Reality hit the moment her name was called. As she went to register, before the competition had even begun, she was taken to the back to provide a urine sample for drug testing.
“Random testing,” she was told. In the past, it had only been top athletes; this was the first year in the history of competitive CrossFit® random athletes were tested.
It felt to her like she tried to fill the little container for hours, as if her body was boycotting her, protecting her from herself. Because of course she knew. She knew very well the test would come back positive.
This was CrossFit® Regionals a few years back and it’d been her goal for a long time now; over seven years to be exact. Her life circled around her athletic performance around that time. Like many elite CrossFit® athletes, she spent at least five hours a day in the gym.
The hours she didn’t spend training were spent fuelling for her training sessions or recovering from them. Her life was structured around training, especially that last year.
When she was offered a sponsorship, she moved across the country, that was how committed she was to her goal. She started training with Games athletes, some of the fittest women in the country.
It’s a common belief that, when you’re trying to accomplish anything in life, you should surround yourself with people who are better than you. Essentially, if you want to achieve more, you should surround yourself with higher standards – at least that’s the idea.
“What I missed was how that was going to affect my ego,” she told BOXROX. “How that was going to affect my perception on how I was performing as an athlete.”
The competitiveness got more intense as she started spending every session with not only better athletes but, specifically, women. She wasn’t only training with Games athletes, she was competing against them, day in and day out. And she was coming last, or finishing behind many.
For her, the environment that was meant to set her up for success turned out to be a reminder not of her commitment to become better, but of how bad (she thought) she was.
“My confidence got shot, my ego got shot and I started not believing in myself so much – which is why I ended up doping,” she said. But her reasons are far more intricate than that.
INSECURITIES CREEP UP – THERE’S NO GOING BACK
Before CrossFit® she had never been an athlete. With no previous athletic ability, it took her a long time to learn all the skills required for the sport from scratch. It also meant that, overall, she’d always had confidence issues accepting she was near the top. To her, being an athlete meant being in a constant state of improvement; plateaus were a setback, if she wasn’t getting better then she was going backwards.
“I had to work so hard to get there, I was afraid I was going to lose it,” she explained.
Trusting her new coaches was also hard. Whereas before she could take one man’s word for true and turn to that person to manage her emotions, it seemed to her these people didn’t know her. How could they know if a workout had been a good or a bad effort for her?
There was no trusting the process because the facts were in her face: every day she saw that other people – other women – were better than her.
“With how deep in that I was, it didn’t matter what my coaches told me. It didn’t matter that they told me I was on track with myself, I was just too caught up in that comparison game,” she recounted.
She had already built a plan with her old coach for that year. The last thing she wanted to do after she moved across the country was to step backward to go forward. Yet, as the Open approached that year, it seemed to her like she wasn’t going to qualify for Regionals.
“That played a part too; I didn’t trust they were going to get me there,” she said.
It was at that point where she started toying with the idea of taking steroids. The initial thought had come from a friend who, seeing how hard she was training, absentmindedly mentioned she could reach her goal with a little help.
Whereas before she had imagined doping was something serious, the friend made it sound extremely casual. He normalised the concept to her.
And his comment had been partly right: she was training just as hard as the other athletes, if not harder.
Every session she’d pour her soul into the task, every day she put the work in. Even after she stared doping, she knew the steroid weren’t going to get her to Regionals by themselves, she still had to train just as hard as her competitors.
“I was still killing myself in the gym,” she explained. “And I started justifying to myself that it was my way to level the playing ground.”
A JUSTIFICATION OBSCURES REALITY
Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease aged twelve, part of the reason she had set the goal of reaching Regionals (and ultimately the Games) was to prove herself that she could make it happen. Years before, she’d seen the CrossFit Games® on TV and decided she wanted to compete against those women, in spite of her disease.
She went through a lot from a very young age. She grew up taking intense medications with potential side effects even worse than those of the steroid she chose to take. She had risked cancer in order to make herself healthy before. Steroids paled into insignificance in comparison.
“It was all relatively easy,” she said. On and off, she started doing some research. She found what she believed was the mildest anabolic steroid, one she thought was common with women, and added it to her pills store.
