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Jaben's long road

Monday, December 22, 2008 | 1:20 p.m. CST; updated 12:36 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Former MU swimmer Max Jaben

When Max Jaben arrived in Spain late one night in July, he was excited to start his last Olympic swimming training camp before representing Israel in Beijing. The next day, his first full day in Spain, he was walking out the door to afternoon practice when a doctor who worked with Israel’s national team called.

He had failed a drug test for anabolic steroids. The drug was boldenone, a steroid originally developed for use in horses that is sometimes abused in athletics to build muscle mass.

“It was the worst feeling I’ve ever, ever had in my life,” Jaben said. “I said, ‘Are you joking?’ I mean, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And then I started panicking and called my family.”

His family was in Overland Park, Kan., where he grew up. Jaben had plans to return to MU, where he currently is a student, to continue his swimming career after the Olympics, but one failed drug test derailed the future of his swimming career.

The test in question was from April, when Jaben was training in Israel. The Israel Swimming Association issued a statement saying Jaben’s “A” sample of urine contained traces of Boldenone, putting his Olympic future in jeopardy. For some reason, Jaben doesn’t know why, he wasn’t told of his test results until July. At that time, the ISA tested his “B” sample for the drug — from the same sample taken in April — and again found a trace of boldenone.

After he got off the phone, Jaben still went to practice and completed a full workout. One month out from Beijing, he couldn’t allow what he was sure was some cruel joke or horrible mistake to interrupt his training regimen. Mostly, he swam “because when my head was in the water, I wasn’t thinking about it,” he says.

He went to practice and pulled his coach aside to tell him what happened. His coach called a team meeting to tell the rest of Israel’s Olympic team.

“It was really hard telling them what happened,” Jaben says. “I was in disbelief, they were in disbelief as well.”

Jaben says his Olympic teammates were supportive at the time, and have continued to be support him through his whole ordeal.

“I was a piece of the puzzle, all of us together,” Jaben says. “They knew something was going on with me, and I had to tell them all immediately because if something happens with one of us, it throws us all off.”

By the time they left practice a few hours later, Jaben and his teammates were receiving phone calls from family, friends, former teammates, and the media.

The next thing Jaben did was call a lawyer.

“I didn’t even know what boldenone was,” Jaben says. “I needed someone to explain it to me right away, because I really had no idea.”

Boldenone has an incredibly long half-life, and can show up on tests five months after a single use, says Marilyn James-Kracke, an associate professor of  medical pharmacology and physiology at MU. James-Kracke and Nat Messer, from MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, say scientifically, Jaben has an up-hill battle to prove his innocence and repeal his two-year ban from the sport — standard punishment for steroid use. There is a heavy stigma associated with steroid use, and boldenone is a drug that Drs. James-Kracke and Messer say would be almost impossible to take unknowingly.

Months after the failed test, Jaben still insists he is innocent.

“Boldenone is something you cannot mask,” Jaben says, making sure to emphasize that what he knows about the drug he learned after he failed the test. “I don’t know how else to say it, but if someone wanted to cheat our sport, Boldenone would be one of the dumbest, most reckless decisions to make.”

And he’s right. According to James-Kracke and Messer, the drug must be injected, or absorbed through the skin in some sort of ointment form, in order to work. If taken orally, liver enzymes would destroy the drug, along with most other anabolic steroids, but there is always a chance it could still show up in a blood or urine test. It’s a hard thing to judge, and Jaben says he was not on any sort of training regimen that required any injections, and while swimming with Israel’s national team, he kept up an oral vitamin routine, just as he did in the states.

***

Jaben is eager to talk about this moment that was so difficult for him. His voice strains as he struggles a little to choose the words that will most emphasize his feelings that day. No doubt he has replayed the phone call over and over again in his mind, and this dwelling on that moment appears to leave him feeling a bit lost. Jaben deals with a lot of people asking him a lot of questions about his life and those test results, and he has some go-to answers prepared to garner the right amount of sympathy from his listener. But there is sincerity in his voice.

In meeting Jaben face-to-face, you see he lacks the gigantic stature of some of his more well-known Olympic swimmer counterparts. Instead, what is immediately noticeable is his dark hair and beard, and his round, dark brown eyes. He is polite, and can be soft-spoken, without ever seeming shy or unsure. Jaben is used to plenty of attention for his talents and controversies, and knows how to handle himself accordingly.

Ever since his days growing up in Overland Park, Kan., as a stand-out in the Kansas City area’s most prestigious club swim team, the Kansas City Blazers, he has seemed to attract attention.

