Allison Wagner touched the wall after 400 meters of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, an exhausting individual medley. In her hypoxic state, her mind honed in on a rather unusual detail of the setting that she has retained for 20 years.
“I was in shock, and the first thing I noticed were the shadows on the wall,” said Wagner, the silver-medal winner of the 400 IM at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. “The sun was setting, as I remember it, and I found myself focusing on the prettiness of the way the light was coming into the natatorium.”
It is an ethereal image, one that might have held even more meaning and poetry had the results of Wagner’s race been different. Wagner finished second to Ireland’s Michelle Smith, whose 400 IM triumph was one of three she earned in Atlanta, making her perhaps the singular star of the swimming program of those Games.
While hounded by suspicions and accusations of performance-enhancing drug use, Smith (who now goes by Smith de Bruin) passed drug tests at the Olympics. In 1998, however, she was banned by the international swimming federation (FINA) for four years for tampering with a urine sample provided on an unannounced drug-test visit to her home, a vindicating moment for those who believed her golds had not been won fairly.
The ban effectively ended Smith’s career. But because she had passed the drug test at the Games, she retained her Atlanta golds, though the court of public opinion has judged strongly against her. Twenty years after she was awarded silver in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center — now the McAuley Aquatic Center — Wagner wants to take the final step of being recognized as the rightful champion of the 400 IM champion of the 1996 Summer Olympics. She is seeking to petition the International Olympic Committee review the race to possibly award her the gold.
The IOC has been willing to consider retroactively stripping medal winners. In November, the IOC asked the international track and field federation to take action against Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency made accusations of widespread doping and state-sponsored cover-ups. The IOC was willing to strip medals if warranted.
Wagner, who turned 39 on July 21, is not the case of a woman who has wandered the world bitter for the past 20 years. She lives in San Francisco, employed in marketing and development for a maternity-products company (Simple Wishes), putting her Pilates training to work by helping clients with spinal and joint alignments, doing speaking engagements and also selling artwork, mostly abstract paintings.
“It’s kind of like the individual medley of workplace life,” she said. “I like to keep things mixed up.”
She recognizes that life probably would be different had she emerged from the pool the winner of the gold medal and not the silver.
“Generally speaking, I think that’s just the way life works,” she said. “There’s one thing that happens, and it’s subsequently a chain reaction. One event affects the other and so on.”
The 400 IM in Atlanta perhaps was the peak of her career, achieved the day before her 19th birthday. She set a short-course (25-meter pool) record in the 200 IM in 1993. She was a national champion in the 200 and 400 IM’s in 1994 and was an 11-time All-American at Florida. Her career, however, was marked by losses in major international meets to swimmers who were either suspected of doping or were later found to have used performance enhancers.
She stopped swimming in the late ’90s and didn’t pick up serious training again until about 2004, when she trained until the 2008 Olympic Trials. She did not make the team.
“I just wanted to do a swim career in the way that I wanted to do it,” she said.
Wagner said she began to consider petitioning the IOC around the time that cyclist Lance Armstrong had his seven Tour de France titles revoked for his doping program.
“In my mind, you’re pursuing excellence with integrity,” she said of the Olympic spirit. “I think it’s about time the Olympics is cleaned up.”
In her effort to gain the attention of the IOC, she has engaged the U.S. Olympic Committee for guidance and assistance.
“I was surprised at the response I got,” she said. “And while nothing’s happened, I’ve been encouraged by people’s opinion on the matter and the responses I’ve gotten.”
Perhaps no response was more emphatic than one she received the night of July 20, 1996, the night she finished second to Smith. Finishing third was Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi, a five-time gold medalist.
Said Wagner, “After we both climbed out of the pool, she came up to me and wished me congratulations and said I was the real winner of the race.”
Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution
As Lilly King and Yulia Efimova exchanged finger wags before they faced off in the women’s 100 breast at the Olympic Games, 1996 Olympic silver medalist Allison Wagner felt a bit of déjà vu.
After Efimova won the first semifinal and King the second, Wagner was watching on television as King explained to the world why she believed Efimova—twice suspended for positive drug tests—did not deserve to be competing at the Olympic Games.
It was when Wagner read that King had been called “unsportsmanlike” for speaking out that Wagner decided to do the same. After all, Wagner knows exactly what it feels like to compete against someone who has taken performance-enhancing substances.
Wagner won a pair of silver medals in the 200 and 400 IM at the World Championships in Rome in 1994, both times finishing behind Chinese swimmers (Lü Bin and Dai Guohong, respectively). China won 12 of 16 women’s gold medals at that meet, drawing heavy suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use—later proven to be true.
Two years later, Wagner won the silver medal in the 400 IM at the Atlanta Olympics, coming in three seconds behind gold medalist Michelle Smith of Ireland. Smith came out of nowhere to take home four medals from Atlanta, three of them gold. While swimming in an outside lane, she clocked 4:39.18 to win the 400 IM, almost twenty seconds quicker than the time she had swum four years earlier at the Games in Barcelona (4:58.94).
