After news broke on Monday morning that American swimmer Matthew Willenbring had tested positive for a banned substance after the U.S. won gold in the men’s 400 medley relay at last year’s World Junior Championships, his attorney, Howard Jacobs, contacted SwimSwam to share a press release with details of the test and proceedings. Jacobs also shared with SwimSwam the full FINA decision, filling in most of the details of the case.
Key details and answers about Willenbring’s positive test that were addressed in the press release and with the suspension:
- A hearing was held before the FINA Doping Panel in Lausanne, Switzerland on January 12th, 2018, which Willenbring, his mother, his attorney, and a witness, Jackie Higgins.
- Higgins, a former work colleague and close friend of his mother, visited the family in August of 2017. Higgins testified that she traveled with a supply of blood pressure medication, that included HCTZ, the substance that Willenbring tested positive for. The claim made is that when she traveled, she carried a supply of that medicine with her in an Aleve bottle, which was left at the Willenbring’s house. Matthew then says that during the week of August 14th through August 20th, Willenbring “several times needed an anti-inflammatory pill to address a bad headache.” While searching for the family’s bottle of Advil, he found a bottle of Aleve instead. Willenbring recalled in his testimony that he used pain medication 2 or 3 times during the week of August 14 to August 20, the week before departing for the World Junior Championships. In the family’s search for the potential source of the HCTZ in late November, 2017, then and only then did they learn of Ms. Higgins’ Aleve bottle being left at the house.
- FINA found Higgins to be an “honest, intelligent and highly credible witness,” and found similarly of Matthew and his mother as well.
- FINA provided “no evidence…that would serve to contradict or undermine the explanation by the Athlete regarding how HCTZ likely entered his system.”
- Matthew Willenbring’s urine, in spite of the presence of the substance HCTZ, was not dilute and the concentration of the banned substance was very low – meaning that in the conclusion of the FINA panel, it was so low “that it would not be effective to either control the athlete’s weight or to serve to mask another prohibited substance.”
- The FINA Doping Panel also concluded that the Athlete “was at all relevant times trying to gain weight – not lose it,” and that he was successful, gaining 17 pounds between May, 2017 and August, 2017 (Willenbring is very tall, 6’10”, FINA noted, saying that even in January, at 230 pounds, he still looked thin). HCTZ, besides its masking properties, can be used as a weight loss agent, especially in sports with weight classes where rapidly dropping weight can be advantageous to an athlete.
- Testing indicated that there was no evidence of anabolic agents in Willenbring’s hair, implying that he hadn’t taken any in the last 6 months. The FINA Doping Panel concluded that this would give him no reason to take a masking agent.
The explanation above established in the FINA Doping Panel’s opinion that FINA did not demonstrated “that the Athlete acted with intent,” which makes the first cut of the maximum 4-year suspension for a first-time positive test down to 2 years.
The Panel continued on to discuss that because of his age, the requirements for “no significant fault or negligence to further reduce his suspension from 2 years are not in effect. Further, they believed the story of the mislabeled bottle left by a family friend, concluding that because his supplements did not show contamination in testing, and that no other health products or medicine in the family home contained HCTZ, and that the very low concentration, the likelihood that the concentration would’ve been ineffective in masking any substance. Those factors further reduced the suspension to 4 months.
FINA did note that the athlete was “blase” about taking a pain relief substance that he himself did not purchase and that he seemed to drop an otherwise-diligent attitude toward care of care with regard to pain medication.
Interestingly, the FINA Doping Panel in its original decision chose not to name or identify Willenbring in any public reporting because at the time he was under the age of 18. This is allowed by FINA rules, though there is discretion to publish the information in circumstances where it is deemed fit. Willenbring turned 18 on November 22nd, 2017 – before his hearing, but after his suspension began and after his positive test.
Willenbring’s positive test came in his first-ever doping test during his first major international competition
Willenbring began a voluntary suspension on October 19th, that included leaving all team practice and competitive activities. He then resumed training with his club during the last month of his suspension, as is allowed by FINA rules.
Jacobs is a well-known attorney in the Olympic space dealing, and among his many clients, he represented swimmers Park Tae Hwan, Yulia Efimova, and Jessica Hardy in their fights against doping suspensions. All of them received reduced suspensions from the maximum possible.