Jessica Hardy will be blogging for espnW in the lead-up to this summer's London Olympics. Check back in April for more on her journey.
I was at an Olympic team training camp in Palo Alto, Calif., two weeks before Beijing, when my whole world fell apart. I received a phone call from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency informing me that I'd tested positive for low levels of clenbuterol, a type of stimulant. I was ushered out of camp -- no time to even say goodbye to my teammates -- and was put on a 6 a.m. flight home to Long Beach, Calif. Mark Schubert, the national team's head coach at the time, told me, "Go home, get a lawyer and be with your family."
I was so confused. I knew that I'd never done anything, ever, to cheat. Shock, disbelief and a desperate need to comprehend what was going on all went through my head. It was almost a joke, because I knew there was no way I had intentionally done anything wrong. But the thing is, you're treated guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. So it was my responsibility, as a 21-year-old, to find out what had caused the positive test result to get my two-year suspension lifted or reduced.
I took all my prescription medications and nutritional supplements to a lab and paid for them to be examined. I looked into food and water contamination as well as possible sabotage from someone else. But there was no way I could get to the bottom of this in time to compete, so I had to voluntarily take myself off the Olympic team roster. Watching the opening ceremonies on TV was definitely the lowest point in my life.
There was nothing I could do about the situation, so I just went into survival mode. I felt isolated from my sport, my calling in life, and my teammates. Soon after, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I took a month off training, then started up again two or three times a week with Dave Salo, my personal coach. He didn't want me coming in every day because we didn't know when I would be allowed to compete again. But I needed a distraction.
After many long months, it was determined by the AAA panel that the positive test was caused by a contaminated supplement that I had unknowingly ingested. I've since filed a lawsuit against the company that manufactured the supplement, which is still going on -- almost four years later.
And finally, in May 2009, I was able to reduce my suspension to a year, which meant I could start racing that August. I broke the world record in the 50-meter and 100-meter breaststroke (in the same race!) on Aug. 7, improving on the mark my American teammate Rebecca Soni had set less than two weeks earlier. In the fall, I dominated the World Cup circuit, breaking four world records in the short course 50-meter breaststroke, and was named the overall female circuit winner. It was a furious comeback -- as in, I was furious that I had missed out on the Olympics.
Last February I found out that I was officially eligible to compete in the London Games. (A 2008 IOC rule that barred athletes who'd served a doping suspension of six months or longer from participating in the next Olympics was overturned.) By that point, I had regained my confidence and stopped worrying about and listening to any negativity surrounding the 2008 controversy. After almost three years, I was able to relax, have fun and appreciate moments in the pool again.
I haven't raced yet this year, but my training is going fabulously. I work out twice a day, six days a week -- up to 12 hours weekly. I'm not going to lie, it's hard when you're tired and sore and the water is freezing in the early morning. But as soon as I get in and warm up, I'm addicted to the feeling of easy speed in the pool. I love to fly in the water. I also love feeling exhausted and accomplished after a workout. When I'm not exercising, I'm recovering -- and that includes getting massages, physical therapy and sports psychology. Having a clear head is extremely important after all I've been through. It's about getting better, not bitter.
My first meet is the Indianapolis Grand Prix on March 29, but each competition between now and my third U.S. trials on June 25 is just a warm-up. That's the big event before the Games, and I have a good chance to make the team. My fiancé, Swiss swimmer Dominik Meichtry, qualified in the 200 freestyle last summer, so he's already going to London. Hopefully, I'll join him.
My goal is to qualify in at least the same events (the 100-meter breaststroke, the 50 freestyle and two relays) I qualified in for Beijing. If you're American and you earn a spot, you're pretty much a contender to medal, because the U.S. is so strong internationally. I hope to medal in all of my races, and if those medals are gold, I won't complain! Though I officially had my comeback in 2009, this year definitely feels like I'm coming out with my armor on and sword out, ready to go live the dream that was crushed in 2008.