The eruption of tears after Jessica Hardy absorbed what she saw on the scoreboard at the U.S. Open swim meet last month seemed disproportionate, on the surface, to the achievement. Sure, she had gone under the world record in the 100-meter breaststroke, but that was not new; she had set world marks previously. And the meet itself? It wasn’t significant enough to merit daily press coverage from the local newspapers.
Yet soon after she touched the wall Aug. 7 in Federal Way, Wash., Hardy began sobbing. She sobbed coming out of the pool and on the deck.
Never before, she said later, had she experienced such an emotional reaction to a victory. But this was her first legitimate meet since she had been barred from competing in the 2008 Summer Games for a positive drug test that was later deemed by a U.S. arbitration panel to be the result of a contaminated supplement. The panel ruled in May that her two-year ban should be reduced to “the maximum extent” possible, and reinstated her in July.
She seemed to sense that, through her performance at the U.S. Open (she also set a world record in the 50 breast), she had stated to the world, more eloquently and effectively than she had in the previous 13 months, that she was not a cheater.
“It was just like, ‘Thank God,’” Hardy said. “It was so frustrating, and so hard to win …. Having so many people thinking I cheated, and just having everything against me, to come out and do so well when I didn’t expect it. It was perfect.”
A perfect moment, perhaps, but not a perfect conclusion — or, in fact, any sort of conclusion at all — to what her stepfather Bill Robinson described as a “devastating” year. After being shunned, judged and condemned, and losing her sponsors, her place on the Olympic team and all of the money she had saved during her career in her legal fight to prove she hadn’t knowingly taken prohibited drugs, Hardy is back in the pool. But her battle is not over, and she’s not sure her reputation will ever be restored.
“In a sense,” Robinson said, “she lost …. The system is stacked against the athlete. I understand why it is. But it is.”
USA Swimming will announce Monday that Hardy, 22, has finally and fully re-entered the national-team fold: With her unexpectedly spectacular performance last month, Hardy clinched a spot on the U.S. team that will travel in December to Manchester, England, for a four-nation meet expected to include Michael Phelps and other top stars.
Yet the World Anti-Doping Agency and world governing body for swimming (FINA) have appealed the reduction in Hardy’s ban, and also want her barred from the 2012 Summer Games in London (because her suspension exceeded six months). To make up for years of perceived softness on the doping issue, international governing bodies now tend to take the most aggressive posture regarding flunked drug tests, almost regardless of the circumstances of the case.
Hardy, for the moment, is trying to ignore the lingering uncertainty, and focus on the climb she has made since July 21, 2008, when she found out about the positive test during the U.S. swim team’s pre-Olympic training camp in Palo Alto, Calif.
The day Hardy learned she had tested positive for clenbuterol — a stimulant prescribed for breathing disorders that is also known to be abused by bodybuilders who want to get “cut”— she was scared and upset, but fairly certain the whole thing would be cleared up quickly. Surely, she thought, there was some explanation, some mistake.
Hardy learned fast. Any positive drug test surrounding a U.S. athlete in the aftermath of the 2003 Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) drug scandal, which ensnared dozens of Olympians and professional football and baseball players, is considered scandalous first and worth studying closely only later.
With her case generating enormous media coverage, Hardy was advised to leave the U.S. team and she did, voluntarily giving up her Olympic roster spot and heading home to Los Angeles to begin the nine-month, first leg of her defense.
“I was pretty much thrown into a corner with a bag over my head,” Hardy said. “I didn’t know what caused the positive test, so [my teammates] didn’t know whether to believe me.”
But, she added, “Swimming is my love, the one thing in life I love passionately. I wake up every morning and I love to do it …. They can clip my wings, but I’m still going to try to fly. I never wanted to give it up.”
Robinson, an aviation and intellectual properties attorney in Los Angeles, could provide few answers for Hardy, but one thing he knew for sure: Their family would fight, and he would do everything he could to help Hardy’s attorney Howard Jacobs, an expert in anti-doping defense. Jacobs immediately asked about supplements, and Hardy produced samples of AdvoCare Arginine Extreme, a powdered supplement she had began taking after meeting with the company owner and receiving assurances — including an indemnity provision in her endorsement contract with the company — that the product was tested to ensure it met WADA standards.
“I never believed she would have done something knowingly,” said her coach, Dave Salo, the University of Southern California head swimming coach. “Jessica, I can’t see her in some back alley saying ‘Hey, I need stuff to make the Olympic team.’ She was going to make the Olympic team.”
Indeed, she qualified in four events.
Hardy, her attorney Jacobs, the arbitration panel and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency all agreed on one point: Hardy should not have taken the AdvoCare. Athletes are repeatedly warned about the potential dangers of dietary supplements. The supplement industry, largely unregulated in the United States, is rife with products that contain substances not indicated on their labels.
But many athletes, fearing they won’t get enough of the nutrition they need through food alone, seek out seemingly reputable products from apparently reputable companies, and take them anyway. Plenty of U.S. Olympians use supplements and make no secret about it; Olympians Phelps, Aaron Peirsol, Katie Hoff, Brendan Hansen and Nastia Liukin all publicly endorse the dietary supplement “PureSport Workout and Recovery.” Five-time Olympian Dara Torres partially owns a supplement company in Germany and swears by the product “AM Sport.”
Phelps “endorses supplements still, today,” Hardy said. “If that had happened to him …. It very much could have happened to him.”
Throughout her fight, Hardy trained. Salo said she took no more than a few weeks off, and he, occasionally, had to hold her back to ensure she didn’t burn herself out on frustration. When the arbitration decision finally came, it represented a small, but meaningful victory, because it allowed Hardy to get back to competition while backing her claims that she did not cheat intentionally.
Even so, Hardy said, she has no idea how she will be received by her old teammates in December.
“It might create some awkward moments,” USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert said. “But I think most athletes understand what happened here. We’re talking about tainted supplements, something everyone needs to be on guard for. In her case, I don’t think she cheated intentionally, and I’m glad to see her back.”
But is she, truly, back? Will she be able to compete in the Manchester event, or the Olympic Games in 2012? When the Court of Arbitration for Sport announces its decision on the appeal in her case in the coming weeks or months, she could be sent home, again.
Will her consumption of a tainted supplement cost her another year, and another Olympic Games?
Despite the unanswered questions, Hardy said she is, in many ways, “over it.”
“It’s not an open wound anymore,” she said. “It’s a scar …. Growing up, since I knew there was a sport called swimming, I wanted to be in the Olympics …. Now, things are different.
“I’ve just kind of gotten numb to that dream.”
Tags: Michael Phelps