Clearing the conscience after coming clean

Athlete Alvin Harrison stands to speak about the lures of using performance-enhancing drugs and other obstacles in the way of keeping sports clean. Harisson spoke at the 2007 Anti-Doping Congress on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky. On stage with Harrison were athletes, from left, Tara Cunningham, Genai Kerr, Nathan Piasecki and Kelli White.

? Kelli White knows she doesn’t have to talk about it anymore.

She knows she could go to her job as a marketing manager at a Stanford, Calif., mall and nobody would ask her about steroids or BALCO or why she ruined her track career by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

“One thing about being a professional track and field athlete, nobody knows what that is,” she said. “They just know it during the Olympics. They’re like ‘Oh, did you go to the Olympics?’ and I’m like ‘No, I didn’t.”‘

The conversations usually end there.

No need to talk about testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug modafinil at the 2003 world championships in Paris, where she won the 100 and 200 meters.

No need to explain why she fell into the trap, how she got involved with BALCO founder Victor Conte and why she asserted her innocence for months even as the evidence mounted against her.

Yet there White was this week, more than three years after her last race, speaking before the 2007 Anti-Doping Congress about the lures of using and the obstacles to making sports clean.

Ask her why she continues to talk about her failure when so many others hide, she shrugs her slim shoulders and says she just has to.

“The pain is so deep, it’s important that I tell you ‘Don’t go there, don’t even bother,'” the 30-year-old White said.

Yet even as she preaches, she wonders if the message is getting through. The life of an elite athlete is so lucrative, she thinks some will dope no matter what the cost.

“You can make $300,000 a year running. That’s amazing,” she said. “That wasn’t even possible (when I started). So to get that kind of money, you’ve got to do certain things, and I don’t think that’s deterring anybody from cheating. No one thinks they’re going to get caught, ever.”

White certainly didn’t. She said she began taking modafinil to help get over an injury in early 2003. When her 100-meter times dropped from 11.2 seconds to 10.9, she didn’t stop.

After three years of trying to make it as an elite sprinter, she found herself being flown all over the world to meets and treated like a star.

Along the way she heard all the messages about the dangers of taking performance-enhancing drugs. It didn’t matter. She said she’d write a $700 check for an EPO injection from BALCO and head back to the track.

“Sports for a lot of people are a way out of ghettos and bad situations and things like that,” she said. “And it becomes a ‘by any means necessary’ thing.”

It’s that kind of mentality that the Anti-Doping Congress is attempting to address, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said.

The congress, which met in Louisville for two days this week, focused on ways to make the use of performance-enhancing drugs unappealing, hearing from a variety of experts, including doctors and athletes who offered opinions on what it would take to clean things up.

The goal, ultimately, is to punish those who violate the doping policy and salute those who do things the right way, Tygart said. Doing so could create a trickle-down effect that USADA hopes would have a positive influence on children so the few who do achieve world-class status won’t make the mistakes White did.

“The reality is athletes at the elite level, they are the role models for our kids,” Tygart said. “There’s no better way to send a clear message of the importance of playing true and playing with integrity than having leadership at the top level of the sport.”

Yet the problem is more complex. As USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency keep trying to improve testing methods, the cheaters become more sophisticated. White passed countless drug screenings before being caught and isn’t sure a mix of tests and talk will be enough.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face. But when someone is faced with ‘Man, this is life and death, this is my future,’ it makes it different,” she said.

White trained with sprinter Alvin Harrison, who was banned for four years in 2004 for doping violations, but the two never talked about drugs.

“It’s an unspoken thing,” she said.

Until it’s too late.

White watched Marion Jones’ tearful press conference earlier this month after she pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators in 2003 about using performance-enhancing drugs.

“I know that feeling, how empty you feel, and you just kind of feel like ‘Gosh, am I ever going to get through this? Am I ever going to get over this?'” she said.

It took White a long time. She still runs and completed her first half-marathon in San Francisco earlier this month. Her time? A not exactly blazing three hours.

“It’s embarrassing,” she said, laughing.

But when she crossed the finish line, she knew nobody would be whispering about how she did it. Her conscience, at last, is clean.

“I regret the things I’ve done,” she said. “But I don’t regret the things that have come after. Hopefully I can teach people about what not to do.”