By the time Jaben was 12 or 13, he knew swimming was the only sport for him. Instead of swimming for his high school, he trained year-around with the Blazers to compete on a national level. While swimming for the Blazers, he still had one dream, to be an Olympian.

After high school, Jaben went to the University of Florida swim team, seeking warm weather and the prestige of a team that routinely produces Olympians. Jaben was there to be a NCAA finalist, and a freshman All-American, but instead, he didn’t even qualify for the top meet for college swimmers every March, the NCAAs.

“You know, I just think that sometimes freshmen, when they go to a university, and either they are going to start doing a lot better, or struggle a little bit,” Jaben elaborates. “And I definitely struggled a little bit.”

For any Midwestern student, the allure of warm weather and the beach can be a distraction, and Jaben says he might have enjoyed it a little too much, adjusted to college life a little too well. He won’t elaborate further.

Regardless, during his sophomore season, he swam much better and qualified for NCAAs. He still did not reach all-American status, but he was happier and convinced he could be faster.

During his time at Florida, two major events occurred that would permanently change Jaben’s swimming career: He decided he wanted to change his swimming specialty, and he learned there was a way to fulfill his Olympic dreams.

In late 2005, he went to a meet called Maccabiah, an international swimming competition for Jews living around the world. Winning two individual events and a relay there, Jaben caught the attention of Israel’s national team. Neither Jaben, nor anyone in his family is Israeli-born, but under aliyah, the law of Jewish return, any Jew in the world can return to Israel and gain citizenship — and compete for the Israeli Olympic team.

“The National team coaches saw me as the final piece to their 4 x 200 freestyle relay, they had three guys and needed a fourth,” Jaben says. “I wanted to come, I was asking to come, so it worked out well for both of us.”

But first, he had to change the way he trained. Instead of swimming the 1,000-meter or mile races, he wanted to develop into a mid-distance swimmer in the 200 freestyle.

“When you train for the mile, like I was, you get stuck in what is called the distance lane,” Jaben says. “It means you swim, and you swim and you swim, and you don’t stop. And after doing that for a bunch of years, it started to get a little old.”

With his coaches unwilling to let him change, Jaben began dreading the practices he used to love.

This, along with a party he threw that neither Jaben nor University of Florida athletics officials wants to talk about (no police were involved) helped Jaben decide to leave Florida during the first semester of his junior year and transfer to MU. He found what few athletes find: a second chance at a new career.

Jaben hadn’t been in the water for a few months, so he chose to take a redshirt junior year to re-focus his training under Missouri coach Brian Hoffer’s guidance.

“It was difficult starting to train again, but it was awesome,” Jaben says. “I was getting excited to come to practice, even though I was going times much slower than I had at my peak. I became really excited in the little things and in their (the MU coaches') belief in me.”

Then in August, in lieu of starting a new season as a scoring member of MU’s swim team, Jaben decided to take a year off from swimming at MU to complete aliyah, and return to Israel for a shot at Israel’s national team and the Olympics.

***

When he got to Israel, he was immediately placed on Israel’s national team. Soon after, Jaben competed in Israel’s summer national championships, winning the 800-meter freestyle and nearing Israel’s national record. As part of the team, he competed in a variety of meets across Europe — mainly focusing his training on the European championships in March. He swam a personal-best time at the meet and finally qualified for the Olympics in the 200-meter freestyle.

The feeling, he says, was indescribable. He felt justification, happiness, a sense that a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice was paying off and his life-long dream was coming true. He was overjoyed, and that feeling just pushed him to work harder, and get faster.

Jaben looks serious when he describes qualifying for the team. Earlier in the interview, he was slowly swiveling in his desk chair, but now he has stopped fidgeting and looks serious. He says it is hard trying to explain how it feels to overcome so many complications to become an Olympian.

But all these good feelings were diluted by the controversy that followed. In order for Jaben to be on the team, he had to take a native Israeli’s spot, and there was a lot of negative press about it.

“I don’t want to say they were jealous, but well you know, I was the American that came (to Israel) to swim and there were some people who I beat off the Olympic team and they thought it wasn’t fair to them,” Jaben says. “One guy’s dad was writing letters into the World Swimming Organization, trying to say that there were little details and problems with my citizenship to stop me from swimming. It was back and forth by the day whether or not I would be allowed to go.”

It affected him mentally, but he had coaches and teammates who supported him, so he pushed past the negative and trained. He kept swimming for a week and a half after he heard the news of the failed drug test. It was back and forth all the time whether or not he could compete, so he assumed this was another problem that would work itself out.

