Fourteen-year-old swimmers are hardly thought of as the stereotype for steroid users these days. But back in 1995, Jessica Foschi, now a student at the Duke School of Law, tested positive for steroids at a national swim meet and stirred up a whirlwind of controversy that she is still fighting to invalidate.
Ten years after her doping incident, Foschi’s legal background and personal experience has given her an insider’s perspective on the issues facing steroid testing today.
“The way the system is set up is that you’re guilty and you’re barely even allowed the chance to prove yourself innocent,” Foschi said. “You have to give them a fair chance to make their case. That’s a fundamental ideal of the U.S. legal system.”
Her story begins in August 1995. Immediately after finishing third in the 1500-meter freestyle event at the U.S. National Championships, officials notified Foschi that her number had come up for a random drug test. A week later, while participating at the Pan-Pacific Games in Atlanta, her father informed her that the previous week’s test had revealed traces of mesterolone, an anabolic steroid not commonly found in the United States.
Rules at the time mandated a two-year suspension for a positive test. But instead of agreeing to the punishment, Foschi elected to fight the case through swimming’s legal system, saying that she had not knowingly taken performance enhancing drugs.
Foschi has two theories as to how she tested positive for the steroid. One is that someone looking to damage USA Swimming sabotaged a Gatorade jug with mesterolone, which easily dissolves in water. Further tests on her urine sample revealed that the levels of mesterolone in her body indicated that it had been ingested less than 24 hours before the test.
The other theory, which she thinks is more likely, is that there was a problem with the testing.
“The problem with sports drug-testing in general is that people go in thinking these tests are infallible—that there’s never a wrong test,” she said. “That’s a ludicrous assumption because these labs do hundreds of thousands of tests a year. You can’t tell me one or two of those isn’t wrong. It’s going to happen to somebody.
“They’ve set up a system to catch people who are testing positive, not people who are cheating. You’d have to be saying I’m the stupidest person in the world to say I took the drug knowing there was a good possibility I’d be tested,” Foschi said.
Unfortunately for her, the positive test came at a time when steroids were a hot topic in swimming circles. The year before, a slew of Chinese swimmers had tested positive for steroids, prompting USA Swimming to join with its Australian counterpart to fight doping.
Foschi’s situation, therefore, became a test-case for the new, more stringent policies to be enforced. Foschi won a November 1995 appeal before a USA Swimming panel by a 2-1 vote and her suspension was reduced to a two-year probation period.
In attempting to prove her innocence, Foschi passed two sets of polygraph tests as well as a series of physical and blood examinations.
“There was no doubt that it was in her body,” said Jill Sterkel, now the women’s swimming coach at Texas and a panel member who voted in Foschi’s favor. “But medical evidence suggested there was no cumulative effect. Perhaps knowingly or unknowingly it had gotten into her system.”
Of the other two panel members, Jerry Olson has since passed away and Bill Stapleton could not be reached for comment. Stapleton, a former Olympic swimmer, is now Lance Armstrong’s agent.
In February 1996, however, the USA Swimming Board of Directors overruled the appeal and suspended Foschi for two years. A week later, though, swimming’s international governing body, FINA, ruled that Australian swimmer Samantha Riley would not have to serve her two-year suspension because the illegal headache medicine, for which she tested positive was given to her by a coach. The coach was suspended instead.
USA Swimming reversed itself again just days later and said Foschi would not be suspended and would be put on six months of retroactive probation because of the precedent set by FINA’s decision. Foschi’s case opened the door for anyone caught for doping to challenge the test, saying that they either did not know or did not intend to ingest the illegal drug.
“People were saying the whole system would fall apart,” Foschi said. “But if you look at all I had to show to prove I didn’t do it—I don’t think someone who had done it would have been willing to do that.
“Everyone who tests positive says ‘I didn’t do this.’ And that’s what we were finding. People were like ‘Of course you’re going to say that, you’re at risk to be banned for two years.’”
Foschi worked hard to change the minds of disbelievers within the swimming community, but many still remain.
Carol Zaleski, who was president USA Swimming at the time of Foschi’s case, declined to comment, saying: “It was a highly controversial matter that I’d just rather leave in the past. I was representing USA Swimming investigating a positive drug test, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Foschi’s swimming legacy remains to this day. Testing has become more stringent, and participants have become more careful about their Gatorade and urine samples. All containers are now taped shut at competitions to avoid tampering.
Foschi never did make the Olympics, finishing two places short of qualifying in the spring of 1996 for that year’s Summer Games in Atlanta. She did eventually go on to swim at Stanford, where she won numerous All-American distinctions and was the 2001 NCAA champion in the 500-meter freestyle event.
Foschi is now studying with Professor Paul Haagen at Duke, who is well-known for his work in sports law. She says that her interest in law was piqued by all of her legal battles throughout the years and wants to use her law degree in part to be an advocate on the issue of doping in sports.
“I’ve been on the side of someone who’s been falsely accused and I’ve also been on the side of it from someone who’s been in the sport for 12 years and doesn’t want to stand up on the block against someone who’s cheated,” Foschi said. “It’s sad because every great performance is questioned. Every time someone breaks the home run record they’re going to be looked at. Every time someone breaks the world record people look at them.”