Shayna Jack is ploughing through the water, following the black line up and down the pool, as she has for most of her life. Always wanting to go faster and then faster again until she is the fastest freestyle swimmer in the world.
It is early afternoon in Brisbane, and she is glancing up at the clock. Not to check her speed but because she is here on borrowed time. Jack can’t be anywhere near any swimming squads or registered coaches. Ostracised from the sport that has been her life, she has to swim alone during public hours.
Once a prodigy, now she is fighting to ever swim competitively again, her reputation in tatters.
“One day,” she tells Australian Story, “I was an elite athlete and the next day everything that I knew had been taken away from me in one moment.”
Jack’s swimming career unravelled on the eve of the 2019 World Championships, when she received the results of a routine drug test. She had tested positive to the banned substance Ligandrol.
Her coach Dean Boxall will never forget that day, saying Jack was “hysterical”.
“Shayna couldn’t talk … she basically knew what this means, what this means to fail the drug test — you’re out,” he says.
Within 24 hours she had left the training camp in Japan and was on a flight back to Brisbane.
Jack has since been fighting to clear her name and save her career, as she finds herself at the centre of a debate at the highest level of the world’s sporting authorities about rules that many believe are condemning innocent athletes.
In her corner is the man who finally brought down cyclist Lance Armstrong, US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) CEO Travis Tygart.
Mr Tygart says Jack tried to comply with the anti-doping rules at all times.
“To call that person the same drug cheat as someone who is part of the state-sponsored system in Russia is just simply not fair. It’s not right,” he says.
He has spoken out against “an inherently unjust system” that treats all athletes as intentional cheats, regardless of the individual circumstances.
“We’ve had dozens of cases where athletes are dealing with low-level positives caused by meat contamination or intimacy with a partner, multivitamin, mineral or supplement contamination,” Mr Tygart says.
“The rules then demand that an athlete who has a positive is automatically assumed to be an intentional cheater that deserves a four-year sanction.”
Mr Tygart believes doping rules are not keeping pace with technological advancements that are picking up minute traces of banned substances that have no performance enhancing benefits for athletes. And certain classes of drugs, which include Ligandrol, are continuing to show up at these very low levels which suggests there are avenues for inadvertent ingestion.
“The only question is going to be how many innocent athletes are railroaded before the rules finally change?” Mr Tygart asks.
‘I never intentionally took drugs’
Jack has been swimming competitively from the age of six. Fifteen years of going up and down that black line. Sacrificing Christmases, holidays, family and friend milestones. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice one good day of training for a party,” she says. Sacrifices she willingly made “for that dream”. For that ultimate moment of glory: the Olympics. And she was getting so close.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Jack had been part of the world-record-breaking 4×100-metre freestyle relay team that had won gold. In the lead up to the 2019 World Championships she was strong, she was ready.
“I had trained harder than I’d ever trained, I had done more kilometres in the pool, I had more time in the gym,” Jack says.
ABC senior journalist Tracey Holmes says it was, “Probably going to be one of those moments when she erupted onto the world stage and potentially become a household name”.
Jack became a household name alright, but not for standing on the podium with a medal. Instead, the headlines that erupted were about drug cheating and scandal. And instead of being the pride of her country, full of adrenaline and happiness, there was shame.
Jack has vehemently denied intentionally ingesting anything that could contain the minute concentration of Ligandrol, an anabolic agent that has the same effect as steroids, that were found in her urine.
“I had no idea what it was. I had never heard of it before,” she says.
She does not know how it got into her system.
“I knew I didn’t take any drugs and I knew I’d never been in a situation to even come close to taking drugs,” Jack says. “There’s no way I took a tablet that I didn’t know or a protein that I hadn’t checked.”
Jack has always understood there’s “no tolerance” for drugs in sport.
“They make it very clear that if something is in your body, it’s your fault,” she says.
“Even if you took it from somebody else or someone gave it to you, you’re still at fault if it’s in your body.”
