Not too long ago, Maren Lundby seemed a lock for a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Lundby, 27, a ski jumper from Norway, had won gold at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea; three straight World Cup titles, from 2018 to 2020; and gold medals in the 2019 and 2021 World Championships.
So it came as a shock when Lundby announced in October that she would take the entire season off, skip the Olympics and forgo the chance to defend her crown.
Her reasoning was simple, yet somehow it felt subversive: Lundby said she had gained weight between seasons and was unwilling to go to extreme lengths to shed it. This was an unusual notion in ski jumping, where eating disorders and aggressive weight loss have long been issues among athletes, and in elite sports as a whole, where physical sacrifice is often celebrated.
Lundby said she was nervous about announcing her decision not to compete in Beijing. She feared that it might make her seem weak or less than committed to a career in one of her country’s most beloved sports. Instead, her decision set off a national conversation in Norway about athletes’ mental health and physical well-being.
At the annual Norwegian sports gala last month, Lundby was voted “name of the year,” beating out athletes like the soccer striker Erling Haaland.
She now has her eyes set on returning to competition, and she has been working on a plan with her trainers to lose weight in a healthier way.
Lundby spoke to The New York Times by phone from Lillehammer, Norway, where she lives and trains. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to the decision to skip the season, including the Olympics?
In ski jumping, you have to be quite light to fly far. That’s how it is.
I had to push myself really hard to find the right weight last season, and after that my body responded by gaining a lot of weight. I couldn’t find a way back to where I wanted to be. I could do it in an unhealthy way, but that’s not something I wanted to do.
How difficult was it to accept that you would not be able to defend your gold medal?
It was really hard, realizing that you can’t compete on the level you want. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. Last season, the last thing I did was become a world champion. So to not compete this season is such a big difference.
Many ski jumpers go to great lengths, often in unhealthy ways, to lose weight for competition. What would it have taken for you to do that?
I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t know if I could have handled it. It feels like my body is fighting against me at the moment. I’ve spoken to many doctors. You don’t have a diagnosis, but it can happen to people who push to lose weight for a long time. Every time, it gets harder and harder to lose weight. That’s how our bodies get more efficient and try to fight against it. That’s proven. That was my problem.
By speaking out about your decision, you joined a growing numberof athletes who are opening up about their mental health and physical well-being.
I think it’s really important. If younger athletes look at their idols, they think everything is sunshine, everything is perfect. But to get to the top, and to win Olympic medals and those things, you have to maybe do some things you don’t want to do. And it’s hard work for many years, and of course that can be really hard for mental health.
I wanted to tell young athletes to not do things in an unhealthy way, to not suffer.
I felt like it brought up a discussion in our sport, but also other sports, because weight is a part of many sports, and we don’t talk enough about it in the media. I think people appreciated that I started a conversation about it.
How did it feel, then, to be voted “name of the year” last month by the Norwegian public?
It was really a big honor because I was voted by the people. In the final, I was competing with world stars in the biggest sports. It made me think that I did something right when I spoke about my problems. I was surprised, for sure, but it felt really good. And it gave me a lot of motivation to work in the future and come back even stronger than before.