This is an awesome story and it is definitely a big deal when an elite athlete steps away from mainstream dietary advice to explore the benefits of Paleo. Thanks Tim for sharing Caroline’s story. Please make sure to check out more of Tim’s work at My Athletic Life. – Robb
Choosing to eat a Paleo diet may represent an important personal decision for you, and most likely it is a decision that has consequences for your family and friends. Perhaps you are in charge of meal preparation, and what others consume is directly under your control. That is a big responsibility.
But what about an elite athlete who is part of a team, a team that relies on each member being in tip-top condition and performing at their highest level? How difficult is it for them to make the leap to eating a Paleo diet?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with USA Field Hockey team member Caroline Nichols, and have learned more about her personal journey and success with the Paleo diet. She provided some terrific insight into what it means for an elite athlete to eat Paleo.
How did you learn about the Paleo diet?
I was an assistant field hockey coach at the University of Iowa and while I was there, I started CrossFit. I remember after my first CrossFit workout, I was like “I’m an Olympic athlete, and I can’t even get out of bed.” It was quite a first workout, but I was really excited to see how CrossFit could work for me, especially in cross training. I trained at CrossFit Epic for about one year, but I have since moved back to California to train with Team USA in San Diego. When I have a break from field hockey, I spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania and when I’m there, I work out at Central Bucks CrossFit. It has a great competitive nature while maintaining a true family feel, and everyone is so welcoming. I absolutely love working out there.
During my time in Iowa, I was introduced to the Paleo diet by Mat Lalonde and Dr. Elke Nelson. On the surface, it was counter to all of the dietary advice I had been given before, you know, heavy on the pasta, bread, fruits, carbs, etc. However, I started my Paleo journey with the Whole30, and I had one of the best months of training I had ever had. It is incredible how your body responds when you start putting the right fuel into it.
Now that I am back in California, I am trying to stick with Paleo and all of the healthy habits like eating nut butters, staying away from dairy, and having lots of coconut milk. Paleo has given me a great foundation of healthy eating habits and I am reaping the benefits in my training. Lean protein and lots of veggies is exactly what the doctor ordered for this Olympic athlete.
Has your family been supportive of your change in diet?
I am definitely having a positive influence on my family. Both my mom and aunt have been doing Weight Watchers so we have been comparing notes (with me doing Paleo). They were somewhat skeptical; however, I made a Paleo meal for them over Thanksgiving and they loved it. My family has seen the positive changes that eating Paleo has made in me, and I know it is inspiring them to take a look at the fuel they put into their body. We have plenty more Paleo meals planned to cook together and they are so excited.
How successful have you been eating Paleo when traveling with the team?
It is pretty hard to eat strict Paleo when we travel. For example, the team was in Guadalajara, Mexico for 2.5 weeks for the Pan American Games, and given that long timeframe, it was impossible for me to supply all of my own food. I did bring along some nut butters and jerky to supplement with, but we ended up eating most of our meals together as a team, and to some degree I was a victim of what was available.
The good news is that I have several roommates on the team and they eat Paleo as well, so meals in California are no problem. We love making family dinners together and experimenting with how we can pair different foods. Sharing meals has become a highlight to our day in the midst of very stressful training periods. Paleo truly brings us together.
When sitting around the lunch table at the training center, my plate often looks very different from my teammates’ plates. This difference has sparked a lot of conversation about the benefits of the Paleo diet and what the main differences are from the standard athlete diet. Many of my teammates are extremely intrigued by Paleo and it is great to see even small changes in their meal choices that might occur from our conversations about Paleo.
What has your experience with the USA Field Hockey Team been like?
I joined the US team in 2007. Unfortunately, there isn’t a professional level higher than the Olympic Team. Because of this, it is a pretty big focus for me to take advantage of this current opportunity and make the most of it. I am not the only person taking advantage of the opportunities I am given. When I found out I made the 2008 Beijing Olympic team, my high school coach, Sandy Szilassy, was so excited and supportive that she sold her Jeep Wrangler so she could fly to China to watch me compete. What a dedicated hockey coach; I was so honored!
To some degree, I am putting my life on hold. Given that the team has to spend so much time together practicing and working out, it really isn’t practical for me to have a job to support myself. I do live with at least 2 and sometimes as many as 4 teammates in order to help cover rent. These are the sacrifices I have to make to represent my country and pursue my dream. I know these sacrifices will pay off and that this entire USA Hockey experience will open doors for me in the future. These years spent pursuing my dream are laying the groundwork for so many things to come.
And is Team USA competitive in field hockey?
Recently in the Pan American Games, we beat Argentina, the #1 ranked team in the world, to win the gold medal. The score of the match was 4-2 and it was a sweet reward for all of the specific preparation we had done. At the time we were only ranked #13 so it was a big deal to win that final. We had all watched Argentina celebrate so many times before; it was a great feeling to be doing the celebrating that night.
I will never forget the feeling of standing on the podium with my arms around my teammates and a gold medal around my neck. Plus, our win meant that we automatically qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. I’m sure that with our gold medal, a lot of other countries will take a careful look at us.
From now until London, we are focused on coming together as a team. We will obviously be doing a lot more training in San Diego but we will also travel for several more tournaments, including ones in Australia and Spain.
What are your plans for the future after you have completed your competitive field hockey career?
I have a degree in biology with an emphasis in secondary education so teaching high school is always an option. However, my plan is to pursue becoming a Division One field hockey coach or go back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant (PA). I have always had a passion for medicine, and with everything I am learning about nutrition and diet it would be great to apply some of that in helping others. Simply eating a healthy diet can prevent so many diseases and illnesses, and I look forward to integrating this idea within my medical philosophy. What you put in your body most definitely matters.
And who knows, with my PA degree, I might have a chance to become part of Robb’s Paleo Physicians Network. How cool!
The Paleo diet has truly changed my outlook on nutrition. I get so excited about food and am so thrilled about the changes I am seeing in my body. I can’t wait to learn more!
Photo credit: USA Field Hockey and Yuchen Nie