Colorado Cross-Country and Track Investigation

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Colorado Cross-Country and Track Investigation

The University of Colorado will enact new guidelines surrounding body composition testing after an independent review of the cross-country and track and field teams found evidence the school’s current practices “negatively impacted a significant number of student-athletes.”

An 82-page report was provided to Runner’s World along with a summary of the results and actions the university has taken in response. In the report, several members of the university’s medical and coaching staff, along with current and former athletes, told investigators they believed the testing and related nutrition advice exacerbated eating disorders and caused other harms, especially to athletes on the women’s team.

In addition, the documents note that the school previously took “specific personnel action”—details of which it said are to remain private—pertaining to its cross-country coaches and staff members based on reports of an “unhealthy” environment and culture.

No staff changes are being made. Longtime head coach Mark Wetmore will continue to lead CU’s cross-country and track programs; associate head coach Heather Burroughs and registered dietitian Laura Anderson, associate athletic director for performance nutrition, also remain in their roles. The three were at the center of complaints raised by athletes.

Read the Full Report

“Our goal is to provide a positive, world-class student-athlete experience for every student who chooses CU Boulder, and it is clear in some instances we have fallen short of that goal, especially for some of our female student-athletes as it relates to body composition and culture,” CU athletic director Rick George said in a statement. “For that I apologize. The health and overall well-being of our student-athletes is my top priority.”

In the statement, George noted that results of the investigation did not find any violations of university, Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, or NCAA rules or policies. He went on to express “full, unequivocal support” for the athletes, coaches, and nutrition staff.

In the results summary and the report itself, school officials and investigators characterized the investigation as a “fact-finding review of the program and not a misconduct investigation.” As a result, George noted, the inquiry team “made no specific efforts to corroborate any facts or individual statements provided by witnesses and did not establish whether statements, events or incidents even occurred.”

In a personal statement also sent to Runner’s World, Wetmore emphasized that the investigation didn’t attempt to prove whether the alleged incidents occurred. “Some of these unsubstantiated characterizations of events we vehemently deny,” he wrote. “Approximately 400 athletes have been members of CU’s program since I was hired 31 years ago. This report describes a limited number of athletes who voiced negative experiences during their time at CU.” (The full text of Wetmore’s and George’s statements are here.)

Wetmore also pointed out the significant number of athletes who reported positive experiences in the program, including many who contacted investigators after hearing about the investigation through the media. The investigators also included these statements in the report, noting that “many of these former student-athletes attributed not only their athletic successes but their successes later in life” to Wetmore and Burroughs.

History of the investigation

The investigation was launched in 2022, after Kate Intile—who ran for CU from 2017–19—submitted complaints from herself and 13 other athletes. According to the summary document provided to Runner’s World, the athletic department first conducted an internal review involving 48 current student-athletes.

This review resulted in “a number of new policies,” athletics officials said, including a temporary suspension of the “sum of seven” body composition analysis—a test using tools called calipers to measure adipose tissue on seven parts of the body. The suspension was followed by an education campaign aimed at making sure athletes, coaches, and the nutrition staff knew that all subsequent testing would be opt-in. In addition, at that time, the unspecified personnel actions were taken in response to culture.

Then, in June 2022, the university asked the University of Colorado Audit Department to conduct a supplemental independent review of three areas: body composition analysis; training methods, including injury management and overtraining; and overall environment and culture, including staff responses to mental health concerns.

Between July and December 2022, three investigators—two members of the University of Colorado system’s internal audit team and an outside attorney—interviewed more than 50 current and former staff members and athletes whose time at the school spanned the past 25 years. This included interviews with 45 athletes—10 current members of the team, along with 35 former students. Of those, 28 were on the women’s team and 17 were on the men’s team.

The resulting report—provided to Runner’s World by Steve Hurlbert, director of communications and chief spokesperson for CU Boulder—is dated February 21, 2023. “Given the scope and sensitivity of the report, this was an appropriately deliberative process,” Hurlbert said, when asked about the delay between its completion and release. “We appreciate the inquiry team for providing opportunity for thorough review.”

The report’s conclusion found no evidence athletes were overtrained or subjected to harmful training practices by the coaching staff. Those who were overtrained said they often felt pressure from teammates or themselves, but not from coaches or other staff.

Investigators did conclude, however, that use of the sum of seven negatively impacted a significant number of athletes. In addition, for a significant number of team members who participated in the inquiry, especially on the women’s team, the program “had an unhealthy environment/culture.”

