What makes Supergran run?

Churchgoing grandmother Kathy Jager was shattering track records -- until she was barred because her hormone replacement drugs contained steroids.


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Steve BomanSean Callahan
July 31, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Three years ago, at an international meet in England, 56-year-old American sprinter Kathy Jager ran 100 meters in 13.55 seconds, obliterating her competition by nearly a half second. Jager followed that by running the 200 meters in 28.34 seconds, breaking the existing age-group world record. Her glory, however, was brief. Jager, a grandmother of four from Phoenix, tested positive for anabolic steroids at the meet.

Jager has always insisted that she was innocent, that she wasn't shooting steroid-filled syringes into her veins, that her only crime was following doctor's orders and taking a little green hormone replacement pill that quelled her post-menopausal hot flashes. Nevertheless, as a result of testing positive, her times were expunged. Sports Illustrated mocked her in its "This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us" section. And she was banned from sanctioned track competitions for two years, an exile that ended on Aug. 1, 2001. This year Jager, now 59, will compete in her most important meet since her reinstatement, the USA Track & Field National Masters Outdoor Championship, to be held Aug. 8-11 in Orono, Maine.

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Jager's is a strange, if largely unnoticed, tale. Her story has embroiled international track officials in an argument over where to draw the line between performance-enhancing drugs and life-enhancing medications. It has also revealed the enormous differences in how various sporting organizations regulate artificial substances. The international track and field community imposes the most stringent rules, while Major League Baseball, for example, appears to have virtually no regulations addressing steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

A key part of Jager's story is hormone replacement therapy, a fact of life for many women who run masters track -- but one that the governing bodies of the sport seem unprepared to confront. And now to complicate the issue further comes the news that women who take estrogen and progestin may face increased breast cancer risks. At its crux, however, Jager's tale reveals the competitiveness of masters athletics and underscores this sad fact about our times: Even churchgoing grandmothers are suspected of taking drugs to get bigger, faster, stronger.

Kathy Jager is a high-voiced woman with a body that could serve as a template if Mattel ever makes a Linebacker Barbie. Just 5 feet 4 inches tall, Jager is intensely muscled. She has the frame of a male college wrestler: slender legs, slim hips and a broad back. She also has the muscle tone prized by Venice Beach bodybuilders. When she sits next to her husband, Carl, on a sofa in their Arizona home, the contrast is obvious: His limbs have the seal-smooth muscles of a recreational swimmer; her legs look filled with twisted rubber bands. "We go to the beach," Jager says, "and girls whistle at his legs and the guys come up to me and ask me how much I lift."

She is so well defined that it looks like ... well, like she's on steroids. Jager, a nurse, acknowledges that people jump to that conclusion. But she says there is a problem with that assumption: "I've always looked that way." Jager says she has had the same build for the last 40 years, long before steroids crept into popular culture. "Oh, Kathy always had broad shoulders and a little butt," says Jager's aunt, 73-year-old Jan Quist. "Her mother, who died when she was young, had the same build as her. Kathy has always been athletic, and she always had a very muscular build. I don't think that it's different now than it ever was."

Athletic as she's always been, Jager didn't run her first track meet until she was 50. "I know I came to this sport late in life. But God gave me some ability and I wanted to take advantage of it, no matter what my age," Jager explains. In masters sports, athletes compete in five-year age brackets: 50-54, 55-59, and so on. At her first meet, Jager swept up a handful of gold medals. She never looked back.

With her blond helmet of hair and teenager-quality times, Jager became one of most recognized athletes in masters sports. In early 1999, Jager set her sights on the most prestigious masters track meet there is: the World Association of Veteran Athletes World Championships, a meet held every two years in different locations. (WAVA is now known as World Masters Athletics, or WMA.)

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Three years ago, the world championships were held in Gateshead, England. "I had never been overseas," Jager explains. "One of my dreams was to be an Olympian, and this was as close as I was going to get to that kind of a level."

