PREP WDNESDAY : Steroids Are Risky Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A report released last Friday by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 262,000 adolescents, mostly boys, have used steroids.

Today's Prep Wednesday examines the issue from three perspectives--a former powerlifter who used steroids, a former high school and community college player who used them, and a local high school football program that stresses weightlifting and proper nutrition in building bulk without additives.

Richard Sandlin set several powerlifting records in the early 1980s, but now he wishes he could have done it alone--without the help of anabolic steroids.

Sandlin, a former competitive powerlifter and assistant strength coach at Alabama, used steroids to supplement his weight training for nine years.

He began using them in 1975, during his senior year in high school in Alabama, to increase bulk for football. He said steroids nearly killed him in 1983.

"The thing I regret isn't so much taking them, but that I didn't know about the psychological and physical side effects," Sandlin said. "Back when I started using them, we didn't know anything about them.

"I was told by my (strength) coaches that they were super vitamins, and that the Russians and East Germans were all using them. I thought they were Vitamin D pills at first. I didn't know what I was getting into."

He soon learned.

Anabolic steroids, synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone, stimulate a buildup of muscle mass, tissue and protein in the body.

The drugs, which are taken orally through pills or by injection, are legally given to cancer patients, burn victims and geriatric patients with brittle bones.

But they're also being taken by athletes who want to increase body mass to improve their athletic performance.

They're commonly taken by football players, weightlifters and discus throwers.

A report released last Friday by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 262,000 adolescents, mostly boys, have used steroids.

But surveys at Penn State and Michigan State universities estimate that nearly 1 million U.S. high school athletes are using steroids. Other reports have shown athletes as young as 10 use the drugs.

Sandlin, 32, owns a Tuscaloosa, Ala., company that produces medical software for nutrition and fitness programs. He receives several calls a week from high school athletes, coaches and parents from all over the country, including Orange County, asking about steroid use.

"The parents and athletes don't want to hear the sweet talk," said Sandlin. "I talk to them about nutrition and other alternatives, but they want to know how to use the steroids. I tell them how to use them properly, how to avoid some of the problems."

But some problems can't be avoided.

Sandlin tells his callers that carving a perfect physique has its risks when drugs are involved, something he learned the hard way. He tells them doctors have listed as many as 70 reactions and side effects of steroid use, including:

--heart disease.

--cancer.

--gallstones.

--coronary artery disease.

--depression.

--vomiting of blood.

--liver disease.

--kidney disease.

--jaundice.

--combative behavior.

Sandlin quit using the hormones in the summer of 1983 because they damaged his kidneys and liver.

In April of that year, he was hospitalized for 20 days with kidney problems.

Steroids caused his body to produce an overabundance of uric acid. The acid crystallized in his kidneys, causing gout. He said his kidneys appeared bruised and were three times their regular size.

After being released from the hospital, Sandlin continued using steroids in his training against the advice of his doctor.

But three months later, Sandlin was hospitalized again. This time, steroids and growth hormones caused problems with his liver. Complications from those problems nearly killed. That was when he decided to quit using steroids.

Because it's illegal to use steroids without a prescription, many athletes obtain them through other venues, such as the black market, doctors, friends and mail order.

Sandlin said he got the drug through an underground network. Most of the steroids come from 20 laboratories in the United States and Europe. Most young athletes get them from friends at private gymnasiums or through illegal drug networks in Mexico.

Many of the steroids on the black market contain unknown and unexpected contents, Sandlin said.

"Kids are buying things that aren't real," Sandlin said. "It's all a scam."

In testimony last March before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Sandlin said stricter federal legislation and other governmental action are crucial if steroids and related drugs are to be kept out of the hands of youth.

"Steroid abuse is the most alarming drug problem in athletics," Sandlin told the committee, "and lack of a concentrated effort over the last five years to focus on this issue has led to the problem from peewee football players to professional athletes to Olympic medalists."

The temptation of increased bulk not only makes steroids attractive, but also difficult to give up, Sandlin said.

"The biggest side effect is psychological," he said. "You become very, very dependent on steroids."

The Department of Health and Human Services study said adolescents are at special risk when taking steroids because their bodies are still developing. Among the risks cited in the report are stunted growth and long-term dependence on steroids.

Sandlin said athletes depend on the steroids for a mental boost.

"They think they're a tower of strength that can't be crushed--until they are," he said. "It's a superhuman attitude you get."

Sandlin said he had mood swings when he took steroids--one week he would be upbeat, the next week depressed.

"There's no free lunch in athletics," he said. "To feel mighty high for a lot of weeks (on steroids), you're going to feel low and depressed for a lot of weeks after that."

The mood swings are especially dangerous for teen-agers.

"When you're 14 or 15, you're just learning about your emotions," he said. "When kids take steroids at that age, they can get very, very depressed, even suicidal. I've had a lot of calls where kids ask me, 'What am I doing to myself?' "

But young athletes view the side effects as a small price to pay for success, Sandlin said. The pressure from parents and coaches drives athletes to improve performance, he said.

Coaches want to improve winning percentages with bigger, stronger players. Parents know that size and strength are crucial to earning Division I athletic scholarships for their children.

"This (steroid use) will continue as long as we have this vicious cycle with performance being the only basis of reward," said Sandlin, who added that the pressure to use steroids begins even earlier than high school.

"I got a call one day from a father who said his son was playing football and was getting ready for the conference playoffs," Sandlin said. "He was curious about steroids, because he thought if his son could get bigger, a little more aggressive, their team could win the championship."

Sandlin asked the father if it was a high school or college playoff game.

"He told me, 'No, it's peewee football--my son is 10 years old,' " Sandlin said. "It's just sick."

The Department of Health and Human Services report estimates that 262,000 students in grades seven through 12 are using or have used steroids, based on a 1989 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The report estimates 5% to 11% of teen-age boys use steroids. Among girls, the range was 0.5% to 2.5%.

The report, based on interviews with 30 doctors and 72 current or former steroid users, as well as a review of recent studies, said steroid use among the young appears to be increasing.

A 1990 survey showed similar figures. The survey, conducted by Michael E. Gray of the National Youth Sports Research and Development Center at Northern Kentucky University, showed that as many as 200,000 U.S. athletes between the ages of 10 and 14 have used steroids.

Gray's report showed that 78% of the athletes surveyed had heard of steroids, but only 49% were told about the drug's psychological and physical side effects.

Sandlin said many parents, athletes and coaches have misconceptions about steroids. They're unaware of the side effects and think the drugs directly enhance an athlete's performance, he said.

In reality, steroids only increase the body's recovery ability and regenerate tissue, he said. They don't necessarily increase strength.

"It's not one of these things where you pop a pill in your mouth and you're strong," Sandlin said. "You have to bust your butt."

But as the bulk increases, so does the risk.

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