By Kim Constantinesco
As a college swimmer at a division one powerhouse, Kally Fayhee could seemingly skip across the water like a stone to reach the podium. However, the one-time University of Michigan captain with Olympic dreams was actually drowning on the inside.
That’s because as the self-imposed pressure of being a student-athlete accumulated and another Olympic trials approached, Fayhee began monitoring the numbers on the scale rather than the digits displayed on the stopwatch. Believing lighter was faster, she counted calories as diligently as she worked on her butterfly, and fell into a binge eating and purging pattern so consuming that her love for the sport waned.
It wasn’t until she quietly sought help from trusted athletic department personnel that she emerged from the experience with a new outlook on herself and on mental health.
“Think of your brain as another muscle,” Fayhee said. “If you’re running and you tear your hamstring, what would you do? You wouldn’t put your head down and run further. You would go to a trainer, get it looked at, and go to therapy to fix it. People don’t see the brain that way because we don’t understand it as well as we understand a muscle in our leg. If you’re trying to move forward and your feelings are stopping your progress, that’s when you need to go see someone to help you work through things to get healthy again.”
Now 26 and a proud alum, Fayhee is opening up about her difficult time in college athletics so others can learn from her experience. She’s part of Athletes Connected, the University of Michigan’s trailblazing student-athlete focused mental health program which raises awareness for mental health issues, reduces the stigma associated with seeking help, and promotes positive coping skills.
The program uses short videos to educate coaches and athletes within the school’s athletic department, and Fayhee’s face and narrative has become a major springboard for encouraging others to step forward to take on their own emotional health challenges with some serious resolve.
A Fish Who Won’t Quit
Fayhee started swimming at six years old. Frankly, it was a way for her to make friends. Her family moved around a lot and the water became a catalyst for connection to other kids her age.
She played soccer, softball, and danced as well, but the pool cradled her passion. She quit her other beloved sport, softball, to dedicate her time and energy to swimming.
“It was a hard decision,” she said. “When swimming got tough, there was always that thought in my head, what if I chose softball?”
In the end, it proved to be a good decision. After all, the sport led her to a scholarship and meeting her eventual husband, Sean. But before that, she got her start at the YMCA level and then at the urging of a swim official who saw her as a budding talent, Fayhee’s parents moved her onto a USA Swimming sanctioned team.
“My brothers swam, and my mom swore she would never have another swimmer just because the practices are long hours and the meets are three days, but they put me in the water and I wouldn’t stop,” Fayhee said. “So, they wouldn’t stop supporting me.”
Fayhee grew up idolizing Olympians Misty Hyman and Janet Evans. Hyman, especially, made a lasting impression on Fayhee.
“When practices got hard, those two kind of came into my head,” Fayhee said. “Misty Hyman, I distinctly remember sitting in my parents bedroom, and she was in lane eight; a qualifier for the Olympic finals and no one thought she would even medal. She came out of nowhere and won gold. I remember being amazed at what she did and loving butterfly after that because of her.”
With those two athletes serving as role models, Fayhee applied herself and became a 12-time All-American and state champion in high school. As a senior, she even came up one-tenth of a second shy of qualifying for the Olympic Trials. She was heavily recruited by big-name programs, but ultimately decided on Michigan, where she threw her entire being into the sport with the hopes of improving in time for the next Olympic Trials.
The Weight Of The Water
Going from high school to college is where the trouble began. Like most 18 years old’s, she didn’t have much awareness surrounding her transition to a large university.
“I knew Michigan was the place to get me to the next level,” she said. “I didn’t pay attention to how I was feeling or anything surrounding how I was taking the transition. I just went for it. Now looking back, there was a lot of anxiety trying to keep up with the traditions of Michigan swimming, and trying to fulfill my scholarship. I was always afraid that I wasn’t going to be worth the money they were ‘paying’ me. That’s pressure in itself, and then you add on school, you add on friends, you add on a change in your environment and being away from family, and it’s a lot.”
So, like any dedicated athlete, she put her head down and tried harder.
“The beautiful thing about any athlete, and it’s the double-edged sword, is that what makes them so great is what can be so destructive,” she explained. “You throw yourself into something and try your hardest without a lot of awareness of what’s going on around you or inside of you because you’re so used to just gutting it out.”
Fayhee didn’t put up great results during her sophomore year, and knowing it was her last shot at making the Olympic Trials, she stepped away from the Midwest and went to California for two months to work with a club team run by an old coach. She craved a break from the pressures of the university and she wanted to “find the fun” in swimming again.
