In 2004 Nina Kraft tested positive for EPO at the Ironman World Championship. She forfeited the title and was also given a two year ban from the sport. Two and a half years after that she spoke to the editors of Germany’s Triathlon Magazine about the difficult times she went through after confessing to using a banned substance and her hopes for the future.
As we reported on Wednesday, Kraft passed away earlier this week.
This interview appeared in the 50th edition (May 2007) of the magazine and was done by editor-in-chief, Jens Richter, and Sonja Schleutker-Franke. Read the article in German here.
“Please do your interview with the winner,” Nina Kraft replied to the triathlon editorial team’s e-mail request after Ironman Malaysia. It was her first start after a two-year ban from the Ironman competition. At the race it was easy to see how difficult it would be for her to return to racing. Kraft gave her consent to a phone interview four days later.
It was the first spring evening of the year. The conversation – she was on the small veranda of her parents’ house in Braunschweig – began more like a monologue. Gradually Kraft gained confidence and spoke openly, sometimes almost ruthlessly, about the difficult time since her the doping incident at the Ironman World Championship. The hope resonated at the end of our more than two-hour conversation that the 38-year-old had finally reached the end of her long valley of fears and self-doubt.
Triathlon Magazine: When you returned to the Ironman circus in Malaysia in mid-February, many experts saw you as a favorite. You dropped out of the race. Why?
Nina Kraft: I had no energy, no will. Shortly after the start, I felt this barrier, and I had to keep pushing myself to continue. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. Leading the race was very different – it used to make me strong, almost invulnerable. In Malaysia I felt lonely, I was scared. At one point I started pedaling easy on my bike and allowed myself to be caught. Maybe I was hoping it would give me new motivation if Bella Comerford joined me at the front of the race.
Once on the run, though, you stormed off on your own again – until the 11 km point when you passed your hotel …
I was shocked myself at what was suddenly going on in my head. I thought, very simply: “Don’t go any further!” – without any ifs or buts. I just went up the stairs to my room. I was exhausted, but it wasn’t a physical problem, it was a mental one.
How do you explain that?
I think it’s the consequence of what I’ve been through in the past two years. When you are at the top, you are in a vacuum. You don’t ask yourself, “Why am I doing this now?” – you just do it. You have a goal and the way to get there is clear. After my positive doping test and my confession, this world collapsed, what came after that was like a horror movie.
Why did you dope?
I was under extreme pressure in 2004. I wanted to win the Ironman in Hawaii. I wanted that more than anything, but I had the feeling that there, of all places, I wouldn’t get the same opportunities as others. I was almost paranoid. For two years in a row I was given time penalties for alleged drafting while I was in the lead. Nobody understood that at the time. I was so angry – it couldn’t be a coincidence!
What made you feel so much under pressure?
The expectations of the public, fans and triathletes. People project their dreams onto the athlete and cannot imagine the pressure they are putting on them. I started triathlon because I enjoyed it. I never thought that I would be this good. So I wanted to deliver the performance that was expected of me. If I couldn’t train for a day because I had to go to autograph sessions or press conferences, I felt guilty because I thought: “If you don’t train, you are not good enough”.
Didn’t you put yourself under a lot of pressure too?
As a professional athlete, you are usually not allowed to tell the media what is really going on with you. You have to be an actor, I wasn’t up to the role. It would make me sick to my stomach. In the summer of 2004, before the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt, I got such a bad stomach ache that I had to have a gastroscopy. But I think my own dreams have always been my strongest motivation. When I was 12 years old, I competed at my first swimming championship. I messed up because of all the excitement. The next day the newspaper wrote: “Little girl fails.” I was so angry that I swam the best time in the next competition.
After two third- and one second-place finish in Hawaii, you finally seemed to have reached the culmination of your dreams in 2004, but you had the impression that you were not really happy. How did you feel when you crossed the finish line in Kona?
I can’t remember the feeling. I just know that the pressure finally fell off me. I thought, “Yes, now you’ve made it, now you’ve won Hawaii.” But it wasn’t as intense as my victory in Frankfurt.
Because of your bad conscience?
How did you find out about the positive doping test?
The DTU President Dr. Klaus Müller-Ott called me. The phone call didn’t last very long, I was stunned. I couldn’t say much, the worst that could have happened had happened. A few days later, after my confession, the nightmare started, the phone kept ringing, everyone wanted an explanation.
How did your family, friends and colleagues react to your doping confession?
Telling my brother and parents about it was the worst. A world collapsed for them. Only then did I understand what I had done. I barricaded myself in my apartment, just cried and tried again and again to numb my feelings. Nobody came near me. My parents were really afraid for me at that time.
Did you still keep up with the triathlon scene?
Only in part. At some point the guys also shut down my website. It was pretty hard what was being written. After all, I’m not a murderer. At the time I thought, either I’m going to quit exercising or I’m going to break down.
