Paralympian Michael Gallagher opens up about his EPO doping: ‘It’s a good thing I got caught’
Michael Gallagher answers the phone. He’s upbeat, friendly, and happy to chat. The connection isn’t great — he’s in his car, speaking via hands-free, having just left work for the day.
He’s in a new full-time job, as a building estimator — the same career he had before he became a full-time athlete. But since testing positive for the banned blood booster EPO earlier this year, the 38-year-old Paralympian has had to reevaluate his career direction; to find something else to sink his teeth into.
The news broke on September 2 when the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) revealed that Gallagher had returned a positive out-of-competition test for EPO at a training camp in Italy in July. The news came as a great surprise, particularly to those in the Victorian cycling scene.
Gallagher was well-liked by those who knew him and respected (if not feared) by all that raced against him. A quiet individual, he let his legs do the talking, and talk they did. Among his achievements were 10 track world titles, a road world title, a slew of national titles, many wins at state- and club- level and, most impressively, two Paralympic gold medals in the C5 individual pursuit1.
With Gallagher’s positive test announced just a week out from the Rio Paralympics, his chances of adding a third gold medal to his collection instantly evaporated. He was kicked off the Australian Paralympic team and handed a provisional ban from the sport, effectively ending his professional career.
In the days after his positive test was announced, Gallagher posted a heartfelt explanation on his Facebook page, explaining why he turned to doping and how he was sorry for the harm he’d caused.
Now that the dust has settled, Gallagher is ready to go into further detail, to explain how he ended up taking EPO and the impact it had on him and his cycling.
Listening to him tell his story, it’s clear the process is a cathartic one. He knows what he did was wrong — he knew it at the time — and he’s not shying away from that fact. But unlike many others who have erred in a similar fashion, Gallagher is hoping to address things head-on, in the hope of being able to move on with his life.
He also feels a sense of obligation to those within the cycling community. “People deserve an explanation and I want to give it,” he wrote back in September.
Gallagher isn’t looking to make excuses — he knows he broke the rules and only has himself to blame. But in processing the past year of his life, he’s been trying to understand the path that lead him to EPO.
The way he tells the story, there wasn’t one particular moment when he decided he was going to start cheating. Rather, it was a gradual process that played out over several months, building on his years-long battle with depression.
“Depression or mental illness is something I always fought with my cycling [by] having those goals and the motivation … I guess that sort of started to falter over time,” Gallagher told CyclingTips. “Coming up again after London [the 2012 Paralympics] I had a few more goals — improving on a pursuit time plus I was still chasing goals on the road, which I’d never had in the past. They were both achieved early in 2014.
“I couldn’t say I was getting stale in paracycling, because I still enjoyed many aspects, but I was sort of just going through the motions.”
Cycling wasn’t providing the same satisfaction and escape it once did. He was doing everything he could within the rules to improve his performance — sleeping in an altitude tent, taking legal supplements, doing all the training — but was no longer seeing the improvements he craved. And at the same time, things off the bike were becoming increasingly difficult.
“There was the loss of the job I was working … there was financial problems, my wife had moved from Europe to be with me and I was sort of responsible for her and her new life,” Gallagher explained. “There was a lot of pressures outside of cycling that was making me very bitter I guess.”
That bitterness grew, and Gallagher found himself looking at cycling through an increasingly negative lens.
“I would see negative things that I didn’t see in the past, like how the [Paralympic] classification system had changed, how I believed that some of the other competitors were cheating — justifying all that sort of stuff to myself,” Gallagher said. “And then you get to a level where you’re thinking ‘Well, if I was to do that [doping], how would I do it?’”
Gallagher spent time reading research articles about EPO, learning more and more about how effective it was, how to use it and where it could be acquired.
“I guess I’ve got an obsessive personality in the first place, and then once I start looking into something … it becomes a really intriguing thing,” Gallagher said. “And once you start learning how it’s used and the testing protocols and that sort of thing, you just read into it more until you work out how you could possibly do it.
“Probably over three or four months I guess it gets to the stage where it becomes an option.”
In late 2015, that option became a reality as Gallagher took the plunge and ordered some EPO online from China. He was cautious — he had it delivered under a different name to a different address, fearing the package would be intercepted.
After a brief trial run, he began doping in earnest in early 2016 — the first of two extended periods of EPO use.
“That was starting the second week into January and it was only for the four weeks. And then I stopped,” Gallagher said. “I was racing [Paralympic] Road Nationals2 10 days later and I was racing track Worlds five weeks later. In theory, you don’t have the actual benefit of the drug anymore — your haematocrit’s3 back to baseline.”
Gallagher had a couple months off EPO, but with the Rio Paralympics looming he started again in May and continued right until he left for the Paralympic training camp in Italy, in July.
The effect of EPO
Gallagher is honest and forthcoming when discussing the details of his doping, but only to a point. He’s guarded when asked how much EPO he took and how often he took it — “For me to go and give doping advice is wrong,” he says. He does reveal that EPO is relatively cheap — “For $300 you’ve done better than an altitude tent” — and that he didn’t notice too much of a difference in his physical sensations while riding on EPO.
“I guess all it felt like was you’re in really great form,” he said, “You don’t really notice — yeah, the numbers are a bit higher but you don’t really notice so much difference, but when you finish an effort you forget maybe the pain a bit quicker or you recover a bit quicker.
“But it felt pretty much the same