Sports for Life: Chirine Njeim
By Colette Harris
Chirine Njeim made history as the first Lebanese to compete in both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games. She represented Lebanon in alpine skiing at the Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, Torino, Italy in 2006, and Vancouver, Canada in 2010. In 2016, she represented Lebanon in the marathon at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Chirine’s journey wasn’t always easy. From leaving Lebanon at 12-years-old to train as a skier, to battling an eating disorder, to working full-time while preparing for the 2016 Olympic Trials and the Games themselves, sports have challenged Chirine in many ways. Despite setbacks, she always seems up for the next challenge. In fact, she’s already eagerly anticipating the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
GOLD: How did you get involved sports, skiing in particular?
CN: I grew up in Lebanon – Beirut. When I was three-years-old, my dad took us skiing. Every weekend we’d go up to the mountains and ski. I used to watch skiing on TV. That’s how I got so excited about it. I told my parents, "I would love to do this. I want to be a professional skier." Of course they looked at me like I have no idea what I’m talking about. Then, slowly my [older] sister started skiing. She started training and doing gates, like the gates training, so I decided that I wanted to do it as well. So I jumped into the club and start training with them. Something that my parents and a coach that was there probably noticed was that I just had literally no fear. I just kind of skied my heart out.
GOLD: That led to you relocating to France to train when you were 12-years-old. What was the experience of training away from home like?
CN: It was hard. I probably cried every single day. I wanted to go home. I wasn’t used to the culture and I had to leave everything behind – my friends, my family. Being at that age I feel like I almost had to grow up, have responsibility, and take care of my own self. I wasn’t used to that. I always had mom and dad there. I mean, they were always there, but not really there [physically] with me. I stayed 2-and-half-years and when it was getting closer to the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, I started looking in the US, where I could train, and if there were any schools where I could do skiing and school because education was still a priority for me. We decided to leave France and then go to Utah where I could train on the ski hill.
GOLD: That led to you training at the Rowmark Ski Academy in Utah leading up to the Salt Lake City Games. What was preparing for your first Olympics like?
CN: It was a rough one ‘cause there were a lot of ups and downs leading to the Olympic Games. I had an ACL surgery a few months before so I was on hold for awhile. Then, also at the 2002 Olympic Games I was anorexic. I think to me, the whole anorexia thing, it was just because I felt so like independent and I had to take care of myself. It was just a lot on my plate; I just went on the other end of things. When I raced in 2002 I really was underweight, probably 100 pounds, but to me it was an awesome experience because I worked so hard to get there. So it was good for me to be able to compete, but I looked so tiny.
GOLD: How did you come to realize that you needed help battling your eating disorder?
CN: It’s kind of interesting because my mom came [to me]. She made sure I was always with her eating lunch and dinner. For some reason when you’re anorexic, there’s this thing where you start thinking that everybody is jealous when they tell you, “Oh my gosh, you look so skinny,” and you’re like, “No you’re just jealous.” So it was hard for me to believe anyone, but my mom kind of stayed with me. When I went back home to Lebanon one of my best friends literally opened the door –I was surprising her –she looked at me and was like, “Can I help you?” She had no clue that it was me. I looked so skinny that I changed completely. So I think that was… I got to the point where I was like, alright this is really bad. A lot of people, especially doctors, and everyone were like you know you can’t compete; you cannot continue the way you are continuing. [They said] being an athlete who belongs to a ski academy we cannot let you just throw yourself out on the hill when you can barely turn the skis; they’re heavier than you.
GOLD: How did you manage to overcome your eating disorder?
