Bethesda swimmer Rachael Burke was a local girl who shined. She never made an Olympic team, but she qualified for two Olympic trials and piled up academic and athletic awards at Good Counsel High and the Curl-Burke Swim Club. She left for the University of Virginia with a stellar reputation.
In the coming days, however, Burke will find her legacy tarnished: The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, will bar her from Olympic-related competitions for two years because of a positive test for a steroid. To hordes of collegiate rivals and others who learn of the ban, they will conclude one thing about Burke: She is a cheater.
Only Burke, 21, says she didn't cheat. She said she is neither guilty of taking steroids, nor of ingesting any products -- such as nutritional supplements or vitamins -- that historically have been known to be contaminated with steroids. She said she has spent months trying to determine what caused the positive test for a small amount of a little-known steroid called Boldione.
Her best guess: a fruit smoothie from a shop that uses protein boosts that she drank the night before a urine test on May 1.
Her claim of innocence is predictable. Drug testing catches dozens of athletes who, like Burke, say they did nothing wrong; most blame contaminated supplements or vitamin products, which are becoming a growing problem in sports. Three years ago, the International Olympic Committee commissioned a study that concluded that nearly 20 percent of supplements made in the United States showed some contamination.
Burke said she took every precaution to protect herself from the ignominy of a positive drug test, avoiding supplements so stringently that she refused to take even common vitamins. She said her family, coach and close friends believe her. But several officials connected to the drug industry or Olympic movement privately expressed skepticism at Burke's claims.
To the USADA, which oversees all Olympic drug testing in the United States adhering to the rules of the World Anti-Doping Code, the details of Burke's story are irrelevant. The USADA makes no attempt to determine whether athletes like Burke knowingly or innocently took steroids. It is enough to have found a positive test, anti-doping officials say.
World Anti-Doping Agency Chairman Dick Pound said there could be no leniency in such cases without destroying the system's credibility. Just because Burke didn't mean to cheat doesn't mean she didn't benefit from the drug, Pound said. And just because the drug was found in a tiny amount doesn't mean it wasn't there in a larger amount a few days before, a USADA official told her father, Tim Burke. In other words, she could have been at the end of a steroid cycle.
The system, Pound said, protects clean athletes from any who obtain an unfair advantage, regardless of intent.
Burke argues that she is one of the clean athletes being hurt -- and the damage, she says, is almost immeasurable. A system designed to protect her, she said, has done the opposite, destroying her reputation and giving her no real chance for justice.
"I went through a stage when I was really upset," Burke said. "Then I got really angry. . . . The hardest part is that hundreds of people think I'm a cheater. The hardest part is the word associated with a positive drug test: You're cheating. In no way have I ever cheated."
A Losing Fight
When informed of the positive test in early June, Burke said, she vowed to fight the result in arbitration. But the more she learned about the process, she said, the more resigned she became. The USADA has never lost a case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, which hears appeals of USADA decisions, applies the same rules as the USADA. And the cost of paying the legal, technical and medical experts necessary to prove her claims seemed both daunting and, ultimately, useless, she said.
"It was adding up to quite a pretty penny, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 for me to be able to tell them I didn't do this, and then they would look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry, you know the rules,' " Burke said.
Indeed, that is likely what Burke would have heard, according to Pound.
"I would just say, 'I'm sorry, but the doping offense is the presence of the stuff in your body. It doesn't matter how it got there,' " Pound said.
"We all get a little bit seduced thinking it's like criminal law and you have to . . . prove [the violation] beyond all reasonable doubt, but it's more of a regulatory thing, like speeding," Pound added. "The infraction is having accelerated past the speed limit, not having deliberately exceeded the speed limit."
Tim Burke, Rachael's father, said the stigma associated with a drug ban cannot be compared to a traffic violation and should not be adjudicated like one. Rachael Burke, who has competed on U.S. national teams since she was 15 and won a silver medal at last year's Pan American Games, will be banned from such events, though she will retain her NCAA eligibility.
"What I felt," Tim Burke said, "was that this was a violation of civil liberties from the very beginning."
He added, "They should address the cheating problem, but they should never hurt those that don't cheat."
On May 1, USADA drug-testing officials showed up to a swim practice at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, requesting a number of swimmers -- including Burke -- for unannounced tests. Burke was taking a final exam. Swim coach Mark Bernardino said he left a message on Burke's cell phone, requesting that she report to the pool as soon as possible for a drug test. Burke, who said she has been tested about 30 times in her career, checked her messages after the exam and went directly to the pool, where she produced a urine sample for the collectors.
Her mere appearance for the drug test, she and her coach say, provides some testament to her innocence. U.S. Olympic Committee rules permit athletes to miss two surprise tests before they are subject to any punishment.
"If she had been guilty, or even thought she was guilty, she didn't have to show up here," Bernardino said.