Gateshead was in some ways no different from any previous meet for Jager. Yes, there were many more athletes at the meet -- nearly 6,000 people 35 and older competed. Yes, the competition was better. And yes, a handful of athletes were quietly required to provide urine samples for drug testing, which never happened at American masters meets. But Jager felt at home, and the predictable happened: Competitors gasped when she rumbled down the track. In the 100 meters, she smoked every other woman in her age group -- including the world record holder.

Then the surprise came: An Australian competitor -- a woman who watched Jager's broad back fade into the distance in the 100-meter race -- believed a fraud was occurring. The Aussies filed a formal challenge that Jager was a man posing as a woman. Jager learned of the charge from a journalist. "A reporter comes up and says to me, 'What comments do you have to make about this controversial issue?' That was the first I heard of it," Jager says. "I told him that it will be a surprise to my husband, two children and four grandchildren."

The gender-bending grandmother was suddenly the biggest story in England. "We have all heard stories of the bloodsucking English reporters, and I experienced it," Jager says. "There must have been 25 of these guys. I had to be escorted everywhere I went." The English tabloids raced to the story like sharks to blood. "Is This a Man or a Woman?" the Evening Chronicle shouted. Jager, always the optimist, was flabbergasted. "How could this be happening? I started looking at myself and saying, 'Do I look all that different from the other athletes?'"

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Jager eventually submitted to a physical examination. "In deep, complete," as she describes it, rolling her eyes. The results of Jager's physical exam were announced over the meet's P.A. system before she ran her 200-meter final. Jager was indeed a woman. "To my relief, it turned into a very wonderful experience. The warmth was incredible. People from all over the stadium came up to me and say they wanted to hug me and support me," Jager recalls.

The English press, which had lined the infield fence and appeared ready to crucify Jager, instead sainted her. Like any media star, she got her own one-word nickname: "Supergran!" Jager had survived the embarrassment of a gender challenge. She'd felt the support of the crowd. And now she was going to race against the current age-group 200-meter world record holder, 59-year-old Brunhilde Hoffmann from Germany.

When the gun sounded, Jager ran with fury. She beat the German by three-tenths of a second and eclipsed Hoffman's then world record by a tenth. "I don't think I could have been any prouder of being in the international Olympics as a youth as I am of what I did at the WAVA Championships," says Jager. "It wasn't about the medals or setting the record. I was proud of that, but what I was most proud of was that I didn't fall apart."

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She felt like an Olympian as she waved to the crowd, her childhood dreams fulfilled at 56. And then an official asked her to submit to a drug test. A dehydrated Jager's only worry was being able to urinate on command. While waiting for a glass of water, Jager filled out the official forms. She listed the medications she was taking, among them: Norvasc for hypertension, ibuprofen for her knees and Estratest HS for her hot flashes. Jager drank the water.

Finally, with the official watching, Jager squatted over a cup to urinate, just like a real Olympian.

When Jager returned home from Gateshead, she didn't shoot any "I'm going to Disneyland" commercials. But the gender row did entice tabloid TV, and she landed on the "Sally Jesse Raphael Show." "It was fun," Jager says.

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The fun stopped in mid-August when Jager received a certified letter from USA Track and Field, the organization that oversees the sport in the United States. The letter explained that the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the organization overseeing track and field worldwide, found methyltestosterone metabolites in her Gateshead urine sample. In layman's terms, she had tested positive for anabolic steroids. The letter demanded an acceptable explanation, or Jager would face a two-year suspension.

"I thought, this has to be a mistake, that they got my test mixed up with someone else's. I honestly couldn't think what could have happened," Jager says. She contacted her physician, Dr. Debora Villa, who had a suspect: The hormone replacement pills she had prescribed, Estratest HS, contained 1.25 milligrams of methyltestosterone, a synthetic testosterone. Traditional hormone therapies usually boost only the amount of a woman's estrogen, but some women -- such as Jager -- benefit from the addition of synthetic testosterone. Methyltestosterone is a banned substance in track and field and in the Olympics, but 1.25 milligrams per day is a small dose, a fraction of the up to 100 milligrams per day of methyltestosterone male bodybuilders take to build their Schwarzeneggerian bulk.

