Mara Abbott – Anything for this: The costs, benefits of life in elite sport


Mara Abbott on her way to a solo stage victory in Stage 9 of the 2015 Giro Rosa.

Flirting with the edge of potential is dazzling, intoxicating and breathtakingly addictive. I really, really get it. But a true champion must have equal parts of strength and wisdom — and achieving physical excellence should not get carte blanche in the risk-benefit equation of a lifetime. In a moment of vulnerable honesty, what, for you, is worth it? Each answer is utterly unique — and constantly evolving.

If I had known as a college freshman — entering into adulthood of honing pure excellence in my tiny sphere, with errors and triumphs and struggles all rolled in — if I had known this fate lay ahead, would I have traded my cycling career for a stronger hip?

In August 2016, I retired proud of my accomplishments after a decade as a professional road cyclist with two overall wins in the Giro Rosa in Italy, two national championship titles and a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. With neither interest nor intention to delve into who I was if not an elite athlete, I decided to become a runner — ideally of the level that would win an Olympic medal.

Then I got a stress fracture in my right hip. I am former cyclist with no lifetime hours banked in weight-bearing activities and a history of an eating disorder. My downfall felt so clichéd that in self-punishing humiliation I tried to hide my limp. If I said “hip flexor strain” to you, I apologize. That was a lie.

The ensuing bone scan revealed low bone density. Competitive cyclists are more than two times more likely than the recreationally active population to end up this way.

“Would you do it differently if you could go back to the beginning of your career?” my new nutritionist asked…


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