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Candid conversation with local 2022 Beijing Olympian, breaking stigma and finding support for young men with eating disorders

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 4:05 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Doctors say eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health illnesses. While young women are the largest demographic, many young men are also in desperate need of medical help. As was the case of one local 2022 Beijing winter Olympian who struggled with body image issues and didn’t always consider himself to be an elite athlete.

The 29-year-old Appleton native Paul Schommer competed in the Beijing Olympics and finished seventh in the mixed relay with his U.S. teammates. However, when he dropped about 15 lbs. in one summer and weighed less than 100 lbs. heading into his sophomore year of high school, Schommer says there was a time he was scared about his body.

“I just remember stepping on the scale at that time, seeing the number, and knowing where I was in the spring and how much weight I had lost to that point,” Schommer recalled. “I had not weighed myself that entire summer. To see that was just kind of heartbreaking and I really didn’t know what to do at the time.”

In August 2007, eventual Beijing Olympic biathlete Schommer was suffering from anorexia athletica. A wrestler heading into his sophomore year at Kimberly High School, he was restricting his eating and exercising constantly. He asked his mom if he could go to the doctor because he wasn’t feeling well. Schommer said, luckily she took him right away.

“Parents, recognizing that this is an illness,” Dr. Emily Ruedinger, adolescent medicine physician at UW Health, advised. “That it’s not a choice that someone has made. I have yet to meet a patient who chose to have an eating disorder.”

Schommer spent about three and a half months at the Rogers Behavioral Health facility in Oconomowoc. His struggle adds to the approximately 30% of people dealing with eating disorders who are men. However, the leading demographic is young women with an onset age of about 13 to 26.

“Boys and young men are underrepresented in the numbers and statistics because even some of the tools that we use to try to diagnose someone probably has some inherent bias toward the female population,” medical director of eating disorder recovery at Rogers Behavioral Health, Dr. Brad Smith shared. “So, we may be under-representing the male population in our numbers that we have.”

Schommer said when he first went to Rogers, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to live what he calls “a normal life.” As an Olympian, he still isn’t living a typical life. However, Paul’s struggle with food isn’t something he thinks about all the time anymore. He’s more concerned with potentially competing in the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“I started to realize that if I want to ski, I really need to be able to eat enough,” Schommer explained. “At that time it kind of gave me a reason to try even more.”

Doctors say signs of someone struggling with an eating disorder include: skipping meals or making an excuse for not eating, expressing guilt regularly around how much someone eats or what they eat, and making their own meals rather than eating what the family eats. Health experts recommend calling for professional help as soon as possible.

Some local treatment options include: Rogers Behavioral Health Mental Health Care in Oconomowoc and Bellin Health Nutrition Counseling.

Annie Krall is a former writer and producer for ABC NEWS New York City on the national medical and business units. Prior to that position, she was accepted to medical school her senior year at Northwestern University, after spending four years as a pre-medical student. However, Krall deferred her acceptance to pursue a Master in Health, Environment, and Science Journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

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