Runner emerges from hellacious legal battle and the longest ban ever served for a doping violation of its nature to capture Rio Olympic berth
Local Club: Ottawa Lions
# Olympics: First
By Dan Plouffe
Sidelined by the harshest penalty ever imposed for a doping infraction of its kind, Ottawa runner Alicia Brown has emerged from “the most trying years of my life” to capture a Canadian Olympic team berth for the Rio 2016 Games.
But her story begins well before that, on a soccer field in Ottawa. The Nepean resident grew up playing competitive soccer for FC Capital United, and only took up track midway through high school before eventually being recruited into the Ottawa Lions club.
Brown’s best-ever finish at the OFSAA scholastic provincials was 5th place in the senior girls’ 400 metres at the 2007 championships in Ottawa – an impressive feat for most, though it doesn’t necessarily suggest the Olympics are on the horizon.
The Merivale High School grad moved on to the University of Toronto, and by her senior years, began to think reaching the Games may indeed be possible.
“There were a lot of a different things that happened in 2012 that helped me really believe in myself,” recalls Brown, who enjoyed a strong indoor season at U of T, then found her technique and performance start to click while back in Ottawa training for the outdoor season. “I think I just reached a certain maturity as an athlete where I was able to have a better mind-body connection.”
2013 was a big year for Brown. She was a FISU World University Games 400 m finalist and 4×400 m relay bronze medallist. She became Canadian champion in the women’s 400 m and made her debut at the IAAF World Championships.
And then it all came crashing down.
Brown was initially excited for her first out-of-competition doping test since it was a sign she’d arrived at the big time, but not when she learned the results.
She’d tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ), a banned diuretic that could be used for weight loss or more commonly as a masking agent to hide the presence of other performance-enhancing drugs (though no others were found in Brown’s system).
Brown says she was baffled by the news since she’d never used drugs to enhance her performance.
“That’s not who I am and that’s not what I believe in,” underlines the 2013 Canadian Interuniversity Sport Top-8 Academic All-Canadian. “I have such a strong passion for the sport and I would never compromise the integrity of it.”
The violation carried with it a 2-year ban by default, though athletes can apply for a reduced period of ineligibility on the grounds that they committed the doping infraction inadvertently.
And thus began a lengthy web of legal proceedings that weighed over Brown “every day, all day, from beginning to end essentially.”
“You can’t really forget it, it was my reality,” explains the 26-year-old, noting she kept trying to figure out how she might have come in contact with HCTZ. “You’re constantly racking your brain trying to make sense of a situation that makes no sense.”
At her initial hearing, the arbitrator ruled that Brown was not at fault and reduced her penalty to a reprimand with no period of ineligibility. But the arbitrator hadn’t correctly applied a rule that states athletes must prove how the drugs entered their system.
Because Brown only suggested possibilities (such as tainted water or supplements) instead of keying in on one, CCES officials felt obligated to appeal the decision so that the arbitrator’s flawed reasoning couldn’t stand as case law in future disputes, though the CCES agreed Brown hadn’t intentionally taken PEDs.
That stood out to Brown as quite the contrast to authorities’ actions in places like Russia.
“That’s part of what makes the whole anti-doping system really frustrating,” says Brown, who continued to serve her ban voluntary during the review. “There’s so much difference between the way that different countries organize their doping programs. And we’re supposed to follow regulations and make it an even playing field, but, as we’ve learned, that’s not the case.
“I’m proud that Canada has a strong stance on anti-doping. I think that’s what sport is about, and sport should be clean and it should be fair.
“So I’m proud of that, but I think with all the doping scandals, we’ve lost sight of what sport is supposed to be and what the Olympics is supposed to represent. It should be about community, and fair play and work ethic and working towards common goals and fighting and being strong.
“I hope that one day we can get back to that, but it’s so lost in translation right now.”
Anti-doping system martyr
While the new arbitrator ultimately upheld Brown’s 2-year ban, he took care to note towards the end of his 20-page appeal decision that “the continued battle to eliminate doping from competitive sport (…) is necessary if sport is to preserve its integrity and its attraction. It is also recognized that there may in consequence of that battle be innocent victims.”
And also: “a rule which at first may appear to be unfair to one athlete may on mature consideration be justified as fair to the athletes as a whole.”
