Cap & Goggles

Only a Swimmer Knows the Feeling

Category: Issues

How to Dope and Not Get Caught

French study reveals: Take a little, take it at night, never fail a test… See your results soar. 

The next time you hear someone proclaim innocence by pointing to all the drug tests she’s passed, try not to laugh. If a cheater is versed in the latest in the dark art of doping then there’s little chance of ever testing positive.

In a study publicized by the television station France 2, the massive benefits of ‘micro-dosing’ were laid bare. In a medical trial, eight athletes were injected with EPO, human growth hormones, corticosteroids, and other drugs – all in tiny doses. While the micro doses left no trace in drug tests, their benefits certainly showed up in performance. One of the runners reported an astonishing drop of 31 seconds in the 3,000 meters – in under a month of testing and clean results.

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Chasing the Ambulance

Outside magazine publishes a deep dive into swimming’s sexual abuse scandal… Lawyers rejoice.

Somewhere, the devil is smiling. Or to quote Al Pacino playing the personified Dark One in the Devil’s Advocate: “Lawyers are the devil’s ministry.”

Oh yes, the lawyers are tossing back shots of whiskey and beaming with the news. Outside magazine just gave them the bully’s pulpit. Then, Slate Magazine picked up the story, and quoted yours truly. Imagine my surprise. I haven’t been posting much lately, but suddenly traffic to this site was spiking. Curious, says I, let’s take a look at the old Word Press Dashboard, figure out where all these hits are coming from. Ah, but of course, the story that wouldn’t die: “The Worst Kept Secret in Washington”, published the day the Rick Curl scandal broke, back in the summer of 2012.

Since then, that story, about Curl’s criminal relationship with a teenage swimmer named Kelley Currin back in the 80s, has been read twice as many times as any other piece ever published on Cap & Goggles. For good reason, I suppose. It addressed not only the horror of sex abuse between too many coaches and young swimmers, but the sport’s dirtiest little secret: it’s never been much of a secret. Since the time I was twelve years old, I’ve heard the rumors. Many of which weren’t rumors at all. Somewhere along the line, beneath the unseemly surface, it became part of the culture.

It wasn’t just swimming, of course. Inappropriate relations between coaches and young athletes are legion. They happen in every sport. Yet, swimming seemed to take it to another level of misconduct. Why? Well, you don’t have to look too far. This is a sport where the athletes are mostly naked, wet, breathing heavy, and quite literally, staring up in positions of subservience at their coaches above them on deck. The sexualized nature of the sport is impossible to miss. Plenty of unscrupulous coaches have taken advantage of it in unconscionable, downright evil ways.

But let’s hit pause on the pile-on for a second. Outside magazine has already piled on plenty, as well meaning and outraged as the story was. When I say ‘plenty’, I mean too many. Hell, one is too many. But let’s make no mistake: ‘plenty’ remains the minuscule minority of a proud and noble profession. And while we’re at it, let’s make something else clear: no other national governing body has reacted with more vigilance and commitment to change than USA Swimming, ever since this story took on a life of its own four years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

The Boy Behind the Wheel

After a second DUI arrest, a hard look at Michael Phelps on dry land… 

This time it’s different. It’s already being lumped in with his past two public transgressions, but those two past offenses belong in a separate category. A dumb decision at 19-years-old, getting behind the wheel after a few too many? Not okay, but not the end of the world either. You and a million other dumb-ass teens have done the same thing, and you hope it’s lesson learned. You hope you recognize how lucky you were that no one got hurt. Transgression number two: getting caught smoking from a bong at age 23. It’s hard even to dignify this with an ounce of judgement. If you have a problem with a kid in his early twenties smoking weed at a party, well then, less power to you.

But this time, for Michael Phelps, it’s a different story. He didn’t get caught making a teenager’s mistake, and he didn’t get caught puffing on something that’s soon to be legal in every state any way. This time, Michael Phelps did something deserving of judgement and the harshest of words. He got shit-faced, climbed into his Land Rover, and sped almost 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, charging through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, going 84mph in a 45mph zone, swerving over the double lines as he did it. Then, when stopped, the officer immediately noticed Phelps was plastered. A sobriety test proved it: it’s been reported that his blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Then he was arrested, charged, released, and sent sulking home in shame and fear, as Michael Phelps, Inc. spun into Code Red.