Kathy and Carl Jager quickly formulated a defense and sent a letter to the IAAF, backed with a letter from Dr. Villa. Asking to have the positive test thrown out, the Jagers argued that Estratest was used solely as a hormone replacement therapy, not for any competitive advantage.

The Jagers also pointed out that the drug was commonly used -- more than 350 million tablets had been prescribed since 1989. And finally the Jagers claimed Kathy wasn't adequately briefed about banned substances by American authorities because USA Track and Field does not conduct drug tests at masters meets in the U.S.

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The Jagers wrote dozens of letters, e-mails and faxes to the IAAF, WMA and USA Track and Field. Ultimately, WMA had the last word in the Jager case. Not until December 2000, more than 16 months after the initial drug test, did WMA officially rule on Jager's petition for early reinstatement. It denied her request. She would remain banned from track and field for a full two years.

Jager cried when she received the news. "It never ever occurred to me the severity of what had happened. I thought the problem wasn't that big of a deal. To me, it seemed so obvious that this was something that was not being used with intent to cheat," she says.

The Jager case galvanized a movement in masters track and field, particularly among Americans, to change the current doping regulations. "It made me into a protester," Jager says. "I'm the Rosa Parks of masters sports."

"For a 60-year-old person to have the exact doping controls as a 20-year-old is ludicrous," says Charles DesJardins, an outspoken member of the IAAF Veterans' Committee. "That's stupidity! But that's the situation older people are in. Instead of encouraging the fitness of older people, we're discouraging fitness. That's absolutely crazy!"

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DesJardins favors testing older athletes but rewriting the list of prohibited substances. He says his pleas for change have so far fallen on deaf ears at WMA and the IAAF.

Even the healthiest masters athlete often relies on prescription medications. A recent survey by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer found that 64 percent of 50-and-over senior athletes used prescription medicine. Granted, most prescription medicines are not on the IAAF banned list, which is three pages long, but the ingredients in some of them are. They can be found in cough syrups, medications for high blood pressure, even some treatments to prevent osteoporosis, a common disease in post-menopausal women.

"Some physicians encourage their patients to take hormone replacement therapy for osteoporosis. Some take conjugated estrogen, and some of the combinations can contain testosterone," said Jude McNally, a pharmacist and toxicologist at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.

"Certain people need to take certain medicines just to get to the meet, let alone compete in it," adds Ken Weinbel, former chairman of USA Track and Field's masters track and field committee.

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One of the most vocal opponents of current drug-testing standards is David Pain, 79, widely regarded as the father of masters track and field. Pain scoffs at the notion that masters athletes should be tested at all. Pain also warns that masters sports is in danger of becoming as deadly serious as the Olympics.

"It looks as though [WMA] is swallowing the IAAF line on drug testing hook, line and sinker. It totally abandons my concept of true spirit that is disappearing in master athletics. People engage in it for camaraderie and fitness," Pain says. "I think testing is a redundant, excessive case of overkill. It is not justified by the number of masters athletes who might take advantage of it."

Those on the other side of the fence say that those are all fine arguments, with one small problem: Doping, they say, is a real-world issue, even in masters sports. The IAAF acknowledged at least seven doping cases against masters athletes. WMA president Torsten Carlius said his organization began testing masters athletes at meets in 1995. "You could see what happened after we started testing," he says. "Some people didn't show up, some people started performing much worse ... I am convinced there were people cheating."

Medical experts say it is unclear whether the 1.25 milligrams of synthetic testosterone found in the Estratest pills gave Jager a performance advantage. Professor Barbara Sherwin, an expert in hormone replacement therapy from McGill University in Montreal, doubts the Estratest would enhance athletic performance. "1.25 milligrams is an exceedingly small dose," she says. "The studies that are available show that there are no symptoms of virilization."

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But Dr. Don Catlin, a drug-testing expert from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, suspects 1.25 milligrams of methyltestosterone could improve athletic performance. "It's not a huge dose, but women's bodies are very sensitive to anabolic steroids. The normal male production rate of testosterone is 7 milligrams per day. The average woman's is about 0.7 milligrams [per day]. If she is taking double that, that could have an effect."

