To the casual fan seated at DeMartin Stadium for an MSU women’s soccer game in the mid-2000s, Erin Konheim Mandras appeared to be as solid as could be.
Former women's soccer player talks about her battle with anorexia
Good soccer player, great student, unparalleled leader — she had a lot going for her. By the time her career wrapped up at MSU, Mandras left as the program’s all-time leader in assists with 23. To this day, she’s tied for the most starts in MSU women’s soccer history with 79 and is tied for third in games played at 80.
She was, and still is in many ways, the iron woman of MSU women’s soccer.
What the casual fan couldn’t see, though, was at the same time Mandras was navigating her way through a successful collegiate soccer career, she was also wrestling with a severe medical problem — one that almost saw her world crumble apart.
Mandras was becoming anorexic.
And if it weren’t for her condition’s early detection, and the support of a small circle of friends, family and coaches who knew what she was going through, she said she doesn’t know where she’d be today.
Now, 12 years removed from one of the most difficult years of her life, Mandras is coming out with her story and sharing her tale of how she overcame a problem bigger than most realize.
“It is a prevalent issue across the board and it’s universal,” Mandras said. “It just hasn’t been talked about, tapped into and really revealed. So I’m hoping that I can start my mission to eliminate the stigma and make it a topic that people feel more comfortable discussing.”
Strive for perfection
Mandras’ love for soccer started at a young age. A successful youth career with the Michigan Hawks travel squad, the United States Olympic Development Program and West Bloomfield High School eventually led to a scholarship offer from MSU.
When Mandras arrived at MSU in the fall of 2002, competitive and driven as she was, she immediately became a starter as a freshman, where she scored four goals and added five assists while helping her team to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
She was on top of the world. However, toward the end of her freshman year, her competitive spirit and strive for perfection eventually worked its way into other parts of her life — including her thought process of how her body looked.
Mandras said there were a number of reasons for why she developed an eating disorder, from genetics — her family has a history of eating disorders — to the pressures of being a female collegiate athlete.
“I think with any college female student, you have pressures — academically, socially, athletically,” Mandras said. “Could those have contributed? Absolutely. Putting pressure on myself to get the best grades I possibly could, to contribute to the program the best I possibly could and to be the best person that I could be.”
Mandras was fixated with food, counting the calories of almost everything she ate. She was stepping on the scale several times a day and was obsessed with looking at herself in the mirror — all the while still trying to compete at a high level for her team.
“I felt like I was living a double-life, to be honest,” Mandras said. “It was an extremely huge part of my life. Granted, it was only a year of struggling, but it transformed me as a person.”
At one point Mandras lost as much as 30 pounds off her normally muscular 5-foot-1 frame. And as much as she tried to hide her struggles, she couldn’t hide from the people who were closest to her.
Nina Kolbe was Mandras’ roommate, best friend and teammate since the two were teenagers in the United States Olympic Development Program. She said she noticed a significant change in Mandras when they returned to MSU as sophomores in 2003.
“When she came back to preseason one year, she had lost a lot of weight,” Kolbe said. “And her personality started changing a little bit. She was a little more withdrawn, not quite the highly energetic person that I knew.”
For Kolbe, it was a moment in practice which only further confirmed her suspicions her friend had a problem.
“One day, we were in practice and we always used to partner up for things,” Kolbe said. “And basically, we were doing one-on-one drills — and she used to be really solid, really muscular — and I could throw her around like a rag doll.”
Kolbe was worried about her friend. She wasn’t the same person she had known and grown up with. And when Kolbe saw how much it was affecting not only Mandras’ performance on the field, but also her personality, Kolbe went to her coaches.
Not long after, MSU women’s soccer coach Tom Saxton called Mandras aside at practice and told her he’d been approached about concerns of her health. Saxton sent Mandras to an athletic trainer, which eventually led to her seeing a psychiatrist, something hard for her to accept at first.
“The moment I was approached by my coaches with a concern, I definitely resisted,” she said. “I was in denial and I was adamant that I didn’t have a problem. … I also was frustrated and disappointed that I had to be put in this situation to see a psychiatrist. I felt that the stigma of it made it seem like I wasn’t able to fight through an obstacle on my own.”
Mandras did eventually see the psychiatrist, and throughout the next few months, she slowly took steps to get better and even began putting some weight back on.
However, she had a long way to go. She was still excessively working out, stepping on the scale several times a day and felt sick when she gained even half a pound.
