Top athletes believe diet is key to success

Top high school athletes say eating habits are as important as workout habits. Soccer player Zach Neiberger replaced chips with fruit.

Minneapolis Star Tribune/Carlos Gonzalez

MINNEAPOLIS — The raw bell peppers’ crispness muffled the noise coming from James Onwualu’s mouth as he described the purpose of the colorful snack.

Red, yellow and green peppers, mixed with broccoli and spinach, are a vital part of living a purified life, the Cretin-Derham Hall High School senior said. It’s the nourishment he sees as required to adequately prepare for goals that reach far beyond being the best wide receiver in Minnesota. Emphasis on nutrition, carefully sculpted to match growing teenage athletes with their sport’s demands, are the edge that Onwualu and other talented individuals use to become the best in their sport.

In a generation more accustomed to going online to educate themselves, these athletes form their detailed eating habits by heeding coaches, personal trainers and even parents.

“It’s specific today with who you are and to the athlete,” said Onwualu, a Notre Dame-bound football standout. “My friends and schoolmates think I’m pretty crazy for it. They think I’m already where I want to be. But in my mind I’m not where I want to be.”

Disciplined diets

Across the area, blue-chip athletes are similarly disciplined and committed.

At Minneapolis Southwest, soccer player Zach Neiberger replaced chips with fruit. Shakopee cross-country runner Maria Hauger eats loads of spinach and red meat for the iron boost required for distance running. Wayzata swimmer Emma Paulson starts preparing for a meet five days in advance through her food. Waconia volleyball player Anna Pioske gave up soda three years ago to help increase her vertical. Fellow volleyball player Samantha Seliger-Swenson says no to sweets. Wayzata football player Mitch Underhill stopped drinking Gatorade.

Each of these sacrifices has molded this group into the best and, in some cases, convinced fellow teammates to simply pay more attention to meals.

“(Performance) depends on what you eat. I don’t eat candy. I don’t drink pop. I keep my muscles hydrated and healthy,” Onwualu said. “I feel my body is more pure. Food has kind of become not a pleasure. I don’t love different kinds of food, but there are certain things I eat that are good for you.”

Hopkins volleyball coach Vicki Seliger-Swenson empowers her team by handing out articles on nutrition. She said the awareness has created an overall healthy environment regardless of the athlete’s commitment level.

An average week for Onwualu begins with a visit to the supermarket with a detailed grocery list, edited by nutrition and training coach Ted Johnson. Onwualu prepares his own meals. Along with peppers, his recent lunch included a couple of forms of fruit and three sandwiches — turkey, chicken breast, ham.

This midday refuel is part of a 5,000- to 6,000-calorie diet engineered for Onwualu’s needs not only as a football player, but more specifically a wide receiver.

“Pretty sophisticated stuff” is how Johnson categorized the lifestyle. Along with the rigorous no-supplement nutrition habits he instills in clients, he also pushes them beyond traditionally accepted workouts.

Good eating habits

Found among the Waconia volleyball team rules is a section on nutrition. It’s important to coach Jim Lee that his athletes are well-fed.

“If we eat healthy, we play healthy,” Pioske said. “You can tell if you eat a bunch of junk food. You feel slower and don’t feel as energized. You’re more awake and alert.”

That means limits — two cans of soda per week, no coffee, no candy or cookies Monday through Friday — to help Lee’s group produce a more balanced diet.

Rasa Troup, a sports nutrition specialist and dietitian for University of Minnesota athletics, believes such guidelines will help create good eating habits. An advocate for healthy lifestyles and nutrition-minded athletes, Troup is concerned about misinformation leading to exaggerated eating that has adverse effects on athletes. Her research has shown that teenagers often use unqualified sources, such as the Internet or teammates, as nutrition guides, instead of a trained professional.

“From my experience is that when I talk to high schoolers, only a few of them understand how to fuel the body for physical performance. Some don’t fuel enough and some are overfueling,” said Troup, also a former Olympian. “If athletes get information from correct places, they can fuel the body for adequate performance.”

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