Last in a series of occasional stories on L.A.-area athletes hoping to make it to the Olympics.
Linda Dawson will be sitting inside a velodrome in London early next month, waving a small American flag and trying to figure out track cycling, a sport she doesn’t completely understand.
It seems like the least she can do for the woman who saved her life.
Dotsie Bausch will be introduced to the crowd as a world-record holder and medal contender in the woman’s team pursuit, but Dawson, a 52-year-old attorney from Paris, Ky., knows that description doesn’t begin to tell the story of the Irvine cyclist. Bausch has been a source of hope and help to Dawson and many others who, like her, suffer with debilitating eating disorders.
“Without Dotsie’s support through this whole thing, I don’t know where I would have ended up,” says Dawson, who battled anorexia. “I couldn’t have done it myself. I realize that now.”
In Toronto, a 25-year-old newlywed named Elyse Wach will be following the race as well. As a high school junior Wach lay in a hospital bed, slowly wasting away from an eating disorder. Her father, desperate for help, contacted Bausch through the internet.
Soon the two women were emailing back and forth, talking on the phone, even meeting in person. Seven years later Wach, once repulsed at the sight of food, is a waitress in an Italian restaurant.
“I would consider myself cured,” she says now. “When I was in the hospital I was ready to turn things around. But it was still hard for me. She was there and she was just always very helpful and willing to listen.”
And understand — which was easy for Bausch because it wasn’t all that long ago that she was in the same place, ravaged by drugs and twin eating disorders that left her life hanging by a thread.
A former New York runway model, she had seen her 5-foot-9 frame shrink from a healthy 139 pounds to an unsightly 90. Her hair fell out in clumps, she slept excessively and as her memory faded, she considered suicide.
Most people associate eating disorders with food, but the conditions are more psychological than physical. Because while bulimia is characterized by binge eating and purging and anorexia is characterized by excessive food restriction, in many cases both conditions are triggered by an irrational fear of gaining weight and a distorted view of one’s own body and self-worth.
“You kid yourself through this,” says Dawson, who is 5-6 but saw her weight fall to around 95 pounds after she became addicted to exercise, training for marathons and making twice-daily trips to the gym. “That it’s not as bad as it is because you can’t see what other people see about your body. All you know is that you’re consumed by it. You’re kind of in a mental fog.
“Everybody thinks it’s about the food. But the food is irrelevant.”
In Bausch’s case the addictive personality traits that almost killed her proved to be her salvation when, as part of her therapy, she climbed onto a bike and found she had both uncommon talent and an insatiable desire to train.
Within two years she had won a state championship. Two years after that she was recruited to the U.S. national team. Her team pursuit squad — which includes Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo — is among the favorites in the debut event in London.
But the real prize might be the fact her success has made her an inspiration for others trying to escape the cycle.
“Seeing somebody that’s been through it and seeing that they’ve gotten over it and changed their life for the better … was just incredible,’ says the 5-4 Wach, who has gone from a sickly 85 pounds to a 125 pounds since meeting Bausch. “Having her in my life … really kind of gave me hope that I could turn things around.”
And it’s made these Olympics bigger than just a bike race for Bausch.
Her vocation, she says, is helping those struggling with eating disorders — along with their parents and families, who are often victims as well. So in tandem with Missy Anderson, a San Juan Capistrano woman who nearly lost a close relative to bulimia, Bausch helped start a foundation called Courageous Voice (courageousvoice.com) to help others cope with their disorders.
“There’s a voice in your head that says you’re never good enough,” Anderson says. “People with drug addictions have said eating disorders are harder to kick than drugs.”
And an Olympic medal would give Bausch a unique platform to talk about all that.
“Education is critical,” says Anderson, whose family member, like Bausch, considered suicide. “The fact that I was able to connect with Dotsie had been unbelievably huge.”
Bausch tried something like this once before, but the funding and organization wasn’t there and the project quickly withered. She’s hoping the red-hot spotlight of the Olympic Games will prevent that from happening again.
“If I can just help one person, then that makes sense of why I had to go through all that suffering. And I kind of said that to myself for five or six years. I just never thought on a big, grand scale,” says Bausch, who plans to devote her post-cycling career to the fight against eating disorders.
“I see me doing it until I’m dead,” she says.
Even before starting the foundation Bausch was giving motivational talks and spending as many as three days a week talking and exchanging emails with people — mostly teenage girls and women, but sometimes men — with eating disorders.
“You asked if it’s safe to say that Dotsie helped save my life?” Dawson says, growing emotional as she repeats a question. “It is safe to say that.”