Former cyclist Greg Strock says he was systematically doped by his American coaches as he raced in Europe as a junior.
When Greg Strock looks back at what could have been an outstanding pro cycling career, he says he feels more than nostalgia. Along with the good memories is a mix of frustration, disenchantment and even anger.
In 1990 Strock hit Europe as a 17-year-old racer and began tearing up the roads in Spain. By April of that year, he traveled to Brittany, France, joined up with the U.S. national junior squad and started down a path that he now says stopped his career in its tracks.
Not long after moving into the senior ranks — with a spot on the U.S. national team’s A squad and an amateur deal with the Banesto team in hand — Strock began to experience the first signs of a mysterious illness that eventually caused him to leave the sport. He quit cycling and focused, instead, on academics, eventually moving on to the University of Indiana medical school.
But last summer, as Strock readied himself for his fourth and final year at med school, he made a critical decision to file a civil lawsuit against his former coach René Wenzel and Wenzel’s then-employer, the U.S. Cycling Federation. Strock says he was prompted by the lawsuit of former U.S. Olympic Committee anti-doping director Wade Exum, who charges that the USOC has systematically covered up doping cases in the U.S.
Strock alleges that Wenzel, and at least one other coach, regularly injected him with cortisone — the immunosuppressant prescribed to transplant patients — and possibly other drugs. All of it allegedly occurred while Strock was a minor.
Not long after filing suit in Federal District Court in Colorado, Strock accepted an offer from VeloNews to discuss just why he would sue a former coach, mentor and even friend more than a decade after the two had worked together. We agreed to allow Strock’s attorney, John Pineau, to sit in on the interview. Pineau interjected only once during the hour-long conversation.
VeloNews offered interview opportunities to both named defendants in the case. Under advice from his attorney, Rene Wenzel declined, adding that he intended to defend his reputation in court. USA Cycling attorney William Senter said he had yet to see Strock’s amended complaint and felt it inappropriate comment until he had. VeloNews will keep those invitations for interviews open.
VeloNews: I guess we can start with the most common question out there: Why wait 10 years?
Greg Strock: Really, the question should be “Why two years?” because it’s been two years since I realized what really took place … the cause of the end of my career. When my cycling career ended, I put my energies into going to school and then med school. It was in my second year of med school, in my pharmacology class, that I actually started studying the things that had been done to me and that’s when it hit me.
For the duration of my time on the team, I was told things were “vitamins” and “extract of cortisone,” things to help me recover and cleanse my system. Every single time I asked, “Is this legal? Is this safe?” because up until that point, I’d never even taken a multi-vitamin, I don’t think. I just kinda ate well, trained and went with it. So, when needles started to get involved I was leery. It was repetitively preached to me that it was safe, legal and these were vitamins. I mean how can you question vitamins? And I had no idea that there was no such thing as “extract of cortisone.”
VN: How old were you at the time?
GS: Seventeen. All of these events took place in 1990, so I went from being 17 at the beginning of the season to 18 in the middle of the year.
VN: So it was 1998 when you started thinking about what had happened?
So, then why two years?
GS: Yes, it was late November 1998. My wife and I had several serious discussions about the events and the implications of ever coming out with this. In fact, she was fairly frightened and I was not as concerned as she was, but I did worry about what the repercussions might be if I ever did go public with my story. I guess we were both a little scared.
Certainly it wasn’t the sort of case that you could walk down to your local attorney in small-town Midwestern city.
I didn’t feel comfortable with it, because I didn’t know which avenues to pursue.
How it came about this year is that, in addition to now knowing about the pharmacology, I’ve been spending time learning about medical ethics and then I heard about the Dr. Exum case. I saw that actually on your Web site, in July.
At that point, I felt that if I ever was going to pursue things that would be the time to do it. I had an attorney of mine here in Indiana make contact with John Pineau.
GS: Back to the timing real quick. Already people are connecting dots between Lance and me, which is inappropriate. We were staggered as juniors — he was a year older than me and never fell under this coach (Wenzel). We were teammates as juniors and then again on the senior national A team in ’91. But the timing of filing the suit is not planned to coincide with what is happening to Lance right now. I went to John (Pineau) in July and I had no idea that any of this French investigation was even happening. My point is that people really shouldn’t equate any of this with him. These two cases really have nothing to do with one another.
