In 2003 T
- by Marianne Werz Obrien
2003 T-Mobile rider Dotsie Cowden won the “Queen of the Mountains” in the
Liberty Classic, came in 1st in the California State Championship
Road Race, and finished on the podium in the Tour of Bisbee. She helped her team
achieve victories in the Solano Bicycle Classic and the Elite National
Championship Road Race. Everyone is
familiar with Dotsie Cowden’s prowess on the bike but she has a very inspiring
personal story to tell us, and it is not about the bike.
Just a few years ago, Dotsie
Cowden’s life and lifestyle were decidedly different, and the outlook was
grim. Her health was deteriorating rapidly from the strains of years of
anorexia. Formerly a professional model, Dotsie was now gaunt, emaciated, and no
longer being called for modeling jobs. In
1995 her mother had organized an intervention, but Dotsie was in denial back
then. “It was obvious to everyone except me that I had a problem,” explained
Cowden. “My parents sent me to a
treatment facility where I underwent group counseling. The problem with that was that the patients traded secrets about getting
away with your eating disorder. It’s
common, but you actually end up learning how to better conceal your illness.”
|In the United States, conservative estimates indicate that
after puberty, 5-10 million girls or women and 1 million
boys or men are struggling with eating disorders.
Fortunately around five years ago Dotsie awakened
from denial and recognized that she would surely die if she didn’t seek help.
Once her decision to live was made, Dotsie was able to find the help and
support she needed to recover. During
her recovery, some friends talked her into riding in the 1998 California state
AIDs ride. While in training for the 600-mile endeavor (which she completed!)
Dotsie discovered her love for riding. Simply put, she was hooked!
Why is she now going public with this
painful and very personal story from her past? In telling her story, Dotsie
hopes to help other girls see that there is a way out of despair. That there is
hope, there is help available, and they can recover and rebuild their lives
just as she has.
As Dotsie explains in her Bio:
“I’m no different or more special than anyone else. If I was able to overcome eating disorders and get strong
enough to become a professional athlete, anyone can beat their eating disorder
to live a full, healthy and productive life. If sharing my story can help even just one person, then it will have been
worth it. There are so many girls
out there struggling like I was, some even worse off. Hopefully we can help them find the help they need.”
Dotsie, what made you decide to reveal this now?
Eating disorders are a very private issue. Some people get embarrassed about
having them because they think they’ll be judged. Some people take the view that eating disorders are our own ‘fault’
somehow - unlike cancer for instance. But it really isn’t like that. Once
started, they take on a life of their own.
Why now? I have been fully recovered for 4 years. I guess I feel comfortable
speaking out now. I would like to be able to provide help to those who are
suffering. I know how hard it is. I know how it feels to be at a low point in
your life, a place where it seems like more than you can do to just get well.
I have been there, and now I have the tools needed to not only recover,
but to push myself on. To take it to the next level and become a professional
athlete. I hope that people can get hope from my example. I would like to help
others find those tools.
Do you worry that letting this personal information be broadly known might
affect your professional reputation?
No. I cannot imagine anyone in the peloton having a problem with this.
We respect each other for what we do on our bikes.
Have you shared this with your team or other women in the peloton?
I haven’t really told anyone, except my closest teammates and friends.
Do you have
any aspirations about becoming a spokesperson and lending your professional
weight to the issue of eating disorders, as Lance Armstrong has done for cancer
Definitely. I’m really just getting my feet wet now, trying to feel things out
and find the best way to get this information out. I’d love to do speaking
engagements about my experience, and possibly write a book. It is so important
to get the word out that there is help available.
What was your
light bulb moment? The pivotal moment that caused you to admit there was a
problem and seek help?
There was no specific moment, really.
It was just truly bottoming out. My
mom had arranged an intervention for me a year before, but I wasn’t ready. It
always seemed to me that I had lots of options, try a little therapy, eat a
little better. Finally I was just so exhausted. I could barely move about my
apartment. I was 5’9 and 100 pounds and I
realized there really were only two options, live or die. If I don’t change
now, I’m going to die. Period. Either die or live. Before it seemed there were
so many options. Now I knew there weren’t. No gray area anymore. It had all
become black and white.
What was your
There was one specific person I worked with, KRS Edstrom. I had seen four or
five therapists trying to find the right one. Though part of the reason their
programs didn’t work for me is that I really wasn’t committed to recovery
yet. One day I saw an ad in the paper for a lecture by KRS Edstrom, and -
entirely out of the blue - I went to hear her. She was amazing, and something
just clicked. I started seeing her intensively, 2 or 3 times a week at first.
She is a meditation therapist who deals with recovery from addictions, pain
management and fear-based problems.
This is the only disease where you have to integrate the cause of your
problem right back into your life. The very beginning of getting well felt
bizarre to me, to have to integrate the demon back into my life on a healthy
level. I would love for my problem to have been something I could just quit, it
would have been so much easier. With smoking you can give up the cigarettes,
with drinking you can give up the alcohol, but you can’t quit eating.
Was cycling a
major part of your recovery process?
No, I totally fell into it. KRS is
still in a state of shock over that! I did an Aids ride for charity, and it
was just a neat experience. I fell hard for cycling. I loved everything about
it! I thought, "This is great!" With the wind in my hair, beautiful
coastal scenery, the camaraderie, and the thrill of making it to next stop, it
was just great! I fell into cycling almost completely by accident! What I really wanted to become was a rock star, but I was so bad. I
bought a drum kit, was taking lessons and everything. But I was hopelessly bad.
