Ryan Lochte’s suspension saddens U.S. swimmers, sends message to the world

Ryan Lochte
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IRVINE, Calif. — Count Chase Kalisz, the world’s best all-around swimmer, among those who will miss Ryan Lochte at the U.S. Championships this week.

“It’s sad to see that Ryan’s not going to be here,” Kalisz, the 200m and 400m individual medley world champion, said Tuesday, one day before the meet begins (TV schedule here). “I feel bad for Ryan. He genuinely is a really good guy. … I couldn’t say one negative thing about Ryan.”

Except that, speaking solely for this case, he broke the rules.

The 12-time Olympic medalist was banned until July 2019 for an IV infusion. Lochte took a legal substance, but an amount greater than the legal limit via IV. He may not have been caught if not for posting photo evidence on social media in May. Lochte claimed he was simply unaware of the World Anti-Doping Agency rule, cooperated with a USADA investigation and accepted the punishment.

“Having a rule like that, while in this case I don’t think it caught a cheater, per se, I think in 99 percent of the cases, it would,” said Ryan Murphy, who swept the backstrokes in Rio.

Actually, two of the U.S.’ best all-around swimmers aren’t competing at the nationals. Neither Lochte nor Madisyn Cox can swim at any sanctioned meet in the next year because of doping-rules suspensions.

Lochte did not take a banned substance. Those who punished Cox believed she didn’t intentionally take the banned substance for which she tested positive. Yet both received suspensions longer than one year, stunting their progress toward the 2020 Olympics.

What kind of message does that send?

“We’re watching the American team be leaders in accountability right now,” five-time Olympic champion Nathan Adrian said. “I don’t think that [Lochte’s] punishment would have necessarily been as strict if he was part of certain other federations, to be totally honest. We have always come down harsh on that, as Team USA, [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency], saying, hey, where’s the accountability here. I think you’re seeing us stay true to our word.”

Fewer know about Cox, the top-ranked U.S. woman in the 200m individual medley, who is not competing in Irvine after failing a February drug test.

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, said it took a “highly unusual step” of accepting that Cox did not intentionally take a banned substance after she argued that she drank contaminated tap water. Cox reportedly said she had “a world-renowned biochemist” equate her level of the banned substance to “a pinch of salt in an Olympic size swimming pool.”

Cox’s ban was reduced from four years to two. She and Lochte will miss the two biggest international meets between now and the 2020 Olympics — August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo and the 2019 World Championships in South Korea.

“It’s really hard to see that happen to a friend and teammate and someone that you’ve looked up to, but, then again, you can’t break the rules like that,” Lilly King, the Olympic 100m breaststroke champion who took a hard stance on doping in Rio, said of Lochte. “You have to follow the rules, and I appreciate that FINA, WADA and USADA and all the doping agencies are cracking down.”

In Rio, King said that anybody who had served a prior doping ban should not be at the Games. That included not only Russian rival Yuliya Efimova, but also U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin.

“Do I think people who have been caught for doping offenses should be on the team?” King said then. “No, they shouldn’t.”

King was asked Tuesday whether she agreed with Lochte being allowed back into competition in 2019 as he tries to make the 2020 Games at age 35.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “I’m not exactly in charge of handing out the sentences. I’m not going to lie, I’m not really that knowledgeable on substances and what they do to the body, just because I don’t take them, and I’m not going to. … But as far as them banning him, if you do something wrong, you should serve time. You should be punished.”

King said she’s never taken an IV infusion. Kalisz and Adrian said they were aware of the rule that Lochte broke. Both mentioned a USADA presentation that athletes visiting the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., can take advantage of.

“USA Swimming will be happy with me for [saying] this. I did sit in a USADA meeting at the USA Swimming building, I think it was three years ago, about it, when they announced that [rule],” Kalisz said. “I don’t know when it came out or what. I definitely know it’s one of the lesser-known rules apparently. Before that I actually didn’t really know about it.”

IV rules pertaining to Lochte’s ban have been on the WADA prohibited list since 2005, according to USADA, and modified in 2012 and 2018.

The prohibited list is updated annually and very detailed. Adrian, a national team member for more than a decade, said there are ambiguities in the doping code but they can easily be sorted out.

“You ask,” he said, noting USA Swimming officials and a direct line to USADA. “You have to ask a lot.”

Adrian was confident that other countries would not have been as strict in a case like Lochte’s (Cox was banned by FINA, not USADA, so that’s a bit different). Adrian did not name names, but recent examples come to mind.

In 2011, Brazilian Cesar Cielo tested positive for a banned diuretic but was not suspended by his national federation. Though FINA pushed for a penalty, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Cielo was not at fault after he argued that he took a contaminated caffeine pill.

In 2014, China’s Sun Yang was suspended three months for testing positive for the same substance as Cox did this year. The ban was not announced until after Sun had served it and won three golds at the Asian Games, creating more skepticism.

“These are what we’ve been told since we were junior team athletes, that if you mess up, and it’s accidental, you can still get banned for years,” Adrian said. “Those are the messages that have been pounded in our head. This is a message we are sending to the world that we take clean sport seriously.”

Kalisz lamented not being able to race Lochte in individual medleys this week. Both he and Murphy praised Lochte’s character.

“That guy’s an idol for me,” Murphy said.

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