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(EDITOR'S NOTE: This package was almost immediately picked up by HBO's 'Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.' Three stories follow: Main story, immediately below, and two sidebars -- 'Family Of Suicide Victim Questions UW Athletic Policies' and 'Experts Say Disorder Rare.')
Jamie Flood was a gifted UW-Madison student and high jumper. And then, he was gone.
By Chuck Nowlen
DOOR COUNTY -- When an emaciated Jamie Flood arrived home for the weekend here in the wee hours of July 12, 1998, his parents thought it would be the end of his dangerous obsession with mad-dog workouts and dieting.
Little did they know how tragically right they would be. The 19-year-old UW-Madison high jumper shot himself in the head sometime before daybreak -- the victim, his family would later learn, of a rare, insidious eating disorder called “athlete’s anorexia.”
“We had known for months that there was a problem,'” said his mother, Ann Flood, who with her husband Mike owns the Nor-Door Clinic in Sister Bay. “But even we didn’t fully understand what we were hearing and seeing.”
Not that they hadn’t tried hard to figure it out. After all, in less than a year, the 6-foot-5-inch Jamie had gone from a sculpted 180-pound high school honor student and third-place finisher in the 1997 state track meet to an astonishingly gaunt, 153-pounder whose athletic and academic performance was declining.
But despite their worries and chiding, Ann and Mike had to respect their youngest son’s budding adulthood and independence. And the always-trustworthy Jamie insisted that he had it all under control -- that his ultra-lean new physique was normal for a modern Division I college track man.
Happily for the Floods, however, their son had recently changed his tune. After a scary bout with acute, workout-induced dehydration a week or so before, a tearful Jamie had finally agreed to come home and take a battery of medical tests that his parents were sure would confirm an illness. They also suspected that the test results would justify their pulling him off the track team, at least until the problem was solved.
And so, with Jamie now safe at home and in great spirits the night before his scheduled tests, Ann and Mike Flood didn’t worry a bit when they said, “Good night and God bless you” to their son and turned in at around 1:30 a.m.
By dawn, Jamie lay dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the porch of the family’s hilltop home in Ephraim, overlooking the distant waters of Green Bay. His mother was the one who found him.
“I saw Jamie lying on the ground, and I thought maybe he was hurt, that maybe he’d passed out again after one of his workouts,” said Ann Flood, who spoke publicly for the first time about her son’s tragedy in the hope that it might help other driven, perfectionist athletes avoid a similar fate.
“I guess it’s a real slow realization that your mind allows you to make,” she said.
An autopsy would later find that Jamie’s blood sugar count was 22 when he died -- about 30 points less than the threshold for delirium and possible coma. He had a severe electrolyte imbalance, probably due to poor nutrition and dehydration that Jamie typically treated by drinking too much water. His body fat was a bare-bones 2 percent.
The notoriously workaholic, achievement-mad Jamie also was probably dangerously sleep-deprived, experts would eventually tell the Floods. He habitually put in 20-plus-hour days at summer school, in the gym and at his part-time job at a Madison restaurant.
In other words, said his father, a physician’s assistant, “He was totally out of it when he pulled that trigger. He had no idea what he was doing. That’s what all this had come to.”
Jamie’s suicide note -- which his parents soon realized had been written right in front of them as they had chatted with their son in their living room the night before -- insisted that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision: “I thought about this only on July 11-12 and did not know or plan on this,'' the handwritten note says.
At the same time, the note also includes a passage that eating disorder experts say might have pinpointed Jamie’s bedrock motivations: “This is simple: I could not go on trying to meet my expectations of myself. And I could not break the habit of setting them out of reach.”
Donald Heitzinger, a mental health consultant and former UW-Madison basketball player who has worked with more than 100 university athletic departments during 18 years of practice, puts it this way: “The problem usually occurs in the average to above-average family background where a person’s tendency is to be perfectionist in everything they do. With females, the motivating factor in eating disorders is usually body image, although they, too, can get caught up in competitive-edge motivations.
