How Australian swimmer Shayna Jack is picking up the pieces


Shayna Jack was safe at home but hardly sound. For more than a week, the besieged swimmer had been drifting in and out of lucidity after being hit by the sledgehammer every athlete dreads: one of her doping samples had returned with traces of a banned substance.

Her world had been turned upside down yet the matter remained closely guarded. Only a select few within swimming circles knew the real reason she had left a training camp in Japan ahead of the FINA World Championships in South Korea. For the sake of her teammates, Jack had not planned to go public with the truth until the meet ended.

The matter would soon be taken out of her hands. Jack discovered news of her anti-doping violation had surged into the public domain when a notification flashed up on her phone. It was a social media message recommending she take her own life.

“The only reason I knew it was out was that someone commented on a photo that I was a drug cheat and I should kill myself. For me to see something like that, it destroyed me,” Jack said as she fought back tears during a challenging and emotional interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“I remember posting [a statement] on Instagram then just crying and crying until I had no tears left. Nobody really understood how much it broke me. I’m still broken.”

Hugo the Great Dane has been a welcome companion for Shayna Jack throughout her ordeal.Credit:Paul Harris

Overnight, Jack went from a high-spirited, effervescent member of the Dolphins freestyle relay teams to the most controversial name in Australian sport, then found herself at the centre of an international debate engulfing Mack Horton, Sun Yang, threads of hypocrisy and the weaponised language of doping.

It has left her, depending on the day, or perhaps the hour of the day: Shattered, emboldened, determined, distraught, uplifted, crushed, frustrated, confused, angered and confounded.

Now, she is ready to tell her story of life inside the clinical anti-doping machine as she faces a four-year ban from a sport that has been her true love since she was a wide-eyed kid idolising Olympic champion Libby Trickett, her enduring swimming hero.

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Jack has already stressed her innocence after A and B samples showed traces of Ligandrol, a selective androgen receptor modulator that is proving to be a growing nightmare for anti-doping bodies around the world. She maintains she would never cheat and has no idea how she ingested the substance.

Details of the case remain confidential but as she waits for ASADA to move the process forward, Jack has revisited the key moments on a painful, endless mental loop. Under the intense media focus, she has struggled with her mental health. An optimist at heart, the 21-year-old has at times become hollow and detached.

‘I thought they had got it wrong’

Jack had thought nothing of a regulation test at a training camp in Cairns on June 26 before she was summoned to the team hotel in Japan a few weeks later. She had suspected she was needed for another test and sprinted back to meet a team manager.

‘I asked her what was happening and she said she didn’t know and that our head coach Jacco [Verhaeren] called us to his room. I had no idea … is my family sick or has something happened to them? I was already quite shaken when I walked into the room,” Jack said.

“We got them [ASADA] on the phone and they said those dreadful words: my sample had come back with a prohibited substance. My mind just shut off. It’s every athlete’s worst nightmare. I thought they had got it wrong; I’m not a cheat, I didn’t do this. I just thought they had made a mistake. So that’s what I told them.”

She asked Verhaeren to call her St Peters Western coach Dean Boxall, who walked in to see an inconsolable Jack slumped in a chair and barely able to comprehend what had just transpired.

“I was a mess. I was just shaking and crying and couldn’t breathe. Nobody could calm me down. I needed Dean at that point. He came in and saw a very distressed and emotional Shayna. I couldn’t get the words to say anything so Jacco explained what happened.

Shayna Jack, flanked by her mother Pauline, collapsed in tears after running the gauntlet of cameras ahead of her ASADA meeting in August.

Shayna Jack, flanked by her mother Pauline, collapsed in tears after running the gauntlet of cameras ahead of her ASADA meeting in August.Credit:AAP

“It was a very tough situation and he was exactly what I needed. Everybody in that room was what I needed. They were all calm, they weren’t freaking out, I knew every person in there knew I was innocent. Dean just turned to me and said: ‘Shayna, we’ll get through this.’ He’s been saying that ever since.”

Anti-doping protocols are rigorous by design and Jack had no choice but to leave the team almost immediately. Too distraught to face her friends and teammates, she requested that Verhaeren address them that night and say she had gone home due to a personal matter.

Later, reports suggested she wanted to go public with the news right away but Jack insists that wasn’t the case. She had an inherent right to privacy under the ASADA agreement and had no intention of distracting her fellow athletes before the biggest meet of the year.

“I knew if I told them all, it would completely take away their focus from everything they had been working towards. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be a distraction, I didn’t want to be a worry because there was nothing they could do. So I left without saying anything.

