AFTER a controversial two-year ban, former Olympic and World champion swimmer Claudia Poll will return to international competition next week participating in an Olympic qualifying event in France.
Poll, one of Costa Rica’s best athletes, made history in 1996, winning the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal with her victory in the women’s 200-meter freestyle in Atlanta.
Four years later in Sydney, she captured two bronze medals. During the course of her career, Poll also has won five World Championship gold medals and set three world records.
However, Poll was banned from competition for four years by the International Swimming Federation in March 2002, after testing positive for an anabolic steroid the month before.
IN September 2003, the ban was reduced to two years, allowing her to return to competition this month and making the 31-year-old swimmer eligible for this summer’s Olympics (TT, Sept. 26, 2003).
Speaking to the press Wednesday, a smiling Poll said she was in shape and ready to get back to competing.
On Monday, she will have that chance when she swims the 400-meter freestyle in the French Open Championships, a qualifying meet for Athens, in Dunkerque, France. On Tuesday, she will compete in the 200-meter freestyle.
“We never stopped training, not even for a day,” said her coach, Francisco Rivas, dispelling any rumors about Poll’s lack of physical condition. “Our workouts were more rigorous and more intense.”
For now, the two say they are not focusing on the Olympics. Although it is a possibility, Rivas said they are simply working toward getting back into the world rankings.
DESPITE her time away, Poll says she feels confident heading back into the water, and pointed out that her times in practice have already met the qualifying standards for several high-level competitions.
“The only thing I want is to compete,” said Poll. “I’m happy when I do that.”
From the beginning, Poll and her coach have maintained her innocence in the steroid controversy (TT, June 7, 2002.)
“I am innocent,” Poll declared several times on Wednesday. “If it’s in five years or ten years or whenever, the truth will come out.
“How the test was carried out and how it was analyzed were incorrect,” she said.
Nandrolone, the steroid for which Poll tested positive, is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, an initiative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
International sports governing bodies maintain strict rules regarding use of any banned substances and violations are dealt with seriously.
ACCORDING to documentation from Poll’s lawyer, two experts from an accredited IOC anti-doping laboratory testify that the level to which Poll’s specimen should have been measured was 7.8ng/ml, not the 5ng/ml that was used.
If this standard had been used, Poll, who tested at 7.6ng/ml, would have never tested positive. Also, it is possible trace amounts of nandrolone can occur naturally in the body, according to her defense.
Following the positive result, every subsequent test Poll took came back negative, including samples analyzed by Hospital San Juan de Dios and the University of California at Los Angeles, one of three recognized IOC testing laboratories in the Americas.
“If this is a substance that does not leave the body for at least six months, how can they explain how in the course of six months she had four anti-doping tests with one positive result and three negatives?” Rivas asked.
ACCORDING to Rivas, there were nine errors in the handling of the sample that Poll provided. He also maintains that the test given to Poll was only 96% accurate, while a test of 99% accuracy was required.
Although she has served out her suspension and can return to competition, Poll says she is continuing to fight to clear her name.
She has filed a suit with the Court of Arbitration for Sport and has brought a case against the laboratory in Montreal where the test was conducted.
“The case is going very well and moving forward, but slowly,” said Rivas.
“This issue is not over and it could go on for a long time,” he continued. “But we’re going to keep on fighting it because we’re right.”
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Poll’s older sister Sylvia, who was also coached by Rivas, earned Costa Rica’s first Olympic medal when she finished second in the 200-meter freestyle. Sylvia retired from competition in 1994.