“But with males-- and I’ll emphasize that eating disorders in male athletes are extremely rare -- the sport itself almost always becomes the motivating factor. The trap both groups can tend to fall into is that sometimes they don’t even see it as anorexia. They often see it as trying to lower their body fat to get any competitive edge possible and enhance performance.”
Heitzinger noted that the win-at-all-costs mentality has become more common in both professional and amateur athletics in recent years.
“In the last Olympics, they did a poll of athletes, asking them what they would do if they could get a drug that guaranteed a gold medal but would kill them within a year,” Heitzinger said. “I think something like 54 percent said they’d take it.”
By all accounts, Jamie Flood’s perfectionism was much less blatant than that, but most who knew him well also agreed that it extended far beyond athletics -- just as it had with his older brothers Brian and Patrick, and his older sister Katie.
Brian Flood, for example, had been selected to attend West Point, while Patrick attended prestigious George Washington University on an ROTC scholarship. Katie, meanwhile, was nearly a straight-A student at UW-Madison, as well as a standout high school athlete.
Jamie, of course, followed his siblings’ leads, becoming a National Honor Society member as a junior and amassing an equally impressive academic record. His inner circle of friends, in fact, considered him a role model.
“He wasn’t one-dimensional; he definitely knew how to have fun and how to cut loose,” recalled Josh Nelson, who first met Jamie in kindergarten and became one of a “gang of five” group of best friends in high school.
“Jamie was one of those kids who when you messed up a test or something, your parents would ask you, ‘Well, how did Jamie Flood do?’ I don't think he was really pushed by his parents or his family. But I do think he pushed himself. Like, if he had homework to do and the rest of us wanted him to go out with us, he’d stay home -- and that was it.
“We’d all get bummed out, and sometimes he’d fly off the handle with us about it. But then we’d just say, ‘Hey, that’s Jamie.’ He definitely had a sense of what the right thing to do was.”
Nelson added: “That's the kind of friend he was, too. A lot of people went to him when they needed help, and he’d do anything he could for you. As far as dating was concerned, he was probably one of the most liked guys in high school by the girls. At the same time, when he had important stuff to do, that always took precedence.”
Jamie also had a zealous gift with money, Nelson and others recalled. Instead of blowing the paychecks from his summer job at South Shore Pier, for example, he invested them in the stock market -- America Online was his favorite -- and he’d talk with his friends often about his investing strategies.
In yet another ironic twist to his story, Jamie’s suicide note, which was full of instructions on how to pick up the pieces after his death, even directed his parents to invest in America Online. And not long after, Ann and Mike found out just how talented an investor their youngest son had been.
“We inherited $40,000 when Jamie died,” Mike noted. “How do you like that for a 19-year-old kid?”
Everyone agrees, though, that athletics was the area where Jamie’s drive was the most apparent.
“He was just an exceptional athlete -- very self-motivated and he went out of his way to do extra work,” said Gibraltar High School track coach David Tupa. “In fact, sometimes he would do more than what he should have done. One day, for example, we were running short distances on our toes in practice to develop calf muscles. Well, Jamie went home and took it to the extreme – he went out and ran three miles on his toes! That kind of thing was typical for him.”
Tupa emphasized, however, that in high school, Jamie did not develop anything near the weight obsession that would mark his college athletic career. He stayed steady at around 180 pounds, which served him quite well in cross country, basketball and track.
“I never worried about him in the least,” Tupa said. “I always thought he was a mature kid who seemed like a model athlete. He was the kind of athlete -- and the kind of person -- that you wish you had more of on your team.”
As longtime family friend Brian Wilson put it: “Jamie Flood was one of those people who never seemed to have a bad day.”