VN: So the Exum case triggered it for you. Had you ever had any contact with him or the anti-doping staff at USOC before that?
GS: Sure, when racing, I had called out to their hot line to see if a certain decongestant was okay. I’d heard of Dr. Exum only through that.
Yeah, really other than the couriers that escort you at the end of an event, I hadn’t had much contact with them.
VN: You had never called the anti-doping line to find out, for example, whether “extract of cortisone” was legal?
GS: No. No. The only time was in connection with a decongestant my family doc gave me. It was ’92 when I called the drug hotline and did so because my family doc prescribed a decongestant, and I felt he wouldn’t know what was on the list, not to mention they had done some education sessions since ’90 teaching us to call the hotline. I laugh because I wish I had, but didn’t really consider it an issue, as it had been preached to be legal and was given to me by a national team coach.
VN: What about your motivation in this case? Beyond the realization that you, yourself might have been doped, what’s your motivation for coming forward and filing suit now?
GS: In general, the American public has a very difficult time trying to imagine the kinds of things that occur as far as elite athletics in this country is concerned. You know that everyone points fingers at the former Eastern Bloc countries and now the Chinese. We can’t stand to look at things in our own backyard and we need to.
Ethically, the fact this occurred to minors is… is atrocious. Even legitimate physicians can’t do this sort of thing without parental consent, let alone people who have nothing but a high-school education.
VN: Your parents were never approached?
GS: No. No.
VN: For example, you refer in your complaint to a letter from Jiri Mainus promising that you would “have full medical care” and be “under the supervision of their coaches.” Was that ever relayed to your parents? Was there a release form that accompanied that letter?
GS: I think the only release form that was ever issued was in terms of general emergency care. And that letter was addressed to my parents.
And the best I can recall there never was a licensed physician with us at the junior world championships, where the most systematic doping took place.
VN: Do you still have that letter?
GS: Yes, I do and I believe John (Pineau) does.
VN: Is there a chance that we can get a copy of that letter?
Pineau: – Uhhhh… Yes.
A lot of people would look at this and say that you only have a financial incentive and that you’re suing to make a buck.
GS: A financial incentive in terms of recovering damages? Yes, but that’s the only way that they can be punished in a civil case.
VN: One question that was raised at Wade Exum’s press conference was whether he would settle (out of court) if such a settlement imposed something of a gag order on him. Would you make a financial deal, if that involved a requirement barring you from speaking about this in the future?
GS: From the very beginning, I thought there was a possibility of a settlement, but I always stipulated that even if we did settle, I wanted to be able to do one tell-all interview with a widely read publication.
I felt an ethical obligation to do that.
VN: So, you had to settle for VeloNews, instead, huh?
GS: (laughs) No, no, no… I didn’t mean that.
Really, I felt that the story needed to come out. I wouldn’t be comfortable settling without ever getting the story out.
I don’t think that’s going to be an issue now … they’ve given no indication of doing the right thing at this point.
VN: Before filing the case, were you in contact with any of the defendants?
GS: Sure. After I quit competing, I served two years on the USCF board (of trustees), ’94 to ’96.
VN: Actually, I meant in relation to this case and specifically have you been in contact with any of the defendants or potential defendants prior to filing the suit, regarding the allegations? I am asking specifically about USA Cycling, René Wenzel or any others.
GS: No. In fact, the last time I talked to René was about two years ago, when I first started coming to the realization that they had done that to me.
He and I had remained friends for a few years after I quit cycling. I called him (in 1998), I guess, hoping that in the midst of a friendly conversation he would say something that might give me the strength to go forward with this. I thought that since I was now moving into the medical profession, he might say something about what had happened.
VN: Did you specifically ask him about it? Did you ever say “Hey what the hell was that in those syringes?”
GS: Oh no. I never did accuse him or ask focused questions. I guess I wondered what he might think of an old friend, an old cycling colleague, who was now in the medical profession. I figured that if he had asked anything unethical of me at the time, it might give me a reason to go on with it … to go to the authorities, but that never happened.
