EmBODYing Strength: Janae Janik

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 article, I chat with Janae Janik. She is a former elite gymnast and diver. Currently, Janae is exploring her relationship with movement as it pertains to the post-collegiate world.

This interview was recorded in late October of 2022.

J: Hi! Long time no see!

H: It’s so nice to see ya! How are you?

J: [I am] trying to figure out an outpatient team, as I am doing three-day-a-week IOP now (Janae was about to graduate from a treatment program at the time of this interview). There are some ups and downs–it’s not all perfect–yet, I’m doing way better than six months ago before I started treatment.

H: Yeah, I can absolutely resonate with that.

J: I love seeing your social media–you’ve gotten back in a running and it just seems like that’s so life-giving for you. [I love that you’re] able to do that again, in recovery. Makes me happy when I see that!

H: No, yeah it’s been really good for the most part. There have been a lot of good challenges, but I’ve been dealing with them…It’s been good.

So, now that you’re finishing up treatment. Where you gonna live? Are you staying in California?

J: Right now, yes, I’m still living at my parents’. My brother moved on to Hollywood a few months ago, though, so stay at his place sometimes because there’s more to do in LA and Hollywood. And I often go to church in LA or Santa Monica.

I am kind of hopping between houses a little bit, but officially I’m at home [with my parents] still. I’m looking for a job–that’s been a process. I just really want to find [a position involving] writing or creative production. I’m looking into faith-based organizations and ministries because I feel like my heart’s really set there, but I’m open to not being in that.

I’m having a hard time–I’ve been hitting a wall. I’m really hoping I’ll find something and I’m kind of waiting to figure out where I’ll officially be because I want to move out of my parents’ place.

H: Now, you come from a world that is so not my own and it excites me to learn more about that. So, for context, can you please share a bit about yourself? What is your sports background and what are you passionate about?

J: Yeah, so I was a gymnast for almost twenty years and I grew up doing gymnastics–[from] three years old…and I was also a competitive diver. In diving, I competed (at nationals and nationally) all over the country. My heart and passion were always in gymnastics though. So when it came time to choose a college and accept scholarship offers, I chose to do gymnastics. I was given a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington (UW) and I competed there for four years.

Then, I retired from the world of gymnastics, but have still very much stayed involved. I was involved with the marketing team at UW with their gymnastics program for about a year. Then, I was a coach for a year and took a few years out of the sport when I was in Australia. But have come back and have been choreographing for local clubs and local gymnasts. 

I think a lot of times, sports can be love-hate relationships, right? Diving was a lot more like that. I enjoyed it, but it was more my mom’s sport and I got into it through my mom. My mom was my coach. Gymnastics was kind of my thing and I loved it. But I also loved the community and the friendships. As a homeschooled kid, that was my community, so that was very important. Now being on the other side and being a coach and choreographer, I am really passionate about the mentorship opportunities in the gymnastics world.

H: Yeah?

J: I don’t feel like I ever got that. I don’t feel like I had coaches that really truly came alongside me [as a ] healthy mentoring voice in my life. Some tried, but not always in the right way. [FOr others], it wasn’t part of their perspective of what it meant to be a coach. So, especially when I was coaching full-time, that was something I really wanted to be for the athletes.

That was what I liked about coaching more than really the job. I loved that I was training, these kids, twenty hours a week. I loved being able to be in their lives and be a voice that’s encouraging and instilling confidence in them–helping them have excitement for life and the ability to overcome challenges in a positive way.

H: Yeah. That’s so special. I see such a giving and compassionate personality in you.  I bet you are so good with kids. Do you still help out with coaching at all?

J: So many gyms have asked me to coach in the last couple of months because I’ve been choreographing. They’re like, “Please come coach!” I’ve turned it down for right now because I feel like that’s just not the direction where God is [taking me], but, I do like choreographing and I do love getting to at least step into their world for a moment and encouraging  I’ve always loved kids [and I’ve] work[ed] with kids at church and in Sunday school.

H: It’s so fun to help out with Sunday school!

