News & Updates

21 May 2019 • General

Out of the danger zone

Rosa Flanagan has struggled with well-documented weight issues in the past but now she is back, a transformed athlete set to compete in New Zealand colours once more. Steve Landells charts her emotional journey and her hopes for the future both on and off the track.

When Rosa Flanagan pulls on the New Zealand vest at the Oceania Championships in Townsville, Australia next month (June 25-28) it is hard to articulate the journey the ultra-competitive Cantabrian has undergone since last representing her country at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.

Back then, Rosa was one of the rising stars of the national endurance scene. Strong enough to place seventh in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2014 World U20 Championships and a regular national age-group record breaker many believed she was on the cusp of a stellar career.

Yet in reality the foundation for long-term success had been built on quicksand as obsessive behaviour and long-standing weight issues gradually gnawed away at her health and well-being.

“I was of the mindset that more is better (in terms of my training) and I wasn’t fuelling my body from the extra work I was doing,” explains Rosa. “I had completely neglected my body thinking I needed to lose weight to run faster. I had not gone through puberty and I had reached a really low weight. Then there was that whole thing around body image, that continued to play on my mind and I was in a vicious cycle.”

Taking up running at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, Rosa points to her victory as a Year 11 student at the 2011 New Zealand Secondary School Cross Country Championships in Ashburton as the start point of her journey into what she terms “the danger zone.”

Striking gold acted as an instant motivation but she put herself under enormous pressure to repeat the feat and adopted a “more is better” mindset and started over-training.

“I just wanted to be the best, there and then and I over-committed,” she explains.

Success followed from the strategy. She made her international debut at the 2012 World Schools Cross Country Championships in Malta. The following year she competed for New Zealand in the 1500m at the World U20 Championships in Ukraine. She set a flurry of national records.

In 2014 she enjoyed, arguably, the best result of her career when placing seventh in the 3000m steeplechase final at the World U20 Championships but Rosa was treading a dangerous path.

“I was eating healthy food, but I was restricting myself to how much I’d eat. I’d go for a run and not eat anything afterwards.”

Her weight plunged to just 43kg she suffered mood swings and was “constantly angry.” Both her mum and her coach, Maria Hassan, became very concerned. Regular meetings were called but Rosa ignored all the signs.

“I was oblivious to everything,” she admits. “In my mind I was running well, I was fit and I was strong and that is all what mattered.”

The reality of her situation took a long time for her to fully acknowledge. She missed out on making the New Zealand team for the Rio Olympics and her fragile body started to fail. In late-2016 she picked up a stress fracture of the hip. She later sustained the same injury on the other hip before a stress fracture of the tibia followed.

Finally in 2017 the reality dawned on Rosa that long-term health was suffering and she needed to change.

“I had changed to a new endocrinologist and I connected with her really well,” explains Rosa. “Maria and my mum were there as well and it was like, wow, I need to do something about this.”

Rosa was put on diet to increase body fat which included greater portion sizes and more calorie-dense foods.

The positive impact of the change was almost immediate. Rosa’s weight climbed to healthy levels her energy levels soared and over time she went through puberty.

Taking an enforced 12-month break from the sport to allow her body to recover she used her time out of athletics positively to educate others from following the same path.

Alongside her younger sister, Margo, the pair launched the Two Raw Sisters company which aims to promote the health benefits of plant-based food.

While not entirely plant-based in her diet Rosa said: “With my issues and the fact my sister suffered chronic fatigue we wanted to emphasise the importance of how nourishing the body has a huge effect on mental and physical wellbeing. With all the issues New Zealand has with obesity levels it is pretty scary; we are passionate to play our part to make New Zealand a healthier country.”

Launching a cook book in August and opening up the first plant-based culinary school in the Southern Hemisphere in October, the sisters’ business is thriving.

Yet Rosa, still aged just 23, was never done with the sport and in October she returned to full training in pursuit of her long-term goal to compete at the Olympic Games.

“I always intended to return to training,” she says. “It had been such a big part of my life, I would have been lost without it.”

The road back has presented its challenges. Now weighing a healthy 56kg she suffered a series of injury niggles as her body adjusted to the workload of training six days a week.

Yet adopting a more patient approach and simply delivering upon Maria’s training programme to the letter she has gleaned gradual gains.

Returning to competition with a 3000m race at an Inter-Club meet in Christchurch in February was “a huge” moment on her road to recovery not that the race was a straight-forward experience for the University of Canterbury AC athlete.

“It was a little weird,” she says. “I was struggling to get into the racing mindset, managing the energy and the nerves. The gun went in that first race back and it was shoot, I need to go.”

She finished the race in 10:15 – more than a minute down on her PB – but achieved the primary objective of finishing the race injury-free.

The following month she returned to her home track at Nga Puni Wha in Christchurch and successfully regained her national 3000m steeplechase title. She completed the race in 10:53.26 – well down on her PB of 9:41.42 set in Melbourne in 2015 – but it was a significant moment on her journey back.

“Winning was big, it was really cool,” adds Rosa. “The big thing for me was to turn up and not put too much pressure on myself. It was a good wee stepping stone.”

Her next big goal is the Oceania Championships in Townsville when she returns to the international fold next month.

Carrying out some solid training and preparing for the expected Queensland heat with some sessions in the sauna, Rosa is looking forward to the challenge but also realistic.

“It is a pinnacle event in terms of points for the Olympics,” she says. “I just hope to go out, give it my best and finish as high as I can. I believe one day I can get down to PB level again and while the World University Games (2019) and the World Championships (in Doha) are out we’ve got a definite plan to make the Tokyo Olympics.”

Yet beyond her personal ambitions she believes the huge positive of journey is being given platforms to share her story and bring hope to others experiencing similar weight issues.

“What I went through was not nice and I would like to help other women not only in sport, but more generally. I didn’t believe I had anyone to talk about it but it is super common and since I have shared my story I’ve had many people emailing and messaging me saying that they are going through the same thing. To be able share my story and stop others from going through what I went through is an awesome feeling.”