So at that time I didn’t ask him, but, of course, back in 1990, I was always asking what was in the syringes.
VN: You say in the complaint that when you did raise questions regarding that, your own career was put into question; your own commitment to the sport was put into question.
GS: Correct. The first incident occurred in Brittany, France, in the spring of 1990. I had just come from a race campaign in Spain and met up with the rest of the team in France.
I’d had a bout of strep throat and had been on antibiotics.
I’d been winning in Spain, but upon coming to France, I wasn’t performing as well as anyone had expected — including me. I was distressed and asked René about why I wasn’t performing well. He suggested I stop the antibiotics that had been prescribed by a medical doctor, because he thought that they were impeding my performance. He also then met with a French citizen — and I don’t know what, if any, medical training he had. It was there that these substances were acquired, including these glass vials, injections and pills.
VN: Do you know who that French citizen is?
GS: I have no idea. I wouldn’t even recognize him if I saw him today. I just remember seeing him off in the distance after a race, René explaining my situation to him, and them then coming up with this “treatment regimen” to help me recover from my illness and help me prepare for the Dusika Tour in Austria.
I had never had other — beyond vaccinations as a child — any shots and certainly nothing involved with cycling. So, I was not comfortable with needles and asked multiple questions repeatedly, asking, “Is this legal? Is this safe?”
The answer was always the same: “No, no, no … not an issue … don’t worry, these are vitamins. This is extract of cortisone.”
And that questioning persisted whenever this occurred, including and especially when it became much more frequent … when we were getting up to two, three injections a day during the course of the junior world’s.
The scolding got more stern at that point — especially at junior world’s — when I was told that I shouldn’t be wasting this kind of energy asking all of these questions. It was made clear that if I wanted to excel as a professional, I had to have absolute trust in my coaches and trainers, in that pros on the Tour don’t waste this kind of energy asking their trainers all the time what it is they are giving them.
VN: In the two years since you came to realize that you were possibly doped, have you had any thoughts as to precisely what it was you were given?
GS: Well there is what they described as “extract of cortisone,” which I am now sure was cortisone, that’s an immunosuppressant. And then look at the pills we’d find stuffed into our energy bars. There are certain kinds of drugs that would give an advantage if consumed during an event.
If you look at the circumstances, pushing pills into energy bars….
VN: When did that start?
GS: That started in France, too.
VN: I notice in the complaint, that you weren’t the only one who noticed that. Other team members mentioned that, too?
VN: Have you had anyone corroborate that?
VN: The one incident that gets raised most frequently when people read this complaint is that time in Spokane, Washington – August 22, 1990:
“Wenzel represented to Strock that they were going to the other coach to get Strock injected with more of the same substance that had been earlier identified as ‘extract of cortisone.’
The other coach produced a briefcase, placed it on a stand at the end of his bed and opened it. The briefcase was filled with ampoules of drugs and syringes. The coach selected an ampoule and syringe, inserted the needle into the ampoule and drew out a liquid. Strock laid face down on the bed and was injected in the upper part of his buttocks. As Wenzel supervised, the other coach was the last person Strock saw holding the syringe before he was injected.”
You don’t mention the name of the other coach. Do you know who that coach is?
(and at that point, Strock’s attorney interrupts and clarifies that his client cannot mention the other coach’s name and declined to say why.)
VN: Was there a point at which you were tested, while you were on the team?
GS: In terms of doping, USOC?
GS: Yes, but only a few times.
VN: As far as you were aware, was there ever any advance warning of those tests?
GS: No. I didn’t see or hear any evidence of that.
VN: Did you ever test positive?
GS: If I did I was never notified. I assume not then.
VN: Were you tested internationally, for example at world’s?
GS: No. I was not tested. I guess I didn’t place high enough to make an issue of it.
VN: But even at those times when you were eating energy bars with pills in them, you weren’t being tested?
GS: No. These weren’t as big of competitions, say, world’s. They were fairly big European events, but if they did have testing, I didn’t get called.
VN: Were you ever given instructions that you might now see as ways to beat a possible test?
