Olympian Tara Davis-Woodhall Says Body Dysmorphia Held Her Back — But Not Anymore

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Tara Davis-Woodhall has two words on her mind for the Paris 2024 Olympics: unfinished business. After placing second at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in the long jump, the track and field athlete says she’ll won’t settle for anything less than gold if she makes it to Paris. She’s confident she can get there, too — thanks to a complete mind-body reset over the last few years.

In an extremely candid conversation at a Team USA Media Summit roundtable in April, Davis-Woodhall acknowledges something not many pro athletes talk about openly: body insecurity. Building a muscular body is something the long jumper admits she’s always been afraid of, having been made self-conscious by negative comments growing up and on social media. “Even in middle school, I wore a sweatshirt every single day because the boys would be like, ‘You look like a boy with those muscles.'”

But at the 2023 World Championships, Davis-Woodhall saw Serbian long jumper and 2023 Worlds champion, Ivana Spanovic — and something clicked. “When she was at the World Championships, I saw her body in a way I’ve never seen her body. It was fit. It was so muscular. It was so toned. I knew that is what it takes to become the best,” Davis-Woodhall says, later adding, “I knew that I could just take my body to the next level and be okay with it.”

On tough days, she still finds herself struggling with “severe body dysmorphia,” but in the past year, she’s felt the freedom to train harder, lift heavier, and flex more often than ever before. “I feel good, I feel better, I feel that I can do special things,” Davis-Woodhall says. “Before, that was my limit because I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t more powerful enough. And that’s why those girls took the first place away from me. Now I need to put something out so far that no one’s going to touch it.”

Getting to this point mentally has also been a work in progress. It wasn’t long ago that Davis-Woodhall was considering quitting track and field altogether. “I was in a really dark place,” Davis-Woodhall describes of her time competing for the University of Georgia, and then the University of Texas between 2019 and 2020. “COVID happened. I had just transferred to a new school where I couldn’t compete, I had a fractured back. I couldn’t even run,” she recalls.

“Mentally I was in a dark place — I just didn’t want to be here anymore,” she tells the roundtable. Fortunately, alongside the support of family and friends, Davis-Woodhall sought the help of mental health professionals, including a psychologist and a therapist. In doing so, “I was able to express my feelings, I was able to get things off my chest that I had — i.e. track was hard, track was really, really hard. It’s a commitment and every day, it’s all on you and not anyone else,” Davis-Woodhall says.

Over the last few years, she’s worked to build up her mental health toolbox to combat some of these pressures, having decided that when it comes to her track and field dreams she’s not yet willing to give up. “I practice so much of my physical, why not be practice our mental, too? And I don’t vent and cry every session. But I just get to talk to someone who has no biased opinion about me who wants the best for me,” Davis-Woodhall says.

Leaning on her Paralympian husband, Hunter Woodhall, has been another one of her saving graces. As a partner, he’s supported her “in any way” and “any mood,” Davis-Woodhall says. “I don’t know how I would ever repay him in that way.”

Surrounding herself with people who allowed her to just be — full range of emotions and all — whether it’s her husband or her therapist, is part of what’s allowed Davis-Woodhall to feel so free, yet grounded this time around.

“I couldn’t be myself for a while and it sucks. It sucks, like not being able to just be free,” she says referencing past coaches and critics who tried to tamp down her emotions and energy. “Now that I am [free], I’m not going back.”

She’s bringing her whole self to the sport — and it’s already paid off, having clenched a gold medal for long jump at the 2024 World Indoor Championships. In the viral celebratory post, Davis-Woodhall can bee seen rocking her kilowatt smile and infamous cowboy hat which she says is representative of her “free-spirited and not giving a flying F about what anyone thinks” approach to competition.

“When I put that hat on, I’m Tara-Davis Woodhall, the long jumper,” she says. And as she does, you can see the fierceness in her eyes, the grit, and determination. She admits it’s a grueling road ahead as the Paris Olympics are just months away. Still, she’s unshaken. “I’m fearless. I know it’s gonna hurt,” she tells the group. “But that’s what it’s gonna take to be an Olympic gold medalist.”

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her areas of expertise include women’s health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women’s Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more

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