J: Yeah and it was fun coming back to gymnastics after being gone from the sport for a few years. You know, I was dying for a second… like, “Maybe I’m a little rusty.” That was the first day I got back into it and before long, I was working with the kids. I was like, “Oh, it just floats so naturally, and the kids are laughing and having a good time.” We each have God-given gifts that flow naturally. I think that’s what choreography and teaching sometimes [are] for me. It’s really cool to see that.

H: I love that! Now, that’s all in the gymnastics world. But you talked a little bit about diving, as well. How did you get into that? Knowing that it was your mom’s world, talk to me a little bit about what sports were like growing up.

J: I started [kids classes] in gymnastics when I was like three. I started training seriously when I was six. By eight years old, I was competing in diving. I started a little bit later, and I was a lot more fearful in diving. I was afraid of smacking on the water…

H: [confused] But at least, in diving, you hit the water and not the ground, right?

J: I know, but in my mind, gymnastics had more progressions–you would progress and would have soft mats. We learned how to fall. In diving, sometimes it felt like you just had to throw it and hope. Yes, it’s technically safer because it’s water, but it still hurts if you land wrong.

I didn’t train as much in diving, either. I trained a lot in gymnastics and I just wasn’t at the pool as much because all of my time was at the gym. That was part of why I just wasn’t as comfortable on the board and in the water. So I did diving when I was younger–just some basic classes–and then, I think I might have stepped away from it for a little bit and then my mom started coaching Gosh, I don’t even know. I must have been like 9 or 10, when I kind of started doing it a little bit more.

My mom started coaching a small team and she kind of recruited some of my friends to join. Honestly, I remember my first gymnastics competition very clearly. I do not remember my first diving competition.

J: but yeah, I always knew that gymnastics is what I love diving. I felt like, for a little while, I did it for my mom because it was her passion and she loved it. I think [I did it] partially to make her happy, [but] there was a period of time when I did adopt it more as my own and I considered dropping gymnastics completely and pursuing diving. I had qualified for a national talent development program when I was twelve or thirteen. I got to train in Indianapolis for like a month with the national team coaches and all these people who are now Olympians.

H: Dang. That’s incredible!

J: I actually dedicated a month to diving–six hours a day training–and I did start to fall in love with diving. 

H: What do you think caused that?

J: I think just being more comfortable with it. It wasn’t as scary to do all the dives. [In the past,], I’d go to a competition and I’d be like scared of a bunch of my higher level dives. 

H: That makes sense.

J: But yeah, I ultimately went back to gymnastics. Still, part of me always wondered: “If I would have chosen diving, what would that have looked like?” So many of the people that I was training with went on to compete internationally.

H: Yeah. I’d imagine you think back on that and wonder!

J: … And so it’s interesting because we make decisions in life and they take us on different paths. There’s a part of me that’s considered going back– “Oh what if I started training again? I could go back to diving much more easily than I gymnastics.” 

My coaches had a very warped perception of what an athlete’s body should look like and, continue to look like, through high school.

– Janae Wilkins

H: Either way, I feel like you can–at the very least–really impress people at swimming pools when you go off the high diving board.

J: This is true.

H: So speaking of swimming pools: gymnastics is similar to diving in that gymnastics typically have a uniform that is skin-tight. I wonder how that might have impacted your body image. So, starting with when you were little, can you remember: when was the first time you really noticed your body?

J: Good question. I think a lot of kids notice that when they’re really, really young. I didn’t have any body image issues or really notice my body until high school. Growing up, I was always training so much and I was naturally smaller. I always fit the mold of what people thought I should be–small and slender and petite. And I was, so I never got any comments or negative input about my body.

H: I love to hear that. So awesome.

J: I ate whatever. I wanted. I didn’t think about calories or if the food would change my body. I ate dessert–ice cream! I didn’t think about it. And then in, high school, my coaches had a very warped perception of what an athlete’s body should look like and, continue to look like, through high school. But in high school, female athletes are developing into women– hitting puberty–and I hit puberty really late.

H: Challenging, but unfortunately: not surprising.

Left is an image of Janae as a young gymnast. On the right is an image of her doing the same pose as a collegiate gymnast.

J: That’s honestly when I started noticing my body; around the time I was hitting puberty and because my friends were also hitting puberty. They were making comments about their bodies and I remember looking in the mirror more–analyzing my body and noticing comments from coaches. Even if they weren’t directed at me, [the comments] were directed at other people–both positive and negative comments.

