On Saturday night I had the honor of giving the keynote address at the US Anti Doping Agency’s (USADA’s) biennial DCO Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The USADA DCOs, or Doping Control Officers, are the individuals responsible for collecting blood and urine samples in and out of competition from athletes in the US, both native and foreign athletes.
Here are my remarks, as prepared.
This is such a unique opportunity, and it is such an honor for me to talk to you all tonight. Very few athletes have the chance to get you all in one room, though I am much more used to seeing you in a far more intimate settings.
I want to start with the most important thing that I can do today, and that is to say, “thank you”. Thank you from me personally. Thank you from me and Greta and Tammy and the Athlete Presenter program. Thank you from the U.S. Cross Country ski team. Thank you from Team USA in Pyeongchang. Thank you from all of Ski and Snowboard. Thank you from all 2600 RTP athletes in the U.S. And thank you from the 1 million+ athletes in the U.S. who compete in sports regulated by the WADA code. Our right to compete in clean sport does not exist without each and every one of you and the tireless work that you do. Thank you for leveling the playing field. Thank you for giving us a fair shot at our dreams.
As athletes, we complain endlessly about your 6am knocks on the door, and in the process, we forget that you were up at 2 to drive 4 hours to collect our samples. We get frustrated that you disrupted our day without thinking about the fact that you spent 8 hours in the car to drive across three states to test us. We procrastinate and rush through our Whereabouts without considering the fact that you have to somehow derive meaning from the cacophony of addresses we throw at you. We stress about missing a test, but then move on with our lives, knowing it will be cleared from the record after 12 months. Before this morning, when I learned about the protocol for an “unsuccessful attempt”, I had no idea that one of you sat outside my house for two hours just to turn around and drive home empty handed when I didn’t show up.
I had the honor of being tested by Rob, Mary, Danielle and Travis throughout my career. I was also tested by Steve, who one time showed up at my house in Aspen shortly after my cat had been diagnosed with asthma. The vet had prescribed the cat steroids, half a pill to be exact. One day I came into the kitchen to find my mom cutting the steroid pill in half on the same cutting board that we used for food. When Steve showed up I was so convinced that I was going to test positive for my cat’s steroids that I almost didn’t submit to the test. I was ready to accept my sanction on the spot.
Most often during my career I was tested by Gary. Gary couldn’t be here this weekend because his brother-in-law passed away last week, but I had the honor of speaking to him on the phone yesterday. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to tell you all about how he made me make him breakfast every time he showed up to collect a sample.
I know about some of the horrible things that you all put up with. I was dating Emilia when she placed her pee cup without a lid on the edge of the bathtub and it slowly slid to the edge and then crashed to the floor while she was pulling up her pants. I’m glad you all have finished dinner because I heard all about Kris having diarrhea and not being able to stop it from coming out both ends while he was providing a sample. I know how rude athletes can be to anti-doping officials because I showed my extreme displeasure when a WADA tester woke me up in Davos, Switzerland at 6am, thinking he was knocking on Kikkan’s door.
And so that brings me to the second most important thing that I want to say to you all today, and that is “I’m Sorry”. I’m sorry for my behavior. I’m sorry for the behavior of my teammates, friends and competitors. I’m sorry for our rudeness. I’m sorry for our grossness. I’m sorry four our selfishness. I’m sorry for our cockiness. And I’m sorry for our entire lack of shame. I wish I could say that it won’t happen again, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that athletes will continue to put themselves first. Your patience, persistence and understanding are extraordinary.
This morning Jimmy (Moody) talked about his dream that one day we will never need a USADA because every athlete will have the utmost integrity and personal responsibility. In contrast, Bryan (Fogel) said today that he believes the anti-doping war is one we can never win. Until either one of those things happen, we need each of you.
You all got to hear from Greta and Tammy this morning about our new Athlete Presenter program. I am so excited and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this organization. I am discovering what you all have known for a long time: anti-doping is not only a fulfilling way to stay involved in sport, it is also full of the most incredible people. Every single person that I have met at this organization is passionate about clean sport and pursues their work tirelessly. I’ve never once heard a complaint when I text Danielle social media content first thing on a Sunday morning. When I ask Tammy a trivial question at 10:15 at night, she …tolerates… it. And we are so lucky to have Travis (Tygart) leading this organization. His determination to fight for the rights of clean athletes and to push back against WADA and the IOC in the interest of clean sport is incredible.
I have some personal experience when it comes to feeling the effect of doping on sport. One of the first of my international competitors that I got to know well was an Austrian by the name of Johannes Duerr. Johannes was my age, and we first got to know each other at the World Junior Championships in Mals, Italy in 2008. We were both distance specialists and were about the same level. We quickly became friends as we discovered that we had a lot in common outside of skiing. Our friendship strengthened over the years as we both progressed to the World Cup circuit. We were often close to each other on the results sheet and truly wanted to see each other succeed. We remained at a similar level until the 2013-14 season when Johannes jumped from being a top-30 skier to a consistent podium contender. I too took a large jump and earned my first World Cup stage win during the opening weekend of the season, but I was much less consistent than Johannes. I was impressed, jealous and full of wonder about how he made such a leap. Rumors started flying immediately that Johannes might be doping but I refused to believe them. I still believe in innocent until proven guilty. And he was one of my good friends.
