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Top U.S. Female Weightlifter Suspended For Doping While Treating Hormone Imbalance

Sarah Robles, the “Strongest Woman in America,” won’t compete for two years after testing positive for an artificial hormone.

Mike Coppola / Getty Images for the Women's Sports Foundation

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

 

Weightlifter Sarah Robles said Thursday she’s been suspended for two years by the International Weightlifting Federation and the United States Anti-Doping Agency for testing positive for Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA.

Robles, 25, failed her drug test on June 29, at the end of the 2013 Pan American Championships, where she won three medals — more than any other U.S. competitor. She was suspended on Aug. 8. The governing bodies handed down their decision formally on Tuesday.

In a statement, Robles said the artificial DHEA was recommended by a doctor to treat hormone imbalance related to polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, a fairly common disorder. She said she made the decision to take DHEA privately, without telling her coach or fellow weightlifters.

My doctor and I worked together to try different treatment options for my PCOS, as a preventative measure. Because my progesterone and DHEA levels are naturally quite low because of PCOS, my doctor felt that supplementing with DHEA would help balance things out in my system. We did not feel that bringing my DHEA to a normal level would be contradictory to my stance as a clean athlete.

Robles and her legal counsel initially appealed her suspension, attempting to overturn, back-date, or reduce it, and “were successful in some areas,” a spokesman for Robles told BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed profiled Robles in June 2012, right before she competed at the London Olympics. At the time, she was the highest-ranking U.S. weightlifter, but she struggled to attract sponsors and make ends meet.

“You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy,” she said at the time. (Readers eventually raised nearly $20,000 for Robles on a crowd-funding site, and Solve Media agreed to sponsor Robles for the London games, where she finished in seventh place.)

Robles’ spokesman said she will continue working in retail part-time while training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. She cannot compete until Aug. 8, 2015.

Robles has also been suspended indefinitely from her Arizona-based training program. In a statement, coach Joe Micela said he was “very angry” and “personally hurt and embarrassed.” Robles previously called Micela her “number one sponsor.” Micela once described himself as a “father figure” to Robles — her father died when she was 17.

“Sarah is not a bad person, she is just young, immature, and made a stupid decision,” Micela said Thursday. “She like anyone in life has to realize that there are consequences for your actions.”

He also argued that Robles’ performance was unaffected by the DHEA — which some athletes use as a supplement to increase muscle mass and can be purchased over the counter, but is banned by most sports’ governing bodies.

Sarah’s accomplishments at the Pan Am’s and subsequent Nationals were the product of my program and hard work. Sarah was capable of these numbers for more than a year. You can trace Sarah’s numbers back and realistically see that her numbers have never drastically spiked, they have gradually improved through hard training within my program. Sarah has been in the drug testing program since 2008 and has been drug tested at least 12 times a year. She never failed a drug test up until this occurrence. This is not a deliberate act to try to beat the system, but Sarah failed to follow the rules and regulations.

Harry How / Getty Images for USOC

Robles’ full statement:


I want to address the presence of artificial DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) supplementation, in a regular test administered by the International Weightlifting Federation on June 29th, 2013, after taking the supplement at the advice of my doctor.

DHEA is a hormonal precursor supplement which can be used in treating polycystic ovary syndrome (commonly known as PCOS). Due to my PCOS, which is a common type of hormone disorder, there are benign cysts that form in the lining of my ovaries.

Because of this, like many other women who suffer from PCOS, I experience no menses, high levels of masculinizing hormones, centralized obesity, and thyroid issues. My doctor had also advised me that if PCOS is left untreated, I could experience many more severe health issues, such as diabetes, infertility, sleep apnea, chronic depression, heart attack, or even uterine cancer.

My doctor and I worked together to try different treatment options for my PCOS, as a preventative measure. Because my progesterone and DHEA levels are naturally quite low because of PCOS, my doctor felt that supplementing with DHEA would help balance things out in my system. We did not feel that bringing my DHEA to a normal level would be contradictory to my stance as a clean athlete.

When tested and found to have artificial DHEA levels in my system, I vigorously defended my position, appealing the test on medical grounds. In their ruling, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) have determined that I am to be suspended for two years from weightlifting, during the time I will not be able to compete professionally in my chosen sport, or in any other professional sport.

While disappointed in their decision, I accept the conditions of my suspension, and I am grateful to the IWF and USADA for taking all facets of my situation into consideration when their decision was made. Although it breaks my heart to be away from the sport I love for two years, I made a choice to take care of my health as advised by my doctor.

I want it to be clear that I made this private decision only with my doctor’s recommendation, and that decision did not involve my professional team. I regret that this situation might be misconstrued against my sport, my supporters, or my teammates. I have always wished to do all that I can to live up to the high expectations that others have had of me, as well as the goals I have set for myself. I have always advocated clean sport, and I still do. I also support a person’s ability to take care of themselves and their health.

As much as I am obviously upset over damaging my own reputation, I am enormously sorry beyond anything I can adequately express for how this situation might tarnish the reputation of my coach and USA Weightlifting. For my teammates, competitors, supporters, sponsors, and fans, please know how sincerely sorry I am if this suspension lets you down in any way. I am grateful to have a clear conscience, knowing that I did not use DHEA for anything other than treating my PCOS, and I am thankful for the outpouring of love and support that has come from so many at this time.

As with everything in life, I strive to seek a balance between my profession, my health, and my private life. These decisions can be difficult, but are vital to protect my well-being. Going forward, I will be taking greater precautions in making these decisions in a transparent and open manner with my coach and team, as well as with my athletic governing bodies, whenever necessary.

I still have a lot to give as an athlete, and I plan on returning to weightlifting, with hopes to participate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. I also plan to continue advocacy for positive body image, women’s rights, and of course, clean sport.

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