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Nutritionists Behind The Scenes Give Team USA Athletes The Right Fuel For Success

By Karen Rosen | Feb. 17, 2018, 6:15 p.m. (ET)


PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Kimchi, anyone?

Just because Team USA athletes are at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 doesn’t mean they’re adopting a diet of kimchi (the spicy pickled cabbage that is the national dish of Korea), bulgogi or instant noodles.

Team USA has two “nutrition centers” with 15 chefs in commercial kitchens providing meals for the 240-plus athletes in the mountain and coastal areas.

“This is for the athletes to get very focused, fueled and recovered,” said Susie Parker-Simmons, a senior sport dietitian based at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “They’ve been on the road a lot so they enjoy eating American food. A lot of recipes are based on foods that we provide at the training center.”

A ship brought 75 pallets of food to South Korea and local vendors are also being used.

While the Olympic Village provides food for athletes, Team USA supplements that service with its own catering.

Parker-Simmons and her fellow dietitians also have trained Team USA athletes to eat the foods that will provide the best fuel for competition and aid in recovery afterward.

She has introduced a hot recovery drink, which it took her 10 years to design, that includes protein, honey and top-secret ingredients.

“I feel like the athletes have to live with their performance and we’re similar,” Parker-Simmons said. “We have to do the best we can to make sure that they fulfill their dream of being a successful Olympian.”

During the season, dietitians travel to competitions, providing guidance and snacks, and also work at the training center with athletes who are in residence or come through for camps.

In collaboration with sports medicine and sports science staff, the dietitians figure out what each athlete needs. They test body composition and look at skeletal structure and muscle mass.

“When you’re talking to the general public about food, nutrition is for health,” Parker-Simmons said, “and it’s for you to do everything that you want to do with plenty of energy throughout the day. It’s a social thing, too, but for the athletes, I really need them to see food as fuel. And then they’ve got to fuel their body to the best of their ability. Everyone’s very different on what their body needs, so that’s the fun art and science of what I do.”

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Staying Fueled In Cold Weather

Winter sports have their own particular challenges.

Cross-country skiing is the sport with the highest energy expenditure because it involves both lower body and upper-body work.

“We’re eating food we know works for us,” said cross country skier Sophie Caldwell, “getting enough food and hydration and sleep. We all recognize we’re in a good place and don’t have to change too much.”

Following her third top-six finish of the Games, Jessie Diggins said had no cramping issues this time around. "I’ve done a better job with figuring out how to eat enough, how to drink enough," she said.

Diggins even compared herself to a bobsledder in training. "I wake up at 5 a.m. and pound a shake and I go back to bed," she said. "But I finally figured out how to keep my body going through these entire Games and how to find the mental rest and chill space that I need in between races as well."

Parker-Simmons said a female cross-country skier who is 5-foot-5 and weighs 125 to 135 pounds needs to take in 4,000 calories a day – which is tough to do.

That’s because in cold weather, athletes increase their energy expenditure.

“As soon as you start racing, you work at a very high intensity and stress,” she said, “and then the other component is when they live in the United States, they can have food throughout the day. When they go overseas, they get three meals a day, so you get significantly less calories in.

“They can easily get 3,000 calories if they’re good eaters, but if you’re 1,000 calories short it’s going to affect performance and your health.”

Parker-Simmons said a female athlete who is 1,000 calories short every day will undergo hormonal changes affecting her bone health. “So you might have an incredibly fit 25-year-old cross-country skier that’s got a bone density of a 65-year-old woman.”

To avoid that, Parker-Simmons finds that extra 1,000 calories. “Often I’ll look at their training diet first and just see if there are any gaps where I can put in supplemental food, which is at least 400 calories,” she said. “It could be a drink through like a smoothie, or it could be a snack before bed.”

Parker-Simmons has athletes keep a diary, which they can email to her. Earlier this season, she visited the cross-country skiing team in Switzerland to conduct body composition testing and blood testing to make sure they were on the right track.

She also gave the athletes a drink she calls an “immune shot,” because it’s a small enough amount to fit in a shot glass.

“We had one person with a cold and we wanted to stop it going around the rest of the team,” Parker-Simmons said. “It has a mixture of citrus juices, raw garlic, raw ginger and cayenne pepper. You drink it fast, that’s the trick.”


Exploring Relationships With Food

Athletes in other sports have different issues.

A luge athlete could find it hard to keep weight on, while ski jumpers who are trying to stay light sometimes have a “love-hate relationship” with food, Parker-Simmons said.

The dietitians come up with strategies to keep the athletes happy and healthy.

When the international bobsled federation decided to reduce the total weight of each sled in the women’s event by 15 kilograms, only some of that weight could come from the equipment. The rest had to come off the athletes.

“There is only a certain time of the year that you can do it,” Parker-Simmons said, “so it’s been a real challenge. I’ve had to work with them over the last two years, removing muscle mass – not body fat – because they haven’t got much body fat on them.

