ANAHEIM, Calif. — With rock-hard biceps and abs that would make a bodybuilder jealous, Stephen McCain doesn’t need to lose weight. Yet count him as a devotee of the increasingly popular low-carbohydrate diet.
A 2000 U.S. Olympian trying to make it back to the Games this year, McCain started doing the high-protein, low-carb thing well before it became the biggest diet fad in the country.
“I used to think it was all about carbs, carbs, carbs to get the energy,” he said. “But over time, I realized I performed better when I kept that stuff in check.”
That’s because gymnastics, unlike swimming or long-distance running, is considered an “anaerobic” sport, one in which short, intense bursts of power are much more important than endurance.
“Over the span of a three-hour workout, we’re probably only up on the equipment for 15 minutes,” McCain said. The longest routine for a man or woman is the floor exercise, which lasts between 60 and 90 seconds.
Energy spurts needed
Thus, having lots of complex sugars stored up — the kind produced by carbohydrates — does not help a gymnast that much. Those energy spurts are best provided by a diet high in protein. Most gymnasts try to get between 60 percent and 70 percent of their calories from proteins (like meats and cheeses), the rest from carbs (like whole-grain pasta, fruits, vegetables) and fats (like oils from peanuts). And, as has been proven by all the Atkins, South Beach and Zone diets so popular these days, high-protein regimens help gymnasts keep their weight down.
The weight issue can be a touchy subject in gymnastics, especially on the women’s side. Eating disorders have long been common in a sport in which young girls are urged to stay lean, yet keep the muscle that allows them to explode and do such amazing tricks on the floor, uneven bars and beam.
But done correctly, diets can produce gymnasts like Courtney McCool, Tabitha Yim or national co-champion Courtney Kupets, all fit, trim young women who hardly seem to fit some of the worst stereotypes of the sport.
They eat several times a day, all in small quantities: egg whites for breakfast, a small piece of chicken for lunch, small snacks of cheese and vegetables in between meals and maybe some fish and fruit for dinner.
Is it what most 16-year-old girls would be eating? Probably not, but these young women are in fabulous shape. And with the desire to be a world-class gymnast come sacrifices, the likes of which all these athletes know they must make when they get into the sport.
“It’s just something you have to deal with,” McCool said. “You have to be not just physically tough, but mentally tough.”
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No sport has been watched more closely — or criticized — for its weight issues than gymnastics. Christy Henrich, a member of the 1989 U.S. world championship team, died at age 22 in 1994 after long battles with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Stories abound of former American team coordinator Bela Karolyi hectoring his young gymnasts for being out of shape and fat.
Just as revealing are myriad pictures of 14-year-old girls who look no older than 8 or 9.
“You see things that are inappropriate that shouldn’t be done,” longtime gymnastics coach Steve Rybacki said. “The key is finding the right balance.”
Steve, who coaches alongside his wife, Beth, a former gymnast herself, said he has learned over the years that weight issues with female gymnasts are best discussed woman-to-woman.
“Getting that kind of feedback from a guy can be a real negative thing,” Rybacki said.
On the women’s side of the sport, diets can be more easily monitored simply because female gymnasts at the Olympic level are usually between ages 15 and 19 — in other words, they still live at home.
Nutritionist at camp
Once a month, they go to training camps held at a Texas ranch owned by Karolyi and his wife, Martha, who is the current national team coordinator. Their daughter, Andrea, is a certified nutritionist who does the food service at the camps.
The menu for lunch at one recent training camp was a salad bar, pork loin, vegetables, potatoes and fruit.
“My mom and I work on the menus,” Andrea Karolyi said. “She’s very involved in the nutrition. She wants to make sure everything is well-balanced.”
The biggest problem, Rybacki said, is finding enough kinds of food to keep teenage girls — in large part, a notoriously picky bunch of eaters anyway — happy.
“You’re taking a menu that’s already limited because there aren’t a lot of foods they like,” Rybacki said, “and then you’re cutting it down even further. That’s the challenge.”
Most of the men, meanwhile, are in their 20s, and don’t get as much help.
“I’m 30 years old, so I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” McCain said. “But I think I’ve finally got a real good grip on what’s right.”
Many see irony in the fact that one of America’s best female gymnasts, Carly Patterson, is being featured on the side of McDonald’s bags this summer as part of the fast-food chain’s Olympics promotions.
Rybacki said, however, that a little bit of off-the-diet eating is allowed, “as long as it’s looked at as a reward, something special, and not part of the regular routine.”
McCool certainly knows.
“I don’t like hamburgers,” she said. “I eat a lot of chicken. Some steak. Mostly just chicken ... or Taco Bell.”
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