The Year That Changed Her Life
How big was the biggest mistake of your life?
On a day-to-day basis, athletes make decisions about their performance. We choose the level of application we are willing to give and balance it with a level of sacrifice we think feasible for our trade. Sacrifice comes in many forms. Some sacrifice chocolate cake, some leisure time, some comfort and some prosperity. A small percentage choose to sacrifice their morals – they decide to cheat.
Living life as a ‘clean’ professional athlete is made harder by dopers. It is a fact that sometimes we lose to cheats. It is not a new phenomenon – drugs are something long to endured in elite sport. Dopers steal money, fame and confidence from clean athletes. But they can never steal integrity, morality or honourability – clean athletes always have the personal upper hand.
Beth McKenzie (nee Gerdes) was such an athlete.
After seven years of training – through defeat and hardships, two changed careers, a divorce, pregnancy – she ran to the win of her life at Ironman Australia, 2016. She was stoically proud. Proud to be drug tested, proud to be clean, and excited and exuberant in her victory.
Six weeks later she got an email that changed everything. She had failed the drug test.
“I started shaking as I made sense of it and nearly passed out, but I had to get on my bike and figure out what to do.”
Few of us have, or will ever, receive an email like that. You could liken it to a redundancy notice, but that lacks the permanence and shame of such a notice. It’s a criminal record in sport. Your career is over. Comeuppance, exposure and justice for dirty athletes. Vindication for clean athletes.
But what if you are not a cheat?
“Maybe it sounds cliche, but when I received a letter from the WTC via email, I seriously thought it was some kind of mistake. The ‘positive drug test’ scenario was honestly one I never even considered or played out in my mind, so I had no ‘game plan’ to pull from. I never believed that one could test positive from very basic supplements – I took only electrolytes, salt, whey protein, caffeine, and melatonin to sleep.”
What if the biggest mistake of your life was actually unavoidable?
From that day Beth’s world turned from a swim/cycle/run utopia into a lawyer/laboratory investigative nightmare. She has become intimate with drugs testing procedures, legal protocols and supplement manufacturing. Mostly, she has become very familiar with the culprit of her suffering – a widely available bodybuilding steroid – Ostarine.
“The seven months that we investigated the case were without question the worst of my life. Emotions ran from complete devastation, to hope, to confusion, to frustration on a daily basis.”
Beth came onto the triathlon radar in 2012, with a string of top five positions at iron distance races. Beth was fun – not consumed by lycra or by the ‘marginal gain’ obsessions, so commonly adopted at the top of age group racing. She was refreshingly honest about her chances – self-depreciating of her weak areas and appreciative of the strengths of others. At 32, with no history of international racing or competing, she was an upstart amongst life timers but portrayed no ego compensation for her inexperience or shyness towards her heroines.
Beth’s relationship with athlete favourite, Luke McKenzie accelerated her notoriety within professional athlete circles. Luke seemed regenerated by Beth.
Together, they formed a perfect image of a wholesome, successful triathlon power couple. Perhaps it was Beth’s previous experience within the marketing industry; perhaps, just the glamour of a new triathlon relationship, but there was a story. Whatever the media’s attraction to the pair, it was only enhanced by Beth’s personality – a dichotomy of chaos, approachability and confidence. In a world of media trained, cautious rhetoric from professional athletes Beth came across ‘normal’. People like normal.
“For me, triathlon was definitely about personal accomplishment, but [also] it was really [about] the community. When I was in University, I had a tight group of friends. But post-college, I never really connected with lots of friends. Immediately, in triathlon, I had a whole new world of people I enjoyed spending time outdoors with, who became friends.”
“I made the jump to the pro field for a new challenge, as winning my age group was getting easier, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t plan on ever leaving my job, or even making any money from triathlon. It was [just] my ‘next step’ and kept me excited and motivated.”
The year, 2013 was a whirlwind year in the already remarkably varied life that the couple had already lived. With Luke’s encouragement, Beth took a racing sabbatical from her job as a School Psychologist to chase her triathlon potential.
“Luke convinced me to do it and supported me 1000 percent. Once I got the nerve to apply for the leave and my school district approved it, there was no reason not to. I was able to ‘leave’ for a year, and my job was secure to come back if I wanted it.”
That same year, Luke raced to a new career high of second at Kona. Life was taking off.
Then – an additional plot twist. Beth fell pregnant.
Many professional sports ladies postpone motherhood for years, opposing maternal instinct with racing prowess, sponsorship commitments and ‘windows of opportunity’. Not Beth. In their usual, laid-back, fashion – a baby wasn’t a problem for the McKenzie’s. This was another opportunity – a joyous new adventure.
“Although Luke and I were in a relatively new relationship, we were already living together and had lived together (at training camp) since basically the start. Our relationship was already rock solid, and we were pretty excited to start a family. Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed to be ‘wasting’ my intended leave of absence for triathlon on my pregnancy, but we were so happy about life in general that I didn’t dwell on it. Instead, we started planning for the future of our family, I got to travel a lot with Luke (who had just placed second in Kona), and I started dreaming about triathlon after baby, while still enjoying my pregnancy. I had trained without a huge break for six years by that point, so mentally and physically, the break was good for me, and I took it in stride.”
