What if chemistry could help you surf for more hours with less fatigue? What if, when it came time to surf a crucial heat you could find a little extra?
I’m at a surf contest and a well-known pro is walking in my direction. He has the trademark short-legged, wide-shouldered physique of the sport’s best athletes.
He’s leaner than I expect, every lineament cut deeply. As he passes, I catch sight of an over-long jawline and a slight hunch in his back.
Maybe he was born that way, but I can’t help but remember how human growth hormone (HGH), which athletes use to increase lean muscle mass, causes bones to grow suddenly and at uneven rates. Athletes well past the age of puberty acquire new shoe sizes. Jaw lines extend precipitously. The synthetic hormone tattoos the pitfalls of performance-enhancing drugs on an athlete’s bones.
Surfing’s tight relationship with recreational drug use is well-documented. Doping for performance in surfing, by contrast, is generally dismissed as impossible. A recent article in The Surfer’s Journal by Kyle DeNuccio, for example, places surfing squarely in the realm of art. Toke up in the parking lot or drop acid, but surfing remains immune to athlete’s little helpers such as growth hormone or steroids.
The elements of good surfing, it seems, don’t come from a needle, but how exactly do you acquire skill and style on a surfboard?
Normally, you get good at surfing by doing it for as many hours as you can. That simple truth opens the way to making it a sport like any other where doping’s invisible hand can push some surfers farther down the line than others.
The tug of temptation.
Doping isn’t a magic wand. You don’t instantly become a better athlete as soon as you eat the cookie. Instead, most performance-enhancing drugs allow you to train more, recover faster, or pop the intensity for a single session.
What if chemistry could help you surf for more hours with less fatigue?
And what if, when it came time to surf a crucial heat you could find a little extra? Surely, you would feel a tug of temptation.
Of course, doping can severely fuck up your health.
The thinnest membrane separates doping for performance from long-term addiction. Side effects, such as joint damage, can shorten a career even as the successes pile up. And you may not really know what’s in the products you’ve purchased from the internet’s dubious purveyors.
In the long run, we’re all dead, but there are numerous ways to hasten the process. Doping is one of them. When cycling first discovered EPO, which increases the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, no one knew how much to use. Inject too much of the drug, and your blood turns to sludge, your heart stutters to a stop, and you die. Riders would set their alarm clocks at night to ensure that they were, in fact, still alive.
Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race offers a detailed guidebook doping’s hellscape. If it doesn’t give you pause, you are a far less squeamish person than I am.
In theory, testing puts firm limits on a competitive surfer’s ability to dope, especially if they have Olympic ambitions. The reality is more complicated. The WSL anti-doping policy allows for unannounced testing at any time. Athletes are required to keep their addresses up to date (known as “whereabouts”) and be available for testing at any time. A violation can lead to a four-year ban. Lesser offenses – if you can prove you ingested the substance unintentionally, for example – may only carry a one-year sanction.
When JP Currie looked into how often surfers are tested, he found noticeable disparities. Steph Gilmore and Kanoa Igarashi, for example, appeared to be tested more often than many of their competitors. The answer is probably a simple one. Olympic hopefuls are typically tested by their home country’s anti-doping agencies. As national team members, Gilmore and Tyler Wright, for example, would likely be tested by the Australian anti-doping agency (ASADA) in addition to the WSL.
Doping sounds like a pretty dumb thing to do if you’re a high-profile athlete. Why lose a shot at the Olympics and four years of prize money for short-term gain? In his Surfer’s Journal essay, DeNuccio argues that the lack of positive tests means that “very few” traditional performance-enhancing drugs pump through the veins of pro surfers. This may be true, but it’s also true that testing is a long way from perfect.
The limits of testing
Designing a water-tight anti-doping program borders on impossible. Anti-doping researchers chase a moving target as athletes turn to ever-changing cocktails to evade detection or find an extra edge. Every substance metabolizes at a different rate, so testing windows can vary significantly. Some anabolic steroids remain “testable” for many months and are easy to detect. Other substances, such as EPO, disappear without a trace in a matter of days.
You have to get tested at just the wrong time to get caught. The WSL’s doping policy allows for up to three whereabouts violations per year, which means you could, intentionally or not, miss up to three tests. Spin the globe and find a remote island with clear water and perfect reefs.
Let the testers try, if they can, to find you. I text the whereabouts clause to a source with first-hand knowledge of doping for performance.
“I can’t even wrap my head around that,” he says.
Evading detection would be “so easy.”
The history of anti-doping enforcement, meanwhile, rumbles with allegations of corruption. A conflict of interest is baked into the process when a sports league polices itself. If you never understood the Lance Armstrong story, that reality lies at the heart of it. If you’re a sponsorship-driven sport, do you really want one of your biggest name athletes to test positive?
Such stories are impossible to confirm, but rumors whisper of “drain testing” in which samples are collected, but never tested. A source tells me about an athlete (not in surfing) who’s serving an unannounced suspension. He says it’s not the first time he’s heard of the practice. A dead grandfather, a long illness, or a tricky injury can all interrupt an athlete’s career. They can also serve as credible cover stories for an enforced vacation from competition.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing needle-wielding monsters under every bedframe. Sometimes, things are exactly as they appear to be. Other times, the most cynical explanation you can imagine can’t touch the reality. Welcome to the hazy, shady world of sports doping.
Pick your poison
You’re a pro surfer with a solid, if not amazing career. Last year, you requalified, but it was a far closer thing than you’d have liked. Too much travel, too many heats, too many hours trying to score clips. And sure, you partied a bit, too. Everyone does. Good waves got you psyched, sure. Too often, it all felt like a fucking slog.
