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Perspectives on doping in pro cycling: Inga Thompson

In her first in-depth interview, Inga Thompson recounts her experiences with the U.S. national team, doping and the Olympics

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Editor’s note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his partner Joe Harris spoke with 10-time national champion Inga Thompson for this second installation in a series of in-depth personal narratives about the impact of doping on the lives of people within or now outside of the sport of pro cycling. Thompson also wrote an opinion piece for VeloNews in 2012, detailing her belief that a clearing house is needed to come to terms with doping in cycling.

Read the full interview.

Mention the name Inga Thompson to a modern cycling fan, and you might get a raised eyebrow. “Inga who?” But to fans and observers of the sport from the 1980s and early 1990s, Thompson was perhaps one of the most successful and influential women in cycling. From her meteoric debut on the American scene in 1984, to her final major race – a dominating victory in the 1993 U.S. Women’s national championship road race – Inga proved herself to be one of the greatest women’s racers the sport has ever seen.

And yet right after that 1993 championship, Thompson quietly packed up, moved away from her long-time residence in Reno, and for almost 20 years severed all ties with the sport and the people with whom she trained and competed. She didn’t even touch a bicycle. The woman who dominated U.S. cycling for nearly a decade, carrying on where Connie Carpenter left off after the 1984 Olympics – a woman who had lived and breathed cycling, and inspired others to take up the sport – simply hung up her wheels and vanished.

In 2012, Thompson finally broke her silence of almost 20 years, by contributing an opinion to VeloNews on corruption in pro cycling, tersely stating her position on why she would never let her own son compete in the sport. While she now occasionally posts online in various forums, this is the first detailed interview with Thompson since she decided to end her self-imposed exile, and comment publicly on the challenges facing the sport.

The following interview contains several deeply personal and confidential aspects of Thompson’s life leading up to 1993, and because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, some names have been withdrawn from print.

The Outer Line recently caught up with Thompson after she had completed an evening run around her home in eastern Oregon.

The Outer Line: You don’t even sound winded! Thanks for reaching out and agreeing to speak with us.

Inga Thompson: Running has always been a love, but really skiing is where my heart is! It’s really beautiful out here where I live, and sometimes it’s hard to stop once I get going. It’s like a mini Switzerland here at our ranch in Hell’s Canyon, with lots of snow-capped peaks looming right over the property, it’s just so picturesque, and you can get lost pretty quickly! I can tele-ski right out my back door.

TOL: Inga, let’s establish some early background – not many modern fans will remember who you are. When and how did you start getting interested in cycling? Competing? When did you really start to figure out that you were good at it, and that you might be able to turn it into a career?

IT: I was always athletic as a kid. I started out running – it was something I was just good at. I ran all through high school, mostly cross country, but also the mile and two-mile. By the time I graduated, I’d won nine individual state titles in the 3A school division, which was the largest school division at the time in Nevada. I think a few of my state records are still standing! I got a scholarship based on my running skills, and then went to Cal Poly SLO for engineering (the California Polytechnical University at San Luis Obispo – editors).

I kept running really hard through my freshman year at school. I got fourth at the division 2 collegiate nationals, so I knew I was still progressing. But in my sophomore year, I started getting injuries and had to slow it down. My ankle was a bit of a mess. Some friends of mine I knew from high school – they were bike racing at the time – suggested that I start cycling with them. I used to ride around on an old 40-pound Schwinn on campus, to and from track practice. And I was so naïve at the time that I was still riding on the sidewalks! Anyhow, there was a long climb near where I was living at the time, and we’d be riding up that way together, so I’d drop them and then disappear behind my house. It’s funny to think about that now; I’d just vanish at the top of the hill and they must have been a little curious! At first I was riding the bike just to keep fit, but then I began to realize that I was pretty fast compared to a lot of my friends.

Eventually I did get a nicer bike. One day I had to take it to the local shop and the same guys were there, and they suggested that I enter a race. I did, and I won that race. And I won the next one. And the one after that! I would just ride to the front, go really hard and hang on. I didn’t know anything about tactics yet, but once I started switching to cycling, things all started to come together for me physically. In only my fourth race, I participated in an Olympic qualifier event, and my sixth or seventh race ever was the actual Olympic Trials road race. I was awarded the alternate spot for the 1984 women’s Olympic road team. It was only after Cindy (Olavarri) tested positive for steroids that I actually got selected. Connie (Carpenter) invited me to ride with her road team before the Olympics Trials to gain experience, and I remember we did a criterium in New York; it was the first one I’d ever done and I didn’t understand the tactics at all. I suffered like a dog! It was a humbling day, but I was learning quickly.

I was recently reading some old articles on what makes the perfect cyclist. Some physiologists or coaches did some comparisons and basically laid out a blueprint of what you need to make the perfect rider. I went and pulled my old diaries after reading all this and realized why it just clicked for me. I was perfect for cycling: I love to keep my heart rate up at 190 BPM—I just seem to thrive there! I’m 5’10” tall, but I have super long legs, with really long femurs, about a 35” inseam. My resting heart rate was about 46 BPM, and from my old physical exams, my hematocrit was naturally 46.7 percent year-round.

So, looking back, I know I could have done more, if it was a level playing field, if the coaching and management were different. There are a lot of things that could have gone differently. Where do I begin?

TOL: Let’s start with your experience with the coaches. Who were some of your key earlier coaches or mentors, and what impact did they have on you?

