Kara Goucher on Alberto Salazar’s Doping Violations Ban: “I Feel at Peace”
The whistleblower speaks about the anti-doping investigation of her former coach and reflects on her time as an Oregon Project member.
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Kara Goucher received the news on Monday, about 30 minutes before the media first reported that Alberto Salazar, her former Nike Oregon Project coach, had received a four-year ban from the sport for violating anti-doping rules.
The call, which she had been expecting several times before during the past year and a half, came from officials at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Goucher was one of the whistleblowers in the case against her former coach and testified before the independent arbitration panels that ultimately issued the decision on Monday.
“The more that time went on, the more I felt less confident. I’d talk to [USADA CEO] Travis Tygart and he’d say, ‘Hey, my team did a great job, but I can’t guarantee you anything. I don’t know which way the panel is going to go,’” Goucher, said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Friday. “I just felt really nervous about the whole thing. But it was one of those things that you just wanted it to be over no matter what the results—it’s been going on for so long.”
The American Arbitration Association found Salazar guilty of three violations of anti-doping rules: trafficking testosterone (a banned substance), tampering with the doping control process, and administering infusions of L-carnitine, a supplement that increases energy production from fats, delaying the need to burn glycogen stores. L-carnitine is not a banned substance, but the method and amount by which it was administered violated anti-doping policies.
Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a Houston-based endocrinologist who was paid by Nike as a consultant, worked with Salazar, and treated Oregon Project athletes, also received a four-year ban.
Salazar, 61, was head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, based in Portland, Oregon, and has guided the careers of some of the world’s most decorated distance runners, including Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay, the two fastest marathoners qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (who are scheduled to race the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 13). Up until Monday, he also coached Sifan Hassan, who won unprecedented double world titles in the 10,000 meters and 1500 meters at the IAAF World Championships last week. Mo Farah won quadruple Olympic gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2012 and 2016 Games while training with the Oregon Project (he has since left the group).
Salazar, who issued a statement on Monday vowing to appeal the decision, has denied any wrongdoing and none of the Oregon Project athletes have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Nike CEO Mark Parker sent a letter to employees saying that Nike would support Salazar’s appeal.
The arbitration documents revealed that Salazar kept Parker informed via email of experiments the coach was conducting on his two sons (who are not athletes), rubbing testosterone gel on them to find out how much it would take to trigger a positive drug test. Salazar said the experiments were an attempt to fend off potential sabotage of his athletes, believing that after a race somebody could rub such substances on his runners to produce positive drug tests.
Nike also released a statement on Monday standing behind the coach: “We support Alberto in his decision to appeal and wish him the full measure of due process that the rules require. Nike does not condone the use of banned substances in any manner.”
Goucher said that she and her husband, Adam Goucher, a 2000 Olympian and also a former Oregon Project member, first went to the FBI with their concerns in 2011, then to USADA in 2013. It wasn’t until a joint investigation published in June 2015 by the BBC and ProPublica that the Gouchers and former Oregon Project assistant coach Steve Magness went public with their experiences.
Goucher, now 41 and living in Boulder, Colorado, left the Oregon Project in 2011 after seven years, soon after giving birth to her son, Colt, in 2010. It was then that Goucher says Salazar gave her unprescribed Cytomel to lose weight, though the drug is intended to treat an under-active thyroid. Goucher says she didn’t take the Cytomel—she was already taking a prescribed medication for Hashimoto’s disease, which she was diagnosed with before joining the training group. After Salazar had given her the pills, she called her doctor, who told her not to take them.
Goucher originally raised alarm bells to authorities for what she and her husband believed were Salazar’s ongoing attempts to abuse Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), which are granted to athletes by anti-doping agencies to take otherwise banned drugs for diagnosed medical conditions. In the end, Salazar did not receive any penalty for helping athletes manipulate the TUE system to enhance performance.
During a nearly hour-long interview (which has been edited for length and clarity) that was at times emotional, Goucher reflected on her relationship with Salazar, whether her own running accomplishments have a shadow of suspicion over them, and if she’d come forward again if she had the chance.
Women’s Running: Is this the outcome you had hoped for when you first came forward?
Kara Goucher: It’s been a long road. When I first went [to USADA], I still cared about them [Salazar and members of the Oregon Project]. I just didn’t want them to get in trouble—I wanted them to stop doing anything suspicious, you know? But as the years have gone on and they’ve drug this thing out, I believe [Salazar] deserves a lifetime ban. His manipulation of athletes and manipulation of the system deserves a lifetime ban. At the same time, I’m really happy that USADA was able to get this far.
We testified [to the arbitration panels] a year and a half ago and the fact that it’s just coming out now…they’ve been trying to avoid this day and so the fact that there is a ban is still kind of a victory to me. It’s starting to show what’s going on.
