Eating in the Olympic Village cafeteria had been a joyous occasion the first time figure skater Nancy Kerrigan competed at the Olympics.
“When I went to the 1992 [Winter Games], it felt like it was the first time I came out of my shell,” Kerrigan - who is featured in the current issue of PEOPLE - says of competing in Albertville, France, where she won a bronze medal. “If I saw someone at the cafeteria with a USA jacket on, I’d just go sit with them.”
But then Kerrigan, 47, was clubbed in the knee in January 1994, an attack orchestrated by her rival Tonya Harding’s ex-husband. Her knee healed in time for her to compete at the ’94 Olympics the next month, but Kerrigan’s meal times were now tainted because the media firestorm that followed what became known as “the whack heard ’round the world.”
“I was being followed in cars by the media and I was in the news all over the world. Even in the Olympic Village it was very uncomfortable,” she says. “People would look around the corner like, There she is!’ Like I had a couple of heads on my shoulders. It was very strange. I just didn’t fit in anymore.”
The injury she sustained in the attack - and the attention she received because of it - also impacted her mental state. Feeling like “everything else was really out of control at the time” she says she began eating less and less.
- For more from Kerrigan - including how she persevered through a “devastating” series of “at least” six miscarriages on her path to become a mom of three - pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“I would avoid food because it was something I could do. I felt like I could control that and nothing else,” says Kerrigan, who admits that, to “some degree” she developed an eating disorder. “I don’t know why but that seemed like an accomplishment.
“I didn’t realize what I was doing. I lost a whole bunch of weight before competing because I was working out for hours,” she says. “It’s a lot of work. Then realizing, Oh, I ate a banana today.’ ”
“I just started shrinking,” she adds. “I’d put on makeup differently to sort of hide that I was wasting away. Strangers would say, Oh, that’s not enough food on your plate.’ ”
Her low caloric intake began to affect her energy level.
“I started to think, I didn’t go through all this and get to the Olympics to all of a sudden be so tired that I can’t do this!” she says.
But, because she felt ostracized, she began eating meals in the Olympic Village cafeteria with her manager, Jerry Solomon, who, she says, would tell her to ” Just eat two more bites.’ Every time. Just two more bites.’ ”
Kerrigan says “it slowly became easier and easier,” but the need to control something in her life remained and the eating disorder returned years later as she juggled caring for her kids and her mother.
“I was trying to help everyone else. I was taking care of my mom, trying to be there for everyone,” she says of what led her to stop eating as much.
“But then I saw my son doing the same thing. He was, like, No, no, no. I’m not hungry. I’m fine. I’m fine,’ ” she says. “I was, like, Oh. Give me a piece of that pizza. I better eat that because he’s watching me and doing what I’m doing. I’m doing that again.’ I’m so thankful for a logical brain because it could’ve gone such a different route.”
Now Kerrigan - who is currently competing on Dancing with the Stars - is trying to help others by executive-producing the documentary Why Don’t You Lose 5 Pounds, about the prevalence of eating disorders in athletes.
“I’ve seen women who have ended up having having hysterectomies because they had an eating disorder for so many years that they damaged their bodies so much. There’s one girl that I competed against when I was young, she died,” she says of what inspired her to get involved on the project. “I think a lot of times people see it as something they can control, but frankly the eating disorder starts to control you.”