Sarah Winckless on her career and fighting for clean sport

“Hard work and miles were what was going to make the champion rower not some supplement or a dubious drug.”

There have been many firsts for this twice-world champion and Athens 2004 Olympic bronze medallist. Sarah is the first female chair of the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) Athlete Commission, which is an athlete-centred group that provides advice, feedback and experiences relating to anti-doping to UKAD. A position that is coming to an end after an impressive six years in the role.

In addition, Sarah has held a position on the UKAD Board, which she will depart from this month.

Beyond sport Sarah is a passionate campaigner for Huntingdon’s disease, an issue she carries personally, having tested positive for the gene mutation while at university. In this article Sarah talks about where her passion for clean sport stems from, her experience with Huntingdon’s disease, describes what being a ‘gamechanger’ means to her and reflects on her time with UKAD.

“My drive has always been to achieve all you can – sometimes against the odds. I tested positive for the genetic mutation that gives Huntington’s disease in my twenties, so I know I’m likely to get ill from that at some point. It is fascinating that the genetics that can give us the ability to excel in sport also code our vulnerabilities and fallibilities. To live with that genetic diagnosis has been quite challenging at times. My mother died of Huntington’s not too long ago, so I know well what that journey entails. Equally I feel that it has given me the motivation to show what is possible even when not everything is right. I feel very fortunate that the Huntington’s disease community has embraced my journey with the strength of 1,000 men and women. Sometimes those different groups that you are part of give you strengths in so many unexpected and powerful ways.

“A diagnosis like the one I received can paralyse or push. It has probably done both to me over the days and months and years. I am fortunate that it has pushed more than paralysed. While the scientists are working very hard there is still very little that can be done when you start to get ill.

“I describe myself as a gamechanger, what does that mean? Being able to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. It is that simple. It is about knowing you are doing everything you can to be as good as you can in your sport and that you are doing it in the right way.

“My life has been a journey about building self -belief. I started as a discus thrower but was not quite good enough to get to top tier. I moved to rowing where there were very different physiological demands on my body. I went from this ballistic athlete who was doing six throws in two hours to an athlete who was pushing their body over six intense minutes and every microsecond counted. I learned what the body is capable of in the right conditions – that was massively game-changing.

“The first time I got selected for Team GB for rowing was a game-changer too. Being picked for my country was a massive moment and then getting on the podium was what I had always dreamt of.

“My desire to initially join the UKAD Athlete Commission stemmed from earlier in my sporting career. For me as an athlete I aimed to compete completely clean and over the course of my professional career as a rower I gradually came to realise there were real challenges with other countries not adhering to the same standards.

“In the early days I had no idea that was happening which I’m really grateful for, as I think if I knew others were playing to different standards it would have had a negative impact on my morale. At that time within my sport doping wasn’t something that was under suspicion, I thought I was competing against people who were on the same level playing field. All I wanted to do was to make sure that I was doing everything right from my side of things.

“As the realities of doping in sport began to dawn it played on my mind. When I retired from sport I thought it was one area where I could give back. It was a really great way of getting back in touch with my passion for sport more widely and a means to make a difference.

“But to recap a bit. By the time I gained a place in the Team GB rowing squad we had been well-educated on the issues and risks, and we had a zero supplements use policy, so we were well-versed on what we could and could not take, and we were very clear on the line we were treading. Generally, our starting point was not to take supplements – very occasionally under doctor’s orders we might use a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for a specific illness or medical condition, but generally not. We had a huge belief system that our sport was one where there wouldn’t be cheats.

“We had the odd positive for cold medications taken at the wrong times so there hadn’t been a huge amount of concern around doping. Hard work and miles were what was going to make the champion rower not some supplement or a dubious drug.

“We held the belief that same mindset applied for the countries we competed against too. In 2005 I was World Champion for quadruple sculls. In 2006 we intended to maintain that title and when we came second it was a real blow. We’d put in a fantastic performance, it was a very fast time, indeed the fastest I’d ever gone and yet as we crossed the finishing line we were second to another boat. I was devastated and looked hard internally wondering what I could have done better. We also looked at our system and asked the same questions: what could we have done better, how could we have made that tiny difference? We also reviewed the competition’s techniques and wondered what tactics might have made a difference. So, for a space of four or five months there was painful introspection trying to work out where I could have made the gains.

