I have some personal news I’d like to share: I’m doping. With performance-enhancing drugs, even. The same kind that got tennis star Maria Sharapova banned from the professional tour for 15 months, and the reason she needs tournaments like the US Open—which starts today in New York—to offer her wildcard entries so she can even compete. Maria and I, sisters in meldonium.
I’m not a professional tennis player, nor was I ever one, though I did play tennis in college and made a grand total of $75 in professional tournaments, all of which I had to give back to remain eligible for a full athletic scholarship. I still compete in United States Tennis Association leagues (which don’t drug test—yet). But I’m 37 and my best playing days are two decades behind me.
I never even thought about taking performance enhancing drugs—my ambitions just aren’t that grand, and I’m frankly too lazy to go to the trouble. But as the publisher of an independent tennis magazine, I am asked about Sharapova’s ban all the time. Was it fair? Did the drugs actually help her performance? When a friend who had been traveling in Riga jokingly brought me back a box of Mildronats, a Latvian brand of the generic drug meldonium, it seemed like a good way to find out.
For the record, meldonium is not illegal (or “scheduled”) in America, nor is it banned specifically by the USTA. But it is a heart drug I don’t need that came with instructions written solely in Latvian. The English-language recommendations for use—helpfully sent to me by someone who follows my tennis podcast—indicated that I should take two 250mg capsules on days of high-intensity training, and double that in competition. So that’s what I did. And guess what? This drug rules.
Meldonium is a drug that was developed and still mostly manufactured in Latvia, though you can buy it elsewhere in eastern Europe. It was developed to enhance growth in poultry and livestock, but its main use in humans is to treat ischemia, a condition where plaque buildup restricts the flow of blood to the heart and through the body. Because it dilates blood vessels, it can also improve endurance and recovery, which seems to be why athletes use it. Since I do not have ischemia, my intake of meldonium would be purely performance-enhancing.
I spoke to a cardiologist from the University of Pennsylvania Health System who chose to remain anonymous, given that he was advising me on an if-not-illegal then possibly immoral plan.
“The heart preferentially burns fatty acids as its primary fuel, and meldonium hijacks the mechanism that allows the fatty acids to enter the cell, and allows for glucose to become the primary source of energy, “ he told me. “Glucose is a little more efficient than fatty acids, it uses it less oxygen, so it wouldn’t take a leap to figure out why doctors started looking at it for athletes to use.”
When I asked him why the drug wouldn’t be made or prescribed here in the US, he conjectured the reasons may include a lack of confidence about Soviet-era animal studies, as well as an underwhelming commercial potential.
“This might not be available here because a U.S. drugmaker wouldn’t want to spend the R&D money to develop it because they think that probably can’t make money off of it.” But when I asked him if this implied it was safe, he chuckled. “Asbestos looked safe, but 25 years later, look what happened!”
Sharapova claimed that in 2006, a family doctor prescribed her meldonium for a host of ailments, including irregular EKGs, a family history of diabetes, and a magnesium deficiency. In the fall of 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) added meldonium to its list of banned substances, set to take effect on January 1, 2016. A drug test conducted during the Australian Open in January detected the drug in Sharapova’s system. At this point the story becomes less plausible, as the normally fastidious player said that her team hadn’t reviewed the updated list of banned substances. This got her a two-year ban from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which was later appealed down to 15 months.
Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in her essay, “The Reselling of Maria Sharapova,” that Maria had few defenders.
Serena was graceful, noting Maria’s “courage and heart.” Serena’s best friend, Caroline Wozniacki, chose pride over tact, saying that “as athletes, we always make sure there’s nothing [we take] that could put us in a bad situation.” Maria was not, in this formulation, one of the “we” who are athletes. According to Kristina Mladenovic, “all the players were saying”—and apparently had believed, or had wanted to believe—“she’s a cheater.” The New York Post ran a helpful explainer titled “Why Everyone in Tennis Hates Maria Sharapova.”
Maria’s not what you’d call a “locker room favorite,” but others in the tennis world were less harsh than her fellow players, arguing the drug likely didn’t actually boost performance that much, anyway, and noting (correctly) that nobody had bothered to calculate how long meldonium stays in the system—a defense that has worked in overturning other athletes’ bans.
