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COVER story

Cathy Rigby talks about her role as 'Peter Pan,' her fight against eating disorders

It may be hard to believe but, Cathy Rigby, the pint-sized, pig-tailed teenager who won over the world as an Olympic gymnast in the 1968 and 1972 games, is now a grandmother — three times over with a fourth on the way. Today, Rigby is perhaps better known as the star of the musical Peter Pan, a role she has played more than 3,000 times in a 30-year acting career that also has seen starring roles in Seussical and Annie Get Your Gun. The production opens Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, where it continues through Nov. 13.

It's a demanding, athletic part filled with cartwheels, handstands, sword fights, huge dance production numbers and, of course, flying. Challenging at any age, Rigby does it night after night at age 58 — six years after announcing her retirement from the role.

To judge from the promotional video on the Peter Pan website, she sure makes it look easy.

Rigby has maintained a high level of physical fitness through the years, largely with aerobic exercise and Pilates, though of course performances themselves are a major workout. She has no trouble keeping up with even the youngest performers wherever the popular road show takes her.

"We may do Peter Pan in China. That would happen sometime next year," she said, adding that she hopes to sing I Won't Grow Up in Mandarin. "There's a big demand for American musicals there."

Although she has been an athlete since first taking up gymnastics as a youngster in the 1960s, Rigby hasn't always been entirely healthy. Coaches demanded that her body be taut and tiny — at just under 5 feet tall at the time, she was instructed not to exceed 85 pounds. Like others in highly weight-regulated sports, Rigby developed eating disorders. And, also like others, her eating disorders — both anorexia and bulimia — persisted after she retired from competition. They almost took her life twice.

Today, in addition to acting and being partners with her husband Tom McCoy in their theatrical production company — which is presenting this tour — Rigby is a much-in-demand national speaker on eating disorders, nutrition and wellness. She recently took time out from her road show schedule to speak with the Times from a tour stop in Worcester, Mass.

How did you get from the Olympics to musical theater?

As kids we were always putting on little shows in the neighborhood, so performing came naturally. As a gymnast I was required to have a lot of dance, ballet, training. But later I also appeared in episodic TV shows, commercials and someone suggested I make acting a career. So I started studying voice (singing) and acting. I was shy and studied for seven years before I finally went on an audition. I got the part — Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It was so much different from gymnastics. Gymnastics is working on your own. This was engaging everyone, interacting with people, it was playful. I fell in love with it.

Why was Peter Pan such a good fit?

Because I was a tomboy as a kid, mischievous, the feisty one in the family. I would pick fights with kids—until I got older and got hit back. Peter Pan reminded me of the fun and games of my childhood before gymnastics.

We think of Olympic athletes as the most physically fit people. But that wasn't true for many gymnasts in the '60s and '70s. What was going on?

Back then, the model was not just to be thin, but to be really, really thin. Today gymnasts are stockier. They wanted us to look like statuesque ballerinas. Now I'm 5 feet and 1/4 inch tall and weigh about 105. Back then the coaches wanted me 15 pounds lighter. When you hit puberty that is impossible. So we cut down on or stopped eating. You go for the gold at any cost and it's no wonder we developed obsessive-compulsive behaviors. There was a constant need to be perfect, to please everyone, especially those sponsoring you. It was fertile ground for developing an eating disorder.

Why did they want you to be so thin? Was it for speed? Agility?

The thinking was it just looked better to be thin. Plus, you're physically carrying yourself around on an apparatus and the thinking was when you're lighter it's easier. It was thought at the time that it made you capable of doing more.

Has the thinking changed?

I've been out of it for a long time but I think the sport now isn't as much about being long and beautiful like a ballerina, it's much more trick-oriented to show an athlete's ability. And now it's a lot more about having bigger muscles. I think they also now pay attention to the mental and emotional well-being of kids, and know that they compete better if they are mentally and physically healthy.

How did you find recovery?

I had an unhealthy first marriage to someone I met at 17 and married at 20. But when I met the man who is now my husband of almost 30 years, it all came together and I was strong enough to get out of that first marriage and get help. Part of recovery was being willing to make mistakes and realizing that my children needed me and that eating disorders could kill me. Right after my oldest child was born I was down to just 79 pounds, had an irregular heartbeat and severe electrolyte imbalance. I credit my husband with my recovery, but also getting into the theater. It took over my interest and moved the focus off my weight. The joy of acting took over.

Have there been any long-term health effects from those years of eating disorders?

No, but there certainly could have been. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders. I had both anorexia and bulimia from age 15 until about age 27 or 28. I'm very lucky. My bones, my heart, my cholesterol, blood pressure, everything is good.

By the way, Peter Pan's age is never really revealed. How old do you think he is?

He's ageless. Watching my sons as little boys helped me find the essence of his character. It's been such fun getting to know a character so full of abandon.

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@sptimes.com.

ANOREXIA AND BULIMIA

Cathy Rigby suffered from two eating disorders: bulimia and anorexia. Bulimia is marked by bingeing on large amounts of food, and then purging by unhealthy means such as vomiting, using laxatives or doing excessive exercise. Anorexics try to maintain an abnormally low weight through starvation, excessive exercise or both.

Rigby described how her eating disorders begin in an interview with People magazine published in 1984, just three years after her recovery:

"I wasn't concerned about my weight until I went to an Olympic training camp when I was 15. I weighed 93 pounds and they wanted me to get down to 89, but even though I was training eight hours a day I couldn't lose. I was just obsessed with trying to be the perfect team member, and if it meant getting down to 89 pounds, by God, I was going to do it.

"One night the team went out for pizza, and I ate two or three pieces. I was going to get weighed in the morning and I was frantic. A friend said, "Well, just stick your finger down your throat." I thought, "That's the most repulsive thing I could do," but I tried it. I tried again and again until I had broken blood vessels in my eyes, but I couldn't get rid of the food. The next morning I weighed a pound over, so I went back to the starvation routine.''

IF YOU GO

• Peter Pan has performances at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday through Nov. 13. Tickets start at $38.50. Call (813) 229-7827 or go to www.strazcenter.org.

• Cathy Rigby will tell her story on Wednesday at a benefit luncheon at the Museum of Science & Industry. Tickets are $30 for lunch and presentation only; $100 for lunch and presentation, plus meet-and-greet with Rigby.For reservations,

contact Kim Chavez at (813) 987-6030

or kchavez@mosi.org.

Cathy Rigby talks about her role as 'Peter Pan,' her fight against eating disorders 11/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 4:30am]

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