WR: What emotions did you feel when you heard the news?
KG: I felt like it was never going to happen…I felt really nervous about the whole thing. I knew it was coming on Monday, but I didn’t know what time. I forced my husband to do a double [run] with me, which he hasn’t done in probably 10 years, because I wanted to be with him when I found out. The day went on and on and on and he said, “It’s not going to happen.” Then Travis [Tygart] called and said, “We just got the report and he’s been found guilty of three different violations and he and Dr. Brown have both been given four-year bans.”
Honestly I couldn’t believe it. I was just in disbelief. Then I think about a half hour later when it hit the internet and my phone started blowing up, I thought, “This is real. This is actually happening.”
WR: Was that celebratory? Was it joyful? How did you greet the news?
KG: I haven’t slept in two weeks. I knew this was coming and it’s been eight years of stress coming down to this one decision. I’m just so tired. I also knew there was a very good chance that it could be nothing and people would think I have lied all these years and nothing would ever come of it. I had put a wall up. When Travis first told me, I wasn’t emotional in any sense at all. When it started to become real, I just started crying. It’s been such a long time and you start to think, “Maybe I’m just crazy or maybe I’m just a goody-two-shoes and what I saw wasn’t that bad.” Or you start to think that no good could ever come of it. I started crying—the last two days, I’ve just felt really, really tired.
WR: In one interview you gave at the 2015 U.S. outdoor track and field championships—shortly after the ProPublica/BBC report came out—you said in the end, you wanted your son to believe in the sport and the system. Does he?
KG: We didn’t do a very good job [of keeping Colt shielded from the case]. Colt is very aware of what’s going on and when I had to testify, it was a very stressful situation. Because we got the result we got, I think it was worth it for him to see Adam and I fighting for what’s right.
This one ban isn’t going to change the sport, but I’m hoping it starts to make a shift in the culture, especially by Nike. Right now they have continually chosen the brand over integrity. They should be apologizing to all the athletes who have ever run with the Oregon Project, whose results will forever be questioned. Instead they’re just digging in deeper and [supporting Alberto’s] appeal. My hope is that this is a shift that will lead to more change.
When my son found out [about the decision], he wasn’t home, because I didn’t want him to be there if the result was bad. When he found out, he was so happy. He doesn’t understand everything about it, but he does understand there are people who don’t play by the rules and that some of them are finally being held accountable.
WR: In the days since the documents have been released, a lot of people have said that they thought it would be worse for Alberto and that it appears he pushed the envelope but didn’t technically dope his athletes. What was your sense and is what we’re reading reflect your own experiences? Is there more to know?
KG: I was not there for the L-carnitine infusion and wasn’t part of the sabotaging experiment. I didn’t even know that was going on until [after I left the Oregon Project]. It’s interesting that what he was found culpable of was nothing I had an opinion on because I wasn’t there. It is interesting because my testimony had nothing to do with L-carnitine or a testosterone experiment. It’s frustrating because I think the panel only found that [former Oregon Project assistant coach] Steve Magness had gone over the legal limit [of L-carnitine] and he’s not even a real athlete. Again, I think we’re still facing the fact that I don’t think this is total, total justice, but I also have to applaud USADA for getting this done.
The hard part is—and I’ve tried to describe this in the past—that there was this inner-circle that was impenetrable. It was [sport psychologist] Darren Treasure, Alberto, and Galen. There was a ring right outside of that, which I was part of. And then there all these outer rings, but even as close as I was, I was never in that inner circle—nobody could get in there until Mo Farah came along. And then I left. It’s hard because we don’t have people on that inner circle who I feel like are telling the truth.
[Editor’s note: Rupp and Farah have denied all accusations since the BBC/ProPublica report was released in 2015 and neither have ever tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.]
I have told the truth. [Three-time Olympian and former Oregon Project member] Dathan [Ritzenhein] has told the truth [in testimony] and many people who were part of the outside rings have been happy to tell the truth. But on the inside circle, we’ve just heard denial, so will the truth ever come out? I’m not very hopeful.
WR: Should all Oregon Project athletes—past and present, including you—be suspect? Should all results be questioned? How do you think about that in terms of your own career?
KG: One of the things that held me back from ever talking about it is because I knew if I did, everything I accomplished, people would never believe it was real. That will keep you quiet, when you know you walked the line and you did everything right. You don’t want people to question what you did or have to defend it. That’s very emotional for me, because I know what I did. But also, if I worried about that, I would have never come forward. I would have never had joined forces with USADA, I would have never testified, and maybe we wouldn’t be where we are right now. I had to stop worrying about how other people would judge my career and I had to worry about how I judge myself. Staying silent made me complicit—it made me part of the problem, not part of the solution.