Was there a point where you regretted your hasty admission? Maybe you wondered what would have happened if you had just denied everything?
When you screw up, you have to be aware that you can get caught. In spite of everything, it was a good thing that I at least confessed to my doping offense and didn’t go the way that so many convicted dopers do. I was honest – and I give myself credit for that.
At the time, it was said that you went to New Zealand for several months.
To distract myself, I first went to Innsbruck to go skiing. But that didn’t work. When my friends in New Zealand offered for me to come over, I didn’t think twice.
Did the escape to the other side of the world help you?
Yes, the long distance and talking to my friends helped a little. At some point I happened to read a newspaper article about the tour winner Marco Pantani, who was suspected of doping and died in a hotel in 2004 from a cocaine overdose. This article saved my life. It said how, after the doping suspicion became known, everyone attacked him and his fans beat him up. Now, after his drug death, they make a pilgrimage to the grave on the day he died. When I read that, it clicked on me and I said to myself: “I won’t break myself anymore, I’ll live on.” Because triathlon is not life, there are other things too. I’ve learned that by now.
Did you watch your 2004 race again on video?
No, that’s done for me. I can’t undo my mistake, but I admitted it, and today I can look people in the face again.
You spend many months of the year in Florida and Brazil. Are they friendlier to you there?
Frankly, yes. I feel particularly at home in Brazil, the people there are very nice to me. I even thought about moving there.
Why do other nations deal so differently with the subject of doping than the Germans?
I don’t know. Germans are generally very resentful and do not like to forgive. There is also a lot of envy involved. It’s different in America. I now train a lot in Clermont, Florida. When I first went there, I wondered what the Americans would think of me. But they approached me openly and said: “It’s great that you’re back, and it’s good that you told the truth. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Beyond the triathlon, your case sparked an intense discussion in Germany about the effective fight against doping. How do you feel about your name continually coming up in this context?
Of course, it depresses me when, even after more than two years, my name is always used as a synonym for doping. But I have to live with that. I was old enough and I knew what I was doing. In addition, everything negative also has something positive, it is good that there is now more consistent action against doping in Germany. But Germans can’t be the only ones who are checked all year long.
How often have you been tested after your ban expired?
I have an elite passport and have been checked seven or eight times.
At the German middle-distance championship in 2006 in Kulmbach you made your comeback on German soil and had an impressive win. How did the athletes treat you?
It was very different than before. Sometimes it felt like the athletes didn’t want to talk to me in fear that they would be suspected of doping. Of course, nobody told me that to my face, but I could feel it and it made me feel insecure. On the other hand, many athletes came up to me and were happy that I was back. In Malaysia, too, I was unsure when asked for photos or autographs. I’ve been at the top and the bottom – maybe I’ll write a book about the experience when I’ve got enough distance.
How have you kept yourself going financially over the past two years?
I lived on what I had and on prize money.
After your admission, did all your sponsors drop you?
No, Augath and Radsport Rose have always stood by me. And Cadion came back after a break.
How do potential sponsors react to your inquiries?
Most say I deserve a second chance.
A chance for athletic redemption would be to return to the Ironman in Hawaii, the place of your greatest successes and your greatest defeat.
Every morning when I wake up my head says, “You have to go there again.” I want to prove to myself that I can do it. But my head also slows me down, and then I find it difficult to motivate myself. Ironman training is monotonous, I only enjoy it in a group. But that has all changed, I’ve changed. Then there is the guilt that I impose on myself. Now I mostly train alone. I also don’t know if I can expose myself to the pressure of going back to Kona. They would watch me, maybe they would view me with suspicion and doubt my result.
Would you return to win?
I know I can still win a great Ironman. The talent is there, I hope I can manage to make it into the top three in Kona again. But, I wouldn’t do it for others, only for myself. I have to be able to live with myself. And I’ve now learned that you win Hawaii when you are supposed to win it, not when you want to win it. No, I am not driven to be the winner in Hawaii.
What are your next goals?
After my DNF in Malaysia, I’m considering trying again in Brazil to qualify for Hawaii. In any case, I will start with the new American 101 long-distance series. I’ve also got the World and European long-distance championships on my program. I have already spoken to the sports director of the DTU, Rolf Ebeling, about this. To be able to race those events, I have to practice my transitions, because the fastest women easily beat me by 20 seconds. At some point I would like to take part in the desert marathon through the Sahara, the “Marathon des Sables” and the Himalayan run. Just for fun.
You are 38 years old, what are your plans for the time after racing?
I love triathlon and I’ll keep going as long as I can. For me, triathlon means freedom, much more now than it did before. But triathlon has little to do with everyday life, things will change when I have to earn money “normally.” I am currently doing my personal trainer certificate. But, I know, it will not be easy for me to return to normal society.