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Getting a boost - Day 2
Positive EPO results put marathoner's life on hold
Seattle Times staff reporter
LAKE TAPPS — Weird.
That's the natural reaction, right? Deeja Youngquist comes home from work on April 13, 2004, and finds a FedEx package from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), stamped with overnight delivery, on her doorstep.
She knows officials from USADA stopped by about a month ago. But she's been tested eight times previously and never before have the results come back marked with the two most urgent words in the postal language.
She pries open the package. Out pops a positive test for erythropoietin. Her mind races through emotions — anger, shock, confusion. What's erythropoietin? So she looks it up. It's a naturally-occurring hormone more commonly referred to as EPO. More emotions, but most of all resolve.
This must be a mistake.
"I didn't do it," says Youngquist, both then and now and hundreds of times in between.
And that's the typical reaction, right? Performance-enhancing drugs have been around as long as sports, and the cycle never changes — tests are developed, athletes are caught, and they deny, deny, deny.
Still, Youngquist is so confident she tells no one. Not even her family. Then the B sample also comes back positive, resulting in a ban. There are no marathons left to run for the Enumclaw High School and University of Washington graduate. No sponsors, either, after they wave goodbye.
Only the fight that still continues. For her family. For all athletes who've tested positive for EPO under a test that's clouded by suspicion. For her identity and reputation and something even more important.
"Imagine someone ripping out your soul and then charging you legal fees to get it back," Youngquist says. "I want my soul back."
Youngquist, 28, can see how people might connect the dots. She ran too fast, too soon to not elicit whispers of suspicion and the corresponding drug tests.
She didn't start running competitively until her senior year of high school. Didn't run professionally until about three years ago, when she quit her job with the Federal Aviation Administration and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to train full time.
The higher altitude did something for her training. The time commitment did something for her confidence.
"That," Youngquist says, "is when I started to get good."
Youngquist ran 2 hours, 29 minutes, 1 second in the Chicago Marathon in October of 2003. It was the third-fastest debut marathon for a woman in U.S. history, a day she still calls "the best race of my life."
That's when Youngquist says doping officials started increasing the frequency of their visits. In April 2004, she entered the U.S. Olympic trials seeded third in a race where the top three advance to the Olympics.
Hampered by an injured leg, she finished eighth, good for $12,000 in badly needed money.
The check never arrived in a FedEx envelope. Only the EPO charge found her doorstep.
Because of what USADA terms a problem with her paperwork, Youngquist says she can not compete again until Dec. 4, 2006, effectively two years and nine months. Olympic bans for a first-time failed test are supposed to be two years, an example, Youngquist says, of USADA "making up the rules as they go along."
About the series
Sunday: Athletes will always try to push past their limits, and the next frontier is gene doping where they alter their DNA. Some experts say you will see it by the 2008 Olympics. Story
Monday: Deeja Youngquist, a former University of Washington runner, has been banned for two years after a positive drug test. She says it's a mistake, but there is no mistaking that the world of doping has moved past one of weightlifters and pro men's sports. In the last few years, the number of women using performance enhancers has doubled. Story
Today: Professional sports are having a hard time wrapping their arms around the issue of over-the-counter supplements, even everyday purchases like protein drinks and multi-vitamins. The athletes are responsible for everything they put into their bodies but the problem with supplements is that nobody really knows what's in them.
"I have not been real nice to my daughter on this thing," says her father, Mike Youngquist, sitting in the living room of the family's home on Lake Tapps. "I'm not going in with stars in my eyes, saying, 'My little girl is innocent of all wrongdoing.' The fact that she claims she's innocent is not unique. They all claim they're innocent.
"The only hope we have is the EPO test. Let's assume, just for a moment, that she didn't take anything. Then my contention is: It's a huge injustice."
Mike Youngquist is a retired airplane pilot who played football at Oregon State in the 1960s. He has taken and passed his share of drug tests, but only recently became an EPO expert.
