In elite figure skating, makeup can be as important a tool as a boot and blade.
It also can sideline an Olympic contender.
Jessica Calalang, a U.S. pairs skater and potential member of the team for next February's Winter Games in Beijing, recently had a suspension from the sport overturned. Calalang had tested positive for a banned substance in January at the national championships, and it took eight months for her name to be cleared.
Those eight months were fraught with uncertainty, marked by extensive searches for what could have caused her to test positive for 4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid (4-CPA), a known metabolite of meclofenoxate, a USADA-prohibited stimulant.
“We were kind of retracing our steps and trying to figure what could it possibly be,” Calalang says. “We've been elite athletes for quite a while and are very aware of what we put in our bodies. We knew we didn’t do anything purposely to put that in jeopardy.”
She received an email on Feb. 12 about the violation, and entries for the world championships were due on March 1.
“I only had two weeks or so to figure out where this came from, and for those two weeks I was scrambling, trying to rack my brain where it could come from,” she recalls. “We were in a bubble for nationals, which did help narrow it down eventually. We had sent in a few products to get tested. We were putting a rush on everything."
Still, Calalang, 26, and partner Brian Johnson, 25, had to withdraw from worlds, where they could have further established their credentials on the international skating scene.
“Initially we thought it would go away pretty quickly,” says Jenni Meno, who with husband Todd Sand was a three-time national pairs champion and now coaches Calalang-Johnson with Sand. "We knew it was an odd situation and were confident Jessica had not taken anything she shouldn’t.
“We knew it was a big deal, but did not think it would affect the rest of the season. We soon learned that was not the case.”
While they could still train but were unable to participate in any U.S. Figure Skating sanctioned or sponsored events, Calalang and Johnson fell into a sort of career limbo just as planning for the Olympic season was beginning. Her funding from U.S. Figure Skating was frozen, though the federation provided support in several areas such as education, physical and mental health resources.
A U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee ombudsman walked Calalang through the machinations of such violations and suspensions, and her options for retaining an attorney.
“I didn’t realize you have to go that far,” Calalang says. “Yes, the emotions that we were all experiencing and the uncertainty was very challenging to handle between March and now. Everything was so uncertain, things were changing daily, a lead and then not, a glimmer of hope and then not.”
In early summer, UFC fighter Rob Font, who fought in May, had his ban dismissed when USADA found that chlorphenesin, a non-prohibited cosmetic preservative found in shampoos and lotions, can also metabolize into 4-CPA. Calalang had been using similar products.
“I had used all the same makeup before,” she says, “and it was just a big shock to me.”
At the end of June, her attorney, Howard Jacobs, notified Calalang about potential changes in rules regarding 4-CPA to be voted on at the end of September. If those regulations passed, it would likely result in no violation for her. And USADA suggested she remain in the case until then. In return, USADA offered to lift her provisional suspension, allowing Calalang to compete and receive funding immediately.
“This was the best possible news I could have gotten, something that at that point I was doubting was even possible,” she says. “This gave me more hope that I was going to compete again and that my name will be cleared.”
Font's case was different than Calalang's, too. Font was cleared first because UFC has its own anti-doping policy which WADA, the world body for policing drug use in sports, is not a part of. USADA could clear him without seeking WADA’s approval. Calalang's case required WADA’s approval.
While they hoped for a resolution, Calalang and Johnson also were fighting the clock. The Grand Prix series, the major competitions leading toward the national championships and then toward Beijing, would begin with Skate America on Oct. 22. Competing in two of those events could be critical for their chance to make the Olympics.
It wasn't until Sept. 30 that Calalang was fully cleared by WADA and USADA — too late to be entered in any Grand Prix events except Skate America, for which the federation gave them a spot.
“If Jessica did not have the resources and support to retain a lawyer to assist her, this could have easily been another case where an innocent athlete ends up serving a lengthy ban," Jacobs says. "While we cannot go back in time and give Jessica the opportunity to participate in the world championships that were wrongly taken from her, we do hope that the anti-doping authorities will quickly remedy this flaw in their testing protocols, and that they will do so in a transparent manner.”
Now, they are free for competitions, with funding fully reinstated. They finished fourth last weekend at an event in Finland.
“I think what they've gone through as a team over the last few months has made them stronger,” Meno says, “and I think they know they can face anything. The way they pushed through and kept training, Brian always there for Jessica, a lot of support. What they have gone through is so big, emotionally, more than going to a skating competition.”
Next week, they head to Las Vegas for Skate America. Calalang recognizes that her battle was important not only to herself and Johnson, but for all athletes.
“I don't want this to happen to anyone else,” Calalang says. "It was such an unpleasant experience ... it would have been easy to throw up my hands and say `YOU WIN.'
“I knew I didn’t do anything wrong on this, and kept fighting and didn’t give up. I didn’t wave the white flag; we didn’t. There were times I wanted to, felt absolutely helpless. But we'd keep fighting for this (outcome).”