The US Open marks Sharapova’s first Grand Slam appearance since her return—the French Open and Wimbledon notably declined to give her wildcards into their main draws. It’s also the time of year that the USTA leagues culminate in regional and then national championships. And who happens to be on a qualifying USTA team and is willing to brush aside concerns about taking a non-prescribed, non-FDA regulated heart medication from Latvia? Me, that’s who.
This season, my “advanced” recreational team came in first place in the Metro Region (New York City) of the Eastern Section, so we earned a spot to compete in the sectional tournament against other regional winners. As there aren’t a ton of players at my level, the sectional came down to just two matches played in one day up in Albany. The winning team represents Eastern at the national competition in Orlando in October. So the stakes were relatively high.
I decided to use my box of 20 pills strategically, first dosing at 500mg a day for five days before our competition. when I knew I’d be practicing relatively intensely, and then double that on the day when I somehow managed to schedule two sessions in a single day—a feat basically akin to winning a Grand Slam when you live in Manhattan and are a parent with two jobs—and the same dosage on the day of the competition.
I told as many people in my league as I could that I was taking meldonium, both so I could ascertain whether or not it was banned and to see whether they’d think I was an asshole for taking it. (If I’m really honest, there was maybe also a subconscious third reason, which is that if I had some kind of cardiac event on the court and was rendered speechless, my hitting partners could inform the paramedics.) Of all the people I managed to tell, nobody thought I was an asshole, but they uniformly thought I was an idiot. One, a radiologist named Karen whom I’ve played a handful of times this season, called the whole thing “very dumb.”
In the first few days of doping, I didn’t notice much of a fitness boost—I was maybe a little less winded than usual doing cross-court/down-the line drills, but nothing I’d describe as revelatory. But as I kept playing, I started noticing a more important effect: I wasn’t sore or stiff, at all.
Usually playing two days in a row is enough to make me hobble around for a day before scheduling an appointment with my applied kinesiologist and a visit to my Tui Na lady. A year ago, an MRI showed that playing too much tennis (and all the other stuff I do like carrying strollers and running occasional half-marathons, poorly) added up to cause three slipped discs in my back. Ever since, soreness and stiffness have haunted me. But not with meldonium.
According to the cardiologist, this makes sense “because it makes your body more efficient at using oxygen during exercise.” He also theorized that I was feeling the effects of meldonium reducing the production of lactic acid, though the science behind lactic acid’s role in muscle soreness is far from settled.
I went into our Albany competition with unbridled optimism, knowing I’d put in enough time on the courts to sharpen my game while still feeling fresh enough to be supremely confident I wouldn’t be outworked—important in most sports, but especially tennis. In the end I played fine, but I felt amazing, not encountering my usual back fatigue on serve toward the end of each match or feeling my shoulders and neck start to stiffen up as I cooled down afterward. It felt like a revelation. So much so that the first thing I did after my team swept the day, securing a spot at nationals, was figuring out how I’d procure my next box.
So what did I learn? That performance-enhancing drugs are good and people should take them? A little bit, yeah, I did learn that. But everyone I talked to, from my anonymous doctor to the friends in my league who got over laughing at me to actually consider the merits (or demerits) of the experiment, all concluded that this was probably a lot of placebo effect at work.
“They say 30 percent of any drug’s effectiveness is placebo,” the cardiologist said.”You’re deciding it’s helping, so it does.” That’s hard to argue against. But I can confidently say it helped me, and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t help athletes at a high level in some way—either through increasing their confidence or their cardiovascular facility.
But it still doesn’t change the fact that I never felt particularly upset by the news of Sharapova’s doping. What distinguishes a legal supplement from an illegal one, a relatively untested one like this, makes me believe there are probably a lot of athletes using things that are presently legal in a way that blurs the lines. That some unlucky players get made examples of because they aren’t well liked, or because they can be used to scare people without actually forcing bodies like WADA to do the hard work of testing, re-testing, and studying the effects of supplements that can be found legally in drugstores across the world, or because professional sports leagues dare not face the idea that the dopers’ science will always be ahead of the testers’.
So as she takes the court this week, I’ll be rooting for Maria Sharapova to go deep, mainly because she paid a very steep price for something she readily admitted and because we now share a deep sacred bond—we’ve both had the iffy Latvian heart drugs pumping through our veins, making us feel—for fleeting moments anyway—like invincible on-court warriors.
Caitlin Thompson is a co-founder of the independent tennis quarterly Racquet.