'That broke me': The dramatic fall and rise of Sarah Cady
Sarah Cady (née Coyte) is learning to live with her eating disorder as she and wife Bec welcome a new addition to their family, with the fast bowler also steeling herself for a return to a full summer of professional cricket
Sarah Cady knows very well the fact her name is now Sarah Cady does not suddenly make her immune to the crippling problems she faced as Sarah Coyte. But that doesn't mean she isn't hopeful. New name, new attitude; that kind of thing. It is a state of mind she is attempting to maintain in order to keep the flashbacks and faltering moments to a minimum.
The gym she is working in, and one day hopes to part-own, is tucked between a tyre store and a campervan fit-out shop on the outskirts of Campbelltown, a major hub of Sydney's hurriedly spreading south-west. The space is about the size of a basketball court; the walls whitewashed brick, the floors black and rubbery. Cady emerges from a side office, clad in long black training pants and a thick black jacket. Two other women stand around in activewear, their faces flushed and sweaty despite the winter chill. One peers into a pram, checking on a sleeping toddler.
"We're part daycare centre, too," Cady says, smiling. "Which is good for me."
It is good for her because there are a couple of life-altering changes on her horizon. In a few months, she is returning to cricket full-time for the first time since retiring from the sport as a 25-year-old. After two summers of increasingly testing the waters in the WBBL, she will this season play for the ACT in the Women's National Cricket League, while also returning to the Big Bash with Adelaide Strikers.
In a matter of months, she will also have a new human in her life. On this late-May morning under a blanket blue sky, details are scant, and not particularly important. All that matters is one simple fact: Sarah and her wife Bec are going to be foster parents.
Both are bold, deliberate decisions that thrill and terrify her. As she continues to mend herself, she knows she is at once stepping backward into a familiar world that proved a petri dish for her illness, and stepping forward into an unknown world where she will have to confront her greatest fear.
April. It only took one meal for her to vomit again. The buffet at the ACT Meteors' bonding getaway in Jindabyne was unappealing, certainly, but it was more than that. Sarah Cady's stomach churned as her mind processed the feelings that came with being back. The overnight stay in a foreign environment that was somehow the same as all the other foreign environments she had stayed in. The insular squad mentality, and the distance she had put between her and the comforts of home, particularly her partner Bec, and their dogs, Brax and Bonnie. All of it was what she once felt like she had no choice but to walk away from. And now she has decided to return?
She shakes her head as she considers it. Cricket, she knows only too well, is a trigger for the anxiety and the eating disorder that have come as a package deal since her late teens. But it is also a tool to sate her competitive desire, which has never been an easy thing to do; as a kid who was gifted at any sport she tried, and spurred on by the happy habit of winning – and being the best – she willed herself to the elite level. As she did, her competitiveness gradually morphed into a millstone.
Today, like most days, she is releasing it in the gym. She left her four-bedroom Spring Farm home at 4am, drove the 15 minutes to work, and won't leave again until after dark. Her time is dedicated to training herself and others.
"I pretty much spend all day here – all day, every day," she says with an edge of resignation that suggests she feels tied to the lifestyle, and the endless, perilous pursuit of perfection.
"Sometimes I think it's not (healthy)."
Most days, she verges on over-working her body, her toil within these four walls a substitute for that feeling she lost when cricket was left behind. It is a dangerous game she feels experienced enough to win, particularly with the support of her coterie of fellow trainers, and of course Bec. Most days, anyway.
"I've definitely swapped one obsession for another," she adds, and this time the admission comes matter-of-factly, because she knows her current level of health – in both body and mind – is relatively stable when held up against her recent past.
"(Over-training is) still something I play hopscotch with all the time, but I can tell now when I'm starting to burn out and I pull back, whereas before I never did that – I just kept pushing and pushing."
Bec, whose job in sales takes her on the road sporadically, is also conscious of the high-wire act her wife is performing. Across the past few years, she has seen the results of the falls, but she takes solace in the shift in mentality she has noticed in Sarah – the product of many raw and difficult conversations.
"Around the whole gym setting it's more about helping other people than what it was in the past," Bec says. "The community she has around her has played a vital role in changing her mindset on fitness, so that it's not about just losing weight."