“Nobody ever pressured me to keep quiet. I was 20 years old at the time and just found out my whole world had been turned upside down.”

A case of terrible timing

In isolation, Jack’s case may not have been all that remarkable. But a series of intersecting storylines saw it amplified beyond anything Jack could have ever imagined. Swimmers are obsessed by times and timing and in this case, it could hardly have been worse.

While Jack was at home trying to come to grips with her immediate crisis, Horton was in Gwangju refusing to share a podium with his Chinese rival Sun, who at the time was waiting for his infamous smashed vial case to be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The reaction when Jack’s news became public with two days to go in the competition was predictable, with the Australians labelled hypocrites for lambasting international rivals as ‘drug cheats’ while one of their own had just been stung by a positive test.

Jack said she never considered the two narratives would collide with such intensity. Quite simply, she was completely consumed by her own misfortune and at that point, still intended to wait until the competition had finished before releasing her news.

“I watched it. I respect what Mack did. He stood up for clean sport and I’ll always stand up for clean sport. He didn’t mean anything else by it. I didn’t even connect the two things. I never thought that would be a massive thing everyone focused on.”

Jack was now being stalked by photographers and even papped as she took the bins out in her suburban Brisbane rental. The pile-on was in full flight by the time she faced the cameras for the first time after a meeting with ASADA at the beginning of August.

Shayna Jack in action during the heats of the women's 200 metre freestyle at the World Swimming Trials in Brisbane in June 11

Shayna Jack in action during the heats of the women’s 200 metre freestyle at the World Swimming Trials in Brisbane in June 11Credit:AAP

Flanked by her mother Pauline, Jack ran a gauntlet of media and microphones, thinking only about trying to hold herself together amid a media scrum that was as foreign as it was confronting.

“The hardest part was walking in. Having that stampede of cameras and microphones all in my face, I just trembled. I was trying to hold back my tears. My mum was my rock, she held me tight and as soon as the doors shut, I just cried and cried and was shaking uncontrollably.”

At that meeting, in which Jack had plenty to say to ASADA officials, she was given an estimate of six to nine months for a hearing. On one occasion since, she was even tested again despite being banned from the pool.

Nearing Christmas, that picture is no clearer and while she continues to train around her job, her slim grip on a Tokyo dream is beginning to weaken.

‘Those two girls have been amazing’

Through the now daily fog of doubt and despair, there have been moments of affirmation that remind Jack that while her sporting world has crumbled, important characters in her life have risen to the occasion, not the least of them her loyal puppy Hugo, a seven-month-old Great Dane the size of a small dinosaur.

Key staff at Swimming Austalia have been a welcome conduit to ASADA, who she said tended to move at a glacial pace when responding to enquiries. She said the governing body had done all it could under the rules now in place, which restrict her from even setting foot at her former training pool.

Shayna Jack has dealt with bouts of depression since her positive doping test but refuses to give up on her swimming dreams.

Shayna Jack has dealt with bouts of depression since her positive doping test but refuses to give up on her swimming dreams.Credit:Paul Harris

“Once again, lots of restrictions. Swimming Australia is my family and they aren’t allowed to be in my inner circle of support. There are a lot of policies in place that restrict them from having any access to me. They did as well as they could. That part of it can be toxic for an athlete.”

Former swimmer Kylie Palmer, who was hit with an anti-doping violation in 2015 some two years after a positive test for a masking agent, has been a welcome sounding board.  Coaching great Laurie Lawrence is another with whom she has formed a strong bond.

Then there are star sprint sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell, former clubmates of Jack now living in Sydney who have given her constant support from the outset.

“Those two girls have been amazing. Cate, I can 100 per cent tell you, that when you look for someone to look up to on the team, someone to be a mentor, someone to follow in their footsteps, Cate Campbell is the way to go,” Jack said.

“She has gone above and beyond to check in on me, make sure I’m Ok and just chat about life. She is an amazing friend and mentor. She has experienced the highs and lows. I’m so indebted to her. That has been one of the best things I could have had during that process. That made my day … not a lot of things do.”

Regardless of the potential sanctions and even at her lowest moments, Jack has not once considered stepping away from the pool.

There are some days where the light at the end of the tunnel seems so insignificant it is little more than a dull glow. Other times, she boldly dreams of standing on top of the blocks once more, ready to put everything on the line for her beloved Dophins.

“I will probably cry with happiness. I know it’s more crying. But you have to dream. That hasn’t changed. Nothing will scare me anymore. This will only make me stronger.”

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