H: Yeah? Wow.

J: That was so toxic and so harmful.

H: Definitely.

J: I didn’t really think of it like that, though. I did get some messaging even earlier on though because I do remember having some judgments towards other people’s bodies in the gym that were larger.

I think back now and I’m like, “Where did that come from?!” I don’t think kids just think that way. They adopt that because of societal understanding, messaging, and people around them…There were obviously comments and things happening for me to have those judgments because I do remember some of that when I was younger. I think I became aware of my own body though when I hit puberty. I hit puberty really late because of gymnastics. Now that I know about nutrition, I’m shocked at the idea that it’s “normal” to get your period late and, [once you’ve started having your period], to miss it occasionally.

H: I find that crazy, but it’s what I experienced too.

I was kind of told by people not to really worry about it…Like, “Oh, it’s fine. Don’t tell.”

– Janae Wilkins

J: Nobody around me was talking about that–that it could be a sign of like underfueling. It was just like, “Oh you’re a gymnast. That’s normal.” I didn’t have an eating disorder back then, but I probably was (very unintentionally) underfueling back then. 

H: Yeah.

J: I hadn’t really even finished hitting puberty when I went off to college, and I think that’s what really got me. I thought, when I left for college, that I had fully developed–not realizing I wasn’t getting my period at that time. Like, I had stopped getting my period for a while before I went off to college.

H: Really? So, you weren’t getting it regularly at that point?

J: No, I got it regularly for a year and then it just stopped and I didn’t think anything of it.

H: Yeah. Makes sense, given what you grew up thinking.

J: I was kind of told by people not to really worry about it… Like, “Oh, it’s fine. Don’t tell.”

H: Which is…. just so unhealthy.

J: It was like, “Oh don’t tell anyone, they’ll just put you on birth control and that can be bad and can lead to weight gain. You know, the fear-mongering of weight gain.

H: Mmm.

J: I remember getting comments from people in my life–very prominent voices in my life–to be careful about the “freshman fifteen.”

H: The “freshman fifteen,” oh yeah [eye roll].

J: They said, “You have to watch what you eat and make sure that you don’t gain weight.” I was okay with the weight gain through high school because I thought my body was supposed to change through that time. Once I hit eighteen though, I was like, “My body cannot change.”

When I went off to college, my body did change because I hadn’t fully developed as a woman. I really struggled with that because I developed more curves and saw the small changes on the scale and thought, “Oh my gosh. What does this mean? What have I done wrong?”

H: And you were weighing yourself at that point?

J: Yeah, not obsessively at that point, but I was aware of the number and I can remember noticing the numbers and I thought what I needed was to lose weight.

H: Wow.

J: Obviously, I didn’t. But, again, a prominent voice in my life had told me that.

H: Yeah.

When I went off to college, my body changed because I hadn’t fully developed as a woman. I really struggled with that.

– Janae Wilkins

J: I had gained weight over the past year, but it was necessary weight because I was growing and I developing, but going into college, I was like, “Oh I need to lose this much weight.” To see the number go up at all was terrifying,

H: What was the atmosphere like when you were competing collegiately, as far as body image?

J: There was pressure to fit a certain mold. But I feel like I had this perception that I was “too large,” but I didn’t actually get that message from my collegiate coaches. I was probably praised for having good lines and in my mind, that meant I had the right body type.

J: Other athletes on my team did give comments about it. They said to make sure to put on a pair of jeans every once in a while to make sure they fit–that type of thing.

H: Oh gosh.

J: I had coaches in high school that had really poor perceptions of body image, and what you should look like, but a lot of the practicalities that became like disordered eating habits in my life, were things that were taught to me in collegiate athletics–like reading nutrition labels to find the things with the healthiest parameters, right?

H: Heaven forbid you pick something that is not the healthiest because then it means you’re compromising or you’re not being diligent.

J: Exactly. And we would have menus on travel trips because we weren’t allowed to order from the whole menu. We would have six options that were “healthier” and we’d have to pick off those. We were even given a list of restaurants at the airports.

H: Oh my gosh.

