For Paso native, Olympic medal earned — but glory denied

Chaunté Lowe prepares for her high jump during the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., on May 27. Lowe learned in November that three competitors who had finished ahead of her in the high jump at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were disqualified for doping, moving her up to third. (Chris Low/The New York Times)
Chaunté Lowe prepares for her high jump during the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., on May 27. Lowe learned in November that three competitors who had finished ahead of her in the high jump at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were disqualified for doping, moving her up to third. (Chris Low/The New York Times) NYT

To watch as Chaunté Lowe took her high jumps at the Prefontaine Classic here in late May was to see a great athlete with a busted wing. She was 33 and hobbled, her hamstring aching and ankle sprained. She limped away after each jump and soon enough was disqualified. It led me to wonder if we were watching this exuberant four-time Olympian high jumper and reigning American record-holder aging in front of us.

In June, in Sacramento, she failed to qualify for the U.S. team heading to the world championships in London next month.

If Lowe’s athletic clock is ticking down, if she competed in her final Olympics last summer in Rio de Janeiro, she can draw comfort in what happened in November. She was in her kitchen in Florida, her three little children out of the house, going through her Facebook notifications when a message popped up from a friend, German high jumper Ariane Friedrich: “Congratulations Olympic bronze medalist!”

Lowe, a Paso Robles native, gave a quizzical look, took the message for a joke and clicked on another message: “Congratulations Chaunte. So proud!”

This time she clicked on the embedded link. She read a news report: Three Olympians – two Russians and a Ukrainian – who had finished in front of her in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing failed retroactive doping tests. She had moved from sixth to third place.

She had become an Olympic bronze medalist. It was her first medal. She felt herself beginning to dance.

“I screamed like someone was in my house trying to take away my cookies,” she said. “I was excited and relieved at the same time. ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure!’ 

Her reaction speaks to the volcanic pressures that elite athletes carry within. And her tardy medal speaks to the strange and sad world of modern doping, a battle between rogue chemists and medical detectives. The World Anti-Doping Agency now holds blood and urine samples from Olympic athletes for eight years, against the day that advances in detection allow for retests.

The disqualifications from past Olympics now run into the many dozens. In November alone, the International Olympic Committee stripped 10 medals from athletes found to have cheated in the 2008 Olympics.

So justice arrives like a distant echo.

Even as Lowe danced about her house, calling friends, another realization dawned. She had missed her Olympic moment. She watched in 2008 as a cheater stood on the podium with a national flag and accepted a medal that rightfully was Lowe’s. (She has not received her bronze medal, as one of the athletes accused of doping has appealed the finding; even then, the process of retrieving the medal and forwarding it to Lowe could take many months.)

“Man, I wanted to get that feeling of being on a podium and the world is applauding your achievement,” she says. “I was robbed of that moment, and I am surprised to find myself feeling joy and struggling to keep my faith.”

She knows the shadow of doubt that athletes labor within, and the certainty that more disqualifications will deepen its hues. Dirty athletes get caught and doubts arise about everyone. Lowe has never had other than a clean test. Until recently, she assumed doping was more the province of sprinters and weightlifters and long-distance runners.

All three of the disqualified high jumpers used turinabol, a steroid that builds lean muscle mass and endurance, which is particularly useful in long meets with multiple jumps. It also acts in concert to make other steroids more effective.

“To see that my sport was one of the dirtiest in that Olympics changed my world,” Lowe says. “It’s a really dark rabbit hole. I don’t want people to cast a shadow on my career.”

Another American, Derek Miles, a pole-vaulter, also was awarded a belated bronze medal for the Beijing Olympics. Miles has retired and works as an assistant track coach at the University of South Dakota.

Lowe had worked to make her peace with her lack of Olympic medals. “I had the option to write my story as a success or a failure,” she says. “When I was 4 years old, I told my sister I would make it to the Olympics. I’ve competed in four.”

Her personal tale is more striking than that.

She came of age in Paso Robles, in a family lashed by the storms of addiction. The electricity would get shut off one week, then the water. In sixth grade, she left for a track meet and returned to an empty house. Where, she asked her mother, are my sisters? I sent them to live with their father, her mother replied. Our house is getting foreclosed on.

“Mom saw that our ship was sinking,” Lowe says.

Lowe slept with her mother in cheap motels and in the back seats of cars. (Her father has spent most of his adult life in California’s prisons, also trapped by addictions.) When summer arrived, her mother packed Chaunté off to live with an aunt. “My mother was embracing a camping lifestyle,” Lowe says. “Mom was off the grid.”

Lowe thought a lot about her life and talked a lot with God that summer. In August, she told her mother that she had decided to live with her grandmother in Riverside. She knew she needed stability. As a high school freshman, she told the track coach that she wanted to try the high jump. You have to beat out the juniors and seniors, he told her.

That was that, he figured.

She woke before dawn to practice – a habit she has never lost – and eventually outjumped the best in the nation. She sprinted, triple-jumped, hurdled and scored in the classroom, too. At Georgia Tech, she finished with a 4.0 GPA. Her coach there, Nat Page, became a surrogate father. When she married Mario Lowe, Page walked her down the aisle.

“Believe me, I’m his daughter,” she says.

I spent an hour talking with Lowe at the Rio Games last summer and another hour in May after the Eugene competition, and I’m no closer now than I was then to decoding the how of this woman.

She and her husband have a daughter with Asperger’s syndrome. There were two foreclosures, and for a while it seemed the quicksand of family fate was tugging at her ankles. She pulled free. She became a favorite of track crowds, with her high bounding steps and leaps, slithering up, up and over that bar. She lands and bounds to her feet, clapping, smiling, doing a little boogie.

She has a master’s degree and a career in financial planning. Her athletic future holds a question mark for now. She has given thought to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. The body, however, is not an infinitely malleable instrument. She had tortured herself as never before in the four years leading to the Rio Olympics. And still she fell short, taking fourth place.

Now she has her medal. She laughs, taken aback by the power of her obsessions and her life’s voyage. “I’ve graduated college, I’m a decent mother, and my husband and I are on 12 years of marriage and I’ve represented my country with integrity,” she says. “If I allow myself to write my own story, I’m a success.”

That was clear long before she read those Facebook messages in November.