Olympic medal-winning swimmer Cate Campbell has defended her friend, saying Jack would never intentionally take a prohibited substance to enhance her performance.
“If you’re an Australian swimmer I do not believe it is possible to systematically dope,” Campbell says.
“We as athletes fall under one of the strictest anti-doping policies in the world.”
Under the World Anti-Doping Code, athletes are bound by the principle of strict liability, which means the starting point in a case like this is guilty.
Tracey Holmes says from there they have to fight to have their ban reduced.
“They really want you to come forward and prove how that got in your system. You will still be guilty. Even if you can prove it was unintentional, you will still get a penalty,” she said.
Jack’s lawyer Tim Fuller says she made a significant effort to identify the source of contamination.
“She had her supplements checked, she examined things such as nail polishes, teeth whiteners, medication. But none of those resulted in finding as where the substance entered her system,” he says.
She sent chunks of her hair overseas for examination. “It cost me $6,000.”
The results showed that there was no long-term use of prohibited substances.
Drugs in Jack’s system a ‘one-off event’
In September last year, Jack’s case was heard by Sydney QC Alan Sullivan in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The hearing was presented with an expert report commissioned by Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) — Australia’s anti-doping authority — which stated that the amount of Ligandrol in Jack’s system was “pharmacologically irrelevant”, meaning it was not performance enhancing.
The report also stated the substance was likely to have entered her system within days of the test being taken.
“What was ultimately revealed at the court was that it is impossible to know how the substance got into her system. She was not a prolific user of supplements. And the testing showed that Shayna did not demonstrate a long-term use of any prohibited substances. So it’s a one-off event,” Mr Fuller says.
At the hearing, three theories were proposed: she ingested contaminated protein powder, she was contaminated by someone else’s protein shake or that Jack touched a Ligandrol-tainted surface in a pool or gym.
In his findings, Mr Sullivan found Shayna to be a highly credible witness who on the balance of probabilities had not intentionally taken a banned substance.
Travis Tygart says Jack’s case exposes the cracks in the system.
“What struck me about the Jack case no performance benefit, no intent. Not even reckless, did everything she could to abide by the rules but yet she’s branded a drug cheat and given a two-year suspension and lucky not to get a four-year.”
World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) founding president Dick Pound is more uncompromising.
“Everybody who’s caught doping says, ‘I have no idea, I never knowingly took anything, I don’t know how it got in my system’. There’s always an excuse,” he said.
“If the substance is found in your body, you are responsible for what’s in your body.
“You’re an experienced international athlete [and] you know there’s a World Anti-Doping Code. It sometimes seems unfair, but that’s the deal.”
SIA and WADA have appealed the CAS decision, seeking to reinstate the four-year ban for Jack. Coach Dean Boxall believes that would end her career.
“A four-year ban for a swimmer is nearly like a death sentence. For her to try and come back after four years… you’d have to have a bit of luck on your side.”
In a statement to Australian Story, SIA said its decision to appeal was, “based on the need for clarity in the application of key anti-doping legal principles”.
It stated low-level positives can happen for a number of reasons including micro-dosing, the test being conducted at the end of a doping cycle and supplement contamination.
The agency states that there is no evidence of legal supplements being contaminated with Ligandrol in Australia and it is a more common problem in other countries, including the US.
Meanwhile, Jack’s career remains in limbo until her next appeal is heard mid-year. The mounting legal costs and ongoing uncertainty have taken its toll on her.
“I don’t want other athletes to have to go through what I’ve been through. One day someone’s not going to get through it,” she says.
Fellow athletes have watched her case with trepidation.
“I’ve been very upset by this whole thing, by the fact that it could have possibly been me, how Shayna has been treated,” says swimmer Cate Campbell.
“If you’re competing under this threat of if a minor trace of a substance gets in your system and this is how you’re going to be treated, it’s not a good message to be sending to our young people.
“That’s not about protecting athletes.”
Watch Australian Story’s Fish Out of Water , 8:00pm (AEDT), on ABCTV and iview.