Liz Broad poses for a photo.
Liz Broad likes to tell the athletes she works with that her goal in life is for them to always hear a little bird with an Australian accent on their shoulders reminding them about good food choices.
As a senior sports dietitian for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee working with Para athletes, she knows that teaching good nutrition habits is an ongoing process and that, much as she tries, she can’t force anyone to eat this and not that. When an athlete does buy in, however, and sees positive results, it’s one of the best parts of her job.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” she said. “I think the thing I love most is seeing the athlete have that a-ha moment where they go, ‘I get it now,’ and then be able to work with them and fine-tune that process.”
Broad was trained in her native Australia as a clinical dietitian some 26 years ago, before sports nutrition was more than a fledging, very niche specialty. Quickly bored with the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job she was in, Broad jumped at the chance to take a four-day sports nutrition intensive course being offered by the Australian Institute of Sport and it sparked an interest. She then applied for and accepted a one-year fellowship in sports nutrition with the AIS in 1994 and hasn’t looked back, she said.
Her interest in Para sports began at the same time. AIS had just launched its Para track and field program, and that became one of Broad’s responsibilities. After working with a number of different sports and entities over the years, she ended up back in Australia in 2009 working with their Para programs and in 2013, the job opened up with the USOPC.
There is no such thing as a typical day for Broad. She’s based out of the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, and on a recent day in January her work consisted of testing resident athletes coming off break, meeting with coaches to talk about their goals over the next eight months, meeting with cyclists in town for a training camp and teleconferencing with members of the wheelchair basketball team.
When she’s on the road, which is about every other week, it’s often more hands-on with the athletes, whether that’s doing blood work and body composition testing, providing feedback and advice or traveling to competitions to help manage menus and food and make sure they’re getting the right snacks between meals and eating what they need to for recovery and fuel.
Paralympic swimmer Lizzi Smith has been having weekly meetings with Broad since the end of 2018. It’s her 20-25 minutes of food therapy a week, she says, with equal parts emphasis on both words.Download the Team USA app today to keep up with all your favorite sports, plus access to videos, Olympic and Paralympic team bios, and more.
“It goes beyond just food and what I’m filling my body with to the thoughts in my head of why I’m filling my body,” she said. “We talk a lot about eating for fuel and taking the shame out of eating, too. There’s a lot of guilt built up over the years working with different coaches, and especially being a female athlete there’s a lot of pressure to eat almost nothing. It’s nice to have someone be like, ‘What you’re doing is OK. It’s good.’”
Smith said it’s led to her being more confident knowing the routine she needs to have going into a race, and she’s seen an improvement in her performance as well.
Gold medal-winning sprinter David Brown met Broad when she first joined the USOPC and initially everything she told him went right over his head.
“I didn’t really know anything about nutrition and I didn’t know what to expect as far as what I should be eating,” he said. “I was still a new athlete myself coming out of high school and not knowing anything about anything. I was just thinking, ‘Watch your calories? What the heck are calories? And I need to get enough protein? How do I know if I’m doing that?’”
Outside of his actual physical coaching, Brown said, Broad has been the biggest help to his career and the biggest support in getting him to where he needs to be.
Brown, who won gold in the 100-meter at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, said that he’ll now sit in Broad’s office and pick her brain about different research he found on diet and nutritional plans.
“She’s been amazing,” he said. “Right now I have to shed some pounds so we put together a plan of attack to take the weight off. She understands better than most people when it comes to nutrition and what I’m dealing with and my nutritional history and how my diet’s been in the past, what I ate growing up, culture, genetics. She has all that insight and understanding.”
Broad says she’s lucky getting to work with athletes over a period of years to develop those long-term relationships and understanding. No one’s ever changed their diet from day one, she said, and she’s fortunate to be in the position where she can follow through over time.
When an athlete does show improvement in performance, she said, she knows their nutrition and diet is just one piece of the puzzle.
“But it is hugely satisfying to hear them say my food was more robust and I could train more effectively and perform more consistently at a higher level,” she said. “That’s what I’m here for. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Paralympic champion or you got 10th place, if someone got the best out of themselves from a consistent year of training and I know nutrition played a part in that, that’s satisfying.”