‘Confusion, Anger and Sadness:’ Madisyn Cox Opens Up After Emotional Anti-Doping Saga

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Madisyn Cox was confused and scared. In what was to be her final semester of college at the University of Texas, she had trouble focusing on academics. Around her friends, she would put on a happy face and pretend all was normal, as if she wasn’t facing a career-defining decision from a faceless FINA panel.

Very few of those close to Cox what was going on—only her family, a lawyer they hired and her coach, Carol Capitani. Cox remembers learning about her positive test for the banned substance trimetazidine on March 28 and immediately calling Capitani, who was on vacation. Immediately, Cox had her coach’s full support.

“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without her,” Cox said, becoming emotional. “Sorry, it’s still a little hard.” For five seconds, Cox fell silent. Fighting back tears, she continued.

“Carol has been my rock throughout the whole thing. Both of us never thought we would we’d have to go through this, but I couldn’t imagine going through this with anyone else.”

madisyn cox

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

For almost four months, Cox sat in limbo, unable to compete as she awaited a decision on a possible sanction. But even as the stress and emotion weighed her down, Cox was cautiously optimistic that the situation would soon be behind her. Given that she had recorded just 0.1 ng/mL of trimetazidine in her problematic urine sample, Cox believed that the panel would issue a decision of “no-fault.”

“I didn’t know much about the anti-doping system, but I thought, ‘They’re not out to get innocent people,’” Cox said. “I never thought I would be punished for something I never did. It was hard, but I never actually believed I would have any sort of a ban or anything. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to swim at Nationals.”

But in July, just weeks before U.S. Nationals, FINA suspended Cox for two years. The panel’s report called Cox “an honest, very hardworking and highly credible athlete who is not a ‘cheat,’” but the panel found no evidence definitively supporting Cox’s theory that contaminated tap water had caused the positive test.

“When I actually got the phone call and found out, I was broken,” Cox said. “I kind of cursed the system. I was like, ‘What is wrong with this? Why are clean athletes getting punished while other athletes who are not clean get away with it because they have an escape route?’ I didn’t have an escape route.”

After Cox completed her NCAA eligibility in the fall of 2017, her plan had included following her passion for swimming for three more years, through the 2020 Olympic season, before moving on to medical school. Now, circumstances she could neither control nor understand were denying her almost all but a few months of the swimming time she had left.

Cox planned and hoped to return to racing when that ban was up, but she and Capitani acknowledged that the challenge she was facing might prove to be too much to overcome and come back from. And even if Cox believed the whole situation was unfair, she knew she would have to live with it.

“My dad always growing up said, ‘The only fair is on South Loop,” Cox said, referring to a carnival in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. “That was my first time to be like, ‘Wow, that’s very accurate.’ The world is not fair, and stuff happens to people who don’t deserve it.”

***

With the costs of her defense rising, Cox and her lawyer initially chose not to test her supplements. They saw no need—Cox was only taking an iron supplement, fish oil and a multivitamin, all products she had been using since high school, and they were considered among the lowest-risk products on the market.

“Nothing is a weird brand. Nothing is like animal muscle builder,” she said. “It’s things that I don’t think I’m getting enough of from food. I don’t eat fish very much. I used to be anemic, so I took iron. It’s stuff like that.”

But after they learned of the two-year ban, Cox and her team figured they had no choice but to test anything that had entered her system that could have triggered the positive test. The FINA panel report even suggested that supplements could have been the cause.

Still, the last thing Cox expected was to find that the multivitamin, Cooper Complete Elite Athlete, had been the source of trimetazidine, the cause for the entire ordeal. After that startling discovery, the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the ban to six months, making her eligible to return to competition September 3.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Cox said. “At that point, I was almost accepting the two-year ban. I was never going to stop fighting with this whole situation, but I had to at least come to terms with it to be marginally happy throughout that two years. I remember I got the call, and I just started bawling.”

Cox again paused, overcome by emotion. A twinge of regret crossed her mind: What if she had tested her supplements sooner? Would she have been cleared in time to compete over the summer? By missing Nationals, Cox missed her chance to represent the United States internationally in either 2018 or 2019, and she lost her National Team stipend for the next 12 months.

Her solace? “Everything happens for a reason. I don’t know the reason for all of this, but I’m glad it’s over.”

In the week-plus since Cox learned of her reduced punishment, she has been coming to terms that an experience she called “hell” has reached a merciful conclusion. She wouldn’t rule out pursuing legal action against Cooper Complete for the tainted supplement, explaining that she and her family will “have a conversation to sort through that stuff.”

Cox has extensive travel plans for the first-half of September, but after not racing since early March, at the Atlanta stop of the TYR Pro Swim Series, she is itching to get back.

“I had some trips planned because I didn’t think I was going to be training, but now I just want to get back in the water and go,” Cox said.

She plans to compete at the Texas Invitational in late November and maybe sooner. She remains under contract with Arena, a company which supported her even before her surprise bronze medal in the 200 IM at the 2017 World Championships. Of the people with whom she has worked at Arena, Cox said, “they’re great people, and that’s really shown through during this whole process.”

madisyn-cox-katinka-hosszu-yui-ohashia-200-im-medals-2017-worlds

Cox (left) with Katinka Hosszu after winning bronze at the 2017 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

And even though her six months out means that Cox can’t compete internationally next year, she feels no bitterness. “It is what it is at this point,” she said.

Interestingly, even though she could not compete, Cox followed U.S. Nationals from a distance to keep up with how her friends performed—in particular, one longtime rival in the IM events who overcame serious illness to qualify for her first senior U.S. team.

“I didn’t live-stream it or anything like that, but I looked at the results,” she said. “Obviously it stung—I wanted to be there—but on the other hand, it was so great to see Ella (Eastin) come through and have the meet that she did considering her circumstances, having mono. It was inspiring to see that.”

When Cox returns to national-level competition, she will find the IM events far more competitive than they were in 2017. Kathleen Baker, Melanie Margalis and Eastin all broke 2:10 this year in the 200 IM, and four Americans swam under 4:36 in the 400 IM. But the challenge of regaining her spot as one of the country’s elite IMers doesn’t faze Cox, not after the ordeal of the last five months.

“I was really hoping and praying that I could swim and at least have a shot to reach my goals,” Cox said. “At least I have the fair chance and not have it taken away from me by something I couldn’t control.”

With her suspension reduced and now complete, Cox again has command over her own swimming destiny—all she ever wanted.

3 Comments

3 comments

  1. Charlene Tallen

    I’m so happy they cleared her and high five 🙌🏻 for calling out the truth about cheaters.

  2. Carole Machol-Atler

    So they cleared her…guilty until proven innocent. And … she’s not on the National Team. If that’s not f’d up I don’t know what is?

  3. avatar
    David Abineri

    With the trials so close to her accusation, she should have been allowed to compete conditionally until all the evidence was collected. Even if she was held out of the Pan Pacs, she would then still be eligible for World Champs if cleared and if her times warrant selection.

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Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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