Away to California
After graduating from high school, Jamie enrolled at UCLA, prompted in part by the fact that his brother Patrick was living in the Los Angeles area. By now, Jamie wanted to become a decathlete, and during a recruiting trip the previous year, he caught the eye of Paul Foxson, a former University of North Carolina-Charlotte athlete who was training in Los Angeles for the 1996 Olympic decathlon team.
“Jamie came over during a hurdling workout and said, ‘You're a little big to be a hurdler, aren't you?’” Foxson remembered. “I said, ‘I’m not a hurdler, I’m a decathlete,’ and he said, ‘That's exactly what I want to do.’”
Foxson became a close friend and mentor after Jamie, in a bit of a coup for a first-semester freshman, made the UCLA track team as a walk-on. It wasn’t long, however, before Foxson noticed that Jamie’s workouts were getting far too intense.
“I told him, ‘Jamie, you’ve got a great work ethic, but it’s the kind that produces either champions or tragedies,’” Foxson said in a recent telephone interview. “I mean, he was overtraining like crazy; some of his workouts would kill a veteran athlete. I said to him, ‘Man, you need to take a rest; that’s why you’re not jumping very well.’
“Well, maybe he took a week or so off, when he probably should have taken three. But then he was right back at it. It was like he was an addict.”
In part because he was homesick, and in part because Foxson told him UW-Madison had a better decathlon program, Jamie transferred to Wisconsin for the second semester, and the UW's track coaches allowed him to work out with the team as a red shirt. The plan was for him to join the team officially the following year.
He also was given a detailed training regimen to follow, but not as a decathlete. That program was already full, so Jamie ended up in the high-jumpers’ group -- which was significant because unlike decathletes, whose body fat is typically higher because of the strength events they must perform, high jumpers are notoriously thin. A 2 percent body fat measurement is not unusual, noted former teammate Jeremy Fischer, who is now a graduate assistant for the UW men’s team.
Still, Jamie was honored to even be on the team, and as he attacked his workouts and studies (he got a 4.0 that semester), he stayed in touch with Foxson by phone.
That was a blessing because the UW track coaches’ time was devoted almost exclusively to roster athletes, especially when the season hit its peak in April, May and June.
True to character, Jamie was methodical and passionate in his training here, his workout logs show. He set his ideal weight at 160, and by early spring he’d met his goal. From then on, however, he bounced between the low-150s and the mid-160s before finally settling at 157 or 158.
“Unfortunately, he came here around Christmas time, so he was behind and he knew it, and I think he started working out twice as hard,'' said Fischer, who often worked out with Jamie until the meat of the track season led him away.
“At the same time, he never really showed any outward signs of a serious problem -- like where he would crash in practice or couldn’t finish a set. But in retrospect, I also have to say that I saw him most often before he evidently got in too deep.”
The decline, however, was all too apparent to friends and family when Jamie came home in April for a family birthday celebration.
“Did I worry about him? Oh yeah,” said Josh Nelson. “He was super-thin; I thought things like, ‘Hey, this guy could die of malnutrition.’ But at the same time, it was a touchy subject, because Jamie knew he was getting skinny-- plus, you never expect that a guy will do something like kill himself. So I just told him that we all wished he’d come back home more often.”
A short time later, Jamie called his parents and told them he wouldn’t be home again until mid-summer. He wanted to take a summer school class so he could be academically eligible to shed the red-shirt label by the fall. He also had his restaurant job and of course wanted to hit his workouts hard so he’d be ready to compete when he finally got the chance.
Meanwhile, Jamie’s sister Katie, who also lived in Madison and had arranged for her brother’s new living quarters, found out that Jamie had passed out in the shower after one workout, and at times was so weak that he could barely climb the stairs to his apartment.
That’s when she took her classmate Fischer aside and asked him to check on her brother.
Fischer responded with yet another lecture about the importance of rest and a responsible diet. Foxson did the same when Jamie would call for advice.
“I told him, ‘Jamie, you’re a red shirt; this is a time when your main worry should be how much pizza you can eat, how much beer you can drink, the friends you make and the girls you’re with,’” Foxson said. “‘You know, the body needs fat; it energizes your body,’ I told him. But by then I guess he wasn’t listening.”
