Jo Aleh reveals she made herself ill during her stunning Olympic sailing career by making herself lighter – as NZ high performance sport moves to improve the wellbeing of athletes and coaches.
Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh had to quit sailing five years ago when she didn’t have the energy to physically do it anymore.
In the four years between winning gold with Polly Powrie in the women’s 470 at the 2012 London Olympics and silver the 2016 Rio Games, Aleh suffered from stomach pains, recurring sinus infections and a stress fracture in her ankle.
She had surgeries, and invasive tests to find out why. It’s only in the past year she’s discovered the answer: she wasn’t eating enough to balance the energy she was expending as a professional athlete.
“It was pretty much malnutrition,” says Aleh, now 34 and an Olympic sailing coach.
“It’s why I gave up sailing – I just didn’t have the energy to compete. It sucks when that’s what you love doing, but you know physically you can’t handle it.
“But I have more energy now than I did in that last Olympic cycle. And I’m stronger now too – because I eat.
“I’m probably four kilos heavier now than I was competing. And there was no real reason for me to have been so light. But I thought there was, and I convinced myself that I needed to be that weight. And I was never questioned about it.”
Aleh had the symptoms of RED-S – or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport – an increasingly common condition in female athletes.
Earlier this week, world champion lightweight rower Zoe McBride walked away from her Tokyo Olympic campaign because the pressure to lose weight had taken too harsh a toll on both her body and her mental health – developing an eating disorder, a stress fracture and erratic menstrual cycles.
It’s something Aleh relates to. “I’ve been through the same sort of thing. So many of us have issues with our food intake and what we’re eating,” she says.
Sitting at the launch of High Performance Sport NZ’s 2024 strategy yesterday, with one arm in a sling (she had carpal tunnel surgery this week), Aleh commended the move to improve the wellbeing of the country’s elite athletes and coaches.
It’s part of HPSNZ’s four-year, $273 million strategy to better New Zealand sport’s high performance system.
“Within our new strategy we have a number of new wellbeing initiatives and investment earmarked for additional performance support for athletes and coaches,” says Michael Scott, the CEO of HPSNZ. “Within these two areas we will be looking to implement specific health initiatives for female athletes in partnership with NSOs [national sports organisations].”
They will use the work of WHISPA – a group of experts initiated by HPSNZ to look into the health of women in sport – including their recent research “which provides a clearer picture than ever before of the health issues occurring among female high performance athletes,” Scott says.
Among the findings: almost three quarters of New Zealand’s top female athletes felt elite sport is putting them under pressure to look a certain way, potentially damaging their health.
“I was one of those and it’s why I had so many issues back in the day,” Aleh says. “I’d do an event and be in so much stomach pain – and I’d tell everyone I was fine. Because we just didn’t talk about it then. We all keep our struggles well-hidden.
“There’s a lot more awareness now, and it’s been so good to see other women talking about their experiences. We need to talk about it – because a kilo here and there isn’t going to be the difference between gold and fourth.”
Aleh said things had changed significantly in recent times and Yachting New Zealand, led by women’s sailing manager Rosie Chapman, had initiated many important conversations and projects, particularly with youth, emphasising health and wellbeing.
Aleh finally returned to sailing this summer – just for the fun of it, for now. “I’m doing it because I’m enjoying it – which is why I started sailing. I love learning new things. For the first time this year I was like, I will do a bit of sailing because I want to.”
But she’s not ruling out a comeback to the higher echelons of the sport.
She raced in the 470 dinghy nationals off Takapuna last month with Andre Van Dam, finishing second overall by a single point. “I’ve been out of the boat for four years, and it all came back, which was nice,” she laughs. “You never forget. Sailing is an experience game.”
This month, Aleh won the New Zealand stand up paddleboarding championships, battling it out with world junior SUP champion Brianna Orams, to collect her first national title outside of sailing. “It’s a fun way to keep fit,” she says.
Now she’s concentrating on getting the Nacra 17 foiling catamaran crew she coaches, Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson, to the Tokyo Olympics in the best shape possible.
Aleh can now share the message of the importance of eating to sailors here and even further afield, through her new role as the chair of World Sailing’s Athletes’ Commission.
“We’ve had the conversation in yachting here already. We’ve had all the girls around the table, and they’re taking it to the girls at the youth development level. It’s important to start that awareness young,” she says.
“I’m lucky because Erica [Dawson] is one of the best sailors in the whole New Zealand sailing team. She’s a little powerhouse – she knows she has to refuel to do the really demanding role she does on the boat.”
Athletes are stubborn, Aleh admits, and weight loss and gain is usually something an athlete can control. But she felt the pressure to be lighter.
“Within the class I was sailing, yes some of the girls were tiny. So I was always comparing myself to them – but I was like a foot taller,” she says.
She had two sinus surgeries, for chronic sinus infections; a stress fracture in my ankle, “which I assumed was from running too much”. Her unexplained stomach pains disappeared when she stopped competing. “I was on the pill, but 100 percent I don’t think I would have had periods,” she says.
“It wasn’t until last year when a doctor told me ‘You just need to eat more… You eat like a 50-year-old with a heart condition’.
“I don’t blame anyone for it, but potentially someone should have checked. I’ve always tracked exercise and calories on these [she points to her watch] because it’s what we do as athletes.
“It used to be a target: ‘Ooh if I burn 3000 calories, I can only eat 2000 and it’s a win’. Whereas now it’s like ‘Oh my god, I’ve got some eating to do!’”
Aleh hopes the emphasis promised to be placed on wellbeing relates to coaches as well as athletes.
“The athlete voice is so important, but so is the coach’s voice. I hope there will be more support for them around their wellbeing in the future – as a coach, you also work really hard,” she says.
Aleh tried to transition into the corporate world at the end of her Olympic career, but felt lost away from the sea. Coaching has been a way to keep her involved in the sailing and use the skills she’s developed over three Olympic campaigns.
Another key area in the HPSNZ 2024 strategy is an extension of the Women in High Performance Sport project, aiming to “attract, develop and retain more women in coaching and leadership roles… to address what is currently significant gender imbalance.”
Since the pilot was introduced last year, eight female coaches and leaders have been given jobs in their sport’s high performance programmes, and another 12 have been connected with mentors through the Te Hāpaitanga initiative. An injection of $3.75m to keep the project going is an acknowledgement there’s still much work to be done.
“It has the potential to really change sport in New Zealand,” says Aleh. She’d love to see more women coaches in sailing.
“At the first event I went to, there were five female coaches out of 150. Within New Zealand’s wider high performance community, I’m the only female sailing coach at the Olympic level,” she says.
“But it’s growing at the grassroots. In the Nacra, there are a couple more women coaching now – there was zero when I started. The really cool thing is when I talk to athletes – male or female – who’ve had female coaches, they’re like, ‘Well why wouldn’t you? What’s the big deal?’ Often as a female coach, you can have different conversations.”
Aleh now works with a coach consultant at HPSNZ, Paul Smith: “We catch up after an event or a training block, and run through any issues, challenges I’ve had; discuss if there’s anything I could do better, or he can help me with, directing me to resources or other people. It’s professional development like you’d have in a business.
“One of the biggest things is venting to him at times. You get frustrated sometimes coaching or operating in the wider sports system. It’s great having someone there that I know I can trust, who’s a sounding board and support.”
By breaking ground as she goes, Aleh hopes she’s making it easier for the next generation of female coaches coming through.
“I think the funding towards coaching development, especially in the female area, will do that too,” she says. “Already female coaches in New Zealand sailing are being helped along now, rather than having to knock on doors, fight or chase things themselves.”