One of your friends, though, man, that bro is always on. Super fit. Always charging. You wonder how he does it.
– Um, so bro, you seem really good this year? What’s up?
– Yeah man, got a new chick, she’s super into health food. Been doin’ some yoga, you know, just livin’ it!
You’re skeptical. Yoga?
Even if the health food chick is truly your buddy’s secret weapon, you’re pretty sure you’re out of luck on that front. Time is short. The season starts soon.
You’ve heard talk of other, easier options. You remember this one time before a heat, a team manager gave you some of his allergy pills. Corticosteroids, he said. They’ll give you energy. You felt like you could do anything, like walk up walls and shit. You literally wanted to kill your opponent, which was a little scary. You were also weirdly too hot the whole time. But you won. That part was pretty great. There was something about it being bad for your joints, but maybe you could get some more of that stuff. It felt pretty good.
You lie back on your couch, open Google, and begin to search. You’re a little wary. You don’t want your dick to fall off. After all your hopes of finding a hot yoga chick of your own aren’t totally dead. But surely there’s something out there that’ll help.
A bodybuilding forum hosts a detailed discussion on the infinite variants of anabolic steroids. Doses. Cycles. It’s all a foreign language. You’ve heard steroids lead to hair loss, acne, and rage, but your new online besties tell you that newer compounds have fewer side effects. Build muscle, improve recovery! This is exactly what you need. You’ve always imagined that anabolics would make you huge and creepy. Turns out, it’s all about the dosage. A small dose plus consistent training will turn you into a lean mean surfing machine.
Excited, you read more. Oh. Most anabolics will trigger drug tests for months after ingestion. Well. That would be so, so embarrassing. Like, how are you going to tell your mom you tested positive? Also, the yoga babes would be so grossed out. But you were actually only tested once last year. What if you just disappeared? There sure are a lot of islands in the world.
But there’s more. When you finish your round of anabolics, you’d have to buy some female hormones to balance things out. Now that you think about it, you do know a guy with an unusually girlish ass. Exactly like a peach, not that you were looking or anything. Back when you were groms, he was such a tiny little fucker, too. Then suddenly he became a jacked up, big-wave charger. Too much honey on his Cheerios, for sure. You definitely don’t want to wind up like that guy, but you’re not super excited about the prospect of taking girl hormones.
Synthetic Testosterone, maybe this is better. Lean muscle mass and an energy boost. Sounds good. You might not have to order it from a sketchy online dealer if you could convince your doctor to give you a prescription. Oh yeah, man, I’ve been feeling so tired lately. On second thought, you’re probably a little young to play that card. Ebay. T patches. $40. Seems like a bargain. The testing window looks relatively short, so maybe you wouldn’t have to tell your mom you tested positive.
You’re convinced that your perpetually jacked friend has to be doing something more. A week or so ago, you heard some older bros in the lineup talking about HGH. You’re not even sure what that is, but they claimed it helped them gain muscle mass and recover more quickly. “I feel young again!” You’re already young, but the lean muscle mass and sped up recovery sounds amazing.
You check back in with your friends on the bodybuilding forum. Human Growth Hormone. They have all the information you need. You just need to find a supplier. You try to figure out if you’ll test positive, but it’s too confusing. What if you got lucky and weren’t tested at all? It’s not like you’re going to the Olympics or anything.
Bone growth. Cancer. Side effects are such a buzzkill. Your friend’s feet do seem like they’ve been looking larger lately. But he’s also fucking crushing it out there. With all that beautiful prize money, you could easily buy new shoes. And if you were super cut, the yoga girls would be so into you. If you’re careful, you probably won’t get cancer, right?
It’s not like you’d be trying meth like the big wave guys. They say it feels like you see things before they happen. You’re so hyperfocused. You actually want to throw yourself down a giant wave face. Thanks, but no thanks. It’ll keep you warmer, but a better wetsuit sponsor sounds a hell of a lot better. If you’re honest, everything about meth scares the shit out of you. You’re pretty sure you have an addictive personality and it would all end badly for you.
Your relationships are bad enough. There was that girl you dated who was really into triathlon. Fuck, she was so maintenance. Always bitching and moaning about how the other girls were definitely on drugs and that’s why she wasn’t winning every race. You learned not to argue. EPO. That’s what she was always talking about. The same stuff that guy Lance reportedly used. Well, you aren’t exactly looking to win the Tour de France, but if you could win a paddle battle without turning your lungs inside out, that would be pretty great.
EPO increases red blood cell production which means more oxygen delivered to the muscles. How many turns could you do at J Bay if your legs never got tired. Fuck, that would be a dream. You’d be totally fresh the next day, like none of it even happened. You could hit the gym more often, too. More turns, more airs! You’re gona be a clip machine!
Though it leaves the body quickly – look, mom, no failed doping control – EPO’s good vibes stick around a while, unlike your last girlfriend. You’re a little scared of needles. The website where you carefully enter your credit card number looks super skeevy. You figure it’s worth the risk. If you could just win something, you know? Maybe just once you could win something.
The reality is some athletes dope and get away with it. It happens more than anyone involved in sports would like. And let’s be clear. An extra, artificial boost of energy will help in just about any sport you can imagine, even the wild, artful dance of surfing.
That is not to say that everyone is doing it. In the world of elite sport, unicorns are the norm. By its nature, top-level sports involve feats of athletic performance that aren’t easily imagined. Higher airs. Bigger turns. Giant surf. We watch from our couch in wonder, recognizing that we would never be able to do those things. Pushing boundaries is the point of the game. But some of that pushing is almost certainly happening with a little help from chemical friends.