The well-meaning text from a friend arrived with no warning or context, telling Alysia Montano she was one step closer to three world-class bronze medals.
"Congratulations," the text said. "Hey, I know this is not the way you wanted them ..."
Montano sat down. She was about to leave her Northern California home to travel to New York City for the New York Road Runners Millrose Games, the prestigious annual indoor track meet in early February that would be her first race since a disastrous fall at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer.
More texts and social media messages flooded her smartphone. The gist: Russia's Mariya Savinova, who had finished ahead of her at the 2012 Olympics and at two editions of the world championships (2011 and 2013), had been stripped of her results for doping. Yet there was no official notification in her inbox. Was it true? Montano didn't have time to do research. She called her mother instead. "Can you find out what's going on?'' she asked.
Montano washed the tears from her face and made her flight and finished second the next day in New York in the 500-meter event. That race took a little over a minute. The 800-meter races on the world stage where Montano barely missed the podium have stretched out for years.
"I don't think people understand how personal it is,'' Montano said a week later.
She is one of dozens of athletes in a similar limbo, pinned there by the opaque and inefficient process of anti-doping jurisprudence. Olympic shot-put champion Adam Nelson will speak for many of them when he testifies on Capitol Hill this Tuesday.
For a few fleeting hours, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will consider a dilemma that has vexed legions in recent years: "Ways to Improve and Strengthen the International Anti-Doping System.''
All-time most-decorated Olympian Michael Phelps is the biggest star on the witness list. Nelson is Exhibit A of a more obscure but equally dedicated athlete who lived the worst-case scenario, as detailed in an Outside the Lines piece last summer. A gold medal -- just one, as opposed to Phelps' vast collection -- would have made a huge difference in Nelson's career, his income, his sense of self in 2004. The correction and elevation to the top step of a virtual podium didn't come until nine years later.
Nelson first heard he was an Olympic champion from a reporter tracking the drug sample retesting process. He first received his medal in a prosaic exchange at an airport food court. He has been saying for years that there has to be a better way, and he's right.
The U.S. government funnels $2 million yearly to the World Anti-Doping Agency, more than any other nation, but WADA's budget is inadequate to do a serious job of policing sport, as starkly revealed by the scope of organized doping in Russia leading up to the Sochi 2014 Games. The International Olympic Committee is entertaining a Summer Games bid from the city of Los Angeles, and any host country making that kind of investment should be interested in fair competition.
Representatives from WADA and the IOC will be in the docket with Nelson and Phelps on Tuesday. If this hearing is to be something more than a meaningless showpiece, the elected representatives in the room might want to ask some real questions about what global anti-doping has accomplished in the past 16 years. The governments and the athletes are the players with leverage to make things better, and they haven't used it.
Montano's multiyear wait likely is down to months now, and "I would 100 percent absolutely rather have the medals than not,'' she said.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Savinova should serve a four-year suspension and annulled her results between 2010 and 2013. She has a few weeks to appeal. If the ruling stands, Montano would be promoted to third place at those two world championships. If one more Russian under investigation is disqualified from the London 2012 race, Montano would be entitled to an Olympic bronze medal.
Savinova's case wasn't triggered by a positive test, but rather by an admission secretly videotaped by Russian whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova that aired in a 2014 German television network documentary. Evidence from her biological passport cinched the conviction, but the resolution may have come too late for the 30-year-old Montano. She was dropped by her shoe sponsor, Asics, two months ago and doesn't know what the future holds.
Would her racing arc be different if she'd gotten her due in the moment? She will never know. "My way of trying to move forward is to put this on the back burner,'' Montano said. "It takes so much from me. But I'm strong enough to handle it. I'm proud of myself. I don't want to lose that part.''