These judgements really do keep people silent. I’m not going to pass judgement on any athlete at the Oregon Project except for the ones I saw doing stuff I thought to be illegal. Anyone else, I’m not going to judge, because I know that I competed [at the Oregon Project] clean and I know that there are these circles of trust and I know that they aren’t all in on it.
I do find it confusing when your coach is given a four-year ban and you still defend him. That I have a harder time with, because my reaction would be, “This is a nightmare and I have to separate myself from this.” That reaction is more confusing to me.
I know we all want to see sanctions on athletes and we all want to point the finger, but unfortunately at this point there’s no way to know. I guarantee that some of them are clean and I guarantee that some of them aren’t and I don’t know who. People will doubt their results and people will doubt mine. Is it fair? I don’t know. When I found out what I did, I left within months. The athletes should leave and Nike should let them leave. And Nike should tell them, “We’re sorry that your reputations have forever been tarnished by somebody we employed.”
WR: We’re heading into 2020 and the two fastest qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic marathon team have been coached their entire careers by Alberto Salazar. As fans of the sport how should we feel about that?
KG: It’s very hard. I have an opinion on one of those athletes and no opinion on the other, because [Hasay] came after I left. I don’t have any proof and there are plenty of other athletes running just as fast. It hurts my feelings, but I totally get it if people want to question everything I did, but I think it’s interesting when we just say, “These athletes are dirty and these athletes, who are just as good or better than them, are clean.” I understand the cloud of suspicion. I get it. Their coach has been formally charged and convicted. I know that I was there and never did anything, so how am I going to judge these other athletes? Unless I saw it, it’d be unfair of me.
WR: In terms of being a whistleblower, have the positives outweighed the negatives? If you had to do it all over again, would you?
KG: It’s been horrible—constant battles, races wouldn’t let me in, I lost a really big contract right after I went public in 2015, a lot of harassment. People involved in the sport at the very elite level that I have to see on a constant basis have tried to ruin my career behind the scenes, told people not to work with me and tried to blacklist me from things. It sucks. As hard as it is for me, it’s been really hard on my family. All of the comments that I’m just jealous or I doped, too—when your family reads hundreds of comments, it’s hard for everybody involved.
I never would regret doing it, though, because I really felt in my core that I was complicit if I didn’t speak up. At some level I held some of the blame. I was never going to regret coming forward but I do have to say that a conviction and a four-year ban makes it easier for me to say to other people, “It’s worth it.” I would encourage people if they saw something to go to USADA, but I don’t know if I’d tell them to go public, because people are going to call into question your career, you’re going to have a hard time signing a contract, you’re going to be blacklisted from certain races. You’ll sleep at night and you’ll feel good about who you are and you’ll look back and know you were in the right.
We got this ban against all odds. We went up against the biggest company in the sport’s world and one of the biggest coaches in the world and got this done. It is worth it.
WR: What specific opportunities have you missed because you came forward?
KG: Races are a big one because that’s how I was making my living at the time. I lost a six-figure contract I was in the process of signing after the BBC piece aired because I was considered controversial. Race directors and other people in the industry have publicly said things about me…there are so many things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t see. It’s constant guessing about who you can trust and who’s on your team. It’s a lot of personal stuff.
WR: How do you feel about other former Oregon Project athletes who cooperated with the investigation when asked to, but didn’t come forward with what they knew in the same manner you did?
KG: I have forgiven them because it was so hard. Your life is on the line, you’re so scared. I felt for a long time that I was on an island by myself, but people were cooperating behind the scenes because they had to. At the end of the day, they did the right thing. At the end of the day, I’ve forgiven them all because I know how scary it is and I know what that risk is. They did the right thing in the end.
WR: Do you fear for your long-term health or that of other Oregon Project athletes who may have taken unprescribed drugs, supplements, or abused TUEs under Salazar’s direction?
KG: One of the things I did when I went to USADA and realized I was also under suspicion, I secured all my medical records and all of my lab results I had ever had at the Oregon Project and beyond and had their scientists look through them and analyze. I was like, “I know I’m clean, but I need to be told by an expert.” I would encourage people to gather their medical records and have somebody look at them. Go to a doctor not employed by the Oregon Project, not on Nike’s payroll, and really be truthful about what they’ve taken. I don’t know what they did, but certainly there are things that have come out that are concerning.
WR: Do you forgive Alberto?
KG: The Alberto I knew died. That’s how I feel. The person I knew would never put me in a situation or anybody in the situation that he did. He was like a father, so loving, and so amazing to me—and I feel like that person died. The person I know now, I don’t feel anything toward. It’s impossible for me to understand how it’s the same person. I feel like he died.
I get so emotional about this. I want to be an open book, but it’s just so devastating.
WR: What does a healthy coach-athlete relationship look like to you?
