: Yeah that’s interesting. They do go hand in hand because so much of it is learning to train and fuel for [the purpose of sport and life], not to change your body. Running (or competing) out of a place of celebration of your body, is how I have tried to look at it.
K: That’s interesting.
H: Yeah, I think back to high school because it’s so hard. Cause also, those kids are going through the later stages of puberty craziness. I mean, you know my story, but like before I got really deep into the eating disorder, I was playing soccer and running in high school. I remember coming back from practices so hungry. I would have chocolate cereal in chocolate milk and be cooking a quesadilla as I did. It didn’t occur to me at that age that there was any “good” or “bad” food. I was just like, “I am so hungry because I’m doing so much!” I was in tune with my body and looking back, it shocks me to think I ever had such a normal relationship with food.
So, all that to say, I think it’s awesome you guys are focusing on that. Do you think that’s something that your coach in high school did? I know you said that the coach was a good role model.
K: Yeah, I don’t remember a really big focus on food [during my time competing] in high school. And I don’t remember it being a big issue on our team. But I also know I could be wrong about this because people are very good at hiding. From what I know, no one was struggling with an eating disorder or had disordered eating. However, I feel like everybody has a body image struggle. So I don’t remember ever being addressed in high school. My coach in college addressed it though. I really appreciate her approach to food because she really encouraged healthy habits.
H: So, not many signs of eating disorders in high school. Was that the same in college?
K: I think I knew I knew it was more of a problem in college and I knew that body image was a struggle for me, for sure. Teammates would talk about it as well. Like I said though, our coach did a really good job trying to encourage a healthy relationship with food. Yet, it’s a complex thing and feeds into the body image side of things, so [my struggles] were not any fault of hers
If I would have listened to her advice, I probably would have been healthier. But I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
H: I feel like if we all could go back and just listen to a few pieces of advice, that would be great.
K: Now we’re like, “they said it, so they probably knew…”
H: Now, you said through college, it was very difficult for you–understanding your body and being able to compete and stay healthy. What shifted to where you are now, if anything?
K: Yeah, I think one thing has been my faith. I know that one verse, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, talks about how our body is a temple. [After reading that], I started viewing my body as a temple. It made it easier to shift my mindset–”Okay, can you do this thing and still say you’re treating your body like a temple?” It was a good guide for me because that question could apply to food, how you view your body, and how God views your body. Things changed when I realized that this body is a gift I’ve been given. It’s like housing; a beautiful thing. So do I want to abuse it? No. I can’t. And I can’t hold both those things–say I’m gonna [hurt] my body while also saying that I want to treat my body like a temple.
So, letting God speak into my body image has been a huge help. Also, just talking about it–which is one reason why I think what you’re doing is huge–because once we start talking with other people and realizing their body image struggles, it’s powerful for two reasons. One, you get it off your chest and, two, you don’t feel alone in it when someone else shares their struggle with you. Most of the time, you look at [someone else] and you’re like, “What? You’re beautiful!”And then for your own body image struggle, it’s like, “Hmm…. this is only obvious to me.”
Yeah, it’s like Jesus, for sure, and then just having that community of people where you’re like, “Hey, we’re gonna talk about this, we’re gonna drag this into the light because everybody seems to be struggling with it, but we don’t want to talk about it.”
H: Hmm. Yes. Oh my goodness, yes! I feel like that’s helped me so much. The sharing and conversation you and I have had, have been so helpful. So helpful! I think especially when we’ve been talking through what Scripture says. For both of us, that is just key, you know? Because that’s where identity comes from.
H: So, if you had to describe your relationship with your body right now, how would you describe it?
K: Yeah, I like to think that I have much more of an appreciation for my body now and I won’t act like I’m 100 percent good and I love myself all the time. There are days when I wish my body was different.
K: But once I started focusing more on what my body could do and what it does for me, that was helpful. I mean, even just on a primitive level, I’m sitting here, right? Right now, my heart is beating, and my lungs are breathing. I go to sleep at night and while I’m unconscious, my body still functions. That in itself is incredible and then simple movements require so much communication within your body. If you look at things that athletes do, even if they’re not competing at an elite level, it’s incredible what our bodies can do.
H: It really is amazing!
K: Like, once I started thinking of it like that, I had much more of an appreciation. Like, “Hey body, you’re kind of amazing, aren’t you?!”
I realize that can be like a tricky mindset because I never want it to be the idea that we are what we do, but [recognizing] accomplishments is a good thing. Something else that has really helped me has also been fighting the idea that we’re all supposed to look the same. Trends shift. If you look at what was the ideal in the 1950s, it is different from what you’re “supposed” to look like now. Maybe something to help would just be saying, “Hey, if everybody wanted to look like me, would I still want to change it?” It just depends on when I was born or where in the world I was born if I feel like how I look is “right”?
That’s a tough pill to swallow because we all, to some degree, want to be able to follow the crowd and be like, “Hey, this is in, right? That’s what I am too.” And so if we don’t look like that, it’s tough. It can be really hard to learn to love our bodies.
H: Yeah, I think of the Barbie comparison where people blow up the Barbie proportions [to be life-sized] and they’re like, “If she were an actual person, she would not be able to stand up…she’d, like, fall over. We were not meant to look like that.
K: Yes. And so much of what we see in advertisements–which, advertisements are works of art, not demonizing them in any way; they are what they are–becomes a problem when we look at it as the standard.