By the beginning of summer term, Jamie also was getting more and more isolated. His roommate had moved out for the summer; Katie was working 50 hours a week and wasn’t as available as she had been; and Brian Wilson, who also lived in Madison during the school year, had moved out of state temporarily.
Jamie stayed in touch with his parents and other Door County friends by phone and e-mail, but ever since that April trip home, his parents were worried sick about his weight and apparent health.
“He was looking so gaunt, just very thin,” Mike Flood remembered. “I said, ‘Jamie, you’re losing too much weight. You’ve lost all your muscle tone.’ But he just said, ‘Dad, I’m under a Big Ten coach’s purview now. I think he knows more than you do.’”
Family of Suicide Victim Questions UW Athletic Policies
Does the UW-Madison athletic department deserve some blame for Jamie Flood’s anorexia-related suicide?
His parents think so, and they suspect the university’s investigation into their son’s death might have been deliberately drawn out to block a lawsuit they never intended to file. The worst part, they contend, is that the department still has not upgraded its programs for identifying and treating young athletes who are vulnerable to a host of problems, including eating disorders.
University officials deny the allegations, stating that voluntary seminars alert athletes of hazards such as eating disorders, and that such disorders have not occurred in the men’s track program.
But Ann Flood thinks the university was lax.
“The fact of the matter is that nobody up there was watching out for that poor kid at all -- and more than a year later, nothing has changed,” she said of her son’s supervision.
“Sometimes I wonder if those people thought they could put one over on us in the aftermath, maybe because we’re just plain folks from up here in little old Door County. I think maybe they thought we wouldn’t notice a good old-fashioned snow job.”
Make no mistake about it, the Floods still feel a heavy burden of guilt themselves, and they admit the university bureaucracy was responsive immediately after Jamie died.
But that responsiveness ended abruptly around the time Wisconsin’s 120-day limit for bringing a lawsuit against the university expired, Ann and other members of the Flood family insisted.
“We got a lot of lip service -- a lot of lip service -- for the first couple of months,” said Jamie’s sister Katie, who had not yet graduated from UW-Madison when the suicide occurred and who approached Dean of Students Mary Rouse soon afterward for help.
“But then, whammo, all of a sudden, nobody would return our calls.”
Rouse and athletic department officials vehemently denied that charge, insisting that an initial investigation was by nature time-consuming and found no reason to change existing programs for vulnerable athletes.
But that doesn’t wash with the Floods, who are amazed that Jamie’s 30-pound weight loss escaped coaches attention during the seven months the 19-year-old red shirt freshman was under their care.
“We even called (high jumpers) coach (Mark) Napier the April before Jamie died and told him how worried we were about his health,” said Jamie’s father Mike, a Door County physician’s assistant.
“His response was basically, ‘We like to keep our people thin, and Jamie’s cut really well.’ Then he reminded us that the program was designed to be tough and that Jamie had made a conscious choice to join that a lot of other athletes would be thrilled to be able to make.”
As for the 120-day time limit, which expired on Nov. 9, 1998, the Floods produced a Sept. 29, 1998, letter from Rouse that mentioned a meeting three days earlier with Associate Athletic Director Mike Moss and Academic Adviser Craig Hudson, who had met with Jamie several times during the spring semester.
Noting that the athletic department was implementing a new “CHAMPS Life Skills Program” -- a series of voluntary seminars alerting athletes about a variety of hazards, including eating disorders – Rouse’s letter then referred the Floods to Moss and Hudson for any further action.
“Mike and Craig stand ready to continue our discussion and would be willing to meet with you, if you wish,” Rouse wrote.
At that point, Jamie’s parents had not even thought of a lawsuit, although they considered it strange that Rouse also asked them not to talk to the media about Jamie’s case. They only wanted to push for better supervision of red shirt athletes, along with mandatory educational programs.
