WSJ

How Lenroy Thompson became Cam F. Awesome is a cautionary tale, one that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is encouraging him to share ahead of the Rio Olympics.

“To other athletes, I would say, ‘Don’t be me,’” says Awesome. To be clear, Awesome means don’t be Thompson.

As the heavyweight champion at last month’s U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials, Awesome needs a third-place-or-better finish at one upcoming international event, or a top finish at one of two others, to earn a spot at the Rio Games. That’s exactly where Thompson stood four years ago ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London, when USADA issued him a one-year suspension for three so-called “whereabouts failures,” meaning that on three occasions Thompson couldn’t be located by drug testers seeking random, out-of-competition samples.

The suspension cost him a shot at the Olympics and also produced an online archive of negative publicity on sites such as iSteroids.com. “That’s why I changed my name to Cam Awesome,” he says.

Yet Cam Awesome is more than just a new name, and his setback four years ago illustrates the potential benefits of a USADA suspension. That the suspension was only one year—instead of the two years recommended in the World Anti-Doping Agency code—suggests that doping authorities believe that Thompson wasn’t dirty but rather reckless about filing paperwork requiring him to report his whereabouts. In the ring back then, after all, Thompson was a dancing symbol of sloth. “He had quite a belly,” says his coach, John Brown, president of USA Boxing, the sport’s governing body.

“I wouldn’t train as hard as I could, I loved eating and I’d just see how much I could get away with and still win,” Awesome says of his Thompson days, adding that his standard McDonald’s order back then was “five McDoubles and three McChickens.”

After a year of drinking and gaining weight while suspended, Thompson legally became Awesome. Overhauling his diet, he became a vegan, started training with vigor and took aim at Rio.

He also became religious about filing quarterly whereabouts reports with USADA, along with texting the agency with any changes in his plans. “It’s like having a parole officer,” he says. “I’ve even offered to wear an ankle bracelet.”

Of the 422 sanctions USADA has issued since 2001, only 21 have involved whereabouts failures. But 16 of those 21 have occurred since 2010, partly reflecting tightened guidelines for keeping USADA informed of athletes’ whereabouts.

USADA says that spot tests are crucial to maintaining a clean sport, and that it offers an app enabling easy updates when athletes’ plans change. “We recognize that these athletes have a lot on their plates, and they should be applauded for filing these whereabouts reports and contributing to a clean sport,” says a USADA spokesperson.

Some whereabouts failures simply reflect declining athletic interest. Sprinter Shawn Crawford, a gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics, reportedly had filed papers to retire when he received a whereabouts-failure suspension in 2013. Crawford couldn’t be reached for comment. Matt Kochem said the whereabouts-failure suspension he received in 2012 initially didn’t bother him, because he was off at Rutgers University seeking a PhD in nutritional sciences. He says he believed he’d retired from rowing.

Now, however, he wishes he’d fought the suspension because an Internet search of his name quickly unearths it. “Other people in my department have asked me about using performance-enhancing drugs,” which he never did, he says.

USADA says it offers a simple process for retiring athletes to remove themselves from its testing pool.

Even the biggest supporters of USADA say that whereabouts reporting can be a challenge for young people experiencing their first tastes of freedom and responsibility. “The average age of our boxers is 20. How many kids that age forget to pay their cell phone bills?” asks Mike Martino, executive director of USA Boxing. “The person we use to tell our athletes about this risk is Cam Awesome.”

Awesome, 27, no longer feels compelled to hide his suspension, in part because of his track record since it ended. Among other triumphs, he was the national champion super heavyweight in 2013, 2014 and 2015. A relative small-fry in that weight group, he entertained crowds—and won matches—in part by running from his opponents. “A lot of my wins came from guys being too exhausted to fight back,” he says.

His coach, Brown, says, “He told me, ‘I don’t punch people. I play tag with them.’”

He sometimes wears pink shirts in the ring in support of breast-cancer research, and before the opening bell he has a habit of giving his opponent a hug. “I’d be scared to fight somebody as happy as I am,” he says.

Following a defeat by points last summer to a Cuban opponent at the Pan American Games—where he took a bronze medal—Awesome gave ESPN a buoyant interview, calling his performance “amazing” and declaring that “freedom beat communism.” “Cam, you’re so fast. You’re working the judges’ table and the ring? Keep up the good work,” he said.

In that interview he also said that some people call him the Taylor Swift of boxing. “I’m not saying I’m the Taylor Swift of boxing. But I’m not not saying I’m the Taylor Swift of boxing,” he said. The video went viral, exploding his friend-and-follower numbers on Facebook and Twitter.

Raised by his grandparents in Uniondale, N.Y., Awesome says he was a fat, friendless kid who started boxing in his mid-teens in order to lose weight and get a girlfriend. Now he lives in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan., in order to train with Brown. Having slimmed down from superheavyweight to heavyweight, he proved he can defeat lighter boxers at the Olympic trials last month in Reno.

After boxing, he aspires to a career in comedy. As a boxer and a comedian, he says, he hopes to combat the perception of boxers as dimwitted. As a recent tweet of his notes, “The ‘B’ in subtle is very subtle.”

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