It’s just after midday on a Sunday afternoon and Spartans women’s football team are being put through their paces in a vigorous and energy-sapping training session.
Leading the team around the training pitch is the confident and dynamic Danni Pagliarulo, who, as one of the more experienced squad members, is determined to finish the session with a burst of pace . . . a sign of how far she has come in a short period of time.
After being away from the game for the last three years, Danni, the former team captain, has had to fight her way back, not just to fitness and a place in the starting XI, but to living a healthy life after suffering from the potentially fatal illness anorexia – an illness which saw her weight plummet to just six stones.
At just 23, with a string of footballing accolades, including a League Cup winners’ medal already at home and a Scotland cap on the horizon, her world fell apart. What started out as just cutting down her food intake out with the training season ended up with Danni in a hospital bed.
“It was at the end of a short season with the game changing from a winter sport to a summer game and so the off-season was going to be longer,” she says.
“We finished up in November and were not starting back up until February and for some reason I got it into my head that I didn’t need to eat as much because I wasn’t training.
“So this carried on and carried on and, even though I kept telling myself I had it under control, when I returned to training in January I should have realised that I had a problem.
“I hadn’t been in any contact with any of the team during that period and when I came back no-one said a word. I remember we had a five-a-side training game at Ainslie Park and I was awful.
“My legs wouldn’t work, my body was just shattered and, even though this was happening, in my head I still believed I had it under control and as I was back training I would start eating again.
“However, it just kept spiralling out of control and over that year I kept trying to come back but it just wasn’t happening. If you look at the squad photos from that season I really do look like death.”
Throughout 2009 and into 2010, Danni’s health deteriorated. Her once nine-stone, 5ft 7in athletic frame became skeletal, and finally a sickness bug saw her admitted to the Western General.
It was there that the word “anorexic” was first used – and she was warned that if she didn’t start eating again she’d be admitted to the Royal Edinburgh’s eating disorders unit.
“I remember being in the ward, I was around six stones and I realised for the first time I was in serious trouble. I had my family around me and I could see the worry and anxiety in their faces – that’s when I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’”
Anorexia and other eating disorders were diagnosed in around 7500 young women between the ages of 15 and 24 in Scotland last year, and Danni, from Davidson’s Mains, believes there is a stigma surrounding the illness, especially in women’s football.
She believes a lot of players have “disordered eating”, not an eating disorder as such, but a systematic process of only eating what they need to in order to be able to train.
However, when they don’t train they don’t reduce their food consumption but eat differently. Danni admits that this is where she went wrong as she just stopped eating.
She felt she didn’t need to eat and believes others are going down that same slippery slope.
“I want other players to think twice about their diet, to look at me when they think about not eating and realise the consequences. To have the knowledge and courage to not go down the horrendous journey I have been on.”
The illness forced Danni to give up her job as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities and she distanced herself from Spartans as she didn’t want anyone to see her poor physical state.
“Having this illness changed how I was perceived and in essence brought about a new identity by people within the game. Instead of being Danni Pagliarulo, the Spartans midfielder or the girl who was a League Cup winner, I ended up being the girl who doesn’t eat and who used to be a footballer.
“So I was the girl with the eating disorder and, believe me, it’s like an addiction. Football is an addiction and not eating is the same and in that year or so that was my addiction and, like my playing, I was good at it. I believe there is some ignorance at the top end of this sport towards this type of illness and while they try and improve a player’s ability and fitness they seem to fail to educate on nutrition and healthy eating habits. I know that I am not the first to suffer from this dreadful illness and regrettably I know I won’t be the last player either.”
According to NHS Lothian, recent research has indicated that eating disorder symptoms are more likely to appear in athletes as opposed to non-athletes. The health board also states that certain sports have seen higher levels of illness such as anorexia due to the scrutiny the trainers put on the body shape of participants. Anorexia is a complex illness and NHS Lothian spokesman David Rigg believes each case can differ. “Whether or not they occur in a sporting context, eating disorders can seriously compromise the health of the sufferer and be life-threatening,” he says. “For everyone involved in sport, it is important to maintain a healthy intake, adequate in all nutrients, and energy intake must match the energy requirements for training and playing which will optimise performance.
“There are national helplines and websites to support young people, adults and their families, and free school self-esteem workshops for young people to explore body confidence.”
Danni knows that the support she has received, in particular from her family, has been paramount in her ability to regain her health and she would not have been able to do it without them.
“My partner has been a rock to me and I have my family to thank for helping me through it all. This is not something I would ever want anyone to go through, which is why I want to bring awareness of this to the fore and show that it is okay to talk about it.”
Since returning to the game Danni has been overwhelmed by the support she has had, not just from her current side but also from Capital rivals, Hibs.
“When my health was starting to return I decided it was time to start trying to play again. I didn’t want to come straight back to Spartans as I was worried I wouldn’t be the same player as people would remember. So I arranged to train with Hibs, which was brilliant as there was no pressure on me there. Willie [Kirk] and Chris [Roberts], the coaches at Hibs, were amazing and so supportive in helping me out.”
Danni has since returned to the Spartans starting line-up and still can’t quite believe how far she has come in such a short space of time.
“I am always quite critical of my own performance but, having spoken to a few people, the feedback on the way I played was positive.”
The 26-year-old seems to be getting back to full strength, with her talent shining through again on the football pitch.
But the pain of the previous three years will always be in the back of her mind as a reminder that she was close to losing everything, including her football career.
And she knows that she will always have that battle with anorexia on her shoulder.
“I now eat healthy foods, [and] put myself into situations where I have to eat. It’s still a thought process for me and it’s always on my mind. My weight is now back to where it was before all this happened, but I would never say I have got rid of this illness. It will always be a battle – but it’s one I intend to keep winning.”
n For help with eating disorders contact BEAT, a leading UK charity for people affected by eating disorders which also provides support for athletes, on www.b-eat.co.uk or call 0845 634 1414. UK Sport provides guidance for sport coaches on www.uksport.gov.uk/publications/eating-disorders-in-sport
Game she loves is in her blood
Having grown up in footballing family – her brother Mark plays for Livingston Juniors – it was perhaps inevitable that Danni Pagliarulo took up the sport.
Intially she played with her school team, a St Augustine High side which won the Scottish Schools Cup on three occasions. But at the same time she also began training and turning out for the team she supported as a girl – Hibs.
Success at Hibs was coupled for Danni with pride at being selected for her country and she ended up representing Scotland at both under-17 and under-19 levels. Age forced her to move from Hibs, and she began her senior club career with Whitehill Welfare in Rosewell. Whitehill Welfare went on to become Edinburgh Ladies, the standard of training facilities improved and so did the team – culminating in a League Cup win against Hibs.
“Winning the League Cup was the best feeling in the world. As underdogs no-one thought we would lift the trophy and so it was brilliant to win,” she says.
The next season Edinburgh Ladies were integrated into Spartans and Danni became captain – a position she took very seriously.
“I was the voice for the team if they weren’t happy with situations I spoke out. I felt it was my duty to do so although I didn’t always do it in the right way!”
But now, after her battle with anorexia, she’s just glad to be back playing again.