When all the dust settled, Brown wound up serving the harshest penalty ever levied for a doping violation of that nature (where HCTZ was found, but no hint of other drugs). In the five similar previously-disclosed cases, no one else had served more than 6 months (three were given a reprimand and another was out 2 months).
“It’s devastating honestly, it really is,” Brown reflects. “Especially as an athlete and you dedicate your life really to pursuing this dream with hopes of one day getting to represent your country, putting so much into it.
“Training becomes a lifestyle. All the little decisions you make throughout your day are to optimize training the next day.
“Then to be put in a situation that I was in and to have to have to fight for your integrity… It’s challenging.”
Brown managed to get through the ordeal with help from many family, friends, coaches and staff at her U of T club.
“Having these people around me that believed in me and supported me the entire time, it’s amazing,” she signals. “I don’t know how to thank them enough for all their support and all their love. Because it was definitely the most trying years of my life.”
While she served her ineligibility, Brown couldn’t train with her teammates or receive coaching. She was shut out of practicing at any facilities high-performance athletes might use, which was especially difficult with the Pan Am Games coming to town and many tracks being used as warm-up venues.
Seeing others compete on home soil in what was likely the only opportunity of Brown’s career to race at a major international meet in Canada provided an additional blow.
“It was rough,” indicates Brown, calling the whole experience an emotional rollercoaster. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It’s not a fun place to be at all.”
During the ban, Brown’s national carding financial assistance was also suspended, so she’d work close to 30 hours a week as a personal trainer at U of T, commuting in from the north end of Toronto.
That put her at a significant disadvantage compared to her counterparts who were focused full-time on fighting for Olympic berths.
“I felt like I wasn’t able to do the things that I should be doing to up my performance, like getting enough sleep or taking the time to cook and prepare healthy meals,” recalls the athlete now based primarily at the York University national team centre. “I had moments where it made me really anxious and stressed because I knew if I was going to pursue my dreams, this would be the year that I had to do it.”
Last-chance Olympic qualifier
When Brown’s ban was finally lifted this season, she was left with a short timeframe to hit the time standards required for Olympic qualification.
Leading up to the July 7-10 Canadian team trials in Edmonton, she hadn’t yet done that.
Even though it was her last chance, Brown found that all the anxiety she’d experienced evaporated come the women’s 400 m final.
“It’s weird because I went into the final with this sense of peace,” she recounts. “I was just like, ‘Well, this is my last opportunity and I’ve worked so hard to be here.’ I just focused so much on trying to remain calm, working on my breathing, trying to have fun, live in the moment, and just run with heart.”
Needing a top-2 finish and a time under 52.20 seconds to secure a spot in the Olympic 400 metres, Brown produced a personal-best performance of 51.84 to finish 2nd and book her place on the start line in Rio.
“It played out perfectly,” highlights Brown, who felt strangely “numb” after the race, not truly comprehending that the moment she’d long visualized had actually occurred.
“It wasn’t until I saw friends and family and my coaches (including the Lions’ Andrew Pagé) post-race and they were really, really excited – that’s when I kind of realized what it was that I had done,” adds the member of Canada’s 4×400 m Rio relay team. “The opportunity to compete at the Olympics and to represent Canada on an international stage is a dream I’ve had since I was really young.
“It’s such an honour and I feel so privileged and blessed to be able to do so.”
Though it was her fastest race ever at the trials, Brown senses there could be more to come.
“I’m strong and I’m healthy right now and I couldn’t really ask for anything else,” she signals. “I think it lines up perfect for bigger and better performances.”
For all that she’s been through, Brown says that there were a few positives to take from it: she’s learned a lot about herself and about people along the way, and she’s become a stronger person mentally and emotionally.
“I think these are all things that ultimately helped me get to where I am today,” Brown underlines. “There were a couple of times where I was asking myself, ’Is this whole journey really worth it?’
“Now I can confidently answer, ‘Yes.’”
Advice to young aspiring Olympians:
“The biggest advice I have is to dream big. That was something that my parents instilled in me at a very young age. Just dream big. Don’t give up for anything. If you want something, work really hard and go for it. Write down your goals, see them everyday, and work toward realizing them, and honestly, anything is possible.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.