In addition, “the most significant concern identified by this inquiry is the differences in student-athletes’ experiences on the men’s and women’s teams,” they wrote. “From the accounts provided by the participating student-athletes, regarding the three areas reviewed, the program impacts the members of the women’s team more negatively than the members of the men’s team.”

Body composition findings

According to the report, Anderson brought sum-of-seven testing to CU when she joined the department, having previously used it on Olympic athletes and military personnel. The method involves using calipers to take pinch-like skinfold measurements on seven different parts of the body—including the thigh, abdomen, and on the chest between the nipple and armpit—and then calculating a score that represents an athlete’s muscle-to-fat ratio.

In her interviews with investigators, Anderson said the sum of seven correlates with athletic performance in distance running, a sentiment with which Wetmore and Burroughs said they agreed.

However, other nutrition and eating-disorder experts have said that while body composition can be a factor in athletic performance, it’s only one of many—and that no single number or range is appropriate for every athlete. In addition, many caution against an overemphasis on body composition testing in collegiate athletes due to their developmental stage and concerns about the risk of disordered eating, eating disorders, and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). Many other top collegiate programs have moved away from such testing or built in significant safeguards.

According to the report, Anderson told investigators she thought the test was appropriate in the collegiate setting. In a paraphrased description of her interview, they noted she said she “practices performance nutrition within a Division 1 school with high-performing teams, not an eating disorder clinic.”

While many men and some women on the team reported positive experiences with the testing, a “significant number” of athletes—including about half of the women who participated in the inquiry—reported negative effects, the investigators concluded. For example, one athlete said they “starved themselves a bit” due to the visits, and two others said they had existing eating disorders that were worsened by testing.

“Even some student-athletes who saw the sum-of-seven score and related data as valuable spoke of dreading the tests. Many athletes reported feeling ‘fixated’ on their scores and experiencing shame when they were not within the identified range,” the investigators wrote. Other athletes said their experiences with Anderson “caused latent eating disorders to emerge again.”

In statements to Runner’s World, in November, Wetmore said body composition testing was never mandatory and that he did not consult with the nutrition staff regarding athletes’ body composition.

But emails and team communications from between 2017 and 2022 included in the report show that Wetmore and Burroughs exchanged messages with Anderson that included weight and body composition details of individual athletes.

“Although the coaches indicated that they never mandated that the student-athletes submit to a body composition analysis, these email communications prove otherwise,” the investigators wrote. “Additionally, the emails expressed the high value the coaches and [Anderson] placed on body composition related to an athlete’s performance.”

In one message sent to athletes, Wetmore and Burroughs wrote: “We believe that optimal body composition is second only to serious training in relevance to your racing results.” Another gave specific sum-of-seven ranges for elite collegiate distance runners both during base training and competition, and noted how many members of the current team “had more than twice that.” That indicated “we have a lot of work to do,” the message said.

Internal experts raise doubts

Several members of the school’s current and former coaching, medical, and psychological staff expressed concerns about sum-of-seven testing to investigators, with one noting that medical literature doesn’t support the benefits. That same person noted that, in words paraphrased by investigators, Wetmore and Burroughs were “particularly invested in the sum-of-seven method,” and that “other coaches from other sports appear to be more cognizant and sensitive to the impacts the sum of seven and nutrition counseling can have on student-athletes.”

Another staff member mentioned that emphasizing leanness during collegiate years can negatively impact bone health. The individual said a study on CU athletes found, on average, they weren’t building bone density during their time at the school—years in which it was critical for them to do so, because most people reach their peak bone density by age 25.

Another said they recommended Anderson and the coaches stop performing the tests on certain athletes, including those with eating disorders, but the advice wasn’t heeded. That person “has considered quitting their position with CU Athletics over the use of the sum of seven because they feel it creates eating disorders in athletes,” the report noted.

In the athletic department’s summary of the findings, officials announced that while sum-of-seven testing will resume at the university, they’ll enact enhanced policies to increase support for athletes.

The updated guidelines specify that, among other safeguards, athletes must meet with a team physician and mental health professional before opting into testing, and that any deemed high-risk won’t be permitted to opt in. Those who do undergo testing will undergo regular check-ins with mental health practitioners and physicians. Students from certain sports, including the men’s and women’s cross-country and women’s track and field programs, won’t be allowed to undergo testing in their first year post-high school. Coaches won’t have access to body composition, weight, or similar data, and an annual review of the testing program will be conducted by “academic and medical professionals with strong research backgrounds.”

