February 25, 2013
Tammy Thomas
Tammy Thomas, left, is seen at the World Cup Track event in Monterrey, Mexico in April 2002. At right, personal trainer Tammy Thomas gives instructions during a Go For The Gold challenge in Ridgeland, Miss. Tammy Thomas mounted the podium after winning the 500-meter Olympic cycling time trial in Frisco, Texas. A muscular athlete with quiet determination, the Yazoo City native had just bested fellow cyclist Chris Witty in the quest to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics. It's a quest she'd ultimately lose, but Thomas didn't know that at the time. She smiled and laced an arm around Witty as they posed for photos. It was April 29, 2000. Thomas wore her signature red nail polish - the only tangible evidence of her womanhood. Thomas, then 30 years old, looked like a man. Her muscular arms and legs bulged beneath the tight fabric of her race uniform, and an Adam's apple appeared on her neck. Hair grew where it shouldn't, and, where it should, it began to recede. Her jaw line broadened. Her voice deepened. Her body thickened. Hers was a body built by steroids. They were meant to make Thomas faster and more competitive, but they ultimately robbed her of her Olympic dreams, banned her forever from the sport she loves and left her with chronic health problems and an uncertain future. Thomas "sometimes seemed trapped in her own body," Witty said, "when deep down she was just a polite Southern girl from Mississippi." Now 43 and living in Ridgeland, Thomas still endures the consequences of a past she insists wasn't entirely her fault. She trusted the wrong people, she says, and it cost her everything. Thomas was young and naïve when she entered the fast-paced world of competitive cycling; a small-town Mississippi girl raised on family values and the Bible and suddenly thrust into a world that operated by a different set of standards. Coaches eclipsed preachers, practice became prayer and Olympic gold took the place of salvation as the ultimate objective. Thomas was as an obedient adherent of this new world as she had been in the old; she did what she was told. Thomas says she fell victim to sustained sexual abuse at the hands of her coaches, one of whom introduced her to performance-enhancing drugs, while USA Cycling and the U.S. Olympic Committee ignored and even encouraged the pattern. "They should have been more concerned about my health back then instead of winning a medal," Thomas says. "And they should take responsibility for what they did. At the very least, they should help me overcome all this so I can have a normal life." USA Cycling and the USOC denied Thomas' allegations, though the USOC said it has and will continue to provide her assistance. Sitting at a café one day in January, the 5-foot-7-inch brunette cradles her coffee. She is slim, attractive and outwardly fit; her masculine features having long since recessed but for the permanently raspy voice. She tells her story. It's one of sadness and betrayal. Repeated steroid abuse ended her cycling career and thrust her into one of the biggest doping scandals in U.S. history - the BALCO affair - which ultimately branded her a felon and crushed her nascent dreams of becoming an attorney. Physically, she's weaker than her elderly parents because of her body's deterioration from long-term doping, even though she hasn't used performance-enhancing drugs in more than a decade. She faces even graver steroid-induced health effects as she ages. The combination of both steroids and sexual trauma plagues her with chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. To cope, Thomas swallows an assortment of prescribed medications. But lack of health insurance requires she often skimp on her pharmaceutical regimen. It's too expensive to support, she says; one prescription alone costs $230 per month. She can't afford the kind of intensive therapy she say she needs, so she battles her demons alone. Without consistent medication or professional help, Thomas can't excel at work. She runs a solo venture called MS Pro Fitness that offers personal training and boot camps, but it barely pays the bills. If she were healthy, she could grow her business and be successful. But she's not, and she can't.

