Vencill Emerges From Outcast’s Shadow
In a blink -- pushing off the blocks, knifing through the water -- there was no anger or sadness, no frustration, none of the emotions that had dogged Kicker Vencill for so long.
There was only swimming, a stretch of blue, a sprint to the far wall.
“My mind went blank,” he said. “First time in two years.”
For that long, Vencill had been an outcast in his sport, suspended from competition, treated as a pariah by some, after testing positive for a banned substance.
But this wasn’t like other cases in the news, cyclists caught with vials of performance-enhancing drugs, former baseball players admitting to steroid use. From the start, Vencill claimed that a nutritional supplement he was taking, a multivitamin, had somehow been tainted.
Earlier this month, a Santa Ana jury believed him, ordering the vitamin’s manufacturer to pay him $578,635 in damages. It was a moment of vindication for the world-class swimmer, if only the first step toward resurrection.
On an overcast morning Friday, the 26-year-old returned to competition, racing in the 50-meter freestyle at the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine.
“I wanted to prove something ...” he said. “I wanted to show that I wouldn’t quit, not even after two years of living hell.”
It was January 2003 when Vencill received notification of a positive test from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
His claim of innocence was not as far-fetched as it might have seemed at first. In 2001, an international study examined 634 supplements and found that 15% contained steroid precursors, a building block that the body converts into steroids, not listed on the label.
This contamination can occur during manufacture or through use of tainted ingredients, experts say.
A private lab detected trace elements of precursors in Vencill’s vitamins, but he ran into an international policy known as “strict liability.” In effect, elite athletes are responsible for anything in their bodies, no matter how it gets there.
It didn’t matter that authorities believed his story. His spot in the Pan-American Games was rescinded. He was not invited to the Olympic trials.
“He had a lot of people turn their backs on him,” said his fiancee, Beth Botsford, who recently retired after a swimming career that included two gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games. “I couldn’t imagine what that felt like.”
For a while, Vencill kept getting up early each day to train. But he could not keep his spirits up forever. “You read over and over that you’re a cheater,” he said. “You begin to think: Am I?”
Two things turned him around.
First, Botsford laid down the law. With the end of his suspension in sight, she said: “You need to swim again.” Even if only for one race, even if he came in last, she wanted him to finish on his own terms.
“If you don’t, you won’t be right with yourself,” she said. “And you won’t be right for me.”
At the same time, Vencill’s civil case, unrelated to his athletic suspension, reached trial.
The verdict, hailed by some anti-doping experts as a milestone, placed an onus of responsibility on the largely unregulated supplement industry.
Vencill felt justified.
“Some people might still doubt me,” he said. “But that jury voted unanimously.”
He had already resumed training, struggling through tough days, slowly regaining form. He was back to his old self, counting the days until he could compete again. Not that it would be easy. Vencill wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked into the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Complex on Friday.
What he got was a lot of people coming up to him, smiling, clapping hands, offering encouragement.
“What he went through ... it’s lonely and it’s embarrassing,” said Bill Schalz, coach of the Academy Bullets team from Chicago. “It’s awesome to see him swim again.”
Botsford cheered from the stands, wearing a T-shirt that read: “Kicker Vencill’s #1 Fan.” She said she was more nervous than she had been before any of her races. She wasn’t alone.
For all his career, Vencill had stayed calm at meets. Now, 15 minutes before his preliminary, his stomach churned. He had been through so much and wanted so badly to swim well.
When race time came around, he was so excited that he swam the entire 50 meters without coming up for air. His eighth-place finish was not great, but his time of 23.72 seconds qualified him for the nationals this summer.
An hour later, eating a steak sandwich at a nearby cafe, Vencill could not stop smiling and talking about what it felt like to get back in the water.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said.
Easier to explain what it wasn’t. No more sadness or doubts. No more anger or apprehension. Only swimming.
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