So I sold the drums, and bought a bike. In retrospect I still wish I’d been a
great drummer though, because cycling hurts… a lot. (She says, laughing!)
amount of food you have to consume to get the calories required for racing. Is
that difficult for you?
We burn about 3500 calories in a
race, which is a huge amount of food. In stage races you need to eat even more,
because you need to keep up your strength. I will say that you don’t enjoy eating as much in season, especially in
stage races where you consume 4000 calories and go right to bed. Which is too
bad, because we race in all these fantastic places where great food is truly an
art form! For me now, food is now part of the job. In the off-season fortunately
I get to enjoy socializing over meals with excellent food.
This is off
topic, but please tell me about winning the Miss Elegance jersey in this years
Oh, man. I had a really good season,
and just had a really bad race in Tuscany. My teammate Kristen Armstrong
flatted, and I went back to get her. It was windy, flat, and we were going fast
trying to rush past the support cars. We almost have her back up to the peloton
when we hear this lady screaming out of one of the cars at us in Italian. I was
thinking - we are doing everything right, what’s the problem? She is leaning
out of her car screaming at us – finally we make out what she’s saying
“Podium, go to the podium after”. So after the race the officials came and
took me up to the podium to get the jersey. I was really not amused. I mean,
I’m at the point where I’ld rather be recognized for going fast. But my
teammates got a kick out of it, and it gave us something to laugh about the
next day in the race! (Got your lipstick on?) And there is money for it too!
Encourage those that are suffering to seek help.
It’s out there. I know it’s a frightening road. Just know that it doesn’t
get any harder than the first step. That is a very comforting thought. Just take
the first step and it will get easier.
I started this article I was overwhelmed by the statistics, the sheer number of
people suffering with eating disorders is mind-boggling. Having spoken with
Dotsie though I know there is hope! She
has a bubbly personality, and a truly positive outlook on life that is very
inspiring! She views her passage through this in a positive light, because now
she truly knows herself.
This summer the U.S. Congress
modified a bill on obesity to include language on eating disorders as well. As
Hillary Clinton said on the floor of the Senate “"While it is so
important to fight the obesity epidemic, we should not inadvertently send the
wrong message by telling our children and adults simply to eat less and
exercise. Unfortunately, many adolescents misinterpret this as a message that
they should eat to achieve the body of a runway model. Anorexia and bulimia are
increasingly common among our nation's youth." Senator Clinton went on to
say that “eating disorders also have their own very serious consequences.
Anorexia nervosa, which will affect 3.7 percent of American women sometime in
their lifetime, leads to heart failure, kidney failure, and osteoporosis.”
causes for eating disorders:
* Feelings of
inadequacy or lack of control in life
* Depression, anxiety, anger, or loneliness
pressures that glorify "thinness"
pressures valuing the "perfect body"
definitions of beauty that include only certain sizes & shapes
* Cultural norms that value
people on the basis of physical appearance
“The problem is that women don’t
know where to get help.” Dotsie explains, “What makes eating disorders inherently difficult to overcome is that
an alcoholic can stop drinking and a drug abuser can quit drugs, but people
cannot go without eating, which perhaps makes it one of the most difficult
addictions to overcome. They
literally have to re-learn how to eat and maintain healthy eating habits.”
Dotsie Cowden has turned her life around in an
amazing fashion. Hopefully the
story of her recovery will reach many young women suffering from our cultural
obsession with being ultra-thin. Hopefully these girls will realize that instead
of focusing on their weight as the one thing they can absolutely control in an
unpredictable world, they can instead use that focus on something positive such
as a sport. Like Dotsie did. Hopefully they will come to view an athletic
healthy body as beautiful and empowering. Learn that true beauty comes from within, and the exterior is
truly not that important. It is a
lesson we all learn eventually, at least if we are blessed to live to a ripe old
age. True beauty shines from within.
Dotsie went to four or five therapists before
finding KRS Edstrom. "KRS literally saved my life. If I had not found her,
I do not know what would have happened to me and my struggle with anorexia and
bulimia. She taught me HOW to get better and provided me with the tools I needed
to return to my life. She is an angel." You
can check out KRS Edstrom’s webpage here.
I wholeheartedly recommend that every woman seek
out Susan Jane Gilman’s wonderful book Kiss My Tiara! Irreverent,
funny, provocative and intelligent, this book seeks to give women a new
perspective. Whether or not you have ever had an eating disorder, several
chapters of this book will have you reconsidering your approach toward food. Chapter
three, titled “If You Can’t Order Dessert, You Can’t Ask for a Raise,”
is a brilliantly humorous & thought provoking treatise on the relationship
between women and food. It opens
with a wry observation from Fran Lebowitz, “Food is an important part of a
balanced diet” and closes with a great quote from Gilman’s grandma “Once
you’re dead you have the rest of eternity to be skinny. So why start now?”
In between Gilman uses humor to make a very serious point about how skewed our
attitudes toward food can be.
Another book, which might prove useful for young
teens, is Wise Girls, the story of Jamie Lynn Sigler, the actress who
plays Meadow Soprano on The Sopranos. Sigler’s book recounts the story of her
experiences falling prey to eating disorders, and finally conquering them. (She
is also a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association)
For additional information on eating disorders, and organizations that
provide help to those suffering from this problem and their families, please
check out the following links.
Groups based in
the United States:
Groups based in the
And for those of you purists who HAD to see one of her on the bike (From the USACycling website):