Concerns over culture

In regards to team culture, the investigators noted that they didn’t provide a specific definition to the athletes they interviewed. Rather, they asked the athletes themselves how they’d describe the culture and the factors that contributed to it.

Talented young runners are drawn to the success of CU’s storied program, the investigators note, and many current and former athletes expressed “overwhelming support for the coaches and the program.” That includes a number of prominent alumni who contacted the investigators after they had completed the active inquiry and whose statements are included as an addendum to the report.

Based on the accounts of those interviewed, however, “many student-athletes, particularly those on the women’s team, struggled during their time in the program,” they wrote. Nearly half of the women involved in the inquiry reported negative experiences with Wetmore and Burroughs and about the same number said they did not trust the coaches.

Athletes’ experiences with the team culture were not completely correlated with their level of success, the report notes. While some high-performing athletes felt the culture was positive, “even some successful student-athletes described the culture as kill or be killed, sink or swim, or cutthroat,” the investigators wrote.

The investigators were “particularly concerned that many student-athletes expressed strong emotional responses when relaying their negative experiences,” they wrote. “Many student-athletes, including very successful student-athletes, said they would not want a loved one, such as a child or sibling, to be affiliated with the program.”

Given that some of the alumni interviewed were a decade or more removed from their time on the team, some aspects of the culture and available resources have changed, the report points out—for instance, in the past 10 years, the number of mental health practitioners on staff increased from one to four. Comparing prior and current complaints, however, the investigators “concluded that some of the same issues expressed in the past about culture and coaching still persist today,” they wrote.

Again, several current or former staff members also reported concerns about team culture to the investigators. One estimated speaking with an average of one athlete per day “who struggles with body perception issues caused either by the coaches’ interactions or body composition testing,” and said that they had personally witnessed Wetmore make insensitive statements about mental health.

Another said track and field and cross-country athletes are more likely than those on other CU teams to seek psychological care, and also more likely to do so for concerns about how the coaches treat them rather than performance issues. This individual “was not surprised that former CU runners continued to struggle with mental health issues long after they left CU,” the investigators wrote.

To address these issues, the athletic department announced that in addition to the unspecified personnel action, athletes would now be able to anonymously report any concerns through a third-party tool. The new process will work together with existing campus resources—such as the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution and campus legal—to ensure such complaints are addressed appropriately.

The athletic department has also created what it calls “internal communications expectation guidelines” that apply to coaching staff and athletes. These guidelines emphasize “three Rs”—respect, relationship, and reflection—that “should be incorporated into daily life.”

The path forward

Wetmore, 69, has led the program for nearly 30 years; his current contract expires in a year, on June 30, 2024. Burroughs, 47, ran at CU from 1994 to 1999, during which time she was a three-time cross-country All-American. She has been the associate head coach since 2011; the two are also a couple. Anderson has worked for the university since 2014 and was promoted to associate athletic director for performance nutrition in 2018.

During Wetmore’s tenure, CU cross-country teams have won eight national championships and five individual athletes have claimed individual titles. In addition, 12 CU athletes or graduates have competed at the Olympics, and more than two dozen have signed professional contracts.

In 2022, the men’s cross-country team finished eighth at the NCAA championships; the women were 11th. During the indoor NCAA championships in 2023, Colorado had no scorers on either the men’s or women’s side. At the outdoor championships, the women’s team scored 1 point in the 400-meter hurdles; the men had no qualifiers for the meet.

In his statement, athletic director George notes that he will work closely with coaches and staff, holding them accountable for upholding these policies and to “ensure they live up to our departmental values, which prioritize the mental health and wellness of our student-athletes.” The policy changes will be implemented immediately, and with them, the university considers the inquiry process closed.

With these new steps and safeguards in place, “we look forward to a bright future for the program and our student-athletes,” George said. Wetmore, similarly, closed his statement by looking ahead: “We are so excited about our teams this fall and the future of this program,” he said.

Contributing Writer

Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013. She’s the coauthor of both Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart and Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the psychology of sports injury from Bloomsbury Sport. Cindy specializes in covering injury prevention and recovery, everyday athletes accomplishing extraordinary things, and the active community in her beloved Chicago, where winter forges deep bonds between those brave enough to train through it.

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