A natural athlete

Born in January 1970 and raised in a Southern Baptist home, Thomas was the second child of Billy and Gwen Thomas of Yazoo City. Unlike her older sister, Chandra, Thomas was a tomboy. Her athletic talent emerged early, and she easily excelled in every sport she tried - softball, basketball, track and field. She also could outrun almost any boy in Yazoo City. When she wasn't attending the private Manchester Academy, Thomas was in the pew at First Baptist Church or playing outdoors. Former classmate and neighbor Steven Brister remembers riding go-carts one day with Thomas and two boys from the seventh grade. The group approached a mud hole and everyone came to a stop. It was too deep, they figured. They'd have to find another route. Without a word, Thomas gunned her engine and plowed through the pit while the three boys hung back in awe. Brister laughed at the memory and said, "She would do anything to prove she was tough and one of the guys." Tough, he said, but also quiet. Thomas earned a reputation for being shy but friendly. She never caused trouble, never brought attention to herself, always did what she was told. The only time she stood out, former friends recall, was while competing athletically. Thomas amazed everyone with her talent. "Some people are just more driven than the rest of us, and she really found her area," said Lynn Henderson Oldshue, who grew up with Thomas. "She found joy in that." She still does. On a mild January evening, Thomas stands in Ridgeland's Freedom Ridge Park conducting one of her boot camps. She exudes a calm, cheery confidence as she guides three female participants through a series of grueling exercises. Thomas shouts encouragement as the women jog around the softball field and then return to their mats. "Come on, don't give up," she barks at one of them trying to complete a round of 50 sit-ups. It's a serious command but offers a hint of compassion. It also works: The woman forces herself through the last dozen or so repetitions and collapses on her mat. Thomas smiles. She clearly wants her clients to succeed and has staked her reputation on it. "Train with a champion," proclaims her MS Fitness Pro website, which boasts "the most advanced, innovative and outside-the-box workouts in the Jackson metro area." Even though steroids impaired her ability to work out, helping others excel athletically brings her joy. In these moments, she says, everything is OK. She can be herself. "It's pretty much the highlight of my day when I train people," Thomas says. "Just knowing I've helped clients reach their goals makes me feel good." The rest of the time, Thomas wallows in an uncertain place between the anguish of her past and the promises of a future she can imagine but not yet touch. Until she resolves the one, she cannot obtain the other. But she has been paralyzed in her tracks. An intensely private woman, Thomas has spent the past decade hiding her deepest wounds. She masks them with an outwardly strong persona that, like the go-cart stunt, leaves everyone in awe. She's a champion cyclist, a law school graduate, a business owner and a woman of God. "She's great," said Stephanie Powell, president of the Jackson Metro Cyclists, with which Thomas was affiliated for a short time. "She's got a gift for what she does." But Thomas is tired of pretending. For the first time ever, she's ready to talk about what really happened during her years as an elite cyclist. Maybe then, she says, she can move on.

The critical juncture

Thomas' life went astray shortly after graduating with a degree in fitness management from Mississippi State University. It was 1992. As a present to herself, she bought a pricey mountain bike and moved to Florida. That's where she met her first cycling coach, Carlos Laborde. Around 1995, Laborde convinced Thomas, then in her mid-20s, to exchange her mountain bike for a racing model and enter the field of competitive speed cycling. Under his guidance, she began an intense regimen of working out and dieting that included a cocktail of nutritional supplements. The coach also introduced Thomas to performance-enhancing drugs, she says, but Laborde denies this. He never was charged with facilitating her doping. Even Thomas had exonerated Laborde in a Sept. 10, 2000, letter to the The Clarion-Ledger newspaper. But that was when Thomas says she was still under his influence and afraid to speak out. Laborde said he has fond memories of his days with Thomas and calls her a stellar athlete. "I never met somebody who loved cycling so much," Laborde said. "She never wasted a day. She used to come to the velodrome (cycle racing track), even when it was raining, then waited until it dried." As a coach and a friend, Laborde said he did everything to help Thomas, even letting her live in his home and cooking her meals. She became a member of his family, he said. But Thomas