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Sarah True, after post-Rio suicidal thoughts, tackles Ironman Kona

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Post-Olympic depression hit Sarah True hard after she tottered, right leg cramping, off the Rio triathlon course, pushing her bike to a street-side barrier while being lapped.

“This continued into 2017, and for a good part of that year I couldn’t experience any joy whatsoever,” True, who struggled with clinical depression since her early teens, wrote for Outside magazine. “I obsessively thought about taking my own life. I’d be out on long training rides and couldn’t stop thinking about swerving into oncoming traffic, every truck becoming an object that could end it all. Month after month passed, and I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, and yet it just kept on getting worse.”

True sought help. From a therapist. From connecting socially. From doing art and cooking. From knowing that the feelings would eventually pass.

“No matter how bleak and despairing it feels, it’s not real,” she said. “The people around you still love you. You’re not this burden to them. One of the most important things was I finally acknowledged the fact that I needed help. At that point I realized that I think it’s time to revisit this thing that I filed away in my brain. This Ironman thing.”

Last October, True had a “light-bulb, epiphany” moment, waking up with a new goal of doing an Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon run. It’s more than four times longer than the Olympic distance.

“I was in a pretty dark, scary place last year, and when I came out I was just so grateful for life that honestly the best celebration of being alive I could think of was doing an Ironman,” she said Wednesday.

True, 36, has been in Hawaii for the last month, preparing to race the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on Saturday.

The biggest event in triathlon streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app with a 90-minute NBCSN broadcast at 12:30 p.m. ET. Live reports on NBCSN and NBC will air throughout the day, beginning at 2 p.m. NBCSN will air recap coverage Sunday at 12 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I would be disappointed with anything outside the top 10, but I also recognize that extremely fit people with far more experience in Ironman have had disastrous races here because of the conditions,” True said.

Her first triathlon memories were watching Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser racing in a fluorescent two-piece suit on NBC. Newby-Fraser won a record eight Kona crowns between 1986 and 1996.

True grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing pranks on MLB Hall of Fame visitors seeking directions. She swam and ran at Cooperstown High, then swam at Vermont’s Division III Middlebury College and made what she called a natural progression to triathlon.

By 2011, True had become the best U.S. female triathlete. She finished fourth at the London Olympics, missing bronze by 10 seconds, and briefly considered moving toward the Ironman distance.

After Rio, True tried to resume an Olympic-distance career. But after DNFing and finishing 34th in the first two World Series races in 2017, she gave it up. She remembered a coach four years earlier asking what motivated her to wake up every morning. It was Olympic-distance triathlon. Not anymore.

“I was still carrying the heartbreak from Rio,” True said on the IronWomen podcast. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

True made her half Ironman distance debut the following month and finished second in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It was kind of a test for whether or not I would call it a very happy, successful career or version 2.0, long-course, non-draft athlete phase,” she told Ironman historian Bob Babbitt. “I loved it.”

True is now in Kona as an experienced racer, having placed fourth and 10th at the last two half Ironman 70.3 World Championships and second to three-time reigning Kona champ Daniela Ryf at the European Championships in July, her first full Ironman. (Granted, Ryf, who was 40th at the 2012 Olympics, won by 26 minutes.)

True has been remarkably strong amid many rookie moments. In her first 70.3, she took in just 350 calories over more than four hours of racing (and none on the 13.1-mile run), causing her dietitian to laugh, gobsmacked she didn’t blow up during the half marathon. She had massive blisters on her feet from not wearing socks. True did her first three 70.3 races in an exhausting span of six weeks.

The longest run of her life before the European Championships was 18 miles. True grabbed the wrong bag in the transition off the bike in Frankfurt, Germany. She had to go back after being dumbfounded by the unfamiliar shoes and running equipment she had pulled out.

She is asked what scares her about Saturday’s race, one of the toughest events in all of sport, that starts at 6:40 a.m. local time.

“Things can go very badly in the heat,” she said. “It’s not fear. It’s a healthy respect for what could potentially go wrong. It’s Ironman. When things go wrong in a nine-hour race, they go really wrong.”

The feeling is not comparable to the days leading up to an Olympics. Kona is every year. True is right now on a two-year plan, to spend next year training specifically for Kona.

This one is for gaining experience, handling the head- and cross-winds biking on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. Surviving the Energy Lab on the run after more than 130 miles of racing. The forecast says it’ll reach 86 degrees by 9 a.m. with a coin-flip chance of rain.

“There’s no amateur component to the Olympics,” True said. “I’m here with 2,500 amateur athletes, and it’s a traveling circus. The vendors are here. All the media is here. This town has just been overrun by triathlon. The Olympics is a celebration of Olympic sport. Kona is a celebration of triathlon.”

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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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