Beth and Luke, in their parenting of Wynne, threw the textbooks out the window and, in doing so, became an example ‘model’ family amongst the professionals. They trained, attended sponsors dinners, travelled to races and won races – all carrying Wynne.
‘Having it all’ suddenly seemed possible. Watching Beth mothering Wynne and balancing her racing was a feat to behold.
“We didn’t see having an infant as a barrier to life, and we just went along and made it work.”
And make it work they did.
Whether it was Beth’s newfound happiness with Luke; great coaching from him, post pregnancy euphoria; or a combination of all three, Beth got better after the birth of their little girl. Beth has become a pioneer of motherhood racing. Many talk of the ‘baby boom’ of 2017, but they may better off referring to it as ‘the Wynne effect’.
“Through it all, we tried to be great parents, and we had some amazing experiences in Wynne’s first two years. She travelled to five continents and visited 12 countries, by her first birthday. She rode an elephant in Thailand, hung at the finish line at the Tour de France, saw volcanoes in Chile and Hawaii, took a seaplane to a remote island in the Bahamas, played with school children in the Philippines, and visited the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.”
Just four months postpartum, Beth raced Ironman Malaysia. At six months, she usurped her best pre-baby athletic performance to finish fourth at Ironman Western Australia. The field, apart from being world class, was also, no doubt, not lactating like Beth was in the finish area.
“All-in-all it was a huge day for me. To put things in perspective, fourth place and 9:04 was not even (if I’m honest) on my radar. I was ranked 16th of 31 female professional starters coming into the race with a ‘predicted’ finish time of 9:47 or something.”
The coming 2015 season brought multiple 70.3 podiums and her first ever Ironman title – Ironman Switzerland- that summer. Not many triathlon pros ever win an Ironman title. She placed in the top
15 at Kona that year too.
Beth was now ‘big time’, riding on the crescent of a career wave; training was fluid and podiums rudimentary. It was only a matter of time before a big result landed. A top 10 in Kona? A title defence at Ironman Switzerland in 2016? A sub-nine-hour Ironman? The year’s start indicated as much, with that stunning win at Ironman Australia.
But Beth’s ‘big wave’ never made it completely to shore. After Ironman Australia it seemed to fizzle out.
Beth was quiet. She didn’t race. She did no interviews. The marketing machine lay dormant – something seemed wrong.
In November 2016, Beth finally published an explanation. It was shocking and completely unexpected by the triathlon community.
“After seven months of tireless investigation, I am devastated to report that six weeks following my race at Ironman Australia, on 1 May 2016, I was notified of an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) resulting from my in-competition drug test at the event for trace amounts of a substance called Ostarine. Ostarine, a WADA-banned substance, is a muscle-builder that is currently under investigation by the FDA, after being found as a contaminant in multiple dietary supplements.”
It wasn’t just seven months of tireless investigation. Beth spent 30,000 Australian dollars trying to ascertain the source of the Ostarine found in her samples – more money than she had ever earned at triathlon races – trying to determine the source of the Ostarine found in her samples. Why? Because anti-doping had always been one of her causes – she had been a vocal ‘clean sport’ athlete. She hated dopers and was utterly distraught at the prospect of being grouped with them.
“For me, there is absolutely nothing more shameful than being labelled a doper. My integrity is the most important thing I have. I was willing to do anything to prove my case.”
A ‘positive’ drug test in sport comes about through the presence of an illegal substance in a single sample of urine that is then split into two, A and B Samples. Both samples must show a presence of the illegal substance to fail a test.
Professional athletes are made aware of the presence of a banned substance list, which includes identified performance enhancers or masking agents that try to obscure the presence of such substances. The list is fairly universal across sports.
In Beth’s case – in an in-competition test – a trace of Ostarine had been discovered in her urine.
Ostarine has featured increasingly in positive doping tests in triathlon and other professional sports recently. Lisa Marangon (four-year ban – claimed sabotage, unknown source), Lauren Barnett (six-month ban – proved salt tablet contaminate), Ashley Paulson (six-month ban – proven contaminate of permitted supplement). Athletes claim that it is a contaminate from laboratory manufacture in a number of clean, legal supplements. In Beth’s case too, she did manage to find a batch of her legal salt tablets that contained traces of Ostarine, but WTC wanted further verification of this result. She received a two-year ban.
“Although I have proof, published in the lab report on my blog, that there were low levels of a molecule similar to Ostarine found in two packets of salt pills at the independent laboratory, this was never confirmed ‘at higher levels’ and was not accepted by the WTC. This will forever haunt me because I just don’t understand why.”
It is the classic response to guilt, some would say – denial, blame, naivety.
