<
>

U.S. swimmer Hardy claims she is innocent of doping

In the final days of training camp with her U.S. Olympic
teammates, Jessica Hardy was trying to nap between practices when
she got the most dreaded of phone calls for any athlete:

She had tested positive for an illicit drug.

"My main emotion at that point was confusion," Hardy said
Friday. "I had never even heard of this drug."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Hardy professed her
innocence and said she has no idea how she tested positive for
Clenbuterol during the U.S. Olympic trials. She also talked
hopefully about getting the ruling overturned in time to compete at
the Beijing Olympics.

"I'm innocent," said Hardy, who spoke by telephone from
California accompanied by her attorney, Howard Jacobs. "That's all
I can say to everybody. Whether or not people chose to believe me,
I'm innocent."

Hardy was tested three times during the trials in Omaha, Neb.,
Jacobs said. The results were negative for the samples taken on
July 1, after she won the 100-meter breaststroke, and on July 6,
shortly after she claimed another individual race at the Olympics
by finishing second to Dara Torres in the 50 freestyle.

But Hardy's "A" and backup "B" samples both came back
positive -- for what her attorney said was low amounts of the drug --
from a test on July 4, when she finished fourth in the 100
freestyle.

Clenbuterol is usually prescribed to those with breathing
disorders, such as asthma, and also is well-known in horse racing
circles as a treatment for respiratory ailments. More recently,
it's been touted as a weight-loss drug.

But it's also a stimulant that increases aerobic capacity and
the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream, which is why it landed on
the list of banned substances for athletes.

Hardy said she can't figure out how Clenbuterol wound up in her
system -- if, in fact, the test was accurate.

"It's pretty much the hardest thing in my life that I've ever
had to go through," she said. "I've cried every single day since
I found out. I even vomited from anxiety. This is absolutely the
worst time of my life."

Unless the positive test is overturned through an expedited
arbitration process, Hardy will miss what was supposed to be her
first Olympics and face a mandatory two-year doping ban.

The positive test between two negative tests certainly will be a
major point in Hardy's appeal.

"I would definitely say it's unusual," Jacobs said. "As far
as how it will play into the arbitration case, I don't know. But
it's out of the norm."

The 21-year-old Hardy set a world record in the 100 breaststroke
as a high school senior and was a four-time NCAA champion at the
University of California before turning pro last year. After her
performance at the Olympic trials, she was expected to be a key
member of the U.S. women's team in Beijing with her two individual
events, plus likely spots on the 400 free relay and the 400 medley
relay.

Now, her whole life is on hold, though Hardy continues to train
on her own in southern California in hopes that her doping case
will be overturned. The rest of the U.S. team left Friday for
Singapore, where they will hold their final workouts before heading
to Beijing.

"My training and my practices are really the only thing I have
control over right now," she said, shortly after a morning
workout. "Honestly, I'm working as hard as possible. That's really
the only thing I can do for myself."

Although swimming has largely avoided major drug scandals, which
have plagued sports such as cycling and track and field, Hardy
knows her name likely will be tarnished forever - no matter how her
case turns out.

She's now known as a doper.

"That's one of my worries, but it's not my main concern. First,
I have to be able to compete," she said. "I'm just taking it one
day at a time, one hour at a time. I have the same goals, the same
dreams I've had my whole career. Those dreams are definitely still
there. But I'm just living moment to moment."

Jacobs conceded it will be difficult to get the ruling
overturned with the opening ceremonies just two weeks away. He
first will take the case to the American Arbitration Association,
which has yet to set a hearing date. And he'll ask for an expedited
ruling, so he would have time to take the case to a final authority
-- the Court of Arbitration for Sport - if necessary.

CAS will set up a temporary court in Beijing to handle
last-minute cases.

The preliminaries of the 100 breast -- Hardy's best event -- are
scheduled for the evening of Aug. 10. The opening round of the 50
free is Aug. 15.

"If you're asking me would I like more time, obviously the
answer would be 'yes,"' Jacobs said. "Most of these cases are
done over a period of months, not days. But with the Games
upcoming, that, of course, is not an option."

Hardy is relying on her family for support, and she's also
gotten hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and test messages urging
her to remain hopeful.

"I've been reading them all, and I really appreciate them,"
she said.

Hardy has heard from some of her U.S. teammates, but she's tried
to stay at a distance because she doesn't want to be a distraction.

"It's horribly difficult," Hardy said. "I don't even know how
to describe it. It's heartbreaking."

Although she knows there will be plenty of skeptics, those who
say we've heard it all before from drug cheats ranging from Marion
Jones to Floyd Landis, Hardy said her focus is on getting the
ruling overturned.

Getting back her reputation is another matter.

"I just want to say that I'm innocent. I've been innocent my
entire career," she said. "I've never wanted to do anything
remotely close to doping. It's never, ever crossed my mind. I've
never been approached about doing it. It's never been an issue my
entire career.

"It's the last thing I would ever do."