Sport

When Lewy Finnegan became gravely ill in 2016, doctors delivered a startling diagnosis. Now, after at one point fearing he might die, the professional bodyboarder has regained his strength – both physically and mentally. By Jake Dean.

Bodyboarder Lewy Finnegan’s battle back to good health

Bodyboarder Lewy Finnegan.
Credit: JOSH TABONE

When Lewy Finnegan sought help from a doctor for myriad ailments in late 2016, he didn’t expect to be asked how he was even conscious. The professional bodyboarder’s resting heart rate was in the 30s (60-100 is normal for adults) and his blood test sparked a frantic phone call.

“[The doctor] called me personally and was like, ‘Mate, you need to get here ASAP,’ ” says Finnegan, 24, from his home in Ocean Reef, a northern Perth suburb.

“I went in and he said, ‘What have you been doing? I don’t understand because you look healthy, but your blood… You’re deficient in everything.’ ”

Scans followed to rule out things such as brain and thyroid tumours, before Finnegan was referred to a specialist, who interrogated the ultra-lean athlete, crisscrossed with veins, on whether he was taking steroids.

More digging on Finnegan’s strict diet and exercise regimen, however, finally unearthed a diagnosis – anorexia nervosa, which occurs in less than 1 per cent of the population, and only a quarter of those men.

The words didn’t come as a shock to Finnegan, whose health had worsened even as his status in the extreme watersport – surfing’s prone-positioned sibling – was skyrocketing.

“I’d become super skinny,” Finnegan, who finished sixth on the world bodyboarding tour in 2015, recalls of the months preceding diagnosis.

“I couldn’t sleep at night, I was freezing cold all the time and had no libido. I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on and the fatigue, physically and mentally, was extreme. Just waking up and trying to get out of bed was really hard.”

A 2016 study by the University of Sydney found men with eating disorders are four times more likely to remain undiagnosed, with males stigmatising body-image issues more than women.

The paper cited an earlier study that found, between 1998 and 2008, extreme dieting and purging increased more among males than females, suggesting eating-related problems among Australian men were rising.

Being an athlete elevated Finnegan’s risk further.

A number of regularly cited studies show athletes, who are intensely focused and subjected to strict dieting and training regimens, are two to three times more likely to develop eating disorders.

Finnegan credits his natural confidence and openness as reasons he didn’t wait too long to seek help, but concedes men have a harder time opening up. “For
a while I thought, ‘I can do this on my own,’ ” he says. “Men are supposed to be the tough sex, right?”

Finnegan’s quest for peak performance began in 2015 after a boozy adolescence and debilitating bodyboarding injuries left him searching for answers to constant neck pain.

He turned to the gym and yoga to help his body cope with the sport’s gruelling demands, finding solace in meditation as his pain and partying waned. But the new pursuits soon became all-consuming.

Finnegan often clocked six hours of intense daily exercise, bouncing from gym to yoga to bodyboarding sessions, barely taking a breath to eat a salad.

Meanwhile, he was filming for a landmark profile film, competing on the world tour and regularly tackling The Right – an infamous Western Australian reef break considered one of the world’s heaviest waves.

“I started going too hard and forgetting about enjoying life with friends and family,” Finnegan says. “It was an obsession. I was bound by a false belief system I’d created, thinking carbs were evil – like I was like breaking a law if I ate a piece of bread or potato. Deep down I was incredibly hungry but because of the yoga I could stay mindful enough to stay on top of it.”

A food diary revealed his daily calorie intake – while in the normal range for average Joes – was only about half what his body required due to the energy he was burning.

“The ultimate goal was becoming the fittest person ever,” Finnegan explains. “But I got sidetracked to aesthetics. I’d look in the mirror and see a six-pack and think, ‘Sweet, I’m doing the right thing’, but my body was screaming, ‘I need rest for six months straight!’ ”

People with anorexia are often saddled with negative body image but Finnegan was proud of his physique.

“I’d worked so hard to get to that point where there was literally no fat in my body and veins were popping everywhere… It was hard to come to terms with the fact I might lose this body, which looking back was horrific. I see photos from back then now and it gives me goosebumps.”

A serious health scare in Brazil in 2017 was a catalyst for change, subjecting the young athlete, who has built a career from defying death at The Right, to a new echelon of fear. He’d relapsed, having barely put on any weight in six months, and was struck down with a mystery illness that racked an immune system already depleted by anorexia.

“I honestly felt like I was dying,” Finnegan recalls of the crippling stomach pain that saw him hospitalised and bedridden with little food for nine days.

“Surfing The Right is more calculated fear. I know what to prepare for. If I wipe out, I know it’s gonna be a long hold-down, so stay calm. Whereas [in Brazil] my mind felt so out of control because of the sleep deprivation. I was so sad and in so much pain, it was terrifying not knowing what was wrong or how to fix it.”

The cause of the illness remained undiagnosed but the experience sharpened his focus on recovery. Returning home to a yoga class, Finnegan burst into tears.

“You start thinking about your life during poses and I was just super upset I wasn’t able to beat what was happening,” he says. “It was a few moments like that throughout those six months that kicked my arse into gear, thinking this isn’t worth having a six-pack.”

Doctors’ orders were simple. Eat more. Rest more. But he’d initially gain two kilograms before becoming racked with guilt and trying to frantically shed weight.

Finnegan says honest conversations with friends and family were crucial to his recovery. It was a year before he noticed significant changes to his body.Nonetheless, Finnegan says some friendships were damaged irrevocably after he copped ribbing about his illness. The stigma remains.

Things are changing though. In October 2018 The Butterfly Foundation, a leading national eating disorder organisation, launched RESET, Australia’s first digital body-image program for adolescent boys. The prevention-focused program supports schools and youth organisations to have constructive conversations with boys.

In December the federal government announced an amendment to the Medicare Benefits Scheme to improve access and affordability of appropriate eating disorder treatments, which The Butterfly Foundation called life-changing.

Starting in November, the amendment delivers up to 60 Medicare-funded treatment sessions (40 psychotherapeutic and 20 dietetic) for those with severe and complex illness, across the range of eating disorders.

Finnegan’s weekly schedule still sounds exhausting.He’s at the gym four days, teaching five to 10 yoga and Pilates classes and bodyboarding whenever there’s swell.But he’s also taking time out. Resting. Eating good food, and lots of it.

“I’m in such a good place,” he says. “I was so used to burning out after an hour of exercise and struggling to stay happy. Now, it’s endless, bro.”

Finnegan’s 2019 world tour campaign begins in June at Itacoatiara, Brazil, where he was hospitalised two years ago. His competitive attitude, too, has transformed.

“Winning a world title would be one of the best things ever, but I’m not too driven to achieve it,” he says.

“I see really competitive people on tour and it doesn’t look worth it, because at the end of the day, you might as well have fun doing your best, rather than being so focused about an end goal that you can’t actually enjoy the moment.”

Butterfly Foundation national helpline 1800 334 673

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Finnegan awakes". Subscribe here.

Jake Dean
is a writer and surfer from South Australia.