My Story of Why I Compete Clean
I’ve been asked why I decided to compete clean during my athletic career – first as a swimmer, then as a top Olympic distance triathlete (amateur and then professional), and now as a Masters cyclist. The answer is both simple and complex, straightforward and convoluted. To really answer this accurately, I had look beyond the easy answer and dig in to what’s driven me to compete, excel and stay on the straight-and-narrow.
In the Beginning
I’m the youngest of three kids. My sister and brother are 7 and 5.5 years older than I am, respectively. While we all love each other and get along very well, I also have early recollections of the two of them fighting like cats and dogs which caused my parents a number of headaches and parental challenges. At some point in my childhood, I recall thinking that the last thing I wanted to do was create yet more headaches and challenges for my parents. I was not a perfect child by any means, but I did my best to not disappoint my parents or put myself in a position where I would be letting them down.
This decision has followed me through life. I followed my siblings into competitive swimming at the age of 5. We each won national titles at different ages and we all competed into the collegiate ranks, though I was the only one to compete all four years at that level. The mentality I outline above caused me to lead by example in a few ways. I always worked my hardest in workouts; I never complained outwardly about particularly difficult practices; I encouraged others to get the most out of themselves; I talked to my coaches to better understand why we were doing what we were; outside the pool I kept my grades up and largely avoided making dumb adolescent and teenage mistakes.
I swam year round. Our club team was always one of the best 2-3 in the state. My high school swim team was a perennial top 10 at the state champs. I was the first two-year captain on that team, being voted into that role by both teammates and coaches. My senior season, I was voted my high school’s male athlete of the year. My practice of leading by example was paying off.
While I usually got it right, sometimes I made mistakes. My junior year, I attended a New Year’s party with some of my teammates and girlfriend. I knew there would be drinking there – it was high school – but I didn’t drink or do drugs (that would be a bad example by a leader). Everyone knew it and so I never got pressured to just be “one of the guys.” My parents’ rule for curfew was that I had to be home by midnight unless I called and told them where I was and with whom. Then, I could stay out as long as I wanted. This particular night, some terrible weather blew in, so as it approached midnight I called home and my parents agreed I could spend the night at the party. A teammate was about to leave and I almost left with him, but decided to stay.
When Winter Break was over and we were back in school, I remember showing up to swim practice one day that first week back and my coaches called me into their office. They did not look at all pleased, which was both puzzling and concerning. I wondered which of my teammates had fucked up. Turns out, it was I. Some pictures of the New Year’s party surfaced (this is when photos got developed and were tangibly held to enjoy) showing students having fun and drinking. A teacher walked by some girls viewing the photos, confiscated them and, recognizing me in a few of them, gave them to my coaches. Long story short, I ended up in front of a review board made up of our principal, athletic director, my head coach, and a couple notable teachers. I was grilled, offered the best answers I could, and then awaited my punishment – a 4-meet suspension. I would be able to compete in the local, regional and state championship meets which was a big relief for me.
I felt terrible. I had let my coaches and teammates down. I had let those who looked up to me down. I had let my parents down. I had let myself down. All the things I never wanted to do I managed to accomplish in one fell swoop. I vowed to never let that happen again – not ever.
A Quick Overview of My College Years
I ended up attended Kenyon College. I fondly remember driving from Illinois to central Ohio for a campus visit, parking in front of Admissions, getting out and looking around, and knowing immediately that I had found my home for the next four years. The feeling in my gut was so strong. I told my mom that if I got accepted, I would be attending Kenyon. Set amid gorgeous rolling rural hills in the Ohio River Valley, Kenyon Swimming had curious turned into the most successful athletic program in NCAA history when measured by NCAA Championship titles. My senior year, I was again voted captain. While in high school it felt like a no-brainer to be voted captain, at Kenyon I felt it was a hard-earned honor. That year, “Sports Illustrated” wrote a long article on “major minors” – smaller schools that punched well above their weight. Kenyon Swimming was the feature program and the article included a full 2-page photo of the team.
I was largely as straight-laced in college as I was in high school, and the four years passed without any major incident for me or my teammates. Save one. Every year, most of the team traveled down to Florida during Winter Break for 2.5 weeks to effectively swim all day every day since school was out for a solid month. My senior year, two of my roommates who were majoring in Economics, a supremely difficult major at Kenyon, needed to study while in Florida. We’d swim for three hours in the morning, and then while the rest of us were recovering before a two-hour afternoon workout, they would go to the library to work on their Senior Thesis. While my Senior Thesis was due in April, theirs were due immediately after returning from Winter Break. I felt badly for them.
Nationals occurred in mid-March. We would be gunning for our 11th consecutive NCAA Championship, a record for any sport. Tom and Scott would be instrumental to us staving off a sharp challenge from UCSD. As the Econ Department graded the theses, a red flag was raised. Tom and Scott’s theses cited identical references and so they were accused of working on their senior projects together, something which was strictly forbidden. While they had gone to the library in Florida together and shared the library’s resources, they did not write their papers together. The head of the Econ Department was unwavering – Tom and Scott would be kicked off the team and in return they would be allowed to graduate.
I couldn’t believe it. They had done nothing wrong. In fact, I felt they should have been commended for attending the training camp while having this critical project on their plates. It was no secret that the head of the department felt sport had little place in the world of academia. To me, this was a personally-driven vendetta against two athletes on the most successful program in the country who he felt were putting more focus on athletics than on their studies. I wasn’t going to stand idly by. I vented to my coach, whose hands were tied. I was denied an audience with the Econ department head. The school president pushed me down to the Dean of Student Affairs, who finally agreed to see me. I told Dean Ponder that a mistake was being made. Tom and Scott were consummate student-athletes who would never cheat, that his was a personal axe the department head felt he had to grind, and so on. It fell on deaf ears. Tom and Scott would be taken off the team and denied competing at Nationals. Two athletes similar to me had paid an even stiffer penalty than I did five years prior. Terrible. Despite this setback, we rallied. We dedicated the meet to Tom and Scott, and ended up crushing UCSD.