Several weeks later, an overnight package from the USADA told the Burkes that their daughter had tested positive for Boldione, which is known as a steroid precursor because it metabolizes into an illegal steroid -- boldenone -- in the body. A natural steroid, it is readily available in a product called "Boldione" by Molecular Nutrition that can be purchased online for just less than $40 for a 60-capsule bottle.
When she heard the news, Rachael Burke said, "Are you sure they sent it to the right person?"
Mystery of Contamination
USADA has all but gone on a crusade in recent years to inform athletes of the dangers of supplements, and Burke said she recalled receiving such warnings from USA Swimming as early as six years ago when she made her first national team. Burke also said she was aware of the case concerning swimmer Kicker Vencill, who last year received a two-year ban from the USADA even after a lab analysis showed he unwittingly consumed multi-vitamins contaminated with a steroid.
Virginia strongly urges its athletes to submit supplements to the university sports medical center for approval before taking them. Ethan Saliba, Virginia's head athletic trainer, said Burke had never contacted his office about any products.
So where did the Boldione come from? Burke said she recalled purchasing a fruit smoothie the night before her exam, though she says she did not request any of the Met-Rx "boosts" -- such as for energy and protein -- offered at the on-campus shop. Still, Bernardino asked: "How well was the smoothie blender cleaned? What was mixed into the smoothie?"
Met-Rx does not market steroid precursors such as Boldione, so it is unclear how contamination could have occurred. A Met-Rx spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
The distribution of Boldione is likely to be severely curtailed in the coming months by the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, even though it isn't specifically mentioned in the legislation designed to end the sale of steroid precursors. Molecular Nutrition founder William Llewellyn, the first to market Boldione, said the substance could have gotten in Burke's system any number of ways -- none of them exceedingly likely.
"Cross contamination is always possible," he said. "They use boldenone to increase the size of cattle in Europe. Who knows? Maybe it got into the hamburger where tons and tons of boldenone was used up until the time the cattle was slaughtered."
An international official who has had ties to drug testing said contamination was a serious issue even in classical medication, and little was known about Boldione and some other newfangled steroids that have been recently marketed and have natural sources.
"I've seen things appear in places we wouldn't expect," the official said. "When you find a large amount of a hard-core drug like stanozolol, there's not much debate . . . but it's still wide-open where [other] things could come from."
Howard Jacobs, an attorney who represented Vencill and has advised the Burkes, said he had studied Burke's sample and concluded that contamination was a likely culprit, given what appeared to be trace amounts of Boldione in her urine.
The USADA has won international acclaim for restoring integrity to drug-testing in the United States in its four years of existence. The agency has made its biggest splash with its recent prosecutions of athletes tied to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), but many of its cases have been anything but blockbuster. More than a dozen athletes have tested positive for substances found in legal over-the-counter products.
In a controversial recent case, the USADA won a two-year ban on world champion sprinter Torri Edwards. Edwards argued that she unknowingly consumed a stimulant in what she thought were glucose tablets given to her by her physiotherapist, who had inadvertently purchased a stimulant-laced product.
Edwards nonetheless received the maximum ban for the offense, an outcome even hard-core anti-doping officials privately said seemed unjust.
"It's almost like USADA is the Gestapo, some Nazi organization that's just out to ban as many athletes as they possibly can," District native Allen Johnson, a hurdler who employs the same management company as Edwards, said in July. "The doping system that the athletes are under right now, it needs to be fixed."
Exercise in Frustration
The new World Anti-Doping Code allows for reductions in penalties if an athlete inadvertently takes a drug and can show its source, but, anti-doping officials say, examining the level of culpability of athletes who test positive can get very tricky. When does a good excuse nullify a positive test? And won't one athlete let off the hook invite an unwelcome invasion of legal challenges?
"It becomes impossible to have any kind of anti-doping system if the sport body has to show intent . . . the whole thing collapses," Pound said.
Jacobs proposed that the World Anti-Doping Agency set allowable levels for certain steroids that are low enough to ensure that most cheaters are banned but high enough to rule out false positives from contamination. Anti-doping officials counter that low levels could indicate that an athlete is at the end of a steroid cycle.
Anne Burke, a nurse at Montgomery General Hospital, said she never doubted her daughter's word with regard to the positive test, given a long history of open communication between the two about even the most personal of matters. She said she called nutrition bar companies, even women's skin care companies, seeking detailed information about their products and trying to find a connection to her daughter. After reading online that Boldione can be found in placenta tissue, she even asked Rachael Burke if she had been pregnant at the time of the test (the answer was no).
It all has been, the Burkes say, an exercise in frustration.
"What can you eat that might not be contaminated?" Anne Burke said. "What's in Grammy's urine down the street, taking Centrum Silver? . . . Our family has been so vigilant with it."
Rachael's sister Amanda, 20, is a swimmer at the University of Maryland. Soon after word of her sister's positive test got out, a fellow swimmer circulated an electronic message that made mocking reference to Rachael Burke's achievements in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Some people win the ACC's by working hard," the message said. "Others win by taking steroids."
"You're guilty," Rachael Burke said, "until proven innocent."