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After Doping Ordeal, Roland Schoeman Finding Peace in Retirement

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After Doping Ordeal, Roland Schoeman Finding Peace with Post-Swimming Life

Roland Schoeman already had the end of his career in sight when the email from FINA pinged into his inbox.

The South African swimmer had been to four Olympics, missed out on a fifth in 2016 and had his eyes trained on Tokyo in 2020. That changed in July of 2019, when FINA informed him that he had tested positive for a substance Schoeman strenuously maintains he hadn’t used.

The competition ban, publicly announced in early 2020 but retroactively applied for one year as of May 2019, didn’t prevent Schoeman from vying for Tokyo. But with a pillar of his identity so imperiled by being labeled a cheater, it forced him to confront who he was away from the pool.

“My identity really was surrounded by swimming,” Schoeman recently told Swimming World. “I was Roland the swimmer. And when I did well in swimming – winning gold medals, breaking world records – everybody loves you. And it’s great when you can feed into that because I wasn’t at a place where I really loved myself and everything about myself, so to be fed externally by all these different stimuli and by winning, it was great.

“But as I started to perform less well over time, that lack of identity – 2016, missing the Olympic team, I was really having a dark night of the soul trying to figure out who I was.”

The doping suspension came just as Schoeman felt closer to achieving balance in and out of the pool. It hastened conversations about what his legacy would be, and after two years grappling with FINA, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to clear his name, he’s come out on the other side with a different view on his career trajectory.

As Schoeman has turned the page on his career, he’s finding his way outside of the water, working in real estate and as a motivational speaker. The reinvention was at least, in part, in response to a storybook finish that never came.

The End of Roland the Swimmer

Schoeman envisioned a run at a valedictory Olympics in Tokyo as the capper on one of the most distinguished careers in the history of African swimming.

The 2004 Olympics was the zenith for the sprinter, and it was legendary for the South African program, thanks in large part to Schoeman. He won silver in the 100 freestyle, just .06 behind Pieter van den Hoogenband. He added bronze in the 50 free. And he led off the 400 freestyle in a heroic 48.17 seconds, sending the South Africans to the gold medal and world record in 3:13.17.

By the time Schoeman exited the pool, the South Africans led the field by nearly a second. They were nearly two seconds clear of the U.S., an edge that Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling needed to secure a historic medal.

Schoeman finaled in the 50 free at both the 2008 and 2012 Games, the former in an African record. He continued to collect medals the world over – four gold and 12 total at the Commonwealth Games, three golds and five total at the World Championships. But he missed out on the 2016 Olympics, then stepped away for 18 months from March 2017 to August 2018 and approached Tokyo qualification at age 40 as a coda.

Until the failed doping test. An out-of-competition sample collected in May 2019 came back positive for GW501516, or cardarine. Schoeman accepted the adverse analytical finding but argued that it was an inadvertent positive, stemming from contamination in one part of his regimen of 31 supplements. He spent more than $16,000 in testing them for contamination, ultimately unable to find a culprit.

FINA took into account that outlay of resources, along with a delay of some two months in being notified of his positive test that materially hurt his chances to examine the exact batches he was using, and negative tests collected in March and June of 2019. The doping panel thus ruled that Schoeman, “on balance of probability,” did not intentionally ingest an illegal substance. Instead of a penalty that could’ve lasted as long as four years, Schoeman accepted a one-year suspension.

The process Schoeman embarked on in trying to clear his name was difficult and lonely, flying in the face of what he knew to be evidence that reflected poorly on him. It also upended his clean delineation of the world into cheaters and non-cheaters, of angels and demons.

“I was very much a black-and-white person in terms of my beliefs and mindset,” he said. “And one thing it really did was reveal to me the inadequacies in my thinking in the way I viewed myself.”

FINA’s penalty made him eligible for Tokyo, for which he did not qualify. But that wouldn’t be the end of the matter. WADA appealed FINA’s ruling to CAS, which held a hearing in January 2020. More than seeking sanction against Schoeman, WADA wanted to prevent FINA’s judgement from being held up as precedent, believing it hinged mostly on a circumstantial case of lack of prior doping offenses. It cited case law that, “protestations of innocence cannot be given significant weight, and a low amount of substance does not necessarily mean that the use was unintentional.” It sought to stress claims of contamination as being upheld “only in the most exceptional cases,” not viewing Schoeman’s as one.

The Switzerland-based court waited more than two and a half years to make the results public, with Schoeman finally receiving his final adjudication only this September. The court levied a partial verdict that concurred that Schoeman’s positive test was unintentional, however it ruled that FINA erred in reducing his ban to one year instead of what should’ve been two.

Receiving the final CAS decision, effective Oct. 12, 2021 and for which Schoeman and his lawyers have lobbied for months, offers closure. He also hopes it’ll set the record straight on the case’s facts.

