September 2, 2009

10 Questions With New York Jets Nutritionist

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It’s back to the gridiron for us Cornellians, both as students and as fans of that great American tradition — football. But the NFL has been closer to Ithaca during the offseason than you might think.
The New York Jets came to nearby Cortland, N.Y., over the summer for training camp, staying in the area from July 31 to Aug. 22. With only one more game left on the preseason schedule before New York’s opener at Houston Sept. 13, the Jets named highly touted first-round draft pick Mark Sanchez as the starting quarterback just last week.
With all of these exciting things going on in the world of the Jets and the NFL, The Sun had a phone conversation last week with Wendy Meyer Sterling ’99 about her career as a registered dietician and nutrition consultant for the Jets since 2006.  

1. When did you go to Cornell, and what did you study?
I went from 1995 to 1999, and I was in the School of Human Ecology and was a Nutritional Sciences major. 

2. What was your experience at Cornell like?
Fantastic. Professors were great. The program was really helpful. It provided a lot of guidance for aspiring professionals going into the field. Met a lot of really nice people there who I keep in touch and collaborate with to this day who are professionals in the field. … I just loved being there. I loved the campus and the buildings and I met some of my closest friends … and my husband there. He actually proposed there. We came here for Labor Day weekend, just for a weekend getaway, and he proposed at the clock tower.

3. Classic. So did you ever interact with Cornell sports teams, even if it was just as a fan?
I didn’t have the opportunity when I was there to do that. I went to games, if that counts. [Laughs].

4. How did you become a nutritionist for the Jets?
I got very lucky. I was working at the time, and still am working, at Schneider Children’s Hospital. They have an eating disorders center and a weight management center. I was doing some consulting with Hofstra University women’s sports teams and I had gotten to know their team doctor. One day I got a call from him asking me for my resume. Apparently the Jets had an opening, and he forwarded my resume along. … I’m in my fourth season now with them. I started with them in 2006. … [The nutrition staff] was just me for the first three years, and this year we added another person with a nutritional focus. His name is Thomas Bilella. He has a different background than me — he is a chiropractor. 

5. Do you work with any other types of athletes?
I work with a variety of different athletes: runners, triathletes, professional bodybuilders, hockey players, soccer players, aspiring Olympians, gymnasts. I love it, and the thing that’s so interesting about sports nutrition is that each sport has its own requirements and idiosyncrasies.  

6. With the Jets, how much one-on-one interaction do you have with players? How much control do you have over what they do? What kinds of things do you recommend for players at each position?
I work one-on-one with the players. I also do group lectures with the players, plan the menus at hotels when they travel [and] at the cafeteria when they’re home. But it’s like anything: You make your recommendations, you work with athletes, and then it’s in their hands to make sure they can accomplish those goals. But professional athletes are very compliant, compared to some other clients I have.
[When making recommendations for players at each position] it varies, depends on what they’re working on. Some people are working on weight gain, weight loss. Some are working on the weight maintenance with the desire to change up their body composition. Some people come to see me because they have issues with cramping. I love when I see an athlete who thinks they don’t “need” to see me perhaps because their weight is in the desirable range. Then, in talking, we find out he’s missing the nutrition “recovery window,” or not fueling properly for peak performance. So it’s sort of all over the place. 

7. Now I have to ask you the obligatory steroids question — how common do you think those kinds of supplements are in the NFL and professional sports in general?
They have a very rigorous screening program in the NFL. Players get tested regularly. We are very careful about what kinds of supplements we recommend. There’s only one company that we can recommend supplements from that guarantees clean supplements.  

8. What’s your favorite and least favorite team or athlete you have worked with?
My favorite team is the Jets of course. [As for a particular athlete], that’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is! 

9. You came to Cortland for the first few days of Jets camp, right? What were your tasks there, and did you get to visit Cornell at all?
Great question. So while I was at Cortland, my main job there was two-fold. One was to interact with the food service personnel, to assess what they were serving and make sure it was up to the specifications that we wanted nutritionally for our athletes during training camp. The second was to touch base with the players. They’re in training camp, they’re burning a lot more calories, and so we sort of tweaked the programs that some of the athletes were on or addressed any specific issues that might come up nutritionally at that time. We’re looking for ways to help them enhance performance, from the standpoint of what they’re eating before, during and after practice, trying to make sure everyone is recovering nutritionally up to their maximum potential.
And yes, I did get to see Cornell. I went up a day early so I could stay with a friend who is living up at Cornell. And I was able to walk around the campus and visit my favorite places … the clock tower, the Arts Quad, the Human Ecology area of course, because that’s where I was. I always loved Collegetown [and] Collegetown Bagels … [those] are some of my favorites. [I get back here] not often enough. Once every couple years, probably. 

10. What’s the hardest part of your job? And the most rewarding part?
As a nutritionist in general, sometimes I want people to get better and get healthier more than they want it themselves. So it’s sometimes a challenge to sit back and allow a person’s own process to kind of kick in. You can’t force nutrition guidelines on people. You have to wait until they’re ready and motivated, which isn’t necessarily something I run into with the Jets, because as I mentioned before they tend to be extremely motivated and receptive to my suggestions. The most rewarding part of the job is to watch as people listen to your suggestions, and you’re able to see they’re healthier, stronger, faster. In the world of sports, it’s great to help athletes adjust their diets, timing, recovery strategies and help them to achieve their goals.