She did all these things the morning of Jan. 24, 2004, before which Mandras began her drive home for the weekend — something she did often during her recovery.
During her trip home, she doesn’t remember how or what happened. She doesn’t know if it was because of her body’s weakness at the time or what caused it, but at some point during her drive, Mandras got in a car accident. She awoke with her face in an airbag and an off-duty fireman knocking on her window.
Mandras was mostly uninjured in the accident, but while the fireman got help and spoke with her mom on the phone, Mandras cried. She couldn’t believe it had come to this. She was a depressed, clinically ill, collegiate athlete with a totaled car.
It’s a moment Mandras calls her rock bottom, and it was the final tipping point, which led to her eventual recovery.
Mandras worked hard that spring and summer to get back to normal. She became diligent about her treatment, and was eventually able to return to school the following fall — her normal, healthy self.
However, when she stepped foot on the soccer field for the first time that season, to that same casual onlooker in DeMartin Stadium, they might not have thought anything of it, but for Mandras, it was a challenging moment to face.
“That was definitely one of the more traumatic parts of my recovery, was having to reface the experiences, which I recalled feeling very weakened and sick,” Mandras said. “I had to have a positive mindset. I had to remind myself that I had come so far and that I was a different person and that I was strong and healthy.”
To the limited circle of people who knew what she’d overcome, though, to see her get back on the field was huge.
“Erin was honest with herself and worked hard to get better and she returned to form as a player and actually played her best soccer late in her career after going through this,” Saxton said. “It was a fantastic success story of somebody going through a difficult situation and then getting back on the field at a very, very high level.”
Mandras described her junior year as her happiest time at MSU. Then, a year later as a senior, Mandras capped her career by captaining her team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the most successful season in program history.
Mandras left as one of MSU’s most accomplished players ever, but said she has her coaches to thank for all they did for her during her collegiate career.
“I admired my coach the whole way through,” Mandras said. “My relationship with my coach, as a player, as a colleague when I coached college and now as a person and an alum, it’s phenomenal and I love him. I love the entire staff and I continue to thank them for not only identifying (my disorder) and recognizing it but supporting me through it.”
Mandras is not alone in her struggles.
“Mental health issues for athletes are very important,” consulting psychologist for Indiana University Athletics Ron Thompson said. “I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh athletes, they’re strong. They don’t have those kind of problems.’ But my kind of sense about athletes is that they’re pretty much like everybody else but they also have other pressures and stressors related to their sport.”
Thompson has spent 36 years working in the field of eating disorders and during those years has served as a consultant to the NCAA and on the Female Athlete Triad with the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission.
Thompson said it’s tough to put a number on the true prevalence of eating disorders. However, he did say it’s a problem not talked about enough, especially in sports, where he said the best studies suggest 2 to 7 percent of collegiate female athletes suffer from eating disorders.
And if there’s one thing Thompson wants people to know about eating disorders, it’s they’re more complex than meets the eye.
“These are multidimensional,” Thompson said. “They affect every aspect of the individual’s life, not just the sport ... sometimes the sports folks get a little narrow in their views and that’s all they focus on. It’s much bigger and broader than that.”
Today Mandras is 31-years-old and resides in Baltimore, Md. with her husband and two sons. In April 2015, Mandras launched a personal blog, which tells the story of her struggles and how she overcame them.
The blog was inspired by many of Thompson’s points, but also after Mandras’ son developed a feeding disorder, which gave him many of the same adverse health effects she experienced.
Since the blog’s inception, Mandras said she’s received a ton of positive feedback, from people she’s never met to those who knew what she once dealt with.
“The difficulties she faced is an ongoing issue in not only the athletic world, but across the board with adolescence and beyond,” Saxton said. “I think sometimes people don’t talk about this stuff enough and when you can take somebody who’s gone through the experience ... it’s just a way to give back. ... I think it’s a very noble effort she’s undertaking.”
The blog has even led Mandras to a motivational speaking career. The gig is still in its grassroots stage, but she’s already picked up several speaking engagements and is scheduled to return and speak at her own high school in April.
She said she hopes to share her message with others, to not only accept the body they have, but to embrace it and appreciate the traits which make them who they are.
“(I hope) to raise awareness, provide hope and inspire those who may be struggling with similar behaviors and issues and thoughts,” Mandras said. “And to ultimately help people to identify, recognize and create a plan of action.”