Track & Field Worlds Is Massive Test For Team USA’s Dieticians, Too
by Paul D. Bowker
Prior to the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships, Sally Baumann was prepping for some of the busiest days of her year.
She didn’t win a medal at last month’s competition Paris. But she was one of the reasons Team USA brought home 39 of them.
Baumann, a native Australian who joined Team USA more than four years ago, is one of two dietitians who oversee Para athletes in a number of sports. And this year’s track and field world championships — one year ahead of the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 — was certainly hectic. All track competitions are.
“You have a 10-day competition,” Baumann said of the event that ran July 8-17. “There’s a morning session and an evening session. Athletes are all doing different things at different times. Throwers over in that corner tucked away, you’ve got the jumpers who are over here, you’ve got your wheelchair track guys who are warming up over here, you’ve got your ambulatory that throws sprinters in heats, it’s a lot at once.”
And you were thinking that a dietitian sits back in a comfy office someplace writing meal plans between forkfuls of a healthy salad?
That actually happens before the trip to a venue like Paris.
Then, the chaos begins.
“There’s so many moving parts, it’s a huge machine,” Baumann said. “They’re all preparing on different timelines for different events. There’s a lot more logistics that interrupt athletics.”
Among the athletes who truly believe in this nutrition process is Susannah Scaroni, a wheelchair racer who has won two medals at three Paralympic Games and is now a threat to win any marathon she enters. Scaroni recently became a registered dietitian, Baumann said.
“She’s one of the best wheelchair racers on the circuit,” Baumann said.
Baumann has also worked closely with Kym Crosby, a three-time Paralympic medalist in the sprint distances; Liza Corso, a 2020 Paralympic silver medalist; and wheelchair racers Jenna Fesemyer and Yen Hoang, among many others.
Baumann and Marta Scechura, a native of Poland who formerly was a dietitian for the Chicago Cubs, combine to serve multiple Para sports for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Baumann works with the U.S. Para alpine, snowboard, triathlon and women’s wheelchair basketball teams, in addition to track and field.
After experiencing an eating disorder as an early teen, Baumann learned the values of nutrition, which led her to her current career.
“I think that probably played into me being like, wow, I had a strong understanding that it was really difficult for me to swim while chronically under fueling,” she said. “It just kind of made me so much more aware of the impact that food can have on you, not just physically but socially and emotionally.
“This is why I wanted to be a sports dietitian specifically,” Baumann added, “to be able to help people be grounded, have a better understanding of their body and maybe detach some of that emotion that especially women feel around their body, which is even more complex when we talk about a disabled population.”
After growing up in Australia and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics and health at the University of Queensland in her home country, Baumann found Team USA in April 2019, following a year and a half as performance dietitian for Queensland Rugby Union.
“I love Team USA, and I love the people that I get to work with and the sports that I can influence,” she said. “The reason that I wanted to be a part of Team USA, U.S. Paralympics specifically, was being able to be part of a movement that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Baumann is based in Chula Vista, California, home of an elite training center for U.S. athletes, and regularly travels to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to work with athletes and other coaches. She also travels to multiple sporting events around the globe, including the Paralympic Games, Pan American Games and multiple world championships and world cups.
The job itself is a brain twister for Baumann.
“The Paralympics, there’s so many things interfacing with performance that the opportunities for athletes to get better and better and better are unreal,” Baumann said. “You have to use your brain to solve problems … and an athletes’ impairment and their equipment can just be extra hurdles to the implementation of something. I really enjoy that. That challenge is a motivator for me.”
And in track and field, Baumann works with athletes in multiple disciplines. No one challenge is the same as another.
“What the distance athletes need is going to be really different than what a long jumper is going to need,” Baumann said. “And then you throw the complexity of disability over the top of that, and their needs can be even more diverse.
“There are some more complexities and therefore I think more rewarding outcomes as a practitioner working with this population because it is fulfilling when you can see the direct impact that your work is having on an athlete, especially when it is success on the field of play.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaTrackandField.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.