Adding to the confusion is Jager's performance at Gateshead, which took place roughly three months after she started taking Estratest. She ran faster than she ever had in competition. Her 13.55 in the 100 meters beat her previous personal best of 13.68, which she ran at a meet in Oregon a year before Gateshead, long before she took Estratest. Was the improved time due to the methyltestosterone? Or was it the adrenaline? Although Jager has performed well since her reinstatement -- she won three silver and two bronze medals in the 55-plus age group at the national masters indoor championships in March -- she acknowledges her times have declined. For example, in the Grand Canyon State Games in Tucson, Ariz., in June, she ran the 100 meters in 14.46.

Jager blames the decline on age and a dulling of her competitive edge during the two-year ban. "I had been doing what I would call maximum training during that time period," Jager recalls of the months leading up to Gateshead. "Physically, I was probably at the best I'd ever been. I don't believe, and I say this honestly, that I got anything from this pill other than I physically felt better."

Conspiracy theorists looking on the dark side might say this about Jager: Maybe, just maybe, she has been taking methyltestosterone for years on the sly, just like body builders. She is a nurse, after all, and knowing that Gateshead held out the possibility of drug testing she faked hot flashes in order to get her doctor of a decade to prescribe Estratest, which would have masked any illegal drug use. All this would have required a long-term con over her doctor, her husband, her daughter, her son, her relatives back in Minnesota, her co-workers in Arizona, and the teenage athletes she coaches -- and lectures about not taking any altering chemicals, be they alcohol or steroids. That's a lot of effort to beat some other grandmothers in a footrace.

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Jager missed out on a lot during her ban. She quit taking Estratest and instead has been taking herbal remedies for her hot flashes, which causes Villa to grimace. "When I heard that, I thought, Oh, Kathy," she says. "One, they might not be safe. And two, she may test positive on that. We really don't know what is in those natural medications."

And even though she had been risking a stroke, Jager was also going without her blood pressure medicine, which is on the IAAF's list of prohibited substances. Shortly after Carlius was interviewed for this story, WMA e-mailed Jager with an exemption from the blood pressure drug ban. "I just about fell over," says Jager.

Whether the move signals a change in WMA's doping policy or is simply a generous response to an individual case is too early to tell. The reformers want to modify the list of prohibited substances. The hardliners, up to this point led by Carlius, want to keep the current zero-tolerance system in place.

What Jager missed most of all was competing as a world-class athlete. She had been invited to the Olympic trials in 2000 to run a masters exhibition, but was barred because of the ban. "Marion Jones was there," she says, her voice cracking.

When she was reinstated, Jager dived right back into competition. She estimates she has competed in nearly a dozen meets since last August, traveling throughout Arizona and to California and Massachusetts to do so. "It's been overwhelming," Jager says of her fellow athletes' response to her return. "Every meet that I go to, people say, 'We feel terrible about what happened to you,' and they welcomed me back warmly."

In the small local meets, she has stepped right back in as the dominant 55-plus female competitor. At larger meets, however, the 59-year-old Jager has seen her supremacy overtaken by younger athletes such as 55-year-old Phil Raschker, recognized as one of the best female masters athletes of all time.

Jager now looks forward to turning 60 next June and once again becoming the youngster in her age group. "It's a whole new world out there waiting to be conquered," she says. Jager has especially set her sights on the WMA World Championships -- the same meet that caused her so much grief in 1999 -- scheduled for next July in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Much as she tries to suppress it, bitterness wells up occasionally. "I feel I was at the top of my game," she says, "and they took that away from me."


Steve Boman

Steve Boman is a freelance writer and co-founder of GeezerJock.com, a soon-to-be-launched Web site for and about senior athletes.

MORE FROM Steve Boman

Sean Callahan

Sean Callahan is a freelance writer and co-founder of GeezerJock.com, a soon-to-be-launched Web site for and about senior athletes.

MORE FROM Sean Callahan

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