Coyte sent a text message to her close friend and ACT teammate Angie Reakes in the days leading up to that Jindabyne camp, expressing her anxiousness about what lay ahead. She still monitors her diet pedantically. On the rare occasions she eats out, she does quick calorie calculations while working herself up about the amount of oil the chef might be using. Her brain works on carbs, fats and proteins. When the other week she ate a slice of lasagna, she and Bec took it as a small victory in Sarah's ongoing mental battle.
"When she eats something that's a little bit away from her norm," says Bec, "that's when her support network has to click into gear."
It is difficult for someone without anorexia nervosa to comprehend the illness, but Sarah offers this as a small insight into her mind: "If I eat out … it messes with my whole routine. I feel guilty afterward, and then I see myself completely differently. My whole body shape changes and I feel sick in my stomach."
She knew she would be facing this at the ACT squad's weekend getaway. Perhaps it was another test for herself, to see how far she has come. In spite of her problems, she still likes to push into uncomfortable places. To test her limits. She asked Reakes to support her at the camp, to recognise the warning signs and sit with her through each meal. Reakes, who has been a close ally through much of the past decade, happily obliged. Then when Cady saw an opportunity, she snuck away to the bathroom and was sick.
"I just don't associate good times with training camps and times away, because those are where I lost control," she says. "I ate as best as I could but there are still times where I don't know how to slow the mind down. Sometimes I beat it. Sometimes I don't. I try my best not to vomit but if I do, I just try and move on."
It sounds like a regression but for Cady, it was actually a reinforcement of progress. The next day, she confided to Reakes what had happened, and on the drive home, she called Bec to inform her as well. They reasoned their way through it, rationalising if not justifying what had happened as an understandable lapse given the change in environment. It was a perfect case study of Sarah's new-found willingness to open up to a trusted support network, of which Bec is the beating heart. There have been many aborted recoveries along the way, when one stumble would send her into a spiral of self-loathing and helplessness. She has learned the hard way that there is no overnight recovery. Only a week or so ago, she was sick again, this time before a workout. From time to time, it happens.
"I don't consider that acceptable, but I also don't dwell on it anymore," she says. "I used to set these unachievable goals of, 'OK, you're going to wake up tomorrow and you're going to be OK – you're not going to vomit anymore'.
"But then the first thing I'd do after breakfast would be vomit. And then I'd be like, 'Well, you just f--ked up the whole day', so I would keep vomiting. Then I'd go to bed and say, 'OK, tomorrow will be different'.
"But now if it happens, I'm like, 'OK, well that happened, now move on; eat your food, drink your water, remember your recovery, your nutrition. Deal with it – let's go'."
It is a logical, considered approach formulated through time spent with welfare officers and psychologists, and wisdom gained from painful life lessons. It has been a tortured eight-year road to arrive at such simplicity. Cady looks back at her cricket career to date with a mixture of pride and lament; she has won Ashes series and World Cups, and been ranked in the top handful of female bowlers on the planet, but still, there are many things she would do differently. So many of her accomplishments and adventures are vague memories, little more than on-field incidentals as she battled a more troubling opponent inside her head. There was the tour of the UK where, in the grips of anxiety and an eating disorder, she spent almost as much time intoxicated as sober, drunkenly confiding her misery in teammate Megan Schutt over many a shared bottle of Southern Comfort. And then in India, where she was sleeping three, maybe four hours a night and surviving on Red Bull, protein bars, and the occasional serve of steamed vegetables.
Schutt recalls a teary exchange in England as her close mate's weight continued to drop, and Schutt's concern grew into something more serious. "We had a really big chat, about how she needed to get her shit sorted, because I didn't want to lose a friend," she says. "That was a really tough conversation; reality had hit, and it was like, This is such a problem and it really does need to be sorted."
Cady was coming to grips with it, too. Four months after she had been player of the match in the 2014 ICC World T20 final, she told Schutt she needed to quit cricket for the sake of her own health. She had become adept at managing – and hiding – her eating disorder, but the pressure and lifestyle of elite sport meant it was all beginning to unspool. She got through the next 18 months on a combination of willpower and habit before, at 25, she announced her retirement from international cricket. It was part of a downward spiral that Cady finally acknowledged was beyond her control. For eight long months, she had vomited up every meal she had eaten. Her weight had fallen to 51kg, with muscle mass gained from her obsessive training regimen the only thing keeping her from a hospital bed.
Then one night, at a nondescript Chinese restaurant in Campbelltown, her four-year-old niece heard her vomiting in the restroom and asked her what was wrong.