GS: Knowing what I know now, yes.
VN: And what were those steps?
GS: I was given pills after an event and then told to drink large quantities of water.
VN: So it was a diuretic?
GS: I would strongly suspect that was the case. Of course, we were told that it was okay, that it was just something to help us recover.
VN: I want to jump back to what you were talking about a little bit earlier. You mention that when you became ill, that after a long time, doctors finally diagnosed you with a viral infection — human parvovirus.
In your complaint, you point out that “Medical studies have concluded that this virus has an 85-percent correlation with testicular cancer.”
You’ve never been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Lance Armstrong has and I believe that part may be the source of most of the speculation about Armstrong and why some have jumped to conclusions that you were alluding to him by including that paragraph.
GS: I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s an important clarification.
First off, people need to realize that testicular cancer is the most common cancer among young men. I certainly don’t think people should reach that conclusion about Mr. Armstrong.
That particular paragraph was included for my own concern — present and future concerns. Any physician who hears about my diagnosis would first say that it is quite rare to see such a symptomatic case of Parvovirus in an ordinarily healthy young Caucasian male. It’s almost unheard of to see the kind of symptoms that I suffered. In that population, it’s usually it’s a viral infection that is no big deal. This is consistent with an immunosupressed state.
It can be serious in African Americans who suffer from sickle-cell disease or can cause complications in pregnant women.
I included that (paragraph) because there have been a few recent studies — and it’s still relatively new research — that shows that a significant percentage of germ-cell tumors have the virus present.
It’s a common virus, but most people don’t show symptoms. But, given the fact that I was so immunosuppressed and showed so many serious symptoms, I wanted to make note of it if I encounter more problems down the road.
VN: What kind of long-term concerns beyond that do you have?
GS: I have a lot of concerns. It goes back to what I said earlier. There was a point where we were getting two, three injections a day. I may never know … there is a very good chance that I may never know everything that was given to me. We are trying to find out as much as we can.
I think very few people — thankfully — are ever in a situation like that, where they don’t know everything that has ever been injected into them. Other than the cortisone and the other things we are working on at this time, there still may be stones that we’re unable to turn over, because some of that was overseas and multiple trainers…. I may never know and for that reason, I’ll always be concerned about my health.
VN: What was the initial diagnosis when you fell ill?
GS: Yeah. Well, at one point, they were concerned because I was immunosuppressed and tested me for AIDS. Then it was thought I had lymphatic cancer and biopsies were done. And finally, they found a serious viral infection from what they later found was human parvovirus. Like I said, it’s unusual for a young healthy male to suffer from symptoms like that. In this era I also suffered from thrush (an oral yeast infection), most often seen in those who are immunocompromised, and a very severe case of Bell’s palsy. Bell’s palsy is a facial paralysis that is not uncommon and is thought to be caused by a viral infection. 90 percent of those with it have full recovery; I didn’t. So you can see some common things affected me in uncommon ways, which is typical of an immunocompromised state such as induced by cortisone.
VN: Have you ever discussed any similar symptoms with anyone else on the team?
GS: I think most of them knew I had pretty serious health problems, but by the time it got serious, a lot of us had gone off in different directions.
VN: Did you notice any of your teammates suffering from similar symptoms?
GS: Not at the time. When my symptoms got severe, I was already on the Senior A squad. My former junior teammates were in different parts of the world. I did hear — secondhand — that one of my teammates was experiencing health problems. At the time, I didn’t have any details.
VN: You mention that a few of your teammates have gone on to fairly lucrative careers in cycling. You point to six-figure salaries and ten-year-long careers, for example. What makes you think you would have been that good? I mean, for most juniors, cycling doesn’t exactly open up the financial floodgates. What makes you think that you would have achieved a similar level, given that you left the sport at, what, 21?
GS: Well, when I was 18 I had a contract with Banesto — an amateur contract with Banesto. Most of that was based on my strong performances in Spain, especially.
Back then, typically, one junior a year went on to the senior national A team. The rest usually ended up on the B squad for their first year. I was the only first-year senior on the A team. That was in addition to having a contract with Banesto that year.