We have heard enough of it over the years that we remain instinctively skeptical about doping denials – it’s personal liability- professional athletes are in charge of what they ingest. Indeed we are, and clean athletes have a responsibility to source legal supplements that are drug-free and reliable. Beth takes responsibility for swallowing a product that was evidently contaminated. But she did check prior that the supplementation was legal. It stated on it’s packaging it was “a WADA/IOC clean product”. She only ever used products that ensured third party testing.
How far can you blame an athlete when they have followed the rules to the best of their ability? What are the alternatives to avoid a contamination positive? No supplementation? Personal drinks only? Is that even possible in an eight to 10-hour event?
“I think in most sports, it is easy to say ‘just avoid supplements’, but when you are doing a nine to 17-hour Ironman, can you really get by without a single supplement? No salt pills? If the electrolyte drink served on course is a supplement, should you have to avoid it? Scarily, the answer is maybe. The good news is, in the USA, you can get some drinks and gels that are ‘nutritionally graded’, which means higher FDA standards than supplemental energy drinks and gels. Still, not foolproof but better odds. Companies like Gatorade comply with Nutritional Standards. I am not sure how this system works in Australia or say, South Africa, though, and this is definitely a global issue. There are also companies like NSF for Sport in the USA and HASTA in Australia that certify some supplements, and this minimises, though does not eliminate, the risk.”
There is actually no 100 percent way to ensure that you do not test positive, only measures to minimise risk. As a clean athlete, I am irked by such vulnerability and troubled that a system- solely initiated because of people that cheat – could persecute clean athletes further. At the present moment, until supplements are forced to follow the same laws and regulation on clarity as pharmaceutical drugs, we do the best we can at minimising risk and hope we are not one of the unlucky ones.
Beth announced her retirement from professional racing with her first statement; such was the embarrassment she felt from the ban. She has yet to decide if that retirement is permanent – such has been the support from her colleagues at the circumstances of the positive test – staunch ‘clean sport’ advocates outraged by the issues that Beth’s case has highlighted. She presently remains close to the sport for the sake of her husband, Luke’s career.
She is, remarkably, not bitter towards any sporting authority or anti-doping agency. In fact, she actively pursues involvement in areas of athlete education around anti-doping and liaises with several organisations, including NSF for Sport, an American company that certifies safe supplements, to help keep clean athletes protected.
“I’ve tried to forge ahead and make connections in the anti-doping world on my own because it is really important to me to help others avoid what I’ve been through.”
“Part of the reason I take the blame in my case is that I still believe in what the anti-doping agencies are trying to accomplish. If I blamed everyone else, I’d be turning my back on a mission that I believe in, at its core. Sadly, I have learnt that anti-doping agencies and supplement companies are very flawed, and ‘guilty-until-proven-innocent’ is a tough line to walk. However, I still feel elated and vindicated every time a true doper is caught. Perhaps more-so now, as I know that I would never be in my current situation had doper, in theory, never existed. For me, all I can do is move forward and try to advocate for, and protect, clean athletes, while hoping that more of the real cheaters are caught.”
If there is one concurrent stream of identity that resonates through Beth’s personal and professional journey, it has to be the lesson of perspective. Every cloud (eventually) has a silver lining. What initially appears as a barrier can evolve into the tallest launch pad for a happier destination. From break-ups to new love. From unexpected pregnancy to a
“I never expected to come back after baby as strong or even stronger. So, for me, the journey was amazing as well, and I’m glad I got to share it. I also noticed that sponsors took notice of my journey and really appreciated it. I hope in some small way some saw that supporting women through pregnancy could actually enhance their brands and their connections with women.”
Beth’s legacy? Turn a setback into an opportunity.
“Honestly, in the beginning, I felt that it taught me that putting your heart and soul into something, taking risks, and living life to the fullest isn’t worth it. I learnt that good people aren’t always rewarded for hard work and that life isn’t always fair. I’ve tried to evolve from that viewpoint, and now I see my position more as a new duty to my family and an opportunity to work on our future with other business opportunities. I am baking another little life, which is one of life’s most important gifts.”
July also sees the launch of Beth’s new venture in her sport but outside of racing. ‘Wyn Republic’ is an apparel concept that aims to combine technical product innovation with fashion-forward style. With Beth’s marketing experience and racing prestige, it is hard to see it would falter. The McKenzie’s deserve some luck in 2017.
“This past weekend marked our one-year wedding anniversary. Wow. How can so much go wrong in one year? I’m sure that’s not the sentence you usually expect when reading about year one of matrimony, but hey, c’est la vie. C’est la vie. Our marriage and family are rock solid but other than that – well, what a mess. As much as I believe that we create our own ‘luck’, I also believe that sometimes a brief downward spiral may be out of our immediate control. It’s learning how to pump the brakes and change direction in the face of disaster and disappointment that truly matters.”
Good luck Beth. Pump those breaks and ride it out.
Thank you for your time and commitment in giving your first interview since that email.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Korupt Vision and Delly Carr/ Ironman