CN: It was weird because it just happened quickly. It was a new page and I started over. I honestly did not think I would get out of it because honestly, I tried. I went to a psychologist, saw a lot of people, talked to a lot of people, and it didn’t really help me. It was more like I needed to have the will to do it. It was all about me. I felt great when I talked to people. I was like, “Great, right, yes I should eat.” But it was really hard for me to make that decision on my own when I was on my own. It’s almost like I woke up and it was like, “Alright Chirine, you want to ski race you need to put on weight. You want to be able to travel and have that journey that you wanted to have for yourself, you need to be able to stand up on your own feet. As of now you have people standing around you who support you, that are watching every step of everything I do.” Since I was so independent from being so young and being away from home, that really bothered me. It was like that’s it. I want to compete. I want to be able to live my own life without being kind of babysat by everyone, so that’s when I just started changing things. Now looking back I see the difference between the two. Like – oh my gosh what was I thinking – but really when you’re in that dark place you cannot control what’s happening. There’s this little thing in your head that you want to do something about it, but you can’t. It’s hard, but you just have to believe strongly enough in what you want to do that it just kind of pushes you. I don’t want to say I enjoy talking about it, but to me I feel like I experienced something in life that a lot of people sometimes have a hard time getting out of and talking about. I’ve helped friends who were in that situation so to me that means a lot. I feel like I have experience, like I’ve been there, done that, so I can help someone else.
GOLD: Shortly after competing in your final winter Olympics in Vancouver you got married, moved to Chicago, and began running marathons. How did you decide to switch from skiing to running?
CN: Once I was in Chicago, I was looking for a job and I didn’t know the city. I started slowly running just to know the city better and I would say, “Oh, I’m going to go to Navy Pier. I’ll just run over there.” So I slowly started running here and there, but nothing big, like 5 or 6 miles. We [my husband and I] did the Shamrock Shuffle in March 2012. It was exhausting, but we kind of liked it so we decided to run the Chicago Marathon. We both registered. We didn’t really train for it. And then the marathon came and we were so nervous. My husband hated it. I fell in love with it. So from there I started looking at local places to train. I did the Chicago Marathon every year and every year was always an improvement for me. I did a few marathons and I started to break three hours. I stayed at 3:02 and I decided to run a sub-three-hour at Chicago [in 2015]. I started training for it. I did Chicago and went from 3:02 to 2:46. Once I did that people said to me, “You know Chirine, if you run a sub-two hour-45 minutes, you can qualify for the summer Olympics for Lebanon.” The idea was so realistic. I was like, “I can do this; it’s only a minute or two. It’s nothing; I can do this.”
GOLD: While you were training to qualify for the Olympics and for the Rio Olympics themselves, you were working full-time. How did you balance it all?
CN: You can make it happen. I mean, some people say, “Oh no I can’t. I just can’t get out and do this; it’s too much.” Once you get in the routine of doing things your life becomes a routine. It’s so hard to do this, but once you get your body used to this, it takes a week or so and then you’re adjusted. If I have to have a long run in the morning I wake up 5 or 6 o’clock and I just do my run. I’m literally by my desk at 8 o’clock no matter what, sometimes earlier. I usually pack a backpack, which has my clothes in it on Monday. I try to pack for the whole week. I run into work. It’s about an 8-and-a-half or 9 mile run. I leave my backpack by my desk and then when I come back, I always take it, go to the gym, shower, change, and go back to my desk. When I’m done with work I go change and then run back home. I just kind of decompress from the day and just take everything out of my head. It’s a good way of almost like meditating, just kind of relaxing and letting everything go. I don’t sprint home. I run super easy, but to me now I look forward to it because it’s like “ah,” it’s my time of just letting go. I think the most important thing is trying to find a balance. You fit running into your life and not let running be kind of like this burden.
GOLD: You’ve trained in three countries and competed in four Olympics for Lebanon. What has sports taught you that you hope to share with other athletes?
CN: I would go back to my most recent experience, which is Rio. I have never felt like mentally how much you can control things and how much you can do with your mind and your focus. When I was running it was so hot that day. I got to a point at the half mile; I just wanted to give up. I never felt that way, but I was like I’m probably gonna just start walking. I started seeing black spots, but then I kept telling to myself, You can do this Chirine. You can do this. You made it. You worked so hard to get here. It was all mental literally from the second half of the marathon to the end. I think what I would say is don’t doubt yourself. If you have bad days it’s okay, you know the next day you’ll have a better day. When you feel very tired and exhausted, just know that your body has so much to give; that our bodies are so capable of giving so much that we just have to have the right attitude. If you keep telling yourself, I can’t do this; I can’t do this, you will fail. The more you tell yourself, I can do this, you will finish.
Photo at top: courtesy of Chirine Njeim