“The fatal flaw with the CHAMPS program is that it’s completely voluntary,” Ann Flood said. “Now you tell me how many 18- or 19-year-old kids are going to show up for some seminar when they don't have to.”
The Floods’ frustration grew -- and the Nov. 9 deadline passed unnoticed --by the time they made a series of follow-up calls to Moss and Hudson, drawing “no meaningful response whatsoever.”
The only official reply, they said, was an April 16 letter from Moss --five months after the deadline had passed -- in response to Mike’s formal request for his son’s medical history, general medical exam results and UW training logs.
The only reference to the suicide in Moss’ letter was to note that Jamie “did not actually participate other than train for the opportunity to compete in the following academic year. This did not permit the coaches the opportunity to provide extensive individual coaching because of the focus on the student-athletes training for actual competition.”
Said Ann Flood of her husband’s reaction: “Mike really doesn’t get mad, but I’ve never seen him so mad as he was then. His attitude was, ‘Who do these people think they are, and who do they think they’re dealing with?’”
At that point, the Floods did approach several lawyers about the possibility of suing the university, but they were universally told that it was too late.
Contacted this week by telephone, Rouse said clogged work schedules prevented the meeting with Moss and Hudson from taking place until about 60 days after Jamie’s suicide. She also insisted that the 120-day limit was the furthest thing from her mind at the time.
“I'm very sorry if the Flood family feels that way, and I feel badly for Jamie’s family and friends,” Rouse said. “Obviously, this was a very talented young man with a real promising future. So my only thought was, ‘if we only had had a chance for intervention in this case.’”
Head Track Coach Ed Nuttycombe also emphasized that as a mid-year transfer student, Jamie had missed that year’s CHAMPS seminars and campus-resource outlines, which are offered only at the beginning of the fall term.
He added that Jamie was already thin when he arrived at UW-Madison – at his Jan. 20 physical, his weight was listed as 165 pounds -- so the track coaches had no frame of reference for his reported weight loss.
As a mid-year walk-on, Jamie also had missed the opportunity for his coaches to get to know him well before the track season began, as is the case with recruited athletes.
“You have to keep in mind that this was a young man who was barely even on the team; he was figuratively standing in the doorway of our program,” Nuttycombe said. “The following year would have been a different story --that was going to be the beginning of this young man’s time.”
Asked whether Jamie’s 2 percent body-fat showed undue pressure to keep an unnatural weight, Nuttycombe added: “From our perspective, there is no pressure whatsoever. I’ve been here 19 years, and we’ve never had an eating disorder in the men’s program. You also have to remember that this young man apparently committed suicide during the off-season, which is when we don’t really concern ourselves about an athlete’s weight. The off-season is simply a time for some overall, basic fitness and body conditioning.”
Hudson also insisted that in his almost weekly meetings with Jamie during the winter term, he detected no problems.
“He was doing great; he had no complaints whatsoever,” Hudson said. “I already knew that he was a hard worker, and at the end of the semester, I knew that he got a four-point (grade point average). So I was like, ‘Hey, it’s great to have someone like Jamie at this program.’”
Moss, meanwhile, insisted that Jamie’s suicide -- or any other athlete’s, for that matter -- probably could not have been prevented by changes in either the CHAMPS program or the track coaches supervisory procedures.
“Hindsight is always 20/20, but I can’t think of anything of any kind we could have done differently,” Moss said. “Believe me, I feel for the family in this case, I really do. But as far as insulating the program 100 percent from these kinds of problems, I simply don’t see how you can do that.”
Experts Say Disorder Rare
Experts agree that athlete’s anorexia -- the combination of obsessively destructive dietary habits and excessive athletic workouts -- is a particularly rare eating disorder, especially among males.
For example, Madison mental health consultant Donald Heitzinger, of Heitzinger and Associates, estimates that while “one in nine or 10” female athletes suffer from some form of eating disorder, the incidence in males is “something on the order of one in 20 or 25 at most.”
