Lone voice against steroid scourge

By Steve Deane

Father battling denial in schools, stadiums and homes to get action on sports drug use which took his son.

Don Hooton says if police hadn't made such a big thing of finding steroids in son Taylor's room, no one would have linked them to the teen's suicide.
Don Hooton says if police hadn't made such a big thing of finding steroids in son Taylor's room, no one would have linked them to the teen's suicide.

Every day Don Hooton fires up his computer in McKinney, Texas, and searches Google for stories about the impact of steroids on young lives.

This week, what Don found stopped him cold. In 2003 Don's son, Taylor, took his own life in circumstances that almost exactly mirrored the suicide four years earlier of Invercargill 20-year-old Kris McKenzie, whose tragic story was documented in Monday's Herald.

Taylor Hooton was a promising baseballer with big dreams. He needed to get a little bit better to ensure he'd make his high school team the following season, and he was also a little insecure about his body, so he turned to steroids. Just like Kris McKenzie, when he cycled off the steroids cold turkey he suffered depression, and took his own life, seemingly out of the blue.

Don has spent the years since building the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organisation that fights the ever-increasing threat of performance and image enhancing drugs through education and awareness programmes.

While there has been no research in New Zealand into the extent of the steroid problem here, a study undertaken by the University of Minnesota last year produced alarming results. A survey of nearly 2800 high school students found that 5.9 per cent of boys and 4.6 per cent of girls had taken steroids. Extrapolated across America, that number translates to 1.5 million teenage steroid users.

"You can do anything with numbers, but these are real," Mr Hooton said. "That equates to one child per high school classroom in America, and five to 45 in every high school."

The Hooton Foundation's education programmes reached 175,000 children last year, but in a country where professional sports have long been blighted by steroid use, and student athletes often see steroid use as a mandatory step towards the big time, the battle to raise awareness of the dangers is far from being won.

"That 175,000 sounds good but there are millions we need to be reaching," Mr Hooton said. "It's one district at a time, one state at a time."

Steroid use among student athletes is only part of the problem, with steroids becoming increasingly popular among what Mr Hooton calls "mirror athletes" - people who want to look in the mirror and see an athlete's reflection looking back, but don't actually compete in sports.

Many Americans simply don't want to hear about the issue. "We're making progress here in the States but there is just a combination of a profound lack of awareness and a profound level of denial. Because these drugs are used in competition, we find the leadership - the coaches and athletic directors - are not only unaware, even when they sense it they move into a denial mode."

Many schools resist the idea of steroid education as they believe it amounts to conceding their athletic programme has a problem.

"We throw the bullshit flag and say 'you don't wait till you have a kid die from heroin or P before you talk to kids about other drugs'. Another sceptical view is that you can claim you didn't know any better before we show up, but after we've finished you can't claim you didn't know better."

While kids freely discuss steroid use, parents adopt a "not my child" view. "Hard as it is to believe, with adults it's a well-kept secret. They look at me like I've got three heads."

The Herald was unable to ascertain from the coroner's office whether there have been more steroid-related suicides in New Zealand since Kris McKenzie's death in 1999. Reporting processes aren't rigorous, and statistics aren't easily compiled.

Mr Hooton has encountered the same issues. US coroners don't correlate drug abuse to suicides, and autopsies don't screen for steroids. The only reason the coroner connected the dots in Taylor's case was because the police made a big deal of finding steroids in his bedroom.

"If that hadn't happened you and I would not be talking now because as parents we would have been just like any other parents - there was a suicide, what did we do, what else could have caused it? And we would have gone to our graves wondering what caused him to do this.

"Is the increasing suicide rate correlated to the increasing steroid use rate? Who the hell knows? If the coroners don't change their practices, we're never going to know."

Don Hooton is well connected. His foundation has the backing of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the New York Yankees and the World Anti-Doping Authority. It's annual budget is about $1 million, but it is very much a lone voice.

"We're the only organisation in this country doing this and we're one of the, if not the, only organisation in the world fighting this battle, as crazy as that sounds."

When you visit the Foundation's website and read the personal accounts of the families who've lost children to steroids, that does indeed seem crazy.

Side effects a life sentence

John took steroids for 20 years.

This isn't one of those "they never did me any harm" rants. John almost died. He was resuscitated twice after his enlarged heart stopped beating due to the sack of fluid that formed around it.

John was lucky. Three of his friends - fellow power lifters - weren't. John's friends died young. He's now 75. He's alive, but his body is ravaged by the effects of the propianate, cypionate, nandrolone and dianabol he pumped into his system. His back is stuffed from the excessive weights; his heart is always a worry; he's had liver problems; his testicles shrunk and he had to take a female cancer drug to get rid of the "bitch tits".

But John didn't ring the Herald because of what he did to himself, he's speaking out because he's worried about his grandson, who recently mentioned steroids were available in his gym.

"They talk about cocaine and meth and all that sort of stuff, but these drugs are just as dangerous," said John, who the Herald agreed not to identify.

"I used to train with a couple of champion weightlifters I went to school with and I was wondering why I was training so hard but others were beating me. Someone said 'they're on the juice'."

John started juicing and the effects were dramatic.

He began to lift more and more, and he felt great ... for a while.

"Father Time started to kick in. I was losing a bit of tone, so I took a bit more and a bit more. It got to the stage where my urine was like thick treacle. I had liver problems."

There were psychological effects, which his wife bore the brunt of.

"I'd fly into violent rages. We had an argument in bed one night. I just jumped out and flipped the bed upside down with her in it."

Then his heart gave out.

"I died twice, flatlined in intensive care. I was just lucky.

"After I came out of hospital my withdrawal symptoms were so bad I had to [see] a psychologist for three years."

John believes many top athletes are on steroids.

"What's going to happen when they are in their 50s and 60s? We are going to be a nation of crocks."

The suicide prevention information service operates a free helpline. For crisis support phone 0800 376 633

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