"That broke me," she reflects. "I was like, OK, shit has to change."
May. The flashbacks still come frequently. She sees herself vomiting in the bathroom of a plane on the way to India. Beyond the confines of that claustrophobic room, the rest of Australia's finest female cricketers contentedly sit in their rows, just metres – but a million miles – away from her private world of pain.
"There are just random moments where something will remind me," she says. "Feelings. Destructive thoughts. If I'm having a bad day and I wind back the clock, it doesn't help."
What she didn't have then but she does have now is Bec, and the difference has been life-changing. Accompanying Bec has been perspective. When Sarah was at her nadir, she was unable to overcome her need to keep pushing. With Bec, there is balance; she has slowed her partner's racing mind and encouraged in her a more broad-minded view of the world, beyond the next delivery, or the next push-up. The shift began after Sarah's retirement, when she moved back to Sydney from Adelaide and they started spending long stretches of time together.
"It was hard when she first came home because she wasn't used to having that balance, and she couldn't train 55,000 times a day," Bec says. "Just learning what balance was, was a major thing for Sarah.
"When you've been a professional athlete for a long time, to get that balance back is a very hard thing."
The pair talked for countless hours and came to understand one another in a way Sarah felt she had never been understood. When they visited Bec's family in Bathurst and Sarah ate one of her mum's homemade chicken pies, Bec viewed it as a "wow moment … if you've known what Sarah's gone through and what she talks about behind closed doors, that's a major win". It was all part of a process of healing – something she had acknowledged she was unable to do on her own.
"I feel a lot more balanced now than I have ever, really," she says. "I know myself now better than I ever have."
Schutt has seen the evolution from close quarters and understands it well. When Sarah joined her at the Strikers last summer, she noticed subtle changes.
"Physically and mentally, she hasn't been great at switching off, and I think that's where Bec has been good for her," Schutt says. "She seems more able to relax, and while it might be for short periods, at least she is relaxing.
"What she was doing on tours – trying to function on three hours' sleep – that wasn't sustainable."
Sarah and Bec married in February. Standing beside her wife in front of family and friends brought with it pride she hasn't felt before or since. Through Bec, she also found clarity. In her late teens and into her early twenties, as she spent her days beset by anxiety and anorexia, a sense of uncertainty around her sexual orientation had gnawed away at her.
"There was a point in my life where I wasn't comfortable, or I wasn't fully aware of who I was or what I wanted in life, and I couldn't really understand what was happening," Sarah says. "It was just a big, confusing process."
As it crystallised in her mind, other concerns revealed themselves; she felt embarrassment at how she might be perceived, and worried that her parents, too, might be viewed in a different light were she to embrace her truest self. She looks back on those fears now and sees them as irrational, the products of jumbled thinking, but also a common path for many in the same position. She hopes that is changing.
"When Bec and I got together I just felt super comfortable – around her, and in myself," Cady says. "Everything just made more sense.
"Everyone we know or we've come across has been accepting. Even the (same-sex marriage) vote getting passed, I think society is evolving – there's no norm anymore. Like, what is normal? It's whatever you define it to be."
In one sense, their wedding day was the culmination in a period of Sarah's life, which had started with the murmurs of recovery after letting go of cricket. In another, it marked the beginning of something new, the first steps alongside Bec the surest she has taken for as long as she can remember.
"I always tell her that she saved me in a way," Sarah says. "I just didn't know how to dig myself out of that hole. Then we got together, and everything just started to get a bit easier."
When Sarah decided to take Bec's name, she did so for symbolic rather than practical reasons. "From my point of view now, I'm not Sarah Coyte, the cricketer who had the eating disorder," she says. "I'm going to be Sarah Cady, the cricketer who's a mum.
"I'm disassociating myself with that memory. I love my last name, and at the gym and on the field I'll probably always be referred to as 'Coytey', but now I'm married, I'm a completely different person to what I was, and I want people to see that."
Even before they were married, they knew they wanted to start a family. When Sarah thinks back to her own childhood, she remembers a noisy household, with kids (her older sister Erin and brother Scott, her twin brother Adam, and plenty of friends) running everywhere, playing backyard cricket and jumping in and out of the pool in their Mt Annan home, just a few suburbs from where she resides now. She is extremely close with her eight-year-old niece Amahni (Erin's daughter), who often has sleepovers at her place on a Friday or Saturday night.
