Toxic Strength; Professional and Olympic Athletes Have Grabbed All the Headlines for Using Illegal Steroids to Enhance Their Performance. Now the Practice Is Catching on among Students in American High Schools. Doctors Say It's a Health Crisis in the Making

Newsweek International, April 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Toxic Strength; Professional and Olympic Athletes Have Grabbed All the Headlines for Using Illegal Steroids to Enhance Their Performance. Now the Practice Is Catching on among Students in American High Schools. Doctors Say It's a Health Crisis in the Making


Byline: Jerry Adler (With Anne Underwood, Julie Scelfo and Vanessa Juarez in New York, Dirk Johnson and Hilary Shenfeld in Illinois, Jamie Reno, Andrew Murr and Karen Breslau in California and Joan Raymond in Ohio)

It can take years to hit bottom with many drugs, decades with alcohol. But on steroids Chris Wash managed it in just 12 months, starting with a dream of playing for a top college basketball team and winding up on a highway overpass, waiting for the moment to jump. In that time Wash, a 1.88-meter guard on the Plano West High School team in Plano, Texas, went from a rangy 82 kilograms to a hulking 104, with shoulders so big he could barely pull on his backpack in the morning. And he developed a whole new personality to match that intimidating physique: depressed, aggressive and volatile.

After a series of fights in his junior year his coach threw him off the team, but by then building muscles had become an end in itself. He switched from pills to injecting himself with steroids in the buttocks, often with a couple of friends, including a promising high-school baseball player named Taylor Hooton. That went on for several months, until one day Hooton was found dangling from his belt in his bedroom, an apparent suicide. Frightened, Wash gathered up his vials and syringes and threw them down the sewer. But an insidious thing about steroids is that stopping them abruptly can lead to depression. A few weeks later Wash drove to a bridge across a Dallas freeway and walked to the middle, looking down at the rushing traffic.

America's professional baseball league will no doubt eventually solve, or at least paper over, the explosive charges involving steroid use by some of its biggest stars, and the athletes will live with the consequences to their reputations and their health, cushioned by their eight-figure contracts. But their examples have placed a generation of teenage athletes at risk for the same mistakes, which could end their careers--if not their lives--long before they reach the big time. An authority on youth sports, Dr. Jordan D. Metzl of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, calls steroid use "a burgeoning epidemic" in the United States.

The annual "Monitoring the Future" survey by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research suggests that the rate of steroid use by U.S. high-school students increased throughout the 1990s before dropping off slightly in 2003; a NEWSWEEK analysis of the data indicates that last year more than 300,000 students between the eighth and 12th grades used steroids. And they were not all jocks; as many as one third were girls, and experts say there is a growing problem of steroid use by boys whose heroes aren't baseball sluggers but the sinewy, rock-jawed models glowering from the pages of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. This development led to the recent introduction of a new psychological diagnosis, muscle dysmorphia (sometimes called "reverse anorexia"). For teenagers who use steroids, the side effects may begin with severe acne and run through hair loss, infertility, male breast development, violent mood swings and paranoia. And, in an unpleasant irony, steroids can stunt growth and cause injuries that could end the very career they were intended to enhance.

And they don't even get you high, at least not in the way most drug addicts would recognize. Consequently, steroid users don't consider themselves addicts, even those whose dependency is obvious, usually in retrospect. But steroids have their own seductions. "They make you pumped, aggressive, hypersexual, and that's going to feel good to a lot of these kids," says Dr. Kirk Brower, an addiction-treatment specialist at the University of Michigan. Athletes who train on steroids can gain muscle mass at phenomenal rates, nearly a kilogram a week. Training for strength and speed is grueling work, pitting your muscles against the whole mass of the Earth, with only the clock or weight stack to measure your progress. …

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Toxic Strength; Professional and Olympic Athletes Have Grabbed All the Headlines for Using Illegal Steroids to Enhance Their Performance. Now the Practice Is Catching on among Students in American High Schools. Doctors Say It's a Health Crisis in the Making
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