That, on top of three junior national championships and 12 total junior championship medals.
There are also a lot of physiological parameters by which you can measure a rider’s potential. I was told back then that I was one of the best they’d ever seen.
VN: Really? What was your VO2 max?
VN: That counts as good.
So are you still involved in the sport?
GS: Just in the last couple of years…. I have just started riding a little recreationally. As you might imagine, when I left the sport, I was disenchanted. I guess, I just turned my energies to my studies. I rode periodically back then, but only in the last couple of years have I gotten a little serious … at least in the summer months. I don’t like riding in the cold all that much.
VN: Have you discussed this with your parents?
GS: Yes, I certainly did this summer and fall. My mom is especially bothered that she ever let me participate in the sport.
VN: These days, the federation is talking about establishing feeder systems, finding talented riders, doing camps and developing the system by which we can again develop a whole group of talented young athletes. If you had kids….
GS: Never. I would never encourage my son or daughter to participate in cycling. If it was something they had to do and it was their passion, I wouldn’t stop them. I would certainly never encourage them to participate in elite athletics. At least until I was comfortable that they have taken the whole system apart and started from ground zero.
I couldn’t tell them “no” if it was something they loved, but I couldn’t encourage participation at the elite level … especially in an endurance sport and especially cycling.
VN: The federation’s position has been to express a degree of surprise and promise a full investigation….
GS: That’s interesting to me, because they’ve been saying that since September and I still have yet to see anything from them. No evidence of an investigation. Nothing. Zero.
When we were on Bryant Gumbal’s “Morning Show” (in September), Dr. Joyner promised an investigation. As far as we know, not a single cyclist from that team has ever been contacted.
VN: One of the things that he said in that program was that René Wenzel was fired (in 1992) after they discovered that he was involved in doping. Have you seen any other evidence of that?
GS: Only that and combined with the fact that he was released — or fired — under mysterious circumstances.
VN: You were never notified that he was fired for doping?
VN: What do you see the federation’s role in this?
GS: I don’t know if they were actively promoting it or not. It’s certainly something we hope to find out.
Certainly when they realized it, they never took any steps to let any of us know. At the very least they should have informed us, pulled our parents into it and been as open as possible. They should have acted just like any responsible organization after discovering that the people they were in charge of had committed physical or sexual abuse. In my eyes, they had an ethical obligation to that at a minimum.
I think that some of the people in charge now have inherited this mess. There have been changes. Maybe not everyone knew about it, but certainly some did.
I find it interesting that in their responses they say that this goes against the core beliefs of the federation. Isn’t it odd that their own COO (former chief operating officer Philip Milburn) was in charge of their anti-doping program. It’s a blatant conflict of interest.
Not to mention that when you look back at L.A. and the (blood) doping scandal there. A lot of the same people are still closely associated with the federation … some of them. When they say that it goes against their core principles, I see no evidence that they have ever taken steps to clean up things when they know about them.
VN: Have you been in touch with riders of that era from other countries?
Was this an international problem?
GS: Only to the extent that we were hearing rumors of riders from here or there doing stuff, but no, I’ve never tracked any of them down these days.
VN: So where from here?
GS: I want to get the word out. You know, a lot of people would say that I am just after money. But things have to change and I am in a perfect position to do that. I experienced it. I suffered from it and, now, I am about to become a doctor.
People might say that this is just dragging up an old issue … but I can’t believe that it’s a problem that has been solved and it has to be.
You look back to the late 1980s and early ’90s when those riders supposedly died from EPO. Think about their families. You hear about riders suffering long-term effects and unable to talk about it. Those who have longer careers, maybe figure it out at some point and then if they are making their livelihood through the sport they’re never coming out, this has to come out.
VN: What do you say, to a guy like René Wenzel? You said you were friends for a while and now this — true or not — comes charging back after 10 years?
GS: It has to be told. And to René I say I’m sorry, but I’m sorry because somewhere along the line people lost perspective. It can’t be anything but a dangerous loss of perspective to believe that you have the right to do that sort of thing to anyone, let alone a minor … a minor put under your direct supervision.
VN: Thanks for talking.
GS: Thanks for listening.