But the pressure to perform better than the next person isn’t limited to the players at the top who earn multi-million salaries and employ a cadre of trainers, coaches and dieticians. Use of performance-enhancing substances, legal and illegal, extends all the way down to local high schools, where young athletes dream of one day joining the elite.
“Oh yeah, there is use around here,” said Anthony Trucks, who owns Trucks Training in Brentwood and spent two years in the National Football League. “Everybody wants everything now. There’s no patience. They take everything now, and they don’t care about the repercussions.”
Before high school athletes in California can represent their schools in competition, they must sign a no-supplement clause that pledges abstinence from all supplements but electrolyte drinks and water. But this simple act does little to combat the nationwide problem of steroid and performance-enhancing supplement use among high school athletes.
Former Olympic gold medalist Eddie Hart of Pittsburg, who still works with East County youth, said he knows kids as young as middle school that have taken steroids. “There are all kinds of crap going on,” Hart said. “Even right now, there are people in labs somewhere trying to come up with the next thing.”
East County athletes aren’t alone in their use of supplements to increase performance. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, 12 percent of male high school students and 1 percent of female students have used anabolic steroids by their senior year.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common performance-enhancing drugs used by teens are creatine, androstenedione, dehydroepiandrosterone and anabolic steroids.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the hormone testosterone used to build muscle mass and increase strength. Androstenedione and dehydroepiandrosterone are substances the body converts into anabolic steroids. According to the clinic, creatine enhances recovery after a workout and increases strength and muscle mass.
While anabolic steroids might make your muscles bigger, they come with a slew of side effects, said Ron Arp, who works with NFL legend Dick Butkus in directing the I Play Clean program, which encourages high school students to embrace proper nutrition, training and attitude instead of resorting to illegal steroids.
Anabolic steroids alone can cause sexual side effects, physical development problems, emotional and suicidal tendencies, skin lesions, bad breath and early damage to the liver and circulatory system, Arp said. The joints and ligaments around the muscles that become bigger are also unnaturally strained.
Frank Marrero, president of the Efrain Anthony Marrero Foundation based in Vacaville, knows all too well the impact steroids can make on an apparently normal athlete. Marrero’s son committed suicide three weeks after he stopped using steroids to increase his performance on the football field. Marrero has since dedicated much of his life to ending the abuse of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs by youth in America.
“You may have to work out longer, and you may have to sweat more, but in the end you’ll feel better,” Marrero said. “You’ll be prouder of your accomplishments, and your efforts will pay off by staying with you longer and prolonging your life by being healthier and stronger.”
Since many of the legal supplements sold at nutrition stores are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), they pose their own health risks. “Anybody can put anything on the shelves,” said Trucks.” You or I can go to Mexico and purchase creatine and all this other stuff they mix up in a barrel, put it in a container, take it down to a place like GNC and put it on the shelf. As long as the store approves it, it doesn’t matter.”
The only time the FDA gets involved, said Trucks, is when a complaint about a product is filed.
Freedom Athletic Director Steve Amaro said students and their parents are briefed on the danger of all performance-enhancing drugs and other supplements at the school’s athletic introductory sessions and throughout the season.
Amaro has found no evidence of performance-enhancing drug use by Freedom athletes, but can’t rule it out completely. “Bottom line is: we as coaches and parents need to work together to know what our kids are doing,” Amaro said.
Athletes caught with steroids are dealt with as if they were caught with any other type of illegal drugs, Amaro said. If caught, students become ineligible for regular team practice or competition for the rest of the school year, a policy all schools in the Liberty Union High School District follow. The Antioch and Pittsburg school districts follow similar policies.
Despite what local experts say about the rate of performance-enhancing drug use by high school students, the students themselves deny they are using them.
Absolutely not,” said Freedom freshman Arttrell Rankin, a player for the school’s freshmen football team.” It will get you off track and ruin your career if you do that.”
Opinions vary about why so many athletes are turning to performance-enhancing drugs. Hart believes athletes who rise to the top of their sports have become increasingly glorified in today’s society, making the allure of reaching the pinnacle of sports worth anything.
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has made about $20 million this year, and the performance of Ugandan gold medalist Stephen Kiprotich at the Olympics earlier this year has turned him into a national hero back home.
“Who doesn’t want that kind of life or even something close to it?” Hart asked. “Their success changes their whole world. It changes towns, villages and their lives.”
Hart said he never took performance-enhancing drugs, but steroids were used by athletes at the University of California, Berkeley when he attended the school in the early ’70s. Later, he learned of steroid use by Russian runners – and weightlifters from other countries – at the 1972 Olympics, where he won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay.
The allure of reaching the top of a sport at all costs was strong even back then, he said.
A poll released near the time of the 1972 Olympics revealed 100 percent of athletes said they would take steroids or performance-enhancing drugs if it would make them elite performers even if they were to die five years after taking the drugs, Hart said.
It’s hard for today’s young athletes to abstain from performance-enhancing drugs, Hart believes, because they see their competitors using them to achieve success. “The problem is: these kids see their competition doing it,” Hart said. “During competitions, it’s not like fellow competitors are better; it’s like they’re on some kind of drug.
“You can do it right the right way (without using performance-enhancing drugs) but it’s an uphill battle.”
Trucks believes that young athletes’ vulnerability to outside influence helps explain their use of performance-enhancing drugs. “Whatever looks cool, high school students are going to follow suit,” he said. “It’s weird, but it’s also laziness.”
The problem is amplified, according to Hart, by coaches’ eagerness to rise in their own ranks by encouraging the use of performance-enhancing drugs by their athletes.
That’s what happened to Kelli White, a former sprinter from Oakland. After winning two gold medals at the World Championships in Paris in 2003, she was stripped of those medals a year later for failing a drug test. All of her performances dating back to 2000 have been disqualified.
White later admitted that she took unknown substances starting as a young runner under the advice of her coach, in whom she had total faith.
“These kids don’t know,” Hart said. “It’s the influence of people they have full and complete trust in. For many of these budding athletes, these coaches are some of the most influential people in their lives.”
Although Trucks never took steroids, he did take a lot of protein shakes and was drawn to several products with catchy marketing campaigns during his time in the NFL and college. If he’d wanted to indulge in steroids during his NFL career, he said, it would have taken him about an hour to find a supplier.
Trucks said performance-enhancing drug use can be eradicated with simple education. Since becoming a personal trainer – certified in speed and agility, youth fitness and youth nutrition – he’s come to realize that nearly all supplements are irrelevant to performance. “Most people don’t understand a supplement is meant to supplement your food,” he said. “You’re supposed to eat something and take a supplement on top of your food. What people want to do is have these supplements replace their food and get all these massive gains.”
What the human body needs, according to Trucks, is the benefit of components found naturally in food – components such as amino acids and carbohydrates. If athletes can formulate a plan that conforms to this principle, and eat the same way every day, the benefit will be five times greater than through any supplement.
The gains in performance generated through diet and exercise – as opposed to performance-enhancing drugs – stick with athletes. “When you get off the supplement, you lose everything,” Trucks said.
Athletes tempted to use performance-enhancing drugs, said Marrero, should remember his son – just an average high school student striving for success before steroids took him to life’s finish line far too soon.
“There are no shortcuts,” Marrero said. “Just visit my son’s gravesite and ask him.”