“Truthfully, if I hadn’t found that fun, I probably would have quit,” she admitted. “There was a love I had for swimming, and I just lost it along the way. I figured out the love for swimming part, but I didn’t figure out the anxiety part when I was in California.”
The Ice Cream Cone That Changed Everything
She returned to school for her junior year, where she performed well in the water. But, she wasn’t happier. With the Olympic Trials approaching once again, the stress revved up. She began to think that maybe, losing weight would make her faster in the water. So, she started calorie counting and became engrossed in her food habits, namely restricting and then purging if she had a “no-no” food like a piece of chocolate cake for someone’s birthday.
“The eating disorder was rooted in control,” she said. “I didn’t want to put those calories in my body, but I was eating fairly normally. I didn’t think I lost any weight, but now talking to people, there was a little bit of a weight loss. I probably lost about 10 pounds, but not an extreme amount that I couldn’t talk around. My mom would say, ‘It looks like you lost a lot of weight. Are you okay?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, they’re implementing running.’ I always had an answer.”
Meanwhile, Fayhee was still trying to figure out who she was outside of swimming. If she had a bad practice, it would translate into a bad day.
“Swimming was really the only thing about me, and that’s a dangerous place to be,” she said. “You need other pieces to balance you.”
One day while getting ice cream with her best friend and swim team co-captain, Fayhee was asked one simple question: “Are you okay?” That’s when she admitted to having a problem.
“I hadn’t been sleeping because I was so ashamed of what I was doing and yet, I couldn’t stop because having that control was addictive,” Fayhee said. “I hadn’t slept a full night in a very long time, and I broke down and told her everything. If it were any other day, I probably wouldn’t have told her. It was just that I was sleep deprived. My friend gave me an ultimatum: See the coaches or go see the counselor.”
Fayhee chose the counselor, a woman named Barbara Hansen, who also encouraged her to work with the athletic department’s nutritionist and trainer.
As a treatment team, they developed meal plans, healthy coping strategies for handling stress, and cognitive reframing tactics to help Fayhee realize she was more than just a swimmer.
“One time, Barb told me to write down three good things about myself, and all three were swimming related,” Fayhee said. “At the time, I couldn’t come up with a single good thing about myself that didn’t revolve around swimming. I started crying and realized truly how unbalanced my life was. That was part of treatment. It was realizing that when you do have a bad practice or a bad race, you can go and remember those other things. That was a big strategy she used to help me understand the lack of balance I had in my life. From there, she helped me build more balance.”
Showing Imperfections Is A Strength
Fayhee went on to earn a communications degree in 2013. She now lives in Virginia with her husband, and works for a company that creates training modules for pharmaceutical companies. Over the years, she has continued her work on finding balance and self-acceptance to help manage her body dysmorphia. She’s also finding solace in her work with Athletes Connected.
“As an athlete, you can push further and push harder, and go to this place where you can tap into this other level of yourself, and when you’re struggling through a set or a practice for whatever sport you do, you just put your head down and try harder. With mental health, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t talk about mental health enough for athletes to understand that this isn’t a situation where you can do that.”
So when she was asked to be a representative athlete in an Athletes Connected video, she agreed, but it didn’t come without reservation. After all, the only people who knew about her mental health struggles were her best friend, her parents, Hansen, and the athletic trainer and nutritionist. Her brothers and her closest friends had no clue.
“I thought about backing out about five or six times,” she said. “There were a few times where I thought, I can go through my entire life with no one knowing I dealt with this, and I’m okay with that. Then, I started to realize I had gone through this for a reason, and if I could use it to help somebody whose it my same position, then that’s something positive I can bring out of something that’s not positive at all.”
Once the video was released in 2014, Fayhee got an influx of support.
“It was the most freeing thing that has probably ever happened to me,” she said. “A weight and a burden was lifted off my shoulders. When the video came out, I realized the power in just being truthful. It wasn’t until I started talking to student-athletes and was really open about it that I truly got to the other side of being healthier.”
As an athlete, she kept her “secret” for so long because as a captain, she thought that disclosing her clash with an eating disorder to her teammates would have made her appear like a “weak leader.”
“In all reality, after coming out with my story, I realized I could have been a much better leader if I had shown my imperfections,” she said. “We all try to strive for perfection in an imperfect world, but I think showing your imperfections is a strength in itself.”
And that’s advice worth taking well beyond the starting block.