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Former Ohio State gymnast transforms student-athlete diets

Nicole Jontony representing the Buckeyes on the balance beam. Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Jontony

Nicole Jontony’s dream of becoming an elite collegiate athlete looked dead, but an early life change would pave the way to becoming an Ohio State gymnast –– and later a career as a nutritionist working with Ohio State athletes.

“I was a mediocre gymnast and I believed that my talents could take me there, but when it failed to get me to a college scholarship, I started changing up how I was eating and caring for my body,” Jontony said.

This month, Jontony’s work was recognized by the Ohio Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics when she was named the 2018 Young Dietitian of the Year.

“There was no doubt in my mind that she deserved the award; she works hard, she’s passionate, she has a lot of ideas, and she wants to grow the program,” said Sarah Wick, athletics dietitian at Ohio State and Jontony’s colleague. “It was very, very easy writing a letter of recommendation for her to get this award and that was probably the easiest letter I’ve ever written.”

Jontony’s journey to becoming a dietitian did not begin in the health food aisle. One of seven children from Carmel, Indiana, Jontony grew up in a family that did not often practice healthy nutrition.

“There were seven kids in my family, and I wasn’t getting back home until late at night, so I would eat frozen corn dogs, frozen chicken patties, and frozen fried chicken –– pretty much anything quick,” Jontony said.

In her senior year of high school, Jontony realized her prospects of being a collegiate athlete were slim, so she decided to take her last year of high school to train and pay attention to her diet.

“It was the realization that I didn’t think I was going to make it to college. So rather than relying on my talent, I needed to start caring for my body like an elite-level athlete,” Jontony said.

With a new mindset, Jontony improved her performance and eventually earned a spot on the Ohio State gymnastics team, a position she kept for all four years of her college career. Over that time, Jontony became a two-time captain of the gymnastics team, three-time Academic All-Big Ten, a two-time Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, and a four-time Ohio State Scholar-Athlete. In 2013 she graduated with a degree in medical dietetics.

An internship she had in her final year of her undergraduate program led to a full-time position as a registered dietitian for the Ohio State’s athletic department. By the time she was hired, the athletic department had made nutrition and dietetics a major focus for athletes.

“When I was an athlete we only had one dietitian,” Jontony said. “We now have three dietitians and a large staff of volunteers and nutrition intern students.”

Jontony’s duties include making personalized meal plans for the athletes, depending on their sport and personal needs, and educating athletes on the value of proper nutrition. It’s an area of training that Jontony noted is not something most athletes are aware of coming into college.

“My athletes here think they can get away with eating poorly, which for the most part they can because they are so talented,” she said. “But what they don’t know is if they had a little bit more support and supplement[s] they would actually be performing at an even better level.”

One successful initiative that Jontony helped develop is the Buckeye Fuel Zones, where athletes can pick up snacks before and after workouts.

“What we noticed was the first spring we open these fuel zones we had athletes coming back at the end of the week and saying they had better stamina, endurance, more strength, because they were able to recover with a meal every day,” Jontony said.

Jontony also spearheaded a student-volunteer extension of the nutrition team, which offers current medical-dietetics students the chance to get real life experience in sports nutrition at Ohio State.

With a growing nutritional program for Buckeye athletes and the full support of the sports nutrition department behind her, Jontony said she is excited to be working at Ohio State and making a real-life impact on young student-athletes.

“The college level is so fun because these athletes are starting to gain more freedom,”  Jontony said. “They’re starting to take their own responsibilities for their health and for their performance, but they aren’t at the professional level and they are at a really impressionable age right now. It’s like you are setting them up for the trajectory of their life.”

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