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Off the canvas: How Madeline Groves conquered her year from hell

by ZwemZa on May 20th, 2018

Madeline Groves celebrates her silver medal at the Rio Olympics. Photo: AAP

Madeline Groves was 0.03s from being a household name in Australia after the Rio Olympics. A sharper turn, a quicker reaction and it might have been Chalmers, Horton… and Groves on top of the world.

Silver, it goes without saying, is nothing to be sneezed at, particularly at that elite of elite levels and especially at a Games where some of the nation’s brightest swimming hopes didn’t hit their straps.

Groves raced her heart out. She had maxed out her credit at the end of a brutal 200m butterfly and when it was all over, Spain’s Mireia Belmonte had got the touch. Just 20 at the time, Groves seemed to have the swimming world at her feet.

Then 2017 happened.

“It really was a literal kick in the guts,” Groves said as she recounted a year that almost saw her rubbed out of swimming for 12 months for an anti-doping violation, then end it by being raced to an operating table in a medical emergency.

That Groves was able to swim – and swim well – at the recent Commonwealth Games was a minor miracle in itself. She was no good thing to even be there and at times she wondered if she could ever return to the pool again.

Groves, who moved from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to follow her celebrated coach Michael Bohl, took a well-earned break after Rio but it would come at a cost. After a flawless drug-testing record since her teens, Groves would slip up and earn a pair of strikes for missed tests.

Athletes must register their location with the Whereabouts app, so they can be available to provide out-of-competition samples. Three misses over a 12-month periods puts athletes at risk of a lengthy suspension.

On the fly: Madeline Groves at the Commonwealth Games. Photo: AAP

“I’d never had a problem with it in the past. It was second nature to me. I’m only 22 but I’d be on the register for about six years. I just slipped up – twice in the same week almost. When you miss one, you don’t realise it happened until you get the letter a few weeks later,” Groves said.

“So I got two at once. That scared me a little but but everyone reassured me. I’d heard of people getting strikes before. So I got my act together again an thought I’d be fine. Then I went over to the US and that’s where the problem really started.”

Groves was at a training camp in San Diego when she waited diligently for testers to arrive at the scheduled time and place. She was there but they weren’t. As it transpired, they didn’t make it past the car park and it wasn’t long until Groves was hit with the dreaded third infraction.

“The facility I was in was huge. It’s like the AIS. There are dorms and food halls and different activity halls. They arrived on a Sunday night and waited in the car park. And just left, basically. Which was very frustrating for me.

“I felt so confused. I didn’t understand how they could miss me. Swimming Australia got in contact and that’s when the process began. And it was a process.”

Fellow Dolphins Thomas Fraser-Holmes and Jarrod Poort were both issues with three strikes near the same time as Groves. Both were banished by FINA for 12 months.

Groves was adamant she had done nothing wrong but couldn’t help but fear the worst. She engaged sports lawyer Tim Fuller and went to work. But as the issue stretched out for a full eight months, it took a heavy toll on her wellbeing.

Groves competes in the final of the women’s 200m butterfly in Rio. Photo: David J. Phillip

“It was very stressful. I was trying to think what I’d done wrong. I was so naive – I thought I’d just tell them I actually was there and it would all be fine,” she said. “But it didn’t work out that way. It’s an extremely slow process. The four, five, six month mark went by and that’s more than enough time for doubts to creep in. Seeing what happened to Jarrod and Tom, that’s when I started to worry.  It is an anti-doping violation and there is a bit of problem with that in our sport sometimes. It’s just something you never want to be associated with.”

Groves and Fuller would finally convince a FINA panel that it wasn’t her that was in the wrong. The testing agents, FINA agreed, didn’t do what they needed to locate the athlete.

Groves was ecstatic with the all clear and could now commit to a move to the Gold Coast and ramp up her preparations for the Games. But if she thought beating the anti-doping violation was tough, she wasn’t prepared for what lay around the next corner.

“Two days before I was supposed to move, I ended up having an emergency laparoscopy for endometriosis (a condition where tissue that normally lines the uterous grows on its outside). It was crazy. It all happened so quickly. I wasn’t aware I had endometriosis. But I had this period in particular that was especially painful. It was about five days in and I was in so much pain. I’d never just called an ambulance before but I knew something was wrong. I called my mum – I just didn’t know what to do. I went in to the hospital at 7am the next morning and had surgery at 6pm that night. The only thing that got me through was the marriage equality postal vote was announced. That was cheering me up.”

The recovery was far more difficult than Groves ever imagined. The anti-doping case had left her mentally drained and the added setback of surgery put her flat on her back with the Games trials just two months away.

“I always wanted to keep swimming and training with Bohly. There were certainly times when I questioned whether I could keep going and whether there was anything left for me, or whether I could find the energy and enthusiasm to be training six days a week. I knew I wanted to do it. But physically and mentally, I didn’t have the energy. I just didn’t see how I could do those things.”

Groves made the crucial call to try and improve her swimming by spending less time in the water. She spent hours in the gym, often by herself, slowly returning to competitive shape. It might have been a decision that saved her career.

“I think if I didn’t train by myself in January, I’m not sure I would have made it. I kept telling myself I was fine and I could push through it. But at the start of January, I just couldn’t do it any more. It was supposed to be a new year and a new start and all these exciting things happening but I didn’t feel any better. So to make through trials was unbelievable.”

It was no surprise that Groves struggled to hold back tears after she cracked the Games team, then again when she won a silver medal in the 100m fly.

At her best, she’s one of Australian swimming’s most-potent weapons on the international stage. After a year of pain, Tokyo 2020 may well be worth the wait.

The Dolphins will trial for the Pan Pacs in Tokyo from July 1-4 in Adelaide.

Phil Lutton | The Canberra Times

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