"We talked endlessly about drugging and doping and how it's absolutely suicidal to attempt that," he says. "Because you're ruined. Financially, she's kicked. Emotionally, she's kicked. And reputation-wise, there will always be people that will refer to her as a doper."
Deeja Youngquist accepts as much. She spends several minutes recently detailing support — from her coach, from her family — and then the phone line goes silent.
"This is hard for me to say," Youngquist says, breaking it. "But I know my family and friends probably have that thought in the back of their heads:
"What if she is guilty?"
The question her father keeps coming back to is, "What if she isn't?"
He knows that EPO boosts red blood cell production, that it occurs naturally in the body, that it allows the blood to carry more oxygen. That's why the drug is so popular in endurance sports such as cycling and long-distance running — it does for endurance what anabolic steroids do for strength.
French scientists introduced an EPO test in 2000. This came after French police were allowed to search possessions of cycling teams at the 1998 Tour De France. They found EPO in bags and car trunks. The French have hounded seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong with EPO accusations ever since.
Problem is, the tests aren't 100 percent accurate. Injected EPO is a near copy of natural EPO, and the test can only detect the synthetic hormone if it's administered within six days of the use. It's also not like a regular urine test because it involves a judgment call, a reading of EPO levels, with the tester reading EPO molecules the way a doctor would an X-ray.
And here's another problem: Certain athletes have a natural higher percentage of red blood cells, genetic endowment, if you will, and those levels could be high enough naturally to elicit a positive test.
Proof of testing suspicion comes from a Belgian triathlete named Rutger Beke. He finished second at the 2003 Ironman in Hawaii, tested positive for EPO in 2004 and was suspended 18 months by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Doping authorities later lifted the ban because of doubts over the accuracy of the tests.
What Beke has and Youngquist doesn't is the money to test his body. He went to researchers at the Catholic University in Belgium, and they were able to document how his natural level of EPO would yield a positive test.
In an interview with the magazine "Triathlete," Beke said: "(WADA) did everything they could to fight against me. They knew that if I proved the test wrong, they'd have problems with everyone else ... They knew that I was innocent, but they still wanted to convict me, just to protect their own tests."
So the Youngquists are left with questions. If Deeja injected herself with EPO, why didn't she disappear for a week? Would the 12-mile run she finished right before her testing have impacted her EPO level?
And, just as important, they are left with two positive results that Mike Youngquist says "weren't even close. She was way into the excessive EPO range."
Running out her frustrations
You have to be a little crazy to run long distances, keeping the same pace for hours that most people can't keep for minutes. Youngquist always took a certain comfort in that, in the hours she spent on the road, by herself, figuring out her life.
"It's something you get used to," she says, "something you love, something that becomes your passion. It's like breathing to me."
So that's where Youngquist turned after she tested positive. When she couldn't sleep, she ran. When she couldn't think, she ran. All that frustration and guilt and shame pounded out on pavement.
She ran so much, she developed muscle aches from overuse. She ran so far that eventually she could forget about the pause button placed over her once-burgeoning career.
But some things still make the Youngquists angry. Like this summer, when several baseball players tested positive for steroids.
"I, along with millions of others, look at my daughter, who is basically broke, get two years and nine months," Mike Youngquist says. "Rafael Palmeiro gets 10 days. That's devastating on all levels.
"Running is basically Deeja's life, and it has to be if you're going to compete at that level. She's had her life removed. And if it's a false accusation, it's just an absolute outrage. But my feelings about that and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee. You've got to come up with something to give them."
Deeja Youngquist gets her chance at her next hearing in early November. She will sit before three arbitrators and try to modify or overthrow her sanction.
She will be eligible to run regardless in the Olympic trials in 2007. In the meantime, she says she's lost the equivalent of a year's salary in legal fees. She's working it off as an administrator at Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque. The irony of which is not lost on her.
"I'm a natural girl," Youngquist says, "who they say did something unnatural to her body. But I'm not a cheater. I'm just going to keep my head up high. That's why I run everyday — because I will have my day to shine again."
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company