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Peering into the fridge of an Olympic athlete

Aug. 07, 2008, 12:41 p.m. (ET)

Carissa Gump had spent the previous night cleaning out her refrigerator, organizing the cans and bottles so the labels pointed the same direction, making sure the shelves and drawers were spotless.

It didn't do much to soothe her anxiety about opening the door.

The U.S. Olympic weightlifter was about to let a reporter and a photographer inspect her fridge, then allow a nutritionist judge the contents. Clean or not, this was a little unnerving.

"It's like one of those reality shows where you come through and rip out my cupboards," Gump said with a laugh recently from her townhouse in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Not to worry.

Olympic athletes, particularly ones in weight classes like Gump, have to pay close attention to what they eat. The wrong kind of food can make a huge difference in performance or making weight.

For some, it's a constant battle. Not Gump. She devotes the same attention to nutrition as she does training, making sure there's a good balance of carbohydrates to fuel her body and protein so it'll recover.

So after the early trepidation, it wasn't too much of a surprise when Gump opened the door and revealed a fridge full of healthy foods.

There was lean protein in the form of chicken chunks and turkey bacon - leaner turkey-based meats are the only kind she eats - and protein shakes for post-workout recovery.

Gump also had plenty of carbohydrates, from the energy gel packets that give her quick energy before a workout to applesauce and apple juice. There was yogurt, which helps with digestion, and fibrous foods like whole-wheat bread and small bagels, along with corn, baby carrots and avocados.

Gump had plenty of ways to hydrate, with three kinds of water and a low-calorie sports drink, and antioxidant-rich bottles of vegetable juice.

There were a few items you might not expect, too.

On the door was a box of candy sent to her by an aunt - Gump has also been known to scarf Kit Kat bars and throw back a Cherry Coke or two - and pizza dough in one of the bottom drawers. There also was a small jar of grape jelly and - gasp! - ice cream in the freezer.

So for the most part, Gump's fridge didn't look a whole lot different from what the rest of us non-athletes might have in ours. Maybe it was a little cleaner since she knew people would be poking around in there, but overall it was good mix of the healthy foods she needs and the little indulgences we all crave.

"It's all in moderation, all a part of the balance of things," said Adam Korzun, a nutritionist from the U.S. Olympic Training Center. "Overall, I'd say she's doing well. Carissa's one of the best."

Gump has a rare problem among Olympic athletes, particularly those in sports with weight classes. While most of her teammates struggle to keep weight off, bypassing that slice of pizza or piece of candy, Gump's fight is to keep the pounds on.

At 5-foot-1, she's the perfect height for weightlifting - close to the ground means a shorter distance to lift the weight - but Gump is also naturally thin, forcing her to bulk up to reach her 63-kilogram weight class.

She's also hypoglycemic, which causes blood sugar to drop, complicating her diet even more.

So while some athletes will try to figure out nutrition on their own - often without much success - Gump doesn't take any chances, working closely with the U.S. Olympic Training Center's four nutritionists to make sure she's on target.

"The nutrition aspect of being an athlete is really crucial because you're basically fueling your body," she said. "If you're eating garbage, you're probably going to train like garbage. If you eat healthy and fill your body with the right foods, you're going to train well."

Being so meticulous does make grocery shopping a little more time-consuming - reading packages, checking serving sizes, counting calories and grams - so sometimes Gump just eats at the training center cafeteria.

And talk about organized. Each item in the buffet-style kitchen is categorized by food type and has a nutritional breakdown with everything from calories to carbs. All Gump has to do is figure out what she needs and scoop it onto her plate.

"In the dining hall, we set it up so that every athlete, regardless of what they need, can make the right choices," Korzun said. "We work with the athletes to figure out what's right for them because there's no one magic food. I can't say if you eat this, you're going to be at your top - every athlete has different needs."

What Gump needs depends on where she is in her training cycle.

Unlike athletes in non-weight class sports who just need to worry about fueling their bodies, Gump has to maintain a certain body composition during training so there's no mad dash to lose or gain weight just before competition.

Usually, the nutritionists offer recommendations during training phases, telling the athlete how many grams of a certain type of food they need, then allowing them to find it on their own. Once an athlete gets closer to competition, the nutritionists are much more hands-on, sometimes breaking down their diet to the gram.

Gump typically takes in about 3,000 calories a day during training cycles, then drops it by 500 as she gets ready for competition. She also starts cutting out fiber, fluids and some sodium about two weeks before competition, allowing her to easily make weight without having to take drastic measures.

"We give them better strategies to where they're above their weight class, but so it's very easy for them to get back into that weight class without compromising performance," Korzun said.

Gump has certainly taken Korzun's words to heart, probably as much as any athlete at the training center. Oh, there might be a Kit Kat or two lying around, a box of ice cream in the freezer, but Gump is keenly aware the role nutrition will play in her medal chances in Beijing.

"I'm a firm believer in putting good stuff in your body, just remembering what you put in your body fuels you throughout practice," she said. "I like normal stuff, just in moderation. That's the thing, we eat the same stuff everybody else, just in a different way."

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