remembers a darker side to those happy days. At some point, Thomas said, Laborde began sexually abusing her. It started with a sports massage meant to sooth her overworked muscles and eventually devolved into what she says was sustained, unwanted contact. Laborde confirmed the affair but said it was entirely consensual. Afterward, he said, the two remained friends and continued their training. The intimacy was consensual, Thomas said, only in the sense Laborde held the power to advance her dream and she trusted him implicitly. Laborde told her what to eat; she ate it. He told her to dope; she did it. He told her to undress; she shed it. Although she never filed charges against Laborde, Thomas says the intimacy consumed every aspect of her being until she felt less human than a marionette. Unwanted intimate contact is all too common in elite sports, said Sandra Kirby, a former Olympic rower and dean of graduate studies at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. "Those athletes don't have a choice," Kirby said. "If someone puts sexual abuse in front of them, those athletes have to deal with it to stay on that road. It just takes one little thing, and you're gone. That's it for that Olympic dream." In some cases, the victims cringe while silently enduring the sexual encounters. In other cases, the athletes idolize their coaches and willingly submit. Both scenarios, experts say, are inappropriate. Thomas says she encountered further unwanted sexual contact from her second coach, Desmond Dickie, whom she met around late 1998 or early 1999. Though Thomas never filed any complaints against him, Dickie had faced criminal allegations of sexual abuse in Canada, where he ran the national cycling team track programs. Two of his female athletes claimed he'd touched them inappropriately during one-on-one training sessions in 1993. Other women he trained also came forward during the investigation, all alleging similar experiences. He was acquitted in 1996, but the judge said he doubted Dickie's innocence and that, had he been convicted, "a long term in prison would be well deserved," according to media reports at the time. Soon afterward, USA Cycling hired Dickie to assist training the national team, of which Thomas was a part. The female cyclist had no idea of his past. But USA Cycling did, says Laura Robinson, a freelance journalist and former member of Canada's national cycling team. Robinson said she went to USA Cycling's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., and demanded to know why it hired Dickie despite his background of sexual exploitation. She said she was told to leave immediately. "They knew," she said, "they just didn't want to talk about it." It's true USA Cycling knew about Dickie, said the organization's attorney, Stephen Hess. "Everybody in the cycling world knew about Des Dickie. It was big news when it happened in Canada," Hess said. But "he was acquitted." Dickie now coaches in Trinidad and didn't respond to emails seeking comment. He could not be reached by phone. For his part, Laborde said he never exploited Thomas. He cared about her and worried about her reliance on performance-enhancing drugs, which he says he asked her to stop taking. "She looked like a man," he said. "She had hair on her chest." Chris Witty had heard about Thomas' physique but, until that April day in 2000, had never gotten close enough to see for herself. There, on the podium, she noticed the 5-o'clock shadow hugging Thomas' face. It confirmed rumors whispered among elite cyclists worldwide - Thomas doped to improve performance, and repeated use of the steroid drugs had transformed the once feminine athlete into an abnormality - freakishly strong and fast. For this, Thomas had become the butt of jokes among her peers. They whispered behind her back and stared at her at competitions. "You could see from the expression on her face and the way she turned her head away that she knew what they were saying," Witty said. "She knew she looked different." Seven weeks later, the two faced off again, this time in Mexico City. And, again, Thomas won. The back-to-back victories should have assured her a spot on the Olympic cycling team, but a different fate awaited. "After I crossed the finish line," Witty said, "the coach immediately told me it didn't matter because Tammy had already tested positive." Thomas wasn't alone in doping. Many cyclists pushed the limits, doping just enough to improve performance without getting caught. "If a speed limit is 65," Laborde said, "you know if you go 64 you won't get a ticket." But the traffic cops of competitive sports were more lax in the late 1990s and early 2000. This was before the creation of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an autonomous body that tests athletes, imposes punishments and has cracked down on some of the most flagrant abuses. Back then, the U.S. Olympic