They are ticking off the final administrative stages to become foster parents. Panel approval is the next hurdle, with an induction training session to follow. After that, they wait for a phone call. They have been recommended for ages zero to six, and they are hoping for a boy.
"I know it's going to be hard," Sarah says. "Schedules will change and there'll be juggling. But that's what happens when you have children; you've just got to adapt and do what you've got to do.
"We're prepared to do it, and we're very excited."
They have bought a child's toothbrush. A gender-neutral bedspread. A little teepee. Piece by piece, they are assembling the bedroom that was Ahmani's when she stayed. She has swapped out to the smaller spare room, doing so happily because the bigger picture of a new cousin is foremost in her mind. With the remainder of the approval process expected to unfold in the next two months, it is the eight-year-old who has best expressed the family's sentiment.
"Dear foster kid," Amahni wrote in a letter to the impending arrival. "I hope you like your new room. I promise I will be a great cousin. You will always be safe, loved and respected. You have lots of people to meet. You will always be special to me and everyone else. Love Amahni, your new cousin."
She left it on the desk in her old bedroom.
June. Sarah Cady is back in training. Just one individual nets session a week, near her parents' home where she used to practice as if her very life depended on it. As she searches again for that familiar rhythm, the first three balls she bowls are sprayed down leg side. Once upon a time, such a start would have prompted a vituperative outburst. Today, however, her emotions are in check. Her mind, in fact, is elsewhere.
Just last night, the foster care assessor phoned Bec, and told her they should ready themselves for the arrival of a two-year-old boy. The toddler, she said, was in emergency care and being weaned off alcohol abuse; sadly, not an unfamiliar story for children who are put into Australia's foster care system. Potentially, after two years of care, Sarah and Bec could file for guardianship, ending their relationship with a case manager and officially entering the little boy into the Cady family. Sharon, the foster care assessor, cautioned them against getting too excited; given the unpredictability of such situations, these things are never a fait accompli.
"Bec was crying over the phone when she told me," says Sarah, still smiling, "and I just got this overwhelming sense of joy. We were so stoked last night, you couldn't take us off cloud nine. He's going to be one happy, safe child."
Cady had never previously considered reaching a point where her focus would move beyond herself. As a professional athlete, it was all she had known. Each aspect of her life had been deliberately fashioned with the intent of maximising her potential as a cricketer, and more recently, in the gym. There had been times when the notion of being a mother had been something she had mused over, but only as a somewhere-in-the-distant-future scenario. Since Bec, however, it had come sharply into focus. Sarah will be listed as the primary caregiver, which means pulling back on her work and juggling how and when she wears her other hats.
"It's going to be a lot, with cricket schedules and training and work, but he will come first," she says. "That's just how it's going to be.
"For me to change my training schedule, that's huge … I never thought I would get to a point in my life where I would actually prioritise something other than my training. I was just so set in, 'I have to train or I haven't accomplished anything'.
"But I might have to have a forced rest day because my child is sick, and I'm not leaving him. I'm OK making peace with that."
They are fortunate to have the support of two loving families, and with Sarah's mum and sister close by, they will have hands-on assistance when required. Sarah doesn't know if she is ready to become a mother – she doesn't believe anyone can categorically say they are ready for such a momentous responsibility – but she knows she is ready to try, and eager to learn as she goes. It is a quantum leap from where she found herself at the end of her life as an international cricketer, though ironically, the new challenge will reunite her with her greatest fear, one that pushed her competitiveness to near lethal levels: the fear of not being good enough.
"That applies to every facet of my life," she admits. "To being a wife, a mum, a cricketer, a coach, a personal trainer. Just scared of not being good enough. I think it'll always be underlying."
July. The cricket world Cady is re-entering on a full-time basis has changed since her retirement from the sport two-and-a-half years ago. It took distance from the game for her to make her own important changes, and in a small way, each informed the other. In May, the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) launched 'Gameplan' – a wellbeing and education program for its players based on two years of research and development.
"In the 2017 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) the players set aside $13.4 million to enhance their own wellbeing structures," says Justine Whipper, the ACA's National Manager for Player Development and Wellbeing. "What has emanated from this investment has been genuine engagement on establishing a program that the players themselves have helped create.
"This is now being rolled out to prepare them for the ups and downs of the elite sporting environment."
