For many swimmers, practice is a release—a place to let go of their frustrations and wash them away with the water. But for World Championship medalist Madisyn Cox, that feeling of freedom was almost taken away.
In March of 2018, the Texas native received an email from FINA stating she had tested positive for the banned substance, trimetazidine. The test had revealed a trace amount of the drug in her system that one researcher described as equal to “a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized pool.”
Madisyn immediately felt a mix of shock, confusion and disbelief. There must be a mistake.
“My first thought was there is no way this is correct. This is the wrong information. This isn’t me,” she said.
Determined to prove her innocence, Madisyn immediately began investigating, intent on finding the source of the substance. She and her family immediately hired a lawyer and set to work building her case to present at a FINA hearing in Switzerland later in July.
“We wanted to have as strong of a case as possible to prove I did not intentionally take anything,” Madisyn said.
In an effort of complete transparency and cooperation, Madisyn submitted herself to a hair follicle test, a polygraph (lie detector) analysis, and multiple other tests. She created a detailed food and drink log, listing the specific origins of everything she ingested before, during and after the time of the failed test. Her eyelash serum and contact solution were tested, both new additions to her daily routine. She had the water filters tested in her house, hoping the results would reveal an unsuspected source of the substance. To her great disappointment, the tests revealed nothing.
As if the process wasn’t difficult enough, Madisyn was forced to keep her situation to herself. She continued to train, but the stress was eating her up inside. The passing days without resolution became more and more intense, yet Madisyn could not confide in her friends, teammates and the rest of her support system. Training brought her some peace, but the issue weighed heavily on her mind and deeply affected her morale.
“Practice has always been my happy place—and it still was during this time—but it was harder because I’d get to practice and I’d realize I might not be able to do this,” said Madisyn.
The hearing finally came, and Madisyn presented her findings to the FINA anti-doping panel. In the end, FINA concluded that Madisyn was an
“honest, very hardworking and highly credible athlete who is not a ‘cheat.’” FINA’s standard penalty for a failed test of a banned substance is a four-year suspension. Though it was ruled that she did not knowingly or intentionally ingest the banned substance, FINA chose to issue a reduced suspension of two years stating, “The panel cannot perform an evaluation of fault or negligence given the outstanding uncertainty regarding how the trimetazidine entered Ms. Cox’s system. Unfortunately, for this reason, the sanction must remain at two years.”
Madisyn was heartbroken. With the two-year ban, her worst fears were materializing in front of her eyes. She felt that her passion—swimming and competing—was being taken away with no justification or recourse. The ban would stand unless she could prove how the substance had entered her system.
Refusing to give up, Madisyn eventually had her multivitamin tested, a supplement she had been taking since high school. The thought had not occurred to her before, considering she had submitted the multivitamin previously and it had passed with the label of a “low-risk” supplement.”
To her great surprise, this particular batch of vitamins tested positive for the banned substance. Now armed with the evidence she needed, Madisyn submitted the new test results to FINA. Upon receipt of the updated test results, the FINA panel opted to reduce her suspension to six months, including time already served.
With much relief, Madisyn became eligible to compete again at the beginning of September. Back in action, Madisyn said her experience put things in perspective. Despite missing her opportunity to compete with the U.S. national team in the 2019 Long Course World Championships, she is thankful she once again gets to train with her teammates and participate in a sport she loves. “When I dive in, I am so grateful I get to do this and I have this opportunity, and no one is going to take that away from me.”