USA’s Lund is Looking Razor Sharp
Zach Lund's head is shaved.
It's not a statement, though it could be.
It could be a reminder of 2006, when the U.S. skeleton racer was escorted out of the Torino Olympic Village hours before the opening ceremony, after he lost the final ruling in his doping case over a substance in his hair-restoration medication.
It could be a symbol of the emotional baggage he has shed, an attitude that drove him to success and then dragged him to mediocrity in his sport over the last four years.
It could be a declaration that he is tougher, mentally and physically, as he prepares for the Vancouver Games in February.
Actually, maybe the Michael Jordan style just plain looks good.
Four years after his unusual case, Lund says his passion for the Olympics is scarred. But his pride has never been stronger.
"I don't want that to be my legacy," he says of the case, "but it can be part of my journey."
Lund, 30, takes another step on that road Wednesday in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he competes in the first of four selection races for the World Cup and, ultimately, Olympic teams.
This will be Lund's third shot at the Olympics. In 2002, he barely missed making the team. Four years ago, he was ranked No. 1 in the World Cup standings when he was notified in December that he had tested positive for finasteride (an ingredient in Propecia) in the first World Cup race.
The drug, which was considered a steroid masking agent, had been added to the banned list Jan. 1, 2005. Lund says he'd checked the list every year but neglected to do so in 2005.
"Hair was never a strong suit for me," he says, chuckling, of his premature balding. "It was actually my biggest insecurity my whole life."
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued Lund a warning, lifting his temporary suspension and making him eligible for the Games. The World Anti-Doping Agency, however, sought a two-year ban. The case was heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport the day before the opening ceremony.
Lund had checked into the Olympic Village and was confident the USADA ruling would be upheld. About 3 p.m. the next day, the word came. "I was ready for the opening ceremonies. I had my clothes laid out," he recalls. "Everyone told me I had nothing to worry about."
The CAS sympathized with him, saying it was "entirely satisfied that Mr. Lund was not a cheat," but levied a one-year suspension.
"The world fell out from underneath me," he says. "My teammates happened to be walking by. That was the first time I broke down in tears the entire time."
When his suspension expired in November 2006, Lund returned to competition with a purpose. "I went into the next season with a chip on my shoulder and wanted to really make a statement," he says.
He captured the World Cup overall title, winning four of eight races, including an emotional return to the Torino track one day before the anniversary of his Olympic ouster. He set a track record that still stands.
The following season, he finished third in the World Cup and sixth in the world championships. Then, just before the start of the 2008-09 schedule, he learned WADA had removed finasteride from the banned list.
"You'd think it would be vindicating and I'd be ecstatic that, 'Oh, my name is cleared.' It was actually harder on me," he says. "That kind of was like a kick in the gut. This was all for nothing. My whole dream was taken away for no reason at all."
It was, he says, a factor in a surprisingly poor season. He dropped to 11th in the World Cup rankings. "I lost the passion. I wasn't enjoying myself," he says. "Finally, I realized, I'm holding on to '06 and what happened to me way too much.'"
A tough-love text message from a friend hit home: "You're not the victim. You're a champion. Act like it."
This offseason, Lund rededicated himself, training in a Salt Lake City gym that works with mixed martial arts athletes. He says he's in the best physical condition of his career, achieving personal bests on the push track and in the weight room.
"No question Zach has put in the time over the summer," U.S. skeleton coach Greg Sand says. "Not even so much physically, but his confidence level, his attitude, just being a sportsman - you see it immediately."
Based on training camp last month and about a week on the ice in Lake Placid, Sand has noticed the improvement in Lund's starts and times. He says he has been among the top two sliders in most heats.
"When he puts it together, he's tough to beat," Sand says.
A gold medal in Vancouver would cap Lund's journey, but it will never be quite the same. "I used to eat, drink and sleep Olympics. That's all I thought about," he says. "Now it's on my mind going into this year, but it's not the same passion."