Chris Braun of Bloomington, Illinois, started triathlon the same way many other kids do — with a local short course race just for fun. But he didn’t decide to become serious about the sport until his sophomore year of high school when he signed up for a sprint triathlon with his brother, Michael.
“Chris is someone who loves to research and really get into things,” Michael said. “So as I became more competitive, he was all over learning about the sport.”
But Chris never raced that day. That summer, he was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by the fear of weight gain leading to excessive weight loss among other things.
So rather than race alongside his brother, he was relegated to the sidelines, cheering him on instead. However, it turns out, watching the race was more inspiring to him than competing in it ever could have been.
The winner of the race was Myles Alexander, a recovering anorexic, pro triathlete and Team USA member.
“I emailed Myles and shared my story, and he encouraged me to get the help I needed,” Chris said. “I made it my goal to get to a place where I would be able to do my first triathlon. The next summer I completed my first official sprint triathlon, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
But the road to recovery wasn’t easy. Every day was a battle for Chris — both physically and mentally.
“I had become totally preoccupied with what I was eating,” Chris said. “I was over 6 feet tall and my weight had dropped to a low of 113 pounds. Mentally I felt like eating these foods would cause me to gain a ton of weight. I lied to myself day-to-day by thinking that I was OK, but in reality I wasn’t.”
The disorder took a toll on his family as well, causing a lot of fights at home and causing Chris’ schoolwork and social life to suffer. But it was particularly difficult for Michael, who was just starting college at Illinois State University and experiencing a big change in his life as well.
“That was a very tough year — probably the hardest year I’ve gone through,” he said. “Being worried about Chris at the same time I was going to college was challenging. And trying to get him help when he didn’t realize he needed it caused a lot of stress and problems. “
Eventually Chris did learn to control the disorder. But it took months of hospitalization to reach that point and realize he needed to keep fighting and not let the obstacle beat him.
While Chris was in the hospital, Michael was out “being active and enjoying life,” something he believes helped Chris with his recovery.
“One memory I have in particular was going to the state fair with a group of friends to see one of our favorite bands,” Michael said. “Chris was supposed to come with us, but he couldn’t because he was in the hospital.”
Missing out on things he used to enjoy doing sparked something in Chris that kick-started his recovery. Without triathlon, Chris would not have had anything to work toward, no motivation to get better.
“He knows that if he isn’t healthy, he can’t race,” Michael said. “It gives him something positive to focus his attention on.”
Now nearly three years removed from his initial diagnosis, the Braun brothers are preparing to compete at the USA Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships, representing Illinois State. While 2016 will be Michael’s fourth year competing, the race in Clemson, South Carolina, will be Chris’ first.
The hardship they’ve gone through over the past years makes racing together more notable, since it wasn’t a possibility just a few years back. However, despite being close, the duo still has typical sibling conflicts.
While Chris trains seriously but competes for fun, Michael competes with the pressure to beat his brother, according to Lauren Kingsley, a teammate of the brothers.
“They are totally opposite personalities,” she said. “Chris can be an instigator. He knows how to push Michael’s buttons before a race or practice.”
But after everything and despite their differences, the pair remains close. Adversity will do that to you.
It was the toughest year in Chris’ life. But he wouldn’t change it for anything because of the relationships made and experiences had because of it.
With the disorder now under control, Chris wants to give back and help others struggling with anorexia overcome their challenges.
“It has been a real struggle, but it does eventually get better,” he said. “Don’t let the bad days knock you down. Always try and get yourself back up because it does get better.”
For more on of the Collegiate Club National Championships, such as a live blog, social story and other features and news, visit the 2016 coverage page.