“So we had to do a lot of scientific testing to know about their body, then work out what needed to be done because if you take too much off, you run the risk of getting sick or just not concentrating well because they haven’t fueled properly. It can be dangerous to them.”

She has worked with figure skaters including former national champion Max Aaron, who is allergic to tree nuts and shellfish, and two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who is competing in PyeongChang and won a bronze medal in the team event.

“Nutritionists like Susie make sure I’m eating the right thing and timing my meals so I’m peaking at the right time with energy,” Aaron said. “She also makes sure that we’re taking the right supplements. We’re inside all the time so we don’t get Vitamin D at all, so she’s making sure we’re taking that and our levels are OK.”

Parker-Simmons said Nagasu is a great cook. However, because she was so busy with training and school, she would meet Parker-Simmons at the training center at 8 a.m. so they could make her breakfast, lunch and snacks. For recovery, they would dehydrate fruit.

“She would walk out and have everything she needed until dinner time,” Parker-Simmons said.

When 2018 Olympic ice dancer Madison Hubbell decided to go vegan, a dietitian worked with her. She also underwent blood tests regularly to make sure she was getting proper nutrients.

“For the ones that might want to make a significant change like that,” Parker-Simmons said. “I support it so long as we can do our testing on them and that they’re open to change if we feel like it’s not working for their body.”

There are five dietitians on staff at the training center and they have spreadsheets on the athletes. “Our goal is that every athlete that’s on the Olympic team is seeing a dietician,” said Parker-Simmons, who works with every winter sport as well as the summer sports of tennis and shooting.


Learning To Chop And Cook

A teaching kitchen at the center helps athletes learn to cook as well as skills such as handling a knife safely. They might make homemade lemon recovery balls or dehydrate vegetables, or even master a cider poached pear with yogurt to impress the folks back home.

They go shopping to learn which vegetables are in season and can grow their own vegetables in a greenhouse at Parker-Simmons’ home.

For fun, athletes made “the biggest California roll” or participated in a “Chopped”-style competition pitting athletes from different sports against each other. The semis and final will be after the Olympic Games, since some of the competitors are otherwise engaged.

Parker-Simmons has plastic foods in her office to teach athletes about portion size and shelves full of products such as energy bars and supplements from around the world that people send her to test.

In the dining hall at the training center, every offering is marked according to calories, carbs, protein, fat, saturated fat, sodium and fiber. Allergens are identified.

There are no fried foods – “I must admit for the athletes it was a sad day when we moved the fryer several years ago,” Parker-Simmons said – but athletes with a sweet tooth are not disappointed.

“If we didn’t have any desserts, then we’re sort of removing their right to choose correctly,” Parker-Simmons said. “But we only do them in portion sizes.”

There’s a chocolate fountain for Valentine’s Day and Easter.

Three posters on the wall teach athletes how to design their plates according to composition and portion size. One is for easy training, a day off or if they need to lose weight, another is for a moderate training and the third is for a hard race day.

“They can eat everything else that we (the general public) eat,” Parker-Simmons said. “It’s just the timing, the portions.”


Resisting Temptation In The Village

That knowledge also helps Olympians make wise choices when they see the enormous buffet at the Olympic Village.

“They’re tapering and they come to a whole ‘food everywhere’ basis,” Parker-Simmons. “That involves education for sure.”

On the road, some athletes travel with jerky, tuna, salmon, chicken and tofu. “I like to have a Plan B, so if you get to a location and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t think I can eat that, that looks terrible.’”

The dietitians also make surprise care packages. “If they’re having a rough day competing or they’re celebrating, we’ve got some people that travel and will come out with their favorite food from America,” Parker-Simmons said. “People usually like traveling with me on planes because I’ve always got food. I always have a mixture of different things, because I usually like finding out what they enjoy.”

She said her biggest challenge as a dietitian is having athletes influenced by new ideas gleaned from social media.

“What works for one individual may not work for others,” Parker-Simmons said. “When it’s getting fairly stressful with athletes trying to make teams, I’m always saying, ‘Stick to your plan. It’s going to work.’ vs. suddenly leaving that plan and jumping on another boat.”

Each athlete at the Games received the Team USA Health Kit.

“The goal for us at the Games is to make sure everyone remains healthy,” Parker-Simmons said. “You’ll get optimal performances with that. So we’re trying to do as many different strategies as we can.”

While some other countries are also providing their own food for their athletes in PyeongChang, Parker-Simmons said “America does it the biggest and best. Some other countries may just do it for one sport, or others can’t afford to do it or don’t have that vision to do it.”

Flower Nowicki, the head fusion station master at the Olympic Training Center, is cooking for athletes at a nutrition center during the Games.

“Flower is like the mom in the kitchen,” Parker-Simmons said. “I always take her to the Games with me because the athletes just adore her.”

The ones in Colorado Springs are missing her.

“I tell them I’ll be back,” Nowicki said. “And I told them ‘I will go with you, too, when you go to the next Games.’”

Related Athletes

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Sophie Caldwell

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Jessie Diggins

Cross-Country Skiing
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Mirai Nagasu

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Madison Hubbell

Figure Skating