“People can see, hey FINA’s independent arbiters believed it was a contaminated supplement and we were able to prove that, and taking it one step further to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and having three of them find the same thing,” Schoeman said. “It will go a long way to finally close the door on this.”

Roland the Real Estate Agent and Motivational Speaker

Throughout his career, Schoeman cultivated hobbies and interests outside of swimming, but they remained sidelines. A self-professed “water baby,” he still swims on a regular basis and in October returned to his first meet since the summer of 2019. He doesn’t see a heavy load of competitions in his future on the Masters circuit. But he remains an accredited coach and is still connected to the sport.

“Swimming has afforded me so many things: The opportunity to come to the U.S., the opportunity to win a gold medal, to be able to be a resource, so many incredible experiences from it,” Schoeman said. “In my idea, just to sever that relationship entirely just doesn’t seem right. It’s something that I would never do.”

With space from the pool, though, he’s gained more bandwidth for new business interests. He’s become a relator in Arizona, and he uses his social media channels to weigh in on trends in the market and the larger economy.

He also works as a motivational speaker, which finds its way onto his social channels. He’s been very open in talking about his past experiences with mental health and trauma, advocating for vulnerability and self-acceptance. They’re all lessons that took a long time for him to learn, and he’s now ready to pass them on to others.

“I’m just rounding into my own of finding multiple streams of things I’m truly passionate about,” Schoeman said.

Roland the American Citizen

Schoeman has also grown closer to the country he’s spent most of adult life in. Like the nucleus of the 2004 South African Olympic squad, Schoeman’s career flourished at the University of Arizona. He’s remained in the state for much of his adult career, keeping the Race Club in Phoenix as his training base, long under the tutelage of fellow South African legend Jonty Skinner.

During the pandemic, he underwent the process of becoming an American citizen, sworn in at a ceremony in May 2022 at a Phoenix a courthouse alongside dozens of people from countries all over the world.

While likely the only Olympian in the room, Schoeman wasn’t the only one feeling a profound connection to a new home.

“In a world where there’s so much division and so many people on different sides punting their ideas forward, but in that moment in that room, there were people becoming American citizens that have been from so many places,” he said. “… It was just so special because I think for so many years, I’ve lived here but I felt very much like an outsider. To finally get my American citizenship, to be considered a citizen, not an outsider but an insider, it was just really special.”

Schoeman has relished his firsts as an American this summer, the first Memorial Day and Independence Day. He understands the crucial place the U.S. has played in his journey to represent South Africa.

It’s the source of some debate back home: Among Schoeman’s generation, the pathway to international renown avail yourself of American training opportunities, mainly through the NCAA. His relay mates in 2004 and Penny Heyns followed that path. Later generations have excelled without training in the States, the likes of Chad le Clos, Tatjana Schoenmaker and Cameron van der Burgh reared on the continent.

Schoeman’s long view has taught him that there’s no one right way, only what is right for each swimmer.

“I feel like it’s a lot easier if you are in an environment like the U.S. where it’s built for high performance,” he said. “I think with that, though, comes being away from home, being away from people you love and care about, and I think that’s one of the things I realized over time. I’ve been away for 20-odd years. I’ve missed 20 years of growth and development of my friends and family. …

“Would I do it again? Absolutely. Do I miss it? Yes.”

Roland the Advocate

One of the most obvious connections made after Schoeman’s positive test was his past criticism of suspected dopers. Among the most scathing were comments in 2011 when Cesar Cielo, then the world record holder, tested positive for a banned substance.

As Schoeman internalized the schadenfreude elicited by his suspension, he re-evaluated his stance on Cielo and apologized to the Brazilian.

Schoeman’s first struggle after testing positive was the isolation of trying to prove his innocence. Among those he reached out to was Jessica Hardy, who weathered a doping positive late in her career. He’s now trying to pay that forward.

“I feel truly blessed to be in a position where I can be that resource, because I didn’t feel like I had that at all,” he said. “There were one or two people … but very few other people that were really willing to go out of their way to go, ‘hey what’s going on? Tell me about you. What happened? These are things that I experienced; these are the things that you might go through.’ I felt like I didn’t have that.”

Part of disavowing the simple duality with which he used to see things involves making amends with people like Cielo, whose predicament he understood in a new way. “It was very difficult for me initially because I was like, man this is what it must feel like to be judged by me,” he said. “Because this is kind of the way I’ve seen it.”

Schoeman had just reached a point in his career where he felt ready to confront the idea of his legacy. The doping suspension accelerated that.

It’s a process that has become necessary to moving onto his next chapters.

“My idea was that it was the way other people viewed me, and it’s getting to the point to where what other people think about me doesn’t matter,” he said. “The most important thing is the way I feel about myself and the way I think about myself more than anyone else.”

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