Collect calls

In the view of doping control officer Lowell, testing athletes helps to level the playing field

Scott Lowell, who has one of the strangest jobs in sports, studies a urine sample from an Olympic-caliber athlete. Scott Lowell, who has one of the strangest jobs in sports, studies a urine sample from an Olympic-caliber athlete. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / June 30, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - It’s 6 a.m. on the Charles River. Sun-splashed rowers glide silently past Harvard University.

On this morning, one of them is in for a big surprise when he returns to the docks.

Scott Lowell, a doping control officer for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, sits across the street at Starbucks. He doesn’t need more coffee. He needs 90 milliliters of urine (3.04 oz.) from the Olympic-caliber rower.

Lowell has one of the strangest jobs in sports. He must view athletes peeing in a cup. He says drug testing - sorting out the cheaters - helps level the playing field.

“I believe in what I am doing,’’ he says earnestly. “Growing up as a kid [in Natick], I always played by the rules. I hated the kids that cheated. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel passionate about it.’’

As a graduate student at Bentley College five years ago, Lowell began assisting a friend who was a doping control officer.

Then he underwent a week of training at USADA headquarters in Colorado Springs and passed a background check and a written test.

Lowell says he has conducted more than a thousand urine tests over the years to athletes in virtually all Olympic sports, including Boston Marathon runners.

At first he acknowledges that witnessing and collecting urine samples was “awkward.’’

“It was a little weird,’’ he says. “I need to see from mid-torso to mid-thigh. They need to roll their sleeves up to their elbows. I need to see a clear shot of the sample going into the cup.’’

Lowell shrugs.

“If the roles were reversed I would have a tough time, to be honest,’’ he says.

“Now, it doesn’t really faze me.’’

‘Any time, anywhere’
USADA began drug testing athletes Oct. 2, 2000, and is responsible for managing the testing and adjudication process of the athletes in the US Olympic and Paralympic Movement. They test more than 8,000 athletes annually. Last year, more than 5,000 were tested out of competition. The information demanded of these elite athletes is mind-boggling.

“We can test them any time, anywhere,’’ says Lowell, one of 50 doping control officers nationwide.

“They have to provide their whereabouts between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. Where their training location is. Where they live. They have to provide a one-hour window where they guarantee they will be each and every day, otherwise it’s a breach.’’ If the athlete is not where they say they are going to be on three occasions they face a suspension of as many as two years.

Lowell, 33, is happy that he deals with amateurs and not big-name professionals.

“Imagine a professional athlete telling you where they would be at all hours; that would never happen,’’ he says.

At 6:30 a.m., he grabs his leather bag, adjusts his USADA identification badge on his USADA-embossed polo shirt and briskly crosses Memorial Drive. Inside the Riverside Boat Club, he opens the bag. It’s filled with collection cups, glass vials, sealed Styrofoam boxes, and a refractometer. These items can never leave Lowell’s - or a designated chaperone’s - sight.

Rowers stare at him as they come off the river. “Integrity, Health, Sport,’’ reads the printing on the gray lanyard around his neck.

Today Lowell is looking for Alex Rothmeier, a randomly chosen Yale graduate who hopes to compete in the London Olympics. Rothmeier has done nothing wrong. It’s just his day to be tested.

Checking a boathouse computer, Lowell quickly determines Rothmeier is still on the river.

“This could take 15 minutes, an hour,’’ he says. “It could take five hours depending on how dehydrated the athlete is.’’

When a sweaty Rothmeier arrives at the dock, he immediately recognizes Lowell.

“Is it me?’’ he asks.

The two now become inseparable until after nature calls.

“We have to keep an eye on him,’’ says Lowell. “I can’t let him out of my sight.’’

It’s 7:15 a.m. Sooner or later, Rothmeier, 23, a wiry looking rower in the lightweight class, will have to go. But after rowing for nearly two hours, it’s difficult.

He’s almost apologetic.

“The only trouble is we wake up at 5:15 a.m., you’re dehydrated after sleeping,’’ Rothmeier says. “You go and work out for two hours you’re even more dehydrated. You have to chug water to try and pee. Sometimes it takes a while. Last time I chugged a whole bunch of water and had to go six times at work.’’

Occasionally, Lowell is late for work at his regular job as an account manager for ProMedical in Lexington. “They are very understanding,’’ he says.

Still, he doesn’t tell many people about his unusual job. “You get some cracks about it,’’ says the Watertown resident. “But most people think it’s great.’’

All testing is gender appropriate. His wife, who usually serves as a chaperone, does the witnessing honors when women athletes are tested.

He earns $100-$150 per collection. USADA pays her $100.

“It’s worked out great for us,’’ he says.

Aggressive testing policies
Sitting in an office, Rothmeier sips water as Lowell does the paperwork. Rothmeier is asked what medications and/or other substances he has taken in the last three days (including vitamins, minerals, herbs, proteins, amino acids, and other dietary supplements. He has a special therapeutic exemption for asthma medication.

“He is responsible for everything he puts in his body,’’ says Lowell. USADA maintains a hotline for athlete questions about substances that are banned.

Rothmeier gets more water. Lowell goes with him. He changes into a dry T-shirt. Lowell is there.

Rothmeier says he doesn’t mind being tested. Sometimes, USADA arrives with a licensed phlebotomist to draw blood and test for human growth hormone.

“Even though this is my fourth out-of-competition test, I think it’s great,’’ said Rothmeier. “I’m fine with being tested all the time. There’s no anxiety, I know I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not as bad as sitting here and getting stuck with some needles and getting blood drawn. But it’s a good thing this wasn’t in-competition [event] testing. They only give you 60 minutes.’’

The talk turns to athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs.

“They’re cheaters and liars, that’s all there is to say about them,’’ Rothmeier says. “It’s terrible. I can’t see why people would do that to themselves. If you win after you cheated it’s not winning. I don’t know how you can live with yourself.’’

With its aggressive testing policies, USADA believes it is making a difference.

Lowell says his job has given him new respect for athletes’ work ethic.

“I’ve seen guys in January when this river is frozen and they are doing two-a-days, four-hour sessions busting their tails upstairs in the workout room,’’ he says. “When you see that, you want to make sure what they are doing is worth it and they are not going to get beat by some doper.’’

Lowell says the longest wait for him was close to five hours.

“We go to his house and he doesn’t have to pee. He’s got some new video games so I watched him play for hours. I’ve gone out to breakfast with guys, gone to their little kid’s softball games, watched a couple of Red Sox games with athletes. Everything.’’

Sealed and delivered
At 8:15, Rothmeier chooses one of 10 sterile-sealed urine collection containers. He heads for the locker room, Lowell right behind him.

Rothmeier washes his hands with water only - soap could contaminate the sample - and fills the container above halfway. Barely.

“There’s a little bit of rooting, like, ‘C’mon can you get a little bit more.’ Sometimes I put on the water faucet,’’ Lowell says.

Lowell follows Rothmeier out of the bathroom, keeping his eyes on the prize.

Back at the makeshift doping control station, Rothmeier pours the urine into two vials so there is always a backup to verify testing. The sealed vials are given numbers so testers have no idea whose samples they are handling. Lowell, by design, lets Rothmeier do all the dirty work.

“I can’t touch it,’’ says Lowell. “I just sit at arm’s length directing him.’’

He then uses a refractometer to check density of the sample. It can’t be too clear. This sample looks good, he says. Then Rothmeier packs the samples in a Styrofoam kit and seals it.

Only then, at 11:23, does Lowell receive the sealed package. Next stop: UPS.

“I call it liquid gold,’’ says Lowell. “You guard this like it’s your child.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at