With that massive improvement, eyebrows were raised as to the legitimacy of Smith’s times, and Wagner, Janet Evans and others were among those with serious doubts.
“It was evident to me and everybody else I talked to that she was suspect,” Wagner said about drug use during the 1996 Olympic Games.
After years of racing the Chinese women, Wagner had learned the telltale signs of a doper—facial hair, deeper voices, changing muscle complexion, actual ring marks from where the injections had been given and association with proven violators.
But Wagner had to wait two years for her concerns about Smith to be validated. In 1998, Smith was banned four years for tampering with her urine sample with alcohol. Later on, it was determined that that sample as well as two previous ones had included traces of androstenedione, a precursor to testosterone.
Still, Wagner did not feel vindicated—she felt betrayed.
“I was disappointed it took that long,” Wagner said. “She tampered with her sample. There’s no way an athlete should be able to do that if anti-doping standards and procedures are upheld.”
Wagner explained that an anti-doping agent is to remain by the side of an athlete being tested throughout the entire process of an out-of-competition test. Why did that not happen for Smith, and why had she not been banned earlier if traces of a steroid had already been found?
Smith was out, and she would never return to the sport. But she took with her the four medals from Atlanta into retirement and never had to give them back. Her samples from the Olympics were tested in 1996 and came back clean, and she continued—and, in fact, continues to this day—to deny that she ever used illegal drugs. But even with more modern testing methods now available, those samples have not been looked at again.
“I think when it’s proven that the athletes doped, those races should be reviewed,” Wagner said. “Those athletes’ [samples] should be retested.”
Just like many other cheated out of their rightful place in history, nothing of the sort ever happened. Wagner still has the silver, having never heard from anyone at the International Olympic Committee about the situation.
Fast forward twenty years, and performance-enhancing drugs remain a major presence in swimming. Just two months ago, the entire Russian swim team competed at the Olympics in Rio despite the McLaren report outlining the country’s state-sponsored doping system.
And what happens when an athlete gets caught cheating and tests positive? Two-year ban, right? Well, not so fast. China’s Sun Yang was out for just three months after a positive test in 2014, and Efimova was suspended 16 months in 2013 so that she would be eligible just in time to qualify for the 2015 World Championships—set to be held in Russia, of all places.
“I think people forget this is a sport, a game,” Wagner said. “You have to follow the rules. You can’t just make up a new turn that breaks the rules and expect to not get disqualified.
“I want to see doping regulations treated like rules regarding stroke in swimming. I think [anti-doping] decisions seem more arbitrary and more influenced by other factors besides the standards that are supposed to be in place no matter what.”
More than anything else, Wagner wants to start a real dialogue about doping in sports and help foster an environment where athletes will not be afraid to speak out when they believe illegal substances are in use.
“These drugs, they don’t work like caffeine—they’re not short-term drugs, and they can affect you for a very long time,” she said. “This is an issue that affects a lot of athletes, and they should be concerned if they truly are a team player.”
As much as the current situation depresses Wagner, she has some hope.
“I really think there is a way to stop it or at least chip away at it,” she said. “It really pains me to see athletes in the same shoes I was twenty years ago.”
Source: Swimming World Magazine
Ariel is an artist, scientist and entrepreneur who has bridged the gap between all three disciplines. She is the CEO of InteraXon, a company specialized in thought-controlled computing and has raised $287,472 on Indiegogo to produce a brain-sensing headband.
An interview with MILAN GOKHALE
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Ariel Garten, I’m the CEO and co-founder of InteraXon. At InteraXon we create thought controlled computing products, applications and experiences. Thought-controlled computing is exactly what it sounds like — it’s the ability to interact with content and yourself. A sensor sits on your forehead, reads your brainwaves, and then lets you play games on your smartphone or tablet directed by your brain. It also lets you see your brain and engagement activity to improve your working memory, concentration, circulation etc.
Tell us more about your background.
My background spans arts, science and business. I was in real estate since I was a kid. My dad sent me to show the apartments. At university, I studied neuroscience and ran a clothing line that I had started in high school. I sold to stores in Toronto, and I had a job in a research lab. So I’ve always been able to move back and forth between art and science, and I find both completely stimulating. When I graduated, I continued to work at the research lab and opened my own clothing store on College Street, expanding to sell my line to small boutiques across North America.
I was looking for a way to talk about the self and understand the self from scientific and artistic perspectives. I started working with brainwaves in Steve Mann’s lab almost a decade ago. Ultimately we created a system that I took out of the lab and started to commercialize with my two co-founders, Trevor Colemen and Chris Aimone. That was the formation of InteraXon, which has existed for the last five years. Our first major project was the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. As our kick off project, it wasn’t a bad one to do! Since then, we’ve worked with companies like Deutsche Telekom, brands like Wrigley’s and agencies like the Ontario Aerospace Council to enable this technology across multiple domains.
How do you define ‘technology’?
Technology is an enabler. Anything is a technology; the glasses we wear are technology; there is technology in my shoes. The definition we use today is very specific and it tends to refer to digital or computational technologies that enable our lives in ways that weren’t possible two and a half decades ago.