J: And so much of this “moralizing of food” was taught to me by a dietitian and people who were supposed to be looking out for my health. The rigidity of that can actually be so problematic.

H: What does your relationship with movement look like now?

J: I am trying to figure that out, to be honest. One of the therapy assignments that I have been given is to write a movement philosophy to figure out what it means for me to move in a healthy way in recovery. Right?

H: Good assignment!

J: Yeah, like, “What does it mean for me, because I’m like, my life has been athletics. So going for a 20-minute mindful walk might be great for one person. Personally, there is a part of me–completely separate from the eating disorder–that loves movement. Specifically, I love the intensity of movement. So, I’m figuring out how to find that line; making sure I enjoy what I am doing and know how to do it in a way that’s healthy.

H: Oh for sure. Makes sense!

J: I’ve been exploring dance, and that really gives me joy. Instead of working out and doing certain exercises at a gym–which feels a little bit more numbers based and calculated–I’ve found dance to be freeing. There’s more passion and joy in the movement, and that is what I’m trying to move toward. It’s like, What is my intention?

H: It does, it really does.

J: I think it comes back to intention like, “What’s your intention in movement?”

J: God created, our bodies to be able to move–to run. But more so like little kids. They’re outside in nature and they’re just moving all the time. They don’t think about burning calories. They’re just having a good time, right?

H: It’s all about having fun in the moment, for kids. We could learn a lot from them!

J: To use “therapy language,” it’s very refining to that inner child in you. Like, “If it’s hiking and that brings you joy, go hike. You know, if you love running, go running. But if you hate running and it feels like a chore, don’t run. Go find something else.

H: [joking] If you hate running… then you’re wrong. 🙂

God created, our bodies to be able to move–to run. But more so like little kids. They’re outside in nature and they’re just moving all the time. They don’t think about burning calories. They’re just having a good time

– Janae Wilkins

J: For me, it always comes back to my intention because your intention–even in the things you love–can also be problematic at times. There’ve been times when dance hasn’t been healthy and I’ve had to back to: What is my intention? Am I actually finding joy in this or am I using it as a punishment? Am I using it to manipulate my body?

H: I feel like I could have a whole conversation with you all about that because it’s such a tricky thing when what you love is twisted into an unhealthy thing. So, let’s slate that to talk about soon. But, for now, the last question I have for you is: If you were able to give a message to little Janae, what would you tell her?

I would tell my younger self that she is enough… Just by existing, she is enough, because God has created her for a purpose…He finds joy in her, not because of what she can do, but because she is His masterpiece.

J: This sounds so cliche, but I would tell her I really want her to know that she is enough–outside of accomplishments, outside of her talents, and outside of the things that she can do. I’d tell her that her character and who she is as a person is tenfold more important than the list of things she accomplishes–her scores, gymnastics ability, athletic ability, grades, the clubs she’s involved in, leadership potential; she amounts to so much more. She’s enough. Just by existing, she is enough, because God has created her for a purpose. God has created her because He finds joy in her, not because of what she can do but because she is His masterpiece.

One day a few years ago, I was feeling frustrated by some things in my life and some insecurities. God spoke to me and said: “You are my masterpiece.”

And not every masterpiece will speak to every person at the museum. You see all of this artwork on the wall; some of them, you look at and you don’t understand, right? You see it and it doesn’t make sense. It looks abstract and It doesn’t communicate to you, but someone else comes alongside and they’re enamored by that piece.

H: Oh man. I love that comparison.

J: I felt like God really said that because I was frustrated, I was like, “Yeah, but God, you say everyone’s a masterpiece, so what does that even mean?” I really feel like He said No like yes, every one of my children is a masterpiece, you are a masterpiece but every one of my children is called and designed to speak to a different audience. Just because some people don’t see your value or don’t hear you doesn’t mean that you are not a masterpiece, That’s what I would want a little Jenae to know.

H: I love that, and I am so thankful that you’ve taken the time to talk with me!

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One response to “EmBODYing Strength: Janae Janik”

  1. This was such an inspirational interview! As a female athlete who recently recovered from the negative results of underfueling, I can relate to this so much.
    I also find it so cool that Janae is homeschooled! I’m homeschooled, so it’s really cool to meet fellow homeschooled athletes.

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