She wasn’t scared and, above all, she was determined on reaching her goal.
She lost sight of everything else and trapped herself, slowly and unconsciously, into a new truth. Seeing how hard she was training anyway, justifications started to flood her mind.
Ignoring reason and her moral compass, her mind started feeding on one thought: her immune system was attacking her body, she wasn’t gaining an advantage by taking steroids, she was only levelling the playing field.
Once that thought became a truth it was all she believed in.
“I was pretty blind to so many things at that time, it was such an intense tunnel vision,” she said. “I was so driven to hit this goal and it had taken me so long that I just grew more and more attached to it.”
“I was so determined to make the Games, I don’t think anything would have stopped me besides this [a drug test] or a really intense injury,” she explained later in our conversation. “Even though I was reaching a point where I should have stepped away and realised that I was getting really far away from who I was, and getting really wrapped in the competition to the point where it was getting unhealthy for me.”
It’s relatively commonplace for driven individuals to steer down the wrong path, a phenomenon performance experts Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness call “obsessive passion” in their book The Passion Paradox.
“Someone becomes overly fixated on achieving a goal, wrapping his identity in it and loosing sight of his inner reasons for setting out to accomplish it in the first place,” they write. “He becomes driven by the external rewards and recognition that he imagines accomplishing his goal will bring, and he goes to any extreme to achieve it.”
Researchers from the University of Waterloo found that athletes who are obsessively passionate are more likely to engage in doping , or the illicit use of performance-enhancing substances like steroids.
“[Athletes and countless other professionals] become so obsessed, so focused on and tied to external results, that nothing else matters,” Magness and Stulberg write.
For her, her biggest weakness during that time was fear of failure. Fear that she’d go backward, fear she would lose what she gained, fear she wouldn’t make Regionals. Her sense of self and ego were intrinsically connected to external products and outcomes of her work.
Because of this, failure became an attack on her actual “self”, on her as a person. When this happens, a person goes “into defensive mode – blaming others, no longer taking chances, or, worse yet, cheating,” Magness and Stulberg explain.
Yet it’s important to remember she didn’t set out to cheat. Initially, she had set out to prove herself.
THE INTRICATE PATH TO LOSING SELF-WORTH
Emotions are all over the place when training and competing at a high level. Her new training environment magnified this; she’d feel on top of the world if she beat someone, equally, she’d be devastated if she didn’t reach her expectations.
“You’re so dedicated and tied into this one goal for so long,” she said, “emotions are pretty crazy.”
“When we become so tied to results it’s hard to separate our literal ‘selves’ from the outcome of our passions,” Stulberg and Magness write in The Passion Paradox. Because she was performing “badly” in training, she stopped believing in herself.
This lack of belief took a toll not only on her self-confidence but also on her performance, which ultimately translated into her results, against which she was valuing herself.
That last season, she wasn’t competing against herself anymore.
“You always hear that training with people that are better than you is going to help you, and I definitely think there’s truth to that, but you have to stay very self-aware if you’re going to put yourself in that position,” she said. Back then, she lacked that self-awareness completely.
She had many justifications she started to believe wholeheartedly when she took to doping. High up on her list was her autoimmune disease, the fact that she thought she needed to level the playing field. She needed to take PEDs because every day she started way behind her competitors, and she was training just as hard. She simply didn’t think of it as gaining an advantage.
Added to this was the sum of specific circumstances that finally led her to take the decision; a change in her training environment, new coaches, training with better women, the comparison game, the loss of her confidence, her emotional state being anything but stable, the constant thought she wasn’t progressing, the incessant fear she might not make it. It all added up until she reached the breaking point.
ON THE FLOOR ONE LAST TIME
The weekend of Regionals she was asked to the back right after registering and requested to fill a container for drug testing. Her mind raced with potential ways to get out of it for a second: she had a prescription, could the test get lost or mixed up, or never actually be tested? By the time she finally gave that container back full, it had all crumbled.
“Being tested really woke me up to the fact about how far I’d gone and how it was not okay,” she acknowledged. “It instantly broke my justifications.”
Providing that sample was the first thing that happened that year at Regionals. In that moment, before she’d even started competing, she knew she was done. “The test was enough to shock me out of it,” she said.
