US Swimmer tested positive for drug at centre of Russian doping scandal

The swimmer, Madisyn Cox, tested positive for the drug trimetazidine that is at the centre of the Kamila Valieva scandal at Beijing 2022. Cox was the fourth swimmer, at the University of Texas, to face a doping case between 2017 and 2019. One was a minor.

A US swimmer tested positive for the same drug that the 15-year old Russian figure skating sensation Kamila Valieva was caught for at the ongoing Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. The American athlete is one of four University of Texas swimmers to have committed an anti-doping rule violation between 2017 and 2019. While concerns have been raised that Valieva is a victim of child doping, one of the Texas swimmers was also a minor.

There are, as in Russia, other instances of concentrated doping cases at top US swimming training sites, such as at the University of Southern California, where its head coach has had seven of his swimmers, including both Russians and Americans, test positive for banned drugs.

But while Russian athletes have, quite rightly, in light of proof of its state-run doping system, faced little lenience when it comes to the presumption of innocence, as seen in Beijing this past week, US athletes have faced far less scrutiny.

This past Friday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the 15-year old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine in December 2021. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency allowed Valieva to compete at Beijing 2022 despite knowing of her positive test. Valieva then put on a marvellous gold medal winning performance in the team figure skating event. The team now faces disqualification.

Trimetazidine is a medication used to treat heart conditions that also increases blood flow efficiency and increases endurance. It has been prohibited for use at all-times by the World Anti-Doping Agency since 2016.

It has emerged that trimetazidine was found in Russian athletes’ hotel rubbish bins in 2006. Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the corrupt former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director, has revealed that he was asked to cover up positive trimetazidine drug tests as part of the state’s doping regime in the lead up to Sochi 2014.

The revelations that the drug was administered to athletes as part of Russia’s state-run doping regime renews scrutiny over a doping case from 2018 involving the US swimmer Madisyn Cox.

In February 2018, Cox, a 2017 World Championship gold medallist, also tested positive for trimetazidine in an out-of-competition test in Austin, Texas.

In 2014, the Chinese swimmer, and Bond super villain, Sun Yang, also failed a doping test for trimetazidine. The positive was widely considered as evidence that Yang had been engaging in organised doping.

At her disciplinary tribunal, Cox, and her lawyers, argued that she had ingested the substance through the municipal water supply in Austin. The International Swimming Federation (FINA) panel rejected this reasoning.

On appeal, Cox changed her defence and, instead, successfully argued that she consumed trimetazidine through contaminated supplements. The Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her drugs ban from two years to six months.

The company, like Cox based in Texas, that manufactured the supplements, Cooper Complete Elite Athlete multivitamin, that were contaminated with trimetazidine, is owned by a renowned doctor called Kenneth Cooper. Dr. Cooper was selected by the US Olympic Committee to be a torch bearer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. While Texas Ford Aquatics club, that has a USA Swimming team, and another masters swim club, set up by Jerry Heidenreich, who won four medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, have been based in the company’s sports facilities.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper (right) during the carrying of the Olympic torch before the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper (right) during the carrying of the Olympic torch before the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.

Cox’s contamination case is allegedly the first recorded case of trimetazidine supplement contamination. Trimetazidine contamination is so rare because the drug is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is not widely prescribed in the US.

While Cox was cleared, on the balance of probabilities, of advertent use, she is actually the fourth University of Texas swimmer to have been charged with an anti-doping rule violation between 2017 and 2019.

William Licon took the the prohibited asthma drug vilanterol while Matthew Willenbring, a 17-year old, and Grace Ariola were both caught for the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide that can be used to mask the presence of other banned drugs.

The Willenbring and Ariola cases were near identical. Just one year apart.

They both argued medication they were taking was the source of the drug. They were both teenagers. They were both on the same USA Junior swim team. They both tested positive during summer training in advance of their freshman year at the University of Texas. And they both received minor punishments; Willenbring received a four-month ban and Ariola a public warning.

Matthew Willenbring (centre) and Grace Ariola (second left) together on the USA Swimming junior squad in 2018.

Matthew Willenbring (centre) and Grace Ariola (second left) together on the USA Swimming junior squad in 2018.

Willenbring was just 17 years old. Allegations of child doping, as heard at the Beijing Olympics this week, there were not.

Instead, all four swimmers were cleared, again only on the balance of probabilities, of intentional drug use.

This spate of positives, down in Texas, serves as a reminder just how differently doping cases are treated depending on whether an athlete is from East or West. There has been international uproar, albeit understandably, over the Kamila Valieva case at Beijing 2022.

At Rio 2016, the Russian Swimmer Yuliya Efimova was branded a drugs cheat by America’s Lily King despite Efimova’s own 2013 doping case, like Cox, actually “officially” also being a case of inadvertent use.

King’s condemnation was made all the more ironic by the fact that Efimova was US-based and that her coach Dave Salo, at the University of Southern California, has seen seven of his swimmers fail doping tests (Kicker Vencill, Jessica Hardy, Mads Glaesner, Omar Pinzon, Ous Mellouli, Nikita Lobintsev and Efimova).

The international warfare that has ensued since the Russian doping system was exposed in 2014, is not solely a consequence of the universal, unrelenting fight for clean sport. If it were all doping cases would be treated equally. Rather, the political gesturing of the last eight years is better understood in the context that Russia’s state doping system is as much a threat to other country’s medals tables as it is to clean sport.

Which one athletes and governing bodies care  about more is sometimes hard to tell.

But as Chuck Wielgus, the USA Swimming director, put it before the Athens 2004 Olympics, “It’s become increasingly difficult for us to maintain that position as the no. 1-ranked swimming team in the world.”

The Russian state doping scandal has made it even harder.

Edmund Willison is a journalist and filmmaker focussing on doping and corruption in sport. You can follow him on Twitter @honestsport_ew or contact him at edmund.willison@honestsport.com.