Before making clear why this time it’s so different, a note to the moralizing masses: I don’t think Michael Phelps has a drinking problem. I don’t think he’s off the rails or out of control in any get-this-kid-to-rehab sense. I don’t judge him for getting a DUI at 19, nor for unwinding with a bit of weed. And I certainly don’t judge him for enjoying a few drinks. Lord knows I enjoy bending an elbow too. I’ll be as permissive as you like when it comes to recreational drug use, as well. You can judge me for that, I’ll accept my choices, and others’ too. But here’s where unflinching judgement is due:

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The Russians Are Dirty

And they’re not alone… Doping is rife these days. Is swimming becoming “the new track & field”? 

How many positive tests does it take to convince you of a country’s guilt? According to the official stance from FINA, it’s not many. The letter of its law states that it’s four strikes and the country is out. If four athletes are caught cheating, then the whole damn federation faces a two-year ban. Except that’s not really true. See, they have to be FINA-sanctioned tests. If you’re caught with a positive test by your own federation, then that doesn’t count.

Which is how Russian swimmers are still allowed at international competitions, despite overwhelming evidence of doping on a widespread scale. Over the last four years, sixteen Russian swimmers have tested positive. Five tested positive last year at domestic meets in Russia, and are currently serving suspensions. This year, three more are serving drug bans for positive tests – including world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200 breaststroke, Yuliya Efimova. And last week, the latest positive was revealed: open water stud Vladimir Dyatchin, a multiple world champion and the Open Water Swimmer of the Year back in 2007.

This wave of dirty results has placed Russia “at the brink” of being suspended from international swimming competition. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently told Russian media that “one or two more breaches” and all of Russian Swimming could face an unprecedented suspension. This would be particularly humiliating for them, as they’re set to host next year’s World Championships in Kazan.

But FINA’s Grand Poobah, Cornel Marculescu, isn’t worried. He expressed full confidence in his comrades to host Worlds, saying that “the facilities are amazing and FINA is receiving a great support from the authorities of the Russian Federation.” I’m sure Cornel would also have been impressed by the state-of-the-art facilities in Leipzig and Berlin in the former East Germany a few decades back. But that’s not really the point. The Russians are dirty, and it’s starting to look a lot like back to the future.

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The Big Lie

The agony of Ian Thorpe and what it says about his sport, and his nation… 

We all knew. At least we thought we did. We added up all the usual cues and clues and we assumed as much, despite the years of denials from the man himself.

Even after his handlers insisted he was a fashion-conscious ladies man. Even as he claimed to have that long relationship with Amanda Beard. Even when he denied it in writing in his autobiography, perhaps ironically titled This is Me. It wasn’t. Since he was old enough to have the first hints of his sexuality, Thorpe denied being a gay man to himself and to the world.

This weekend, after all those years of denying it, Ian Thorpe came out at the age of 31. In a sit-down interview with Sir Michael Parkinson, Thorpe called it his “big lie.” Now that he’s spoken the truth, the prevailing response seems to be: Finally. Followed by a shake of the head, as we think: Poor guy, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through all these years.

Consider the torturous life that Ian Thorpe chose to lead over this last decade and a half in the public eye. He was a world champion at 15, and he was told he was gay soon after. In public, in the press, by everyone who ‘just knew’… Meanwhile, teenaged Thorpe didn’t know what he liked. All he knew was that he liked to swim, and that he was very very good at it. Coming to terms with sexuality – straight or otherwise – is no easy journey for any teen. For a famous boy wonder sporting hero, in an Aussie culture not known for its tolerance, the question of his sexuality must have filled him with a fear that’s hard to fathom.

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The Primitive Genius

Thinking behind the blocks and paralysis by analysis…

It can be hard to sleep on nights like this. A day away from the World Championships, many of the greatest swimmers on earth are tossing in their Barcelona beds right about now. They’re visualizing races and willing the happy thoughts. They’re hyper aware of every twitch and itch of their toned bodies. They’re nervous. Whether they admit it or not.

Fair enough. Big meets mean big pressure, and for a sport with so few opportunities to perform on the few stages that really matter, these are times that can crack a lot of psyches. Thousands upon thousands of hours, distilled into a few seconds or minutes of competition. What are they thinking as they stand behind those blocks, moments away from their moments of truth? Well, hopefully nothing.

In a growing field perhaps best termed the Science of Excellence, the minds and bodies of elite athletes are becoming better understood by the day. Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein has just published the latest entry — The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. SI published an excerpt in their latest issue. While the piece never addresses swimming, it’s impossible not to apply his findings to our sport. Consider these lines:

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