IT: I had learned to be careful around coaches, even before I started cycling. Let me go back to that
ankle injury in college. Cal Poly SLO was a really big school in track and field running, and the points the runners earned were important for our national ranking. My ankle had been hurt pretty seriously that first year, and it was slow to heal. I visited with the team doctor and was given a choice: rest it, then gradually return to training and competition, or take a corticosteroid shot in the ankle and run right through the injury.

My father was an orthopedic surgeon, and he was a fantastic resource for me whenever I need good medical information. So I knew the corticosteroid injection – I mean, right into the ankle – could do way more damage in the long run, to the bone, the ligaments, everything. I’d just be hammering damaged tissue and not really letting it heal. I was convinced that just plain rest would be the right thing for the injury. But the coach pushed on me hard to take that injection. I objected to it probably just as hard, and for my trouble, I got kicked off the team. At that moment, I realized that it was all about just adding “points.” The coach, the Cal Poly SLO program – everything was about the points. The coaches seemed oblivious to my long term health, relative to an ankle that could deteriorate and leave me crippled when I was older; I learned right then that athletes can be disposable.

From that point on, I tried to be my own coach as much as possible – and I tried to do the same kind of thing once I took up cycling. I had some guidance from my father and my friends early on, but once I made the Olympic Team, it was almost the same situation as SLO. In fact, when I got to that level, there wasn’t much interaction with the coaches. My first – and only – conversation with Eddie B. was: “You strong like horse, you work for Rebecca.” (Eddie Borysewicz, former US Olympic Cycling and Polish national Team coach, telling Inga to ride in support of then leading national rider Rebecca Twigg in the Olympic road race – editors.)

TOL: What are your early memories of riding for the U.S. national team program at that time?

IT: Even in 1984, my brief exposure to the national program just made me want to avoid that world as much as possible. I have the same impression now that I did then – I just wasn’t ever going to be a “chosen one.” And I believe it was primarily because I refused to take a blood transfusion before the Olympic Games – because they thought I was too independent or “strong-willed” or whatever – there’s really no other way to describe it.

To explain that in a little more detail, I found out about the blood-doping plans during the Coors Classic earlier that year. That race was basically our last big tune-up before going to Los Angeles. One of the managers of the Levi’s-Raleigh team, I don’t recall who, told us that the national coaches would be coming around to ask us if we’d be willing to participate in the blood-doping. Well, I said “no.” And I think that because of this – because I refused to submit to their authority on this – Eddie B. basically decided he would do everything he could to get me to quit. Those coaches didn’t want anyone on the team who threatened to think for themselves.

Right after this, on the rest day of the Coors Classic, we were all tired, just dog tired and I was looking forward to getting a day off and recovering. The Coors Classic was a really hard race and it was my first real stage race ever. Well, at breakfast that day, one of the national coaches takes me aside and says, “Eddie B. wants you to motorpace today.” I said, “Motorpace?” I’d never motor paced before in my life. So here we are, on the rest day of what was at the time, the hardest stage race for the girls, and I have to go out and do a motorpace session on the coach’s orders? All the other girls get a day off, and I’m behind the motorcycle for I-don’t-know-how-long. I went and did it, but it absolutely fried me; I was just completely run down from it. I don’t know how I survived the rest of the race, but very soon after the Olympics I got really sick. I was in and out of the hospital for six months after that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which was misdiagnosed due to a cerebral inflammation and some kind of infection. In fact, I really didn’t fully recover until 1985.

But the underlying message to me of this whole experience was, “if you aren’t going to be part of our core team, and do what we tell you to do, then we’re going to burn you out or run you off of the team.” Some of the upper-level athletes get blood doping and rest, but for everyone else, they tried to burn them out, to get them to quit. I felt I was basically at war with the program because I refused to participate and play into the doping part of it.

My impression now is that Eddie B. was the father of the American cycling doping culture. But it wasn’t all about Eddie B.; there were plenty of people already in place that wanted the doping to happen. These people had to go out and find Eddie, and even if it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody like him. I don’t know if they thought, “This is what it takes to compete against the Europeans,” or if they were trying to take a shortcut to catch up with the Russians before the 1984 Olympics – I can’t say. But I was in the middle of it, and I think I paid for it, too.

When I think back to that time in my life, it reminds me of a recent dinner party my son and I went to. I offered a glass of wine to my son, and I got an earful from someone about giving alcohol to a minor – about how the law says I’m responsible for anything my son does to himself or other people if he’s under the influence. So here we are today, in a culture where adults are finally responsible or frowned upon for giving alcohol to a minor. Fair enough. But in sports, if a coach is doping an underaged athlete, there’s no real ban or punishment for those people, or for the higher-ups who let it happen or encourage it. How is it that USCF (United States Cycling Federation) coaches can dope teenagers and have the evidence legally sealed, but a drug dealer would go to jail? And I could suffer legal repercussions for supplying alcohol at the dinner table? It makes no sense at all.

I think there have to be stronger penalties. Sport is a privilege, not a right. I was privileged to represent the United States, privileged to have competed against the best, ridden with so many incredible teammates, and to be able to prove myself. It’s stunning that there aren’t tougher penalties for the habitual dopers, the dealers, and the enablers. Those who encourage it seem immune to punishment. We’re ready to blame that underaged doper, but not the coaches and administrators who make it happen. That’s what it was like for me. And it got worse.