KG: That’s a great question, because I have always really relied on my coaches because my father died when I was little. I’ve always had male coaches. For me the line has always been a little blurred, I think. I would say with Alberto it was unhealthy—he was too involved in my life. [Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry] Schumacher was better because I could disagree with him and although I didn’t want him to be mad it me, I could disagree with him. And coming back to Mark [Wetmore, Goucher’s current coach who also coached her at the University of Colorado], he respects me as a grown woman who has her own thoughts and opinions and we bounce ideas off each other. It’s a collaborative effort.
You want to have trust. You don’t want to have to question when your coach tells you to do something. There has to be trust there that decisions are for the right reasons. But when somebody has opinions on who you should date or if you should stay married or your personal life, it’s tipped over to very unhealthy.
WR: What do you wish men and women coming out of college and looking for professional running opportunities knew about deciding who to hitch their wagons to? What do you wish you had known?
KG: I never knew anything about [former Nike-sponsored training group] Athletics West until I was long into my professional career.
[Editor’s note: Athletics West athletes were accused of steroid abuse in the book Swoosh, The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There, written by Julie Strasser and Laurie Becklund. Salazar was a member in the 1980s and Mary Decker Slaney, who Salazar later coached, was sanctioned and stripped of her 1997 world indoor 1500-meter silver medal for abnormal testosterone levels.]
We deserved to know this stuff when we’re making decisions about who we’re going to associate with. It’s hard for me to believe that anybody who went to the Oregon Project after 2015 didn’t know, because it was everywhere. This is a generation on social media, and they’re on FloTrack and they’re on all this stuff. It’s very hard for me to imagine that they just did not know. And maybe they believed [Salazar]—I mean, I trusted him for years myself. Maybe they were told it wasn’t a big deal and they believed it. But if I could just give them advice, it’d just be to not associate with anyone who has any sort of trail—everything you work so hard for, people will question it forever. There is no single coach or program so far superior that it’s worth it.
WR: Agents who are helping these post-collegiate athletes know the reputations of programs and coaches. What does it say about them?
KG: Shame on the agents. They’re just as much a part of the problem. They are pushing these kids to situations that are unhealthy. And also, shame on Nike. Alberto was officially charged in 2017 and they still filtered athletes his way. You are putting athletes in an unsafe situation and for what? For money? Are these agents willing to put the athletes in this situation for money, so they can get a bigger piece of the pie? It’s disgusting and they need to start taking some real responsibility. They need to think of the athletes as real people and not as pawns or as dollars.
Those kids are young and they don’t know. They are paying these people to help them make good choices.
WR: When you reflect on your career and you think about your time with the Oregon Project, becoming a world silver medalist and Olympian, versus the second chapter of becoming a whistleblower, how do you think you’ll perceive it in its entirety?
KG: I’m proud of my silver medal. The group was very different then. It hadn’t had this shift in mentality. That pushed U.S. distance running forward—we’ve won medals ever since. I’m proud of that history and how hard I worked. I’m also really proud that I saw something that made me uncomfortable in April of 2011 and at the end of the world championships, I was gone [from the Oregon Project]. And that was as quickly as I could get out. I’m also proud to have lived through so much crap and harassment and so much loss to tell the truth.
It’s funny how life works, because when I won that medal, I thought, “Look how strong I am. I kept it together and used my mental strength and kicked when I need to kick.” Now, 12 years on, I think, “You didn’t even know what strength was.” I’m a very shy person—I can’t even order a pizza on the phone—so the fact that part of my truth helped convict one of the most powerful people in the sport, it’s crazy. I’m not a perfect person and I’ve certainly made mistakes in my life, but I’m proud of the way I’ve handled myself. I’ve always done what I thought was right.
WR: What’s next? Do you feel liberated to move forward with anything you’ve put off?
KG: I feel at peace. The fact that I’ve never regretted what I did, but it’s something that’s hovered over our lives and stressed us out for eight years now. Again, USADA warned me that if there was a conviction, there’d probably be an appeal, so that’s not a surprise to me. I know that we’re in the right and we’re telling the truth. I can’t really worry about what other people think—if I had done that in the beginning, you and I wouldn’t even be talking right now. I would probably still be a Nike athlete or working at Nike. I don’t really care about vindication. It’s more for my family and the people who’ve believed me, we can be at peace with it.
I have my running back and a 50K [The North Face Endurance Run] coming up that I’m really excited about. I’ve moved to a place beyond angst that I can enjoy the gift in my life that I have right now. My running doesn’t require any rankings—it’s just about the love of it and experiencing it. It’s gotten me through a lot of tough times and I can really embrace it and enjoy it again.
WR: Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t ask you?
KG: I just want to say I’m not bitter. Even though I feel like the current Oregon Project athletes have some tough choices ahead, I do empathize with their situation. But I think they have some tough choices to make.