The numbers for athlete’s anorexia, Heitzinger adds, are even lower.
In most cases, other experts note, the disorder has come to light among high school and college wrestlers whose competition is tied to specific weight classes.
In 1997, for instance, athlete’s anorexia was cited in the deaths of three college wrestlers, including one from UW-La Crosse. In those cases, the athletes also were suspected of using drugs to accelerate their typically already rapid weight loss.
In response to those deaths, Dr. Craig Johnson, director of the eating disorders program at the Laureale Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., conducted a survey of 1,400 college athletes that showed 38 percent nationwide were at least at risk for some kind of “disturbed eating behaviors.”
Johnson’s breakdown of the highest percentage of athletes at risk among various sports:
* Wrestling -- 93.8 percent.
* Gymnastics -- 41.6 percent.
* Football -- 39.3 percent.
* Swimming -- 23.6 percent.
* Track -- 22.3 percent.
* Cross country -- 16.3 percent.
Experts also agree that one of the most frustrating central aspects of eating disorders is the almost uncanny ability of sufferers to keep their condition hidden.
Dramatic weight loss, of course, is the primary sign of an eating disorder, although experts note that with bulimia, which is marked primarily by purging behavior, many individuals can maintain normal weight.
In his paper “The Medical Consequences and Complications of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia,” which focuses on the two most common eating disorders, emeritus UW-Madison pediatrician John N. Stephenson also lists the following among “advanced-state presenting symptoms and physical signs”:
* Anorexia nervosa: high blood pressure; hypothermia; a slow heart rate; suppressed menstruation in women; constipation; preoccupation with food; abdominal pain; vomiting; cold intolerance; dry skin; dense, cottony or downy hair; yellow skin; swelling and water retention; a heart murmur; and short stature.
* Bulimia: skin changes on the hand; salivary gland enlargement; dental erosions; swelling of the hands and feet; weakness and fatigue; headaches; nausea and abdominal fullness; and variable menstruation in women.
Anorexic Athlete’s Story Airs on HBO
By Doug Moe
Copyright 1999, The Capital Times
“I’m a nervous wreck,” Ann Flood was saying Monday.
Flood, who lives in Door County, is the mother of former UW-Madison track athlete Jamie Flood, who committed suicide in July 1998 after developing an eating disorder known as “athlete's anorexia.”
After Chuck Nowlen wrote about it in October in The Capital Times, he was contacted by the HBO investigative sports program “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” wanting to know how to get in touch with Ann Flood and her husband, Mike Flood, who operate a medical clinic in Sister Bay.
A crew from HBO ended up coming to Wisconsin last month, and the segment on Jamie Flood debuted on HBO on Monday night. It will run another six times in the coming weeks, “Real Sports” staffer Aarthi Rajaraman, who first contacted Nowlen, said Monday.
“The family was great,” Rajaraman said of the Floods. “They want to raise awareness of this issue.”
In Nowlen’s story, local mental health consultant and former University of Wisconsin basketball player Donald Heitzinger said, “With males -- and I’ll emphasize that eating disorders in male athletes are extremely rare – the sport itself almost always becomes the motivating factor (for the anorexia).”
The correspondent on the segment is Mary Carillo. “They came to our house and spoke with just Mike and me for 2 1/2 hours,” Ann Flood said. “They talked to three of Jamie’s friends for another hour and a half. Then they said they were heading for Madison.”
Rajaraman said HBO was hoping for more cooperation than it eventually received from the UW. Jamie’s track coaches declined to be interviewed. UW Associate Athletic Director Mike Moss was interviewed for the piece.
Nowlen’s original article raised questions about whether UW officials might have been able to recognize Flood’s anorexia.
Ann Flood provided numerous photos and home movies to HBO. “That was the first time I’d looked at some of those things since Jamie died,” she said. “It wasn’t easy.” . . .
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