She went into the weekend knowing it’d be the last time she stepped foot on a CrossFit® competition. There was no escaping the facts: “Every event going on the floor it was in my face: ‘I’m only here because I’m using something.’ That’s what was in my mind,” she recounts.
The thought of cycling off and trying to hide it hadn’t occurred to her. Firstly, she knew she wasn’t going to be near the top that year even before she provided her sample, and CrossFit® had only tested top athletes up to that point. Then, she truly believed she wasn’t getting ahead of the playing field, just levelling it up; she didn’t see it as cheating, which meant she didn’t consider stopping.
Interestingly, she believes that, even if she’d had a physical advantage, her mental state had taken such a beating it almost didn’t matter. She’d gone into the competition already not believing in herself, there was no way she could succeed.
Extreme emotions filled her last workout, the desire to break down was overlapped by a whish to take it all in and fully enjoy the experience because it was the last one. Her eyes started watering as the women’s names were called onto the floor.
To this day she still wonders if giving it her all on that last workout was the right decision. At that stage she knew she wasn’t going to knock anyone else from getting a spot at the Games, but a big regret for her to this day is the thought that her scores could have messed with someone else’s scores and skewed their chance of making it.
Weeks passed before she was notified of what she already knew, her drug test had come back positive. The substances found in her system were listed, the sanction announced, and a deadline given if she wished to appeal.
While she did have a prescription for one banned substance she was taking – given to her to counteract her autoimmune disease – it wouldn’t have helped had she chosen to present it on an appeal.
In very specific circumstances, athletes are allowed to take certain banned substances if they can prove they are used for legitimate medical purposes and can demonstrate the need for the regular use of such a drug. In sport, this is known as a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).
Clause 18 of CrossFit’s Drug Testing Program is dedicated to such cases. However, athletes need to submit their TUE form before they compete in any CrossFit® licenced events.
An appeal never came from her, she was done lying. When the competition was over, she knew she would have to face everyone, and she would have to face her decisions. She realised she’d made a big mistake, and she owned up to it.
“I’ve always used CrossFit to help me manage stuff like that,” she said. However, in the weeks after the test, there seemed to be little point in burying herself in a workout.
She knew her whole life would be completely different after Regionals and her new reality was hard to assimilate. She had to redefine her identity, had to learn how not to spend hour after hour at the gym and look for new passions.
Her body and fitness were things she was extraordinarily attached to, and she didn’t want to lose those either. Her strength was something that had defined her for several years, she’d built up a whole identity around CrossFit®.
At first, she was still working out three hours a day because she wanted to maintain what she could. Workout sessions would shift between the comforting feeling of putting herself through a hard workout, or a lack of motivation to push herself to the limit, or deep depression because there was no reason to do it.
STRENGTH TO LET GO OF STRENGTH
Nowadays, even though she admits getting caught shattered her world and the results of the whole ordeal were one of the hardest things she’s gone through in life – which is a big statement considering she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease as a young child – part of her is glad for it.
“If I hadn’t gotten caught, I might have still continued to [dope] and that could, in the long run, have had really bad implications on my health, or I would have pushed myself to the point of injury or really bad hormone imbalances,” she said.
Which isn’t to say it hasn’t taken time to accept, move on and re-assimilate her life, identity and purpose. Only in the last few months did she prove to herself she doesn’t need to spend her life in the gym anymore. The process of getting to know herself outside the gym was long and is still ongoing.
After several years, she’s slowly learnt to let go of her attachment to her body, fitness and competitiveness. For someone so driven, finding herself without a goal could be maddening at times, and how to redefine her purpose wasn’t clear-cut.
It’s only been recently she reconnected with the reason why she started in her CrossFit® journey: to overcome her autoimmune disease.
“I will probably never reach that level of fitness again in my life, but I don’t necessarily need to be that fit to do the things I want to do in my life now,” she now knows.
“I can’t lift what I used to when I was competing but now I’m okay with that, which is a huge step because I had such a fear of going backward.
She likes her life as it is now. She’s found a new path and, unlike the time when she turned to anabolic steroids, her whole worth isn’t based around the weights she’s able to lift.
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