“In a way, that was some of the best training in my life,” Jaben says. “I was determined if the mistake was cleared up, that I would go to the Olympics and swim as fast as possible.”

That’s not the way it worked out, and instead of going to Beijing, he went home to Kansas, where he gathered a case to present to the Israeli Olympic Committee, with Tel Aviv-based lawyer, Yohai Hurvitz, who specializes in this area.

***

In late September, the Olympics are long over. A man Jaben flippantly refers to as “Michael” has done more for the sport Jaben loves than he ever could, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still dream.

With his Beijing dreams shattered, it’s apparent Jaben still thinks a little bit about London, the site of the 2012 Olympics. But a two-year ban would be devastating for his career, and he would have to be lucky and work hard to get back into good enough shape to qualify again.

The two-year ban from any competition is what Hurvitz was trying to repeal, saying the way Jaben’s drug test was handled was against protocol, unfair, and he should get another chance.

Jaben traveled from Columbia to Israel for two separate hearings before a panel of doctors and Israel’s Olympic Committee. After the hearings, he said he felt good about his chances, but was careful not to be too optimistic about the results.

At this time, all he wanted was a quick return to competition and to his last two years of college eligibility as a Tiger. He wanted to go to NCAAs and achieve that long sought-after All-American status.

***

A little over four months later, on the first Friday of MU’s Thanksgiving break, Jaben heard the Israel Swimming Associations long-awaited decision. The ISA ruled he was guilty of using the banned substance boldenone, but since he only failed one test, ISA chose to ban him for one year, instead of the usual two. Jaben was in Nashville visiting a friend with his younger brother when his dad called to say he received a written notification from the ISA in the mail. Jaben says FINA, the world swimming organization, had the option to accept ISA’s ban, but instead choose to suspend him for the full two years.

“The whole time I knew there was a very, very big possibility I would be suspended,” Jaben says. “It might sound weird to say, but I really just wanted a decision so I could figure out where my life is headed.”

He hasn’t decided if he will continue swimming after his competition ban is up, but says he has realized through this ordeal that there really is more to life than swimming. Because of his transfer from Florida, and his year spent in Israel, he won’t graduate from MU until May of 2010. Jaben is a general studies major, since many of his Florida credits didn’t transfer, and is thinking of following in the footsteps of his father, who owns a Kansas City-based paving company. As far as his future with swimming, he has been working out a few times a week with MU’s noncompetitive swim club. He says meeting new people and staying in the water has been good for him, and he has made no decisions regarding his competitive future.

“I go back and forth between wanting to continue or not, even in the same day,” Jaben says. “This whole ordeal has been very painful and very costly for my family and me. It’s hard to keep putting up this fight and maybe it would be better just to move on to the next part of my life.”

One thing is definite, Jaben’s career at MU is definitely over. Even if he wasn’t banned by the ISN, he says he would have had to appeal to MU’s Athletic Department to get back on the team, but now he definitely would not have been given another shot at MU. Now, Brian Hoffer, the coach who welcomed Jaben to MU and got him back in shape, won’t comment on the situation. Jaben is a talented swimmer, and no doubt Hoffer would have liked to have him on the team, but Hoffer has a whole team of talented swimmers who need his attention.

Jaben has many close friends and teammates who believe he is innocent, and it seems those who don’t won’t say it out loud, at least when there is a tape recorder present. No one on the MU swimming and diving team would dare criticize a teammate, even a former one.

He can’t articulate a specific theory for why he failed this test, or why people should believe his innocent.

“I don’t know what happened to this day,” he says. “A tainted supplement? A trainer put something in a water bottle? Something I’d eaten? If I had an answer to what happened, I wouldn’t be being punished, and I’d still be swimming.”

Before the decision there were rumors circulating on various swimming blogs and articles that said Jaben thought he might have been drugged by a competitor.

“This is still not 100 percent over in Israel. People are still talking about this, and I would rather not make allegations against anyone,” Jaben says.

Phone calls and emails to former Blazer teammates, his roommate from Florida, or fellow Israeli national team members go unreturned. Even if they believe him, no one wants to say or do anything to involve themselves with the controversy. Jaben knows the stigma of being associated with banned substances, and it seems all his teammates do, too. But Jaben says he doesn’t care who believes him, as long as his close friends and family do.

He still firmly maintains that he is innocent. He stills points out that he only ever failed one test, and had he been taking a drug with such a long half-life, it would have shown up again.

“I’ve always been a clean athlete,” Jaben reiterates, one last time. “I think the world is so caught up on catching cheaters in sports, and sometimes innocent athletes take the fall for it, and I was one of those innocent athletes.”

 


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