The travails of Cady and many others have served as practical examples for this new program. Studies have shown that professional female athletes can be up to twice as likely to develop an eating disorder than non-athletes. The ACA is currently undertaking a second phase of research around the professionalisation of the women's game, with mental health a focus.
"There were a whole range of issues that were identified a few years back around injury, selection, sexual identity, body image," Whipper says. "All those sorts of things are part of challenges that come up in elite sport, and that's where we derived the education to address them."
Cady, now 28, is also using her learnings to help others as well as herself. At her Campbelltown gym, she can easily detect early warning signs when it comes to unhealthy diets or excessive fitness habits. In fact, with any athlete under her supervision, she makes a point of checking in regularly to ensure they are fuelling their bodies correctly, and not getting stuck in the dangerous patterns that dictated her life for so long.
"Hopefully I can help them avoid going through what I went through," she says.
On this Saturday in late July, they are set to welcome an eight-year-old boy into their home. The vagaries of the foster care system meant a late change was always possible, but it matters little to Sarah and Bec and their extended family, who simply want to facilitate a loving environment for their new addition.
"I've been very fortunate that I've had this support network, which has helped me to figure out exactly who I am and what I need," Sarah says. "I think if you can bring a child up around that kind of environment, then they have the exact same opportunity."
She has been thinking about what it will be like to be a mother, which led her to reflect on her own childhood. She suspects that out of her parents – dad Peter and mum Terri – her character more closely aligns with that of her mum, who has been in the same job for more than 20 years and whose attitude, Sarah says, "was just always, I've got to go to work, I've got to provide".
"I learnt a lot from Mum," she adds. "She still keeps me on the straight and narrow."
The lessons her mother taught her were simple, but they are ones she wants to pass on to her son: "How to be a good person," she says, before pausing and adding. "How to wear your heart on your sleeve – to be OK with showing your emotions, and speaking up for what you believe in."
August. Their foster child loves playing with beyblades. Sarah and Bec were completely unfamiliar with the little spinning toys though they have quickly become experts in their assembly and use. The new parents were daunted and nervous at first by the sudden change to their world. Now they are stressed. He is a good kid, says Sarah with some relief, but he is also testing new boundaries after a period of upheaval. There is a feeling-out period occurring between the three of them, and slowly, barriers are being broken down.
"It's bloody hard work," she says. "He has a bit of a trust issue with adults. He told Bec that adults have lied to him in the past. So we're making progress."
They have enrolled him in school and Sarah, a person of routines and rules, is adapting to her new life as a mum, just as she believed she would. She has been eating more food, more often, which she needs to justify to herself as being essential to fuel her performance. She is still walking a tightrope with diet and fitness, but she has never been more confident in the safety net she now feels comfortable using. There are times Bec will notice her touching her face, or clamping her thumb and forefinger around her wrist – classic habitual actions of those who suffer from an eating disorder – and she will pull her back into the present.
"Sometimes I still over-train, sometimes I still stress about food," she says. "But as long as I'm eating enough, and getting enough sleep, my body is responding really well.
"It's a very fine line, but I haven't tripped up too much so far. I feel like it's always something that, mentally, I'm going to have to deal with."
With a new WNCL season just a month away, she has already established contact with the ACT's player development manager, Leah Mirabella, whom she will lean on if she feels the need throughout the summer. In October, she will return to the Strikers for the inaugural standalone WBBL tournament. There she will link back up with Schutt, who was at the wedding in February to witness a happier version of her old friend.
"You can just tell that her heart is fuller," she says. "You can see that she's got someone else to focus on now, and that's really good for her, because for a long time it was just about trying to fix herself.
"I think Bec's helping fix a little hole in there, and it's evident by the smile on her face. It's not a fake smile anymore; it's not her putting it on for the coaches or anyone else. It's genuine. And it's really nice to see her in that place."
There are now of course two others to focus on, with their child a central part of her and Bec's lives. Sarah sees herself with a second child in the coming years, and would happily walk away from cricket again if she decided to carry. Even a phone call from Australia coach Matthew Mott wouldn't change that.
"If (playing for Australia) was to disrupt too much of my family life, then the answer would be no," she says. "I've been there, and I've done that. This is something new."
Right now, she has a car to pack, and there is no cricket equipment to seen. Instead, the boot is stacked with snowboards, goggles and boots.
For Sarah, Bec and their little boy, a first family holiday awaits.