Both Johannes and I came into the Tour de Ski with a lot of confidence. The Tour de Ski is the most important World Cup event of the year, consisting of seven stages in nine days at four venues spread throughout three countries. The first couple stages included two sprints. I am a terrible sprinter. By day five I was a long way back in the standings. The fifth stage was a 35 kilometer point-to-point race up and over a pass from Cortina to Toblach, Italy. The pursuit start format meant that I was starting well behind the main group. That day I had the race of my life. It was one of those days that athletes dream about having and after they experience it once, they spend the rest of their careers trying to recapture the feeling. I literally couldn’t go hard enough to hurt myself. I was essentially skiing as fast as I could for the entire 17 kilometer uphill to the top of the pass. I was rolling by other skiers without giving them a second glance. I knew they couldn’t stay with me. With one kilometer to the top the main group of over 20 skiers came into view. It’s super unusual in cross country skiing for an individual athlete to catch a large group because of the advantages of the group working together. Most of this group had started more than two minutes in front of me. With a huge final surge, I caught the group just as they crested the summit, and I got a much-needed draft on the 17 kilometer blazing fast downhill to the finish. My timing in seeing and catching the group could not have been better, and with my incredible climb, I knew I’d had the race of my life. There was nothing I would have done differently. I thought I must have had the fastest time of the day. I doubted anyone could ski faster than what I’d just done. Not only had I felt better than I ever had before, including when I’d won only two months earlier, I also timed it perfectly by catching the group and getting a “ride” down the final 17 kilometers.
During the Tour de Ski, with back-to-back-to-back races, there is no time to worry about results. I had to immediately cool down, shower, pack and get in the car to the next venue. It wasn’t until several hours later, lying on my bed in a new hotel, that I found out the results from the stage. I was second. Not only did I not win, I was 56 seconds slower than the winner, a margin so big I might as well have been in a different race. The winner, of course, was Johannes. I had mixed feelings. I was still proud of the way I’d skied. I was happy to be second but was disappointed that I didn’t win with an effort that I knew was special. I was happy for Johannes, but I was also bewildered at how he’d done it. How did he ski that much faster than me? He didn’t even have a group to draft off on the downhill!
A month later I was sitting at breakfast with Johannes in the Olympic Village. It was the day before the Olympic 50k, the final race of the Games and the most important race to both of us. We chatted about the course and the shenanigans of our teammates who were done competing. I don’t remember anything remarkable about the conversation. Four hours later I was again lying on my bed when I received a New York Times News Alert on my phone stating that cross-country skier Johannes Duerr from Austria had been sent home from the Olympics and conditionally suspended from sport for testing positive for EPO. I have not seen or spoken to Johannes since that day, not because I hate him or hold a grudge against him, simply because I have not reached out to him and he has not reached out to me. He was one of my good friends. As you all know, doping is complicated.
Johannes later admitted publicly that he had been taking EPO since June. In press conferences he said that he doped because he felt huge pressure to ski faster to financially support his wife and their newborn son. Sometime later that summer the results on the International Ski Federation website changed to say that I had won the fifth stage of the Tour de Ski. Nobody noticed but me.
Sport is really an amazing thing. It brings people together in a way that almost nothing else can. It transcends political and class lines. It is a source of joy and happiness and health in almost every society in the world. It teaches young people goal setting and persistence. It gives athletes a sense of accomplishment like nothing else I have ever felt, and it lets fans believe in miracles. Like referees and judges, coaches and physiologists, none of it happens without you.
As a middle schooler, I believed in Lance Armstrong. I watched all 7 of his Tour wins. In fact, he was my inspiration to be the best in the world. When I decided I wanted to be an endurance athlete, I modeled my training after him. When I went out on 100-mile solo bike rides as a 14-year-old, simply because that’s what I saw Lance doing on T.V. He was my hero.
I have not watched a single bike race since October 10th, 2012, the day USADA released the US Postal Service Investigative findings. I still feel anger, betrayal and shame when I think about pro cycling. The whole thing was a lie.
On a more positive note, I am only 6 months into retirement, and already, as I look back on my career, the biggest highlight, the thing that I am most proud of, is not any of my results, it is watching my teammates Jessie and Kikkan win the first medal in U.S. Women’s Cross Country Skiing history, the first gold medal for U.S. Cross Country Skiing. I will never forget standing at that finish line and watching those women, who are both like sisters to me, cross that finish line. I believe that moment will be one of the highlights of my life. Not only am I full of love and admiration for Kikk and Diggs, I am also certain of the integrity of their win.
I believe that if we as a sports community prioritize anti-doping, push for a stronger and more independent WADA, fund anti-doping in the same way we fund the Olympic Games, and keep our strong belief in, passion for and tireless commitment to clean sport, we can create more Jessie and Kikkan moments and fewer Lance moments.
No matter how thankless your job may seem, not a single Jessie and Kikkan moment happens without the work of each and every one of you. The early mornings, the late nights, the long waits in a stranger’s kitchen, the endless logistics and paperwork, the struggles with Google maps, the interminable car rides… All of it adds up to an entire generation of kids growing up with heroes who are actually worthy of being heroes, heroes like Jessie and Kikkan. You all make those moments possible. You all are the ones behind the scenes ensuring that a win is actually a win, that inspiring moments are actually worthy of being inspiring. You all allow us to believe. Thank you for everything you do.