Rowing champ Zoe McBride hopes shock retirement brings attention to condition affecting top female athletes

Just over two months ago, rower Zoe McBride made the shock announcement of retiring despite being the current lightweight double sculls world champion ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Source: 1 NEWS

But with a gold medal within her grasp, her health was deteriorating due to a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S — a common condition in high performance sport which is often ignored by athletes and their support staff alike.

McBride revealed she had RED-S after an intense training schedule took too heavy a toll.

“I guess I came to the realisation that nothing that I could do — no Olympics, no Olympic gold medal — was going to make up for what I was potentially going to have to put myself through to get there,” she said.

McBride had under-fuelled and over-trained in the past in order to be under 57 kilos but those efforts saw her losing far more than just numbers on a scale.

“I think I was 15, I remember sitting in the car reading this book that a coach had given me and it was just about athletic performance and I remember one of the sections was talking about menstrual cycles and females and the way it was said like, ‘If you train hard then you'll lose your period.'”

1 NEWS Sport presenter and former competitive snowboarder and dancer Hayley Holt compared the condition to “a badge of honour”, which McBride agreed was a common perception amongst female athletes for RED-S.

“That's what it felt like. I have spoken to other athletes as well that believed the same. It's like a badge saying that you've trained hard enough.”

Sports physician Dr Sarah Beable said RED-S can have serious long-term health consequences, though.

“You're going to get disordered eating, osteoporosis, maybe won't be able to have a baby if you haven't managed to get regular cycles back, so quite big things,” she said.

“Big things that we don't necessarily tell someone when they enter an elite programme.”

Recent findings among elite sports women suggest it's a dangerous oversight

A survey of over 200 elite sports women earlier this year found symptoms of RED-S is rife among athletes, with almost 50 per cent diagnosed with iron deficiency and around a quarter of them having at one time experienced a stress fracture. Approximately 22 per cent of those surveyed also had delayed menstrual cycles.

McBride said there's also the psychological effect.

“My mental health declined a lot and that's another sign of RED-S,” she said.

“Everything in my brain wasn't getting the fuel it needed and so I did get very low and depressed.”

McBride has made peace with her decision to retire, with the 25-year-old now heading to Lake Karapiro to enjoy her new life in marketing and learning to teach yoga.

“It's quite exciting to be honest, like it feels like I am just starting again.”