As she walks off the tennis court after a tough loss, Northern Arizona University sophomore Jordan Denesik replays the last six years of her life over and over again.
That nagging voice in her head reminds her of the negative thoughts that tormented her and nearly kept her from realizing her dream of playing Division I tennis.
“Being a college athlete is something I dreamed of. But when I was going through everything, I didn’t know if it was ever going to come true,” Denesik said. “Being here, it’s a dream come true, practically it is amazing that I can say I am playing on a Division I tennis team.”
Denesik has struggled with anorexia and bulimia since she was 14-years-old. She has now recovered from both eating disorders and has defied the odds by playing at a high level less than four years after being sidelined by a near-crippling condition.
“I am going to be my own person,” Denesik said. “I am going to prove statistics wrong that I can overcome an eating disorder and I can become a competitive athlete again.”
Last season, Denesik tried out and made the NAU tennis team and rarely played. She buckled down over the summer and got herself back in playing shape, which really paid off.
“She had to try out for this team just to be here and now she is a main component of us winning,” said NAU head coach Kim Bruno. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am just to have a kid like her on this team. She brings so many things to this program and this team that are intangible.”
During the spring season, Denesik is now playing No. 3 or No. 4 singles on a consistent basis.
She received a confidence boost when she passed some of the returners on the team and earned a starting spot.
“Jordan is one of, if not the hardest worker on this team. She can push her body through things that other girls can’t. She can really push herself to the limit,” Bruno said. “Her improvement came really quick, a lot quicker than other people.”
Whether she is practicing on the tennis court, participating in group exercising classes at the Health and Learning Center, or doing schoolwork, Denesik’s competitive attitude helps her strive to do better at everything she does.
She has excelled in school throughout her life, including graduating seventh in her class at Barry Goldwater High School in 2012 in Phoenix.
Denesik is lucky to be alive after everything she has been through; others have not been as fortunate.
According the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 20 percent of all women who suffer from an eating disorder will prematurely die from complications relating to the disorder.
“What she has gone through, honestly it’s amazing that she is still alive. If we would have not have caught it quicker, she would probably not be here right now,” her father John Denesik said. “We caught it just in time before she went below that level. I am glad that she is playing tennis and doing her thing.”
Denesik moved from Telluride, Colo. to Arizona when she was in sixth grade. Being from the cold state of Colorado, Denesik never wore tight clothes or short shorts. When she came to Arizona, it was a culture shock to her seeing her peers in short shorts and she noticed how different her body was.
Denesik watched a video in middle school about anorexia and bulimia and after the video, she started cutting back on what she ate. The video was about a gymnast who became anorexic and Denesik became curious about the eating disorder. As Denesik started cutting back on eating, she focused more on exercising.
During her freshman year at Barry Goldwater, Denesik continued to cut back on food and started losing weight, which caught her doctor’s attention. Her doctor pulled her out of tennis because she kept losing weight, which was affecting her health.
“Before she even had this problem, she was a really good tennis player. She was really going up the ranks and people were getting to know who she is,” John Denesik said.
Denesik was the happy child growing up, and when her doctors told her that she could not play tennis anymore, she went into a dark place. Dinnertime would end up in fights because her parents acted as what she called “the food police,” and she would sneak in mile to a mile-and-a-half walks. She only focused on food, weight, and exercise, the three things she was not allowed to do.
After winter break of her freshman year, Denesik’s doctors cleared her to play tennis again. This did not go as planned because as soon as she got to exercising again, she continued to eat less and found her chance to lose weight. Her parents were getting worried, but did not want to pull Denesik out of tennis because she had dedicated herself to her team.
“I came in as varsity one for my high school tennis team; they knew pulling me out it would probably be worse. It would show me giving up and they knew that would not fit well with me, so they kept me in,” Denesik said.
Over the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, Denesik went on vacation and when she returned, she was very thin.
“[I] gave her a hug, that’s when I realized she was skin and bones underneath her clothes,” John Denesik said.
Her parents checked her into Healthy Futures, which is an intensive outpatient program for girls struggling with eating disorders. The next day, Denesik received a call from Remuda Ranch, an inpatient treatment and recovery center for girls with eating disorders in Wickenburg, Ariz. After her interview, her mom told her that she would be going to Remuda Ranch and had about a day and a half to pack.
She stayed at Remuda Ranch for 60 days secluded from the outside world. The ranch did not have any newspapers, magazines, TVs, or tennis courts. She was on a restricted diet and was not allowed to stand up for more than a few minutes. Denesik had limited time to talk to her parents, either once or twice a week.
“It was literally like you were on your own planet,” Denesik said. “We had no idea what was going on in the outside world at all.”
Denesik was not allowed to see her parents until family week, which was during the last third of her stay at Remuda. After family week, she was able to go off-site with her parents to eat. She left Remuda after 60 days, but still was not cleared to exercise.
Denesik returned to the real world and started her sophomore year of high school. She struggled because she was comparing what other girls were doing. There were girls skipping meals and eating nothing, which was different from Remuda. Denesik had trouble understanding why girls were allowed to skip meals and exercise and she had to eat everything and could not exercise.
After Remuda Denesik went to the intensive outpatient care at Healthy Futures. Her dietician slowly added exercises. It started at only 30 minutes twice a week and grew to allowing Denesik to play tennis again, which was a challenge for her depleted body.
“It was so hard. I remember going back on the court and I was like, oh no. Even when I was going through it, I couldn’t last an hour on the court until I was like rolling over and dying,” Denesik said. “I was so out of shape.”
Her dietician had to clear her for tennis matches every week. If she disregarded her dietician’s orders, she would have two weeks of tennis taken away. Many teammates were unaware of her condition, and consequently, questioned why she would play some weeks and not play others.
“It was really hard on us because she really enjoyed it and I enjoy watching her. We worked on making her eat and telling her that it is okay and to get your vitals up to certain levels and you will not have any more problems,” John Denesik said. “She worked on it, it took a while but she worked on it.”
Denesik also convinced her dietician to let her play soccer as well during tennis. Since Denesik was an athlete, her muscle mass was coming in a lot quicker than fat. She struggled with this and ended up staying in Healthy Futures for seven months, graduating the fall of her junior year of high school.
Everything was going well, until Denesik developed bulimia. She did not have to go back into Healthy Futures, but had to see her dietician again.
Attending NAU was a stress reliever for Denesik because she separated herself from everything that was happening at home. As stress increased during the school year, her behaviors happened more often. As time passed, she realized that these behaviors were causing imbalances in her electrolyte levels and would slow her down on the tennis court.
Hailey Rochin, a freshman on the NAU tennis team, has known Denesik since they were 11-year-olds competing against each other in junior tennis. Rochin lost contact with Denesik for several years, but has since become one of her biggest supporters.
“I just need to remind her that she is so beautiful, she is one of the most fit girls on our team. She has so much energy. I just need to be a rock for her when it comes to these issues,” Rochin said. “I just remind her how far she has come and she can move on.”
Although Denesik has made a lot of progress with overcoming her eating disorders, there are some days where she struggles with her image and cannot look at herself in the mirror.
“I always give her reassurance that every body that she sees is different from the next body. She kind of pretty much accepted that everybody is different right now,” John Denesik said. “She keeps things in perspective and basically went through something that she will probably always remember the rest of her life.”
Denesik, an exercise science major, hopes her story of recovery and success will inspire others to persevere.
“One thing that I really want to do later in life is be that person that can talk to girls who are struggling with their eating disorders and be like, this is my story,” Denesik said. “You can get over this and you can become the person you have always wanted to be. That is something I feel so strongly that a lot of girls do not get.”