Committee was responsible for testing and reporting results to the governing sports authorities. Those authorities then determined the outcome, said former USOC Executive Director Baaron Pittenger. Then, as now, athletes can challenge positive test results. But the lack of an independent anti-doping agency created conflicts of interest, and many athletes got off with little more than warnings. "It was the fox guarding the chicken coup," Witty said. Wade Exum, the Olympic Committee's former director of drug control administration, alleged numerous such instances. When he resigned in 2000 after one decade on the job, Exum accused his former employer of "encouraging and covering up or ignoring doping by Olympic athletes," according to an unsuccessful lawsuit he'd filed. He then released documents showing "U.S. athletes tested positive for drugs more than 100 times between 1988 and 2000, but only a handful were barred from competing and 19 went on to win medals," according to a 2003 Sports Illustrated article. Among those outted were: track-and-field champions Carl Lewis and Andre Phillips; sprinter Joe DeLoach; tennis pro Mary Joe Fernandez; soccer star Alexi Lalas; and wrestler Dave Shultz. Also implicated was Tammy Thomas. Exum "told me Tammy Thomas failed six tests with testosterone and should have been in the hospital, but USA Cycling didn't agree. They knew she was doping and kept letting her compete," said ex-professional cyclist Matt DeCanio, one of the nations's most outspoken doping critics. Exum didn't return messages seeking comment. Thomas recently acknowledged the failed tests and wonders why USA Cycling and the USOC allowed her to continue doping if it knew Exum had feared for her health. She also wonders if USA Cycling and the USOC would have stopped her had she not challenged Witty's appointment to the team. The USOC would not comment on the matter, but Pittenger and USA Cycling said the organizations never turned a blind eye to doping. If they did, it stopped in August 2000. That's when the two organizations held a suspension hearing for Thomas based on four positive urine samples collected between July 1999 and April 2000, according to an American Arbitration Association document. The association holds court for the nation's sporting disputes. Thomas had been quietly fighting the test results that summer while publicly battling Witty's subsequent appointment to the Olympic team. She'd convinced an arbitrator to nullify the appointment and set a ride-off between the two women with the winner going to the games. On Aug. 20, Thomas raced solo in the ride-off after Witty had failed to appear. Thomas won by default. But a urine sample collected immediately after that race again revealed elevated testosterone levels. Thomas had continued to dope despite the ongoing suspension proceedings and, in doing so, sealed her fate. Five days later, Thomas agreed to drop her Olympic bid, and USA Cycling and the USOC agreed to give her only one violation despite the multiple positives. They also agreed to a one-year ban, the document shows. Thomas could have gone clean or left the sport altogether, but she wouldn't give up. Instead, she marched into the biggest doping scandal in U.S. history. Convinced she'd done nothing wrong and determined to regain ground, Thomas contacted underground doping guru Patrick Arnold. The Illinois chemist and fitness buff had created and manufactured steroids undetectable by standard tests. The most popular were norbolethone and tetrahydrogestrinone, commonly called THG or "The Clear." Most athletes seeking these drugs went through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative - BALCO - which had a deal with Arnold. But the company worked only with famous people, and Thomas wasn't big enough to get on its client list. So she purchased from the chemist directly, one of just a handful of people to do so. Arnold sent her norbolethone first, then The Clear. "I told her, 'They'll give you the results that you're looking for,' and I explained to her pretty clearly what they were," Arnold said, meaning norbolethone was still a banned substance despite being undetectable. Although they'd never met in person, Arnold and Thomas worked together from 2000 to 2002 via phone calls and emails. Every few months, he'd send her a fresh supply. But her repeated requests for refills and rumors of her physical appearance worried Arnold. He felt she was abusing the drug. Also troublesome was news that doping authorities were catching on. Arnold told Thomas to stop taking norbolethone and start using The Clear. She ignored him, a decision that ultimately cost them both. Meanwhile, USA Cycling lifted its ban, and Thomas made a comeback. She won a silver medal at the 2001 Track Cycling World Championships in Belgium that September and courted sponsors to carry her into 2002. Thomas insisted she was clean