But probably the most interesting story of my collegiate swimming career is that my freshman year the NCAA announced it would start drug testing athletes. The national swimming championships were officially the first Spring event at which testing would occur, not coincidentally due to Kenyon’s success in the pool. During my four years of collegiate swimming, I was tested more than a dozen times and Kenyon swimmers made up the majority of the “random” tests completed beyond the Top 3 in each event. While I did not expect any swimmer to test positive, it was comforting to hear that all tests were negative. During these four years, it became ingrained in me that the athletes against whom I competed were clean, and that hard work and dedication paid off. To be the best, there were no short cuts.
After swimming my last stroke in collegiate swimming, I decided to give triathlon a go. I had 3 months to start biking and running to prepare for that year’s amateur national championship. I was leading the entire race wire-to-wire, and only got passed by two athletes in the last 3-4 kilometers on the run, finally ending up second in my age group and third overall. Not a bad way to enter the sport. Again, dedicated hard work paid off big time.
I turned pro after two years in the amateur ranks, motivated and ready to take on the very best the sport had to offer up. I had become enamored with triathlon in the early-80s after watching Scott Tinley storm to a come-from-behind victory at the Hawaii Ironman that year. He personified what I stood for in sport and his tenacity really drew me in. I was destined to give the sport a go.
My blind faith in the AD (anti-doping) system carried forward into my triathlon career. Those four years in college led me to believe that if someone were taking PEDs, I trusted the system would find the cheats out. At first, there was no drug testing in triathlon. But, when the movement to get triathlon into the Summer Olympics began in earnest, the drug testing followed. First, on the ITU (International Triathlon Union) World Cup Circuit, which is where I mainly raced. As I recall, the podium in each World Cup race got tested along with three more athletes at random. As in collegiate swimming, I figured the cheats would get caught and so didn’t really have much skepticism for athlete results in races.
But then a strange thing happened. In just three years, I went from winning a half-dozen races and being able to beat any pro on a given day to struggling to stand on the podium and remain in the top 10, all while I continued to get faster. I trained more and harder, sometimes to my own detriment. Self-confidence that once had been brimming was now shaken. I was racing fast in both draft-legal and non-drafting races, yet I was lagging farther behind the tip of the spear. While I was bleeding out my eyes, some athletes around me were calm, cool and collected. Because I believed in the drug testing – because I had always believed that hard work led to excellence and success – I looked in the mirror and blamed my flagging results on myself. It had to be my fault. I wasn’t dedicated enough or training hard enough. I. Must. Do. More.
How blinding naivete can be.
During the flagging results, there were multiple occasions I had the opportunity to gain exposure to PEDs – to cross the line. It was never a question. Cheating to win would not be something I would ever do. As with swimming in high school, how could I live with the certain disappointment my parents and those who believed in me would surely feel were they to find out I had cheated to win? How could I look at my wife every day? My friends? “But what if they never found out?” Well, I would know and I would not have been able to look at myself in the mirror let alone look them in the eye.
I knew the stories. Blood doping had been used since the 70s and 80s. EPO was available over-the-counter across Europe. Parts of South America lacked any sort of controls. Stories about certain athletes and coaches circulated, further raising eyebrows about their cleanliness. But, still, I believed in the AD system. From a results perspective, to my own detriment. However, my reputation remained intact and my conscience completely clear. At the time, it stung. A lot. In hindsight, I would not change a thing. My ability to race clean and win became compromised and ultimately led to the premature end to my professional athletic career.
To me, there is a purity in sport – the pursuit of excellence. Athletes determine how far they can push themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Barriers are hit and overcome, then hit again. Sometimes we want to quit it all because the necessary dedication to perform at our highest level no longer brings rewards commensurate with the effort. Those who push themselves longer and harder, who can overcome more barriers more often, will rise to the top. Hard work can overcome “God given talent”.
My lack of proper perspective on the extent of doping occurring at the time certainly didn’t help. In retrospect, the number of top-grade pro triathletes from both hemispheres that flooded the sport was shocking. They were popping up like weeds. At the time, I didn’t connect the dots. Maybe I was unwilling to see what was right in front of my eyes. Or, more likely, I believed that the other athletes were of a similar mind. That the purity of sport overruled all else.
In no way do I believe that everyone else doped. Nor do I believe that I was only beaten by doped triathletes. That said, I do think there was a much larger percentage of competitors cheating than I believed at the time and certainly more than the anti-doping tests caught – or that were reported. Afterall, triathlon was lobbying hard to get into the Olympic Games, so while some positive drug test results would be great for show – “Look, we are catching the cheats” – too many would kill the Olympic movement right when it needed to gain a full head of steam.
In the end, things have turned out just fine. I’ve got my health and my conscience is fully intact. Even now, as a Masters cyclist, I know I’m competing against cheaters. Some of my fellow competitors have been caught, and a few more than once. I’m to the point in my athletic career where finding new challenges and trying to make tweaks to my training approach are the real challenges. Sure, I try to win the races that suite my strengths and still do win some of them. But, I find I gain more fulfillment from helping teammates win than going after personal glory.
My eyes are open wide now. I’ll keep cycling as long as it fills me up. Once it doesn’t, I’ll find the next challenge whatever that may be. Regardless, trying to challenge and better myself will forever overrule the “win at all costs” mentality. On this, I will never waiver.