I remember a class in college when we were talking about how the body type that we see in advertisements is very, very rare and that it’s a very small portion of the population that actually has that body type and there is a guy in our class who just could not believe it. He was like, what? What, no way,” We’re like, “Look around. Have you ever seen someone who looks like that? He could not accept it. We were kind of crushing his world for a minute there.
H: Yeah, that’s wild!. So, now, to bring it back to sport for a moment: do you have any athletic goals for the next, let’s say, calendar year?
K: So, I don’t know what’s going on with my Achilles, but it’s been painful for, like, a year now. And it’s just getting worse. It’s swollen now, so I haven’t run in a while.
H: You poor thing!
K: I do love working out though, and I’m working out every day. But I think right now, I’m kind of at a point of being like, “I need to figure out what’s going on.” I have ideas in my head–I would love to compete in an Ironman, that would be so, so cool. I want to try various things, like, I’ve never run a marathon and I’d love to run a marathon.
But, I need to figure out what is wrong because I’m just limping while walking and that makes it hard to like, do a lot of things. so
H: Has it been fun finding different ways to work out that don’t bother the Achilles?
K: Yeah. Like lifting or I’ve been biking, That’s fun because you’re doing different things.
I haven’t made any goals right now, in terms of signing up for a race or doing something new. But I hope to compete again. You know that feeling of competition! But currently, I don’t have anything on the calendar.
H: Yeah, I love that, and I think you were one of the first people that made me think, “Oh yeah girls can lift!” Because we never really did it in high school or college, and it’s so fun. I think it’s shown me a greater appreciation for my body, as well, like you were saying.
K: I love that!
H: And I think you should definitely do an Ironman or do one of the American Ninja Warrior things.
K: Well, that would be fun!
H: Girl, you’re so strong.
K: Yeah. That’d be sweet. They look so fun. I mean, for sure hard, but some of it you’re like, “whoa that would be cool.” It’s like the adult version of kids on the playground. I like the one where you have to jump the chin-up bar [as you go]. That would be fun. Oh, man.
H: Yeah. And I’d totally be there to cheer you on!
Okay, so to end us, I have a rapid-fire round of questions. Okay, ready?
K: Yeah, I’m ready!
H: Okay, the first one ties into [what we were just talking about]: would you rather play tag or capture the flag?
K: Oh, That’s hard. I’m gonna say tag because capture the flag in my experience, has always ended up with people getting really mad at each other. I don’t know what it is, but it is war. Like, let’s just take the flag, and then everyone will be happy.
H: Fair. It is kind of like a child’s version of, like war politics, right?
H: Okay, next question: Who is an idol or someone you look up to?
K: Okay. So, honestly, the first person who comes to mind is my sister. I mentioned how she’s one of my favorite people, and it’s always funny because she’s younger than me, but I’ve told her that when I grow up, I want to be like her. We’ve done the same sports growing up, and I just really admire her competitive edge but also her ability to be kind to people. She’s not like a fierce competitor who is just mean to everybody. She cares. I also admire the athletic style she’s now carried into the professional world. So honestly, my sister is the first person who comes to mind.
H: Ah, yay Kat! That’s so sweet. So, for the next question: what’s your favorite weather for being outdoors?
K: So like Okay, that is a hard question because, right now, the first thing that comes to mind is the fall weather right now. I love this weather. But I also love how, in the summer, you go for a run and when you finish you’re so sweaty. Or like in the winter, when you start [the run] cold but by the end, you’re feeling so much better because you’ve warmed up. So, Yes.
I feel like it honestly shifts with the season, but let’s go with fall because that’s what I’m like feeling right now [this convo was in October].
H: Yeah, I’m with you there. But also: kudos to you for the many times that we have run together or you’ve ridden your bike with me while I ran and it’s like 10 degrees out. I just remember the one time your hands were so frigid and exposed. Oh my gosh.
K: It’s so much colder on a bike, for sure!
H: Okay, last rapid question. What is your favorite post-run or post-activity food? What hits the spot?.
K: I really like chocolate milk–or whatever type of non-dairy “milk” that you drink. That definitely hits the spot. I remember I hadn’t tried that until college and I was like, “oh milk after running?” And then I tried it was like, “Yep. Every time.” In terms of food, though, one of my favorite snacks is chocolate-covered almonds. I like those.
H: Um, Dude, I love them. Those are really delicious.
K: Yeah, I don’t know if there is a food that I really crave after running. Post-workout, I think what sounds good is some sort of chocolate milk.
H: Yeah. Chocolate milk is good! So are chocolate almonds! I mean anything chocolate, really. I’m with you there.
So, the last question I have for you today is a bit more in-depth: If you could tell something to young, middle school Kaitlyn in relation to sport and her body, what would you tell her?
K: One thing that comes to mind is: if you don’t think you’re beautiful, there’s something you’re not seeing. I wish that every girl I coach would just completely take that to heart. And I wish that’s something that someone would have told me. Like, “Hey, like, you’re gonna have this trouble, you’re not gonna like how you look, but,, trust me, you are beautiful.”
On more of an athletic side of things, [I would tell myself] that if you want to be a good athlete, fueling well is what is going to help you get there.
We have this idea as runners that if we lose weight, we’ll be lighter, and if we are lighter, we’ll be faster. There’s such a negative to that–it hurts the mind and the body. So, if I could instill that “food is fuel” mindset in myself as a middle schooler, I think that would have been really powerful going forward.
H: Mmm. I love that. And I love how you’re doing that for high schoolers. In the ways you coach and invest in them, you are making that difference! I just think that’s amazing.
K: Well, thanks!
H: Yeah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, and I’m excited.. share some of your story with others!