By Michael Cowley
The circumstances and situation may be different, but the hurtful accusations are similar. And it’s from that aspect that Samantha Riley can relate to teenage swimming star Ian Thorpe.
Two weeks ago in England, German national coach Manfred Thiesmann questioned the natural ability of the 17-year-old, intimating that his amazing feats may have been due to performance-enhancing drugs.
Those same accusations were hurled at Riley in 1995, after she was given a Di-Gesic tablet by her coach, Scott Volkers, who thought he was simply handing his swimmer a headache pill. The drug was, at the time, on the IOC’s banned list.
The incident came when Riley was at her peak, the reigning world champion, breaking world records and favored to win gold medals at the Atlanta Olympic Games, and while she escaped a lengthy suspension, accusations soon arose that she may also be on performance-enhancing substances, not only tarnishing her name, but throwing her entire Olympic campaign into disarray.
Instead of returning from the Games with gold, she had to be satisfied with one individual bronze medal and a relay silver.
“It definitely had an impact,” she said of the incident. It affected my performance. Whether that stopped me from winning a gold medal or not, I’ll never know, but it definitely had an impact on how I swam over there, and I think if I had my time again I probably would have handled it a little bit differently. You keep saying you’re OK and you’re handling it, but really you’re not and you sort of know it.
“I actually haven’t spoken to Ian since he’s been back in Australia, but I hope he knows he’s got the support of all the Australian swimmers. We’re all behind him, we all admire what he has achieved and respect him, and he’s definitely got our support. And that support is very important. Sometimes it’s hard to know actually what people are thinking. You know that people support you, but it’s not often that people actually come out and tell you that.”
“In my case it wasn’t until after the Olympics that a lot of people came out and said they sympathised with the situation I was in and that’s something that you would have liked to have known earlier. That people actually believe in you. I knew that I hadn’t taken anything performance enhancing, but it’s a matter of trying to prove that to everybody else. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do.”
Riley said if there was one suggestion she could make to Thorpe, it is that if the accusations are causing him the slightest of emotional problems, the last thing he should do is keep it to himself. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that they have accused Thorpie, it happened before with Kieren [Perkins],” she said. “But it’s not really something you expect to happen because you know you’re not doing anything wrong, so when people do start accusing you of it, it’s a bit of a shock, because you know this isn’t right.”
“I think he’s handled it very well. He’s got such a mature outlook, and he’s got a lot of people around him helping him. I think it’s just something that’s been said to catch him off guard a little bit and maybe to try and slow him down, but as he showed in Berlin [where he broke a world record] it made him angry and made him swim faster.”
“The sad thing is that anyone who swims fast these days is automatically under suspicion of taking drugs and that’s why a lot of people are pushing for blood testing. If anything, he should just ignore it. He’s got a lot of support in Australia and people know that he’s clean. He knows he’s clean. It’s just one person who has accused him of taking it, it’s not like it’s the whole world, and it’s probably been blown out of proportion a lot as well.
“What Ian has just got to do is concentrate on what he wants to achieve, and I don’t think it’s going to upset him at all. But if he does have some problems there with it, then definitely he should speak to someone about it, because it’s the worst thing to just keep pretending that everything is all right.”
Riley, at 27, is aiming at her third Olympic team when the selection trials are held in May, and said she was very focused on what she wanted to achieve. “I’m really enjoying everything I’m doing at the moment,” she said. “The only thing I haven’t won is an Olympic gold medal, so naturally that is my aim.
“There are some very competitive 14- and 15-year-olds coming through in my events, and even though I’m almost double their age, I’m not worried about the young kids. I’m pretty confident I’ll swim well.”