What were your earliest interactions with technology?
I was never really into technology. It wasn’t something that I identified with. It wasn’t a driving force. But in the creation of this brainwave technology, there was a lot of processing involved to create the core of the experience. Starting work in the early 2000s on early brain wave systems was my first real foray into technology as something that was part of my own identity.
What drew you to science at an early age?
My interest in science didn’t overlap with my interest in technology, until recently, in my mind. The interest in science — it seems so obvious to me, it’s how the world works! Why wouldn’t you be fascinated with the mechanisms that create everything?
It seems so obvious to me, [science is] how the world works! Why wouldn’t you be fascinated with the mechanisms that create everything?
Did your family encourage you to pursue science?
There were no family or peers influencing me to go into science. My mother is an artist; my father is in real estate and construction. My mother is not connected to science or technology; she’s extraordinarily intelligent and inquisitive but she processes the world through a brush and through linguistics. And my dad isn’t scientific. He would still have a VCR if someone didn’t throw it out! The pursuit of science was just a line of inquiry to understand how the world works.
At what point did science became an important influence in your life?
As a kid, I hated computers. I thought they were anti-natural, and I was very into the natural world. Science is a part of the natural world. In high school I did great at science and I did okay at math, but I was into abstract concepts. I loved logic — loved, loved, loved logic, like I loved doing puzzles. When everyone in university hated multiple choice, I loved multiple choice. Just to know the totality of the answers!
I did great at science and I did okay at math, but I was into abstract concepts. I loved logic — loved, loved, loved logic.
Why do you think there aren’t more young women choosing to pursue a career in science?
There’s definitely a tendency where people can, from a young age, identify, ‘I’m good at this, I’m not good at this, and this is scary.’ And if you decide you aren’t good at something, you don’t take the time to build the skill. You shut down and you don’t engage with it.
I’m also a psychotherapist. I had a patient recently who said, “Numbers scare me. You say the word finance and I want to jump under the table over there.” And it was a process of moving aside her fear, seeing these things as neutral, allowing herself to open up to numbers so that she could spend time learning without feeling anxiety and insecurity.
Insecurity is definitely an issue when you are growing up. And when you do something that you don’t know the answer to, your response to not knowing will determine your ability to learn it.
If your response to not knowing is, ‘I don’t know it, therefore I feel uncomfortable, therefore I want to run away because it makes me feel insecure,’ then you’re not going to have the confidence, patience, willingness and openness to sit down and say, ‘I don’t know this but I’m not scared, I’m just going to sit here and figure it out.’ Your early responses and experiences will determine whether you go into a subject or not.
Why do you think there is an imbalance between the number of men and women working in technology?
I’m tempted to think that early on there was a misidentification about who was good at math and who wasn’t. And as we break down gender barriers, my guess would be that in classrooms now you see much less differentiation between the number of males and females. There are so many girls who rock at math!
In my generation, to get into computational neuroscience you had to do computer science first. I think in 15 years, in fields like computational neuroscience where there are equal opportunities to learn computer science, or if it becomes acceptable for girls to sit in their basement and figure out code, we’ll see leveling off of males vs. females.
Can you tell us about your role as a female tech entrepreneur?
Well, I’m definitely in the vast minority. For example, I was invited to a tech conference for the 50 brightest minds in technology. They flew us on a private jet to Hawaii, made it a big deal, it was pretty cool. There were 50 people — only five were women.
As a rare bird in this full nest, I have to say I don’t mind. I can work being female to my advantage. We joke that if our demo isn’t working at a conference, I can just wear the headset and smile and that would be enough.
Everyone has their own advantages regardless of gender. I’m in a unique position at this point in time as a woman tech CEO.
How do you think it is advantageous to be a woman in technology?
I’m aware that because I am a rare female in the tech executive space, I may receive special treatment. And probably part of my success is due to the fact that I’m female. It’s fetishized, not in a sexual way, but through that fetishization the female role becomes iconic, creating an archetype other people can follow. That leads to role models and creates a path for more women.
Will we reach a more equal balance between male and female CEOs in the next 50 years?
I don’t think there should be any natural order, unless not being that way leads to some sort of system of oppression. And I guess a feminist would argue that this kind of inequality is inherently systemic and self-perpetuating oppression. [Pauses] I can buy into that, but it’s not naturally how I feel. I’ve never felt oppressed as a female. I’ve never felt that I have been withheld opportunity because of my gender. I have not been inspired to the deep feeling of belief that comes with those feminist feelings.
I’ve never felt oppressed as a female. I’ve never felt that I have been withheld opportunity because of my gender.
To me, everything is fine and normal. I definitely recognize that there are other people that don’t have that experience. It’s unfair of me to think that because everything is fine for me, everything is fine. But realistically, it feels normal to me.
What are your thoughts on feminist movements for women in technology?
There are two schools of thought. One is a school that says, ‘Yes, we remember that there’s a problem and we have to beat the drum in order to solve the problem.’ The other says, ‘It’s not really much of a problem, and if we don’t make it a problem, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ And depending on your level of feminism, you could fall into either school.