This story originally appeared in the Winona Daily News as part of its Above and Beyond program, which honors graduating seniors in the Winona area who have overcome adversity to accomplish their goals. Olivia Becker was honored at a scholarship ceremony on May 11. Click here for more coverage of the event.
Olivia Becker remembers sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico with her family. It should have been a peaceful time, a fun time. A carefree vacation.
But Becker could not think about the sun, the sand, the waves or the fun she was having with her family. All she could think about, even in paradise, was how many sit-ups she needed to do that night to make up for the food that she ate, or the lack of exercise she was able to accomplish.
“Since developing an eating disorder in fifth grade, my mind has always been a bit in shambles,” Becker said. “Regardless of what activity I was doing, thoughts of food and body always made their way into my mind.”
Try as she might, Becker could not make herself better alone. And try as they might, her family was powerless as well.
In the spring of 2022, Becker was admitted to the Emily Program, a nationally recognized residential eating disorder treatment center. Being admitted to the program was the first step, one of many difficult ones she encountered on a road to recovery.
Becker spent nearly two months in the program. Nearly one year later, she is stronger, tougher and healthier — all because she didn’t give up on herself. To honor that strength and courage, Olivia Becker is the Winona Senior High School Above and Beyond honoree in the Class of 2023.
“I never lost hope in myself and I never quit on myself,” Becker said. “I had committed to recovery and nothing would get in my way.”
Becker, who was clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder in ninth grade, had been working with therapists, dieticians and doctors for years without much luck. She was having trouble focusing in school, and her times in cross country were slipping. Despite all of that, she still maintained excellent grades in AP and honors classes and qualified for the state meet in cross country.
But it was her battles with family that could not be ignored.
“We were fighting constantly,” Becker said.
If she could, she would choose to stop in order to make things better for everyone and have a “normal life.”
But Becker could not choose to stop.
“That’s the thing about eating disorders. They aren’t a choice, not even a little,” she said.
Just like that, Becker’s life was flipped upside down. She was away from home, away from her friends and forced to confront her biggest fears: food, rest and weight restoration.
Despite those challenges, Becker still wanted to continue with her advanced classes at WSHS. She kept in touch with teachers through email, and used the little downtime she had from the program to keep up her grades at an A level.
“While it was stressful at times, I knew I needed to persevere and continue pushing to meet the goals and standards I had set for myself,” Becker said. “Soon I found the hardest thing was being isolated from my friends and family for six weeks while I recovered, but I never gave up because I knew I needed to be there and I deserved to reach the end of my stay in a better place.”
Still, it was hard. Crushingly hard. She missed the Florida band trip. She missed prom. She missed state competitions. She missed being an involved high school student.
But she kept going. Kept fighting. Kept getting better. After six weeks, Becker could go home.
“It is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced, being in a constant mental battle while being physically uncomfortable and feeling alone,” Becker said. “I took comfort in my work and managed to stay on top of everything, just as I’d promised myself I would.”
Becker followed through with her plans of being a camp counselor in the summer and eventually took the ACT. She ran on the cross country team and returned to the MSHSL state meet, despite missing all that time for training during treatment.
“For Olivia to qualify for the state cross country meet last fall, and to come back this year and end up qualifying again despite the challenges she faced in between, shows her strength of mind, body, and character,” WSHS cross country coach Jed Reisetter said. “Her resilience and determination are a model for us all.”
Becker is more determined than ever to chase her dreams. She plans to attend Iowa State University in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, then has aspirations of going out to Colorado for veterinary school. She loves horses — when she moved to Winona in 2017, she quickly found local barns that would take her on as a volunteer and she is currently working at the Bluff Country Equine Veterinary Center. She may want to specialize in equine studies.
It will be tough, but tough isn’t anything that Becker can’t handle.
“Only through adversity can we grow,” Becker said. “Balancing residential eating disorder treatment with challenging coursework was no walk in the park, but the person I am today would not be the same without that experience. I now know what I am capable of and trust myself in accomplishing whatever I put my mind to. I never gave up … and I don’t plan on starting now.”