“Then came the news that the winning boat, the Russian boat, had tested positive – and was subsequently disqualified. What felt like very many months afterwards we were upgraded within the medal table and became the world champions. I vividly recall what a tremendously challenging period this was. You went through a whole range of emotions. It was real shock to go from feeling that we – I felt ‘I’ – had let the side down to realise we’d been ‘beaten’ by cheats. It was a pretty dark period to be honest.

“When we look back at what happened it’s still pretty shocking to realise there was a planned strategy by the Russians to make their athletes better by doping. The consequences, when they caught up with them, are pretty terrible. The damage ripples out too – it can tarnish the reputation of an individual, a team, their support crew, a nation and even a whole sport.

“When I think about any sporting team there are ripples of potential damage. If you have a team sport and one individual tests positive or has an anti-doping violation it’s hugely impactful for the team. Team-mates must be responsible for each other. We need to ensure that we are not making any mistakes. While I’m not naive about it and accept that there will be deliberate dopers, I do think athletes can and do make mistakes. But a simple mistake can instantly tarnish a whole sport.

“So it’s a tough one – we need to call it out but be very aware that it can harm the perception of the sport more widely. If viewers start to wonder and question their belief in these ‘amazing’ human performances, we lose both the sheer pleasure of watching great sport and we lose sponsors and faith more widely too. The whole system breaks down – which is why values and education are so critical.

“It is so important that we support and educate athletes. I really like the work UKAD have done with the 2012 legacy that looks at values and education. We need to look at young people and rather than talking first about anti-doping, we talk about what is the right thing to do and ask them how they want to be remembered. Ask them what values they stand for.

“With this approach – values and enquiry-based - when difficult crossroads are reached by an athlete they have the mettle to make the right choices based on the solid values they’ve been building and believing in. It might mean taking a harder path, but it will be the right path.

“We also need to think about how to keep our education as fresh and impactful for our athletes too. How do we keep education impactful and supporting athletes to make the right decision – whether it’s an intentional piece, an accidental Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV), or the use of supplements unintentionally.

“Beyond education, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analysis offers great promise of progression on anti-doping and monitoring performance anomalies. There is so much information in the open source and readily available on athletes. Social media accounts from athletes and their support teams shows what performance athletes are producing on a day-to-day basis.

“I really do believe that if we get very intelligent at looking at that data we will start to be able to look at performances and see those that look odd. We will be able to better analyse ‘extraordinary’ athleticism and see what seems possible – or implausible – from evidence in data posted by the athletes connected to a remarkable sporting event. We will be able to see if the development phase they have shown explains what has happened. For example, does data show steady progress or have they come back from injury? Or can we start to ask the unthinkable (or until now hard to make provable) – have they taken something to enhance their performance?  

“The science changes all the time and very few athletes can dope alone as they don’t have the knowledge and science backgrounds. They simply don’t have the education and knowledge to know how to evade detection – such expertise is more likely to be found in support teams. So, another challenge lies in how to tackle those still intent or taking shortcuts that cheat the honest players. Athlete entourages are risking their entire careers too if their athletes test positive. What athletes and their entourages need to know is that it will eventually catch up with you.

“It breaks my heart to think there are those who will still cheat. There is still work to do in this area but we have taken great strides to date, and I’m grateful that I got to spend the last six years on the UKAD Board making important strategic decisions in the fight against doping in sport.

“My advice to those at the start of their career in sport – forge great friends, know who you are walking that journey with as you’ll be making friends for life that you’ll be able to draw strength from. I’m incredibly proud to have been an Olympian and a mentor and coach since then too. It has made my sporting family so much bigger than rowing. It’s a smorgasbord of sport and whilst my close friends are rowers many more are not and there is a huge world of friendship out there.”