throughout it all. She professed her innocence in the 2000 letter published in The Clarion-Ledger and again during a Nov. 22, 2001, interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. But four months after that last interview, Thomas tested positive for norbolethone during a surprise visit from the newly created U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The agent, Tom McVay, later told authorities Thomas appeared to be shaving her beard when he'd knocked on her door that day in March 2002. A University of California-Los Angeles doctor, Don Catlin, analyzed the sample and identified the then-unknown substance as an anabolic steroid. His discovery led to Thomas's lifetime ban from cycling, and it triggered a federal investigation into the source of the norbolethone - a scandal now known as the BALCO Affair. Thomas had challenged the positive results through the American Arbitration Association, claiming in part that birth control pills caused the presence of norbolethone in her urine. But it was to no avail. At the same time, The IRS Criminal Investigation Division launched its investigation into BALCO and hauled Thomas in for questioning. Investigators needed her to establish a direct link between BALCO and Arnold and promised her leniency if she'd testify before a grand jury. Thomas knows she should have told the truth but said she was scared. She didn't want to expose herself to any further damage and didn't want to implicate anybody else. So she told the Northern District of California grand jury in November 2003 that she received only legal supplements from Arnold and denied ever taking anabolic steroids. "I probably needed a time-out when some of those questions were being asked," Thomas said. "I had a court-appointed attorney and didn't have time to prepare. I don't really know what was going through my mind at the time." Her evasiveness cost her. In December 2006, a different grand jury indicted Thomas on six felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice related to her earlier testimony. She pleaded not guilty in January 2007 and went to trial in the spring of 2008. After two weeks, the jury found her guilty on four counts. Her dreams of competitive cycling vanished, as did her newfound aspiration to become an attorney; Thomas had been studying law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, but most states won't admit felons to the bar. "I already had one career taken away from me," Thomas reportedly yelled at the jurors after their verdict. "Look me in the eye. You can't do it." She later was sentenced to five years' probation with six months' monitored home detention, plus 500 hours of community service. Arnold said he feels bad about what happened to Thomas, that authorities treated her harshly and made an example of her. But he also blamed her in part for the ordeal. "If she had done what I told her," he said, "she wouldn't have gotten caught and all of this could have been avoided." Branded a felon and stripped of her cycling career, Thomas returned to Norman, Okla., to finish law school. She graduated with a juris doctorate in 2010 and immediately moved to Ridgeland, where she opened MS Fitness Pro and completed the remainder of her probation. It ended on Dec. 14, 2012, nearly a year earlier than the original sentence, after a federal judge granted Thomas' request for a premature probation release. Thomas had made the request in November because she thought it might help her obtain a law license. But she's far from reaching that goal. Thomas says she needs at least a year to study and prepare. But that's one year away from a job that already leaves her broke. She wants USA Cycling and the U.S. Olympic Committee to take responsibility and provide her help but says they've done little so far. After her most recent bid for aid, Thomas says, the USOC agreed to pay for three half-hour sessions of telephone therapy. "What's that going to do?" she askes. USA Cycling said it refers accused dopers seeking rehabilitation to the USOC. USOC spokesman Mark Jones said the organization is working with Thomas to provide available resources, just as it has done in the past. He would not elaborate, citing a policy against discussing personal cases. Always the fighter, Thomas says she's not giving up, but she wonders how long she can endure. That's one reason she decided to go public with her story; she hopes it provides her strength while also helping others. But she also fears the opposite: What if she can't handle the public exposure? What if it makes everything worse? "This is the stuff that I have to wake up and look at and deal with on a daily basis," Thomas says. "And I don't know how to do it. There's no instruction manual for what I'm going through." http://www.thetowntalk.com/article/20130224/SPORTS/130224004/Mississippian-s-mettle-tested-by-steroids-abuse-manipulation-own-choices