After a two-year ban from competition, Austrian pro triathlete Michi Weiss made a headline-producing return to competition with a win at Ironman Cozumel. LAVA sat down with the Colorado and Maine-based pro to discuss the specifics of his doping ban, the reaction he’s received since returning to racing, and what he wants both his supporters and his critics to know about his plans to one day win the Ironman World Championship:
LAVA: We have hit the two year mark of your ruling by NADA. I haven’t seen anywhere that there was any level of culpability about the ruling. Would you say the penalty was a fair one—that there was indeed an infraction, and that you have paid fairly for that with your time away? I just wonder what your position is on the ruling, the penalty and the fact that you’re back at the races now.
Michael Weiss: I have to say it’s nearly impossible for me to be objective about the “fairness” of a situation that took two years from my professional life after I was initially acquitted, a decision that was also supported by the Vienna State’s Attorney. But I had to live with it and move on as I could not afford to endure an indefinite time at the CAS in an appeal, and the suspension itself was most likely to expire before that time. I trained relentlessly over the last two years, maintained a positive attitude, and am now happy and motivated to be back in competition.
LAVA: You mentioned that the process was quite a bit different than what we have seen Travis Tygart administering with many of the pro cyclists that served a six-month ban, in the offseason, and were back at it in the new year. Was or is NADA’s intent, as Tygart infers, to use the knowledge of the athletes to help uncover the vagaries and fix the issue of doping in sport, or was NADA’s mission simply to catch athletes, regardless any greater goals?
MW: I believe that Travis Tygart has a leading role in an intelligent fight against doping and learning as much as possible from the past. I don’t believe authorities in Austria have acted this way…
LAVA: Any other back stories about this process you wished or hoped people would know, to better appreciate what actually occurred, versus what people think happened? I think there are a lot of questions about the testing you have undergone. Was this paid for by you? Who did the testing, how often? And how long have you been in the testing pool for WTC?
MW: Firstly, it is important to me that people understand that my suspension was based on one individual’s verbal accusation without any proof or evidence ever, following the discovery and his admission that he used banned substances [Editor’s note: Weiss is referring to Bernhard Kohl, a former Austrian pro cyclist who was banned from competition for three years after testing positive for CERA in 2008.]. In addition, the legal department of NADA and its CEO were terminated four months after my suspension and this was delivered down for not acting ethically in a case. I don’t think this is well known here in the States. On the day I received the suspension I was on the phone with WTC’s CEO, Andrew Messick, to request that I remain in the highest Anti-doping testing pool. I maintained my Whereabouts and was tested regularly during my time out of competition. This important step was voluntary, my own motivation and it cost me money out of my pocket. Throughout my suspension I was tested eight times, all tests included blood and urine in order to avoid any lapse in my test history or my Athlete Biological Passport. All testing over the last two years was ordered by WTC and executed by USADA in the USA and by PWC in Europe. My test results were/are available through ADAMS to NADA Austria and WADA. I have never missed a test or been charged with a failure in recording my location.
LAVA: You mentioned you took a test right after the race in Cozumel.
MW: Yes, I was tested immediately after the race in Cozumel. The top three men and women were all tested by a German company, PWC, ordered by WTC. I also had an out of competition control with blood and urine in my hotel on Tuesday morning after the race.
LAVA: You have intentionally kept a very visible, positive presence through the last few years, certainly not what we’ve seen from many athletes.
MW: Yes, it was very important for me to stay active and involved in the triathlon community. I want to support the sport I love and the people who stood behind me through the last two years. I maintained my relationship with the team at Ironman and communicated all of my plans and goals for my return.
LAVA: You have had some sponsors change. You have retained others. What has been the feedback from sponsors?
MW: My sponsors did their best to support me as I fought through the legal battles leading up to my suspension. Of course, with two years out of competition, my contracts ended and now coming back I will create new sponsor partnerships as well as return to previous supporters such as SRM and Coldamaris.
LAVA: There has certainly been quite a bit of backlash in social media, folks upset about your ability to return, about “residual effects.” But you’ve proven to be one of the most tech-meticulous athletes in the game, dialing your fit with Dan Empfield, choosing your own bike, etc. Do you understand the concerns of these people, despite the fact that you are legally within your rights to return to your job?
MW: I am not able to answer questions related to “residual effects” as I have no personal experience with this subject and have not seen research that proves or disproves the theory. I am an extremely detailed athlete, both in training and technical matters. It is an honor for me to have the world’s best coaches on my side including Mario Huys, Garth Fox, and Joe Novak. It is great to work with people like Dan Empfield for bike fitting, Jim Manton for aero testing, and Uli Schoberer, the PowerMeter inventor, as my power guru! My attitude and philosophy is to do better every day. The concerns people have about my return are certainly understandable, there’s a lot of passion on all sides of the issue, however I think constructive criticism would be better directed at our sport’s NGB’s rather than myself. Triathlon is my job and I intend to return fully to it.
LAVA: How much does this motivate you, and by the same token, how much do you hope people can come to their own conclusions that you are racing clean?
MW: My situation, my case, my suspension was and is very unique. I have served a two-year suspension based on one verbal accusation dating back to 2005. I was suspended as a clean triathlete and came back to race as a clean triathlete. I am proud to have delivered world-class results in triathlon over the last five years as a 100-percent clean athlete and I am 100-percent confident that I will continue to race at the top level.
LAVA: Any interaction/workings with WTC’s anti-doping initiatives, whether publicly or privately?
MW: I am proud to live the life of a clean professional athlete who supports the fight against doping, but to the core of your question, I’m not certain that there’s any agreement within our profession of just what should be done beyond the rules already in place. I have had and continue to have communications with WTC’s director of anti-doping, Kate Mittelstadt, NADA Austria, and the Austrian Triathlon Federation. Going forward I will put this suspension behind me and not focus or dwell on the past. I will simply resume my job as a professional athlete who trains hard and races harder.
LAVA: What is your reaction to not only the age groupers, but also the pro athletes who have spoken vocally about your return to the sport? How was the reception in Cozumel? Everyone seems to have their opinion, some delivering whatever message, positive or negative.
MW: I respect that every person has their own opinion and am aware of my critics. The major factor nowadays is that the web, especially social media, allows anyone to speak untruths, partial truths, and to circulate incorrect information, which has come to be a frustrating reality for me. In Cozumel I was greeted with only support. They cheered me on and congratulated me after the finish. In general, no one has ever confronted me in person, I only face criticism and attacks through the web.
LAVA: Back to racing: How exciting was it for you to get out the door, have a date on the calendar and train for a goal; to know you’d be able to do your job again, to race hard against your competitors?
MW: In the weeks leading up to Cozumel I was especially motivated and focused. I completed an aero test at the L.A. velodrome with Jim Manton from EROsports, fine- tuned my bike with Atomic High Performance and Speedfil, and dialed in my race nutrition by using my FuelBelt on long runs and key workouts.
LAVA: What does the rest of the year look like for you in the points chase? Certainly, the Cozumel win vaults you up there right away.
MW: I just signed up for Ironman Melbourne, the Asia-Pacific Championship. My goal is to secure Kona by having a solid performance in Melbourne. After that I will focus on several 70.3s and XTERRA in order to attend the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont Tremblant and the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
LAVA: Certainly, you’ve studied the racing and have seen how Kona has unfolded the last few years. As a bike-dominant athlete, what kind of takeaways about how guys like Luke McKenzie, Sebasitan Kienle or Marino Vanhoenacker have raced in the past (and Marino last week as well), and how guys like Frederik Van Lierde approached the race, and how does that portend to your goal to win the Hawaii Ironman?
MW: Watching Kona in 2013 made me realize that the bike segment gained even more importance, and can now be even more of a deciding factor in the race. This point makes me very confident for next year’s Kona, because I see myself as one of the top cyclists in the sport. However, I still have a strong, competitive run.
To learn more about Michael Weiss, go to his website here, or follow him on Twitter @michi_weiss