Becoming a two-time Olympic medalist was a long and emotional labor of love for David Plummer. Specializing in the 100m backstroke, he competed at the University of Minnesota before spending almost 10 years chasing his chance to compete at the Olympics. He missed going to the 2012 London Olympics by a fraction of a second, but went on to take home two medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
He now serves as a leadership consultant with the University of Minnesota Athletics Department and sits on USA Swimming’s National Team Athletes’ Committee and the Steering Committee. As a long-time athlete and coach, he reflects on his experiences with anti-doping and the importance of a global push for clean sport.
Q: As a competitive youth swimmer, what was your first introduction to anti-doping?
David: I think I was 15 years old the first time I was tested. I was competing at a U.S. Open in upstate New York, and I ended up third in a race…which I remember because Michael Phelps won that race without his goggles on!
I actually thought it was kind of cool to be getting tested because it meant you were good enough. So initially, it was a real positive reaction of, “Hey. Alright!” Honestly, it was about as cool of an introduction as you could imagine to peeing in a cup.
Q: You said initially it was exciting. Did that emotion change?
David: There’s definitely a responsibility that goes along with testing. It’s not always easy to make sure that your forms are updated and in on time. You travel like crazy as an athlete, and it’s not easy to make sure that all of your hotel information is correct and everybody knows how to get ahold of you at any moment.
It can definitely be stressful and tough, but I think the athletes who are doing it the right way are more than happy to do it to ensure a level playing field.
Q: So, what do you think was the defining influence or factor in your commitment to winning the right way versus winning at all costs?
David: I’ve thought about this one a lot. I think for me, I just assumed that if you cheated, you were going to get caught. Maybe they weren’t going to catch you right away, but eventually, people are going to find out, and they’re going to know that you didn’t really win…that you took something from somebody else. I really see cheating as a form of theft.
Q: While you were at the University of Minnesota, what was the mindset among your coaches and your teammates on competing clean?
David: I think that I’m pretty lucky that I was surrounded with good people. My coaches talked about it all the time, but I don’t think we’re in a culture where we felt like we needed to. We knew that the integrity move was the right move. I also knew my strength and conditioning coaches had worked with a lot of other Olympians and U.S. athletes who have gone through the testing process…we were always trying to do everything the right way.
“I really see cheating as a form of theft.”
Q: Do you think there has been an evolution around anti-doping sentiment in swimming during your years competing at the most elite levels, especially towards your Olympic career?
David: I think the conversation has grown around anti-doping for sure. We’re talking about it a lot more. From a U.S. perspective, we feel like we’re tested at the highest level and we’re happy about that. I think a lot of the conversation recently has been around “Are other countries doing it the same way?”
That’s the thing that scares you, and it doesn’t seem like that standard is the same. I remember seeing athletes compete at a much different level in their own country than when they’re competing internationally…and that’s tough.
So, I think that the conversation has grown because it’s had to. Because we know that it’s a reality and we have to do everything we can to address it. My hope is that within USA Swimming, at the collegiate level, and at the international level, we’re putting people on the teams who are doing it the right way. My hope is that we can continue to make sure that the standard is universal and not just a few countries.
Q: In Rio, where you won two medals, the Russian doping scandal was still unfolding, and many athletes worldwide were concerned about competing against Russian swimmers. What was your first reaction to the Russian doping scandal?
David: You know, I really tried to tune it out. I don’t know if that was the right reaction or not, but for me, it was just noise and I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.
When I got home from the Olympics, I watched the Icarus documentary and it actually named people that I’d raced. I think that was really the moment when it set in and I had a strong emotional reaction to that. I was really, really upset. When you really get into that Russian scandal, the depth of it, it’s almost unbelievable that they were doing it so systematically. I didn’t race a ton of people who were involved in the scandal, but I definitely raced some, and I raced some when there was money on the line.
That’s tough to handle as someone who didn’t make a lot of money as an athlete. I made enough to get by, but I also had kids.
Sometimes I think back on my career as an athlete, and I think maybe I should have done more, but at the time I felt like it would have divided my focus. You don’t want to divide your focus, but you also don’t want to stay silent, so it’s not a simple thing to navigate.
I came to some heavier realizations after I retired, and honestly, I wish I would have stood up more for clean sport, or said more about it when I was an athlete.
Q: How did you think the scandal was handled after you got back from Rio and saw how it all played out?
David: I think it could have been handled better. Just given that the Russian Paralympic team was banned and the Olympic team was not, I think that really shows you that a mistake was made.
There were way too many question marks, and individual athletes should have had to prove they were able to be there. The people who you feel like are really supposed to be protecting the sport are protecting the money, are protecting the sponsorships, and that really is tough.
Q: Do you think the scandal has impacted the credibility of the Olympics at all?
David: Yeah. I do. It’s the stories of people getting to the Olympics that makes people want to watch. That’s really what doping hurts. It hurts those stories. It makes those stories easier, not relatable, and not important. I absolutely think that some credibility was lost, and I don’t know how you go about getting that back.
Q: How do you think that those who believe in clean sport can help ensure that this never happens again?
David: I think that we’ve seen people take the easy way and protect their own image, protect their own interests. I think anybody working within the IOC, anyone working within WADA, should be in a position where you’re serving athletes. The Olympics doesn’t happen without the athletes, and I think that as much as it’s important for athletes to have a voice in this, it’s also really important that the people who are in charge are protecting the athletes to the best of their ability.
Q: When it comes to athletes, do you have some specific ways that you think they can use their influence to level the playing field?
David: I think it’s just being willing to speak to it. I think the more that can happen across borders, the better. This is trying to protect sport, and that’s an international problem. Even if it’s just notes being written and signed by athletes from different countries to tell the IOC and WADA, “These are the things that are important to us, and these are the expectations that we hold for our governing bodies.”
Q: Looking at that culture of clean sport, what do you think athletes, and parents, and coaches can do together to ensure that winning the right way is the only acceptable path?
David: If we were talking about it at a youth level, then we’ve got to get back to development, and we’ve got to get away from a culture of winning. Sports at a young age for athletes, for coaches, and for parents should be about developing and improving. Whether that’s your ability as an athlete, or that’s your character as a young person.
There’s a lot of data within USA Swimming that says the kids who are successful at 10 and 12 years old are not the kids who are successful in college. It should be about making sure the kids are developing the skills that they need to be successful as students and professionals.
So, I think that the cultural change is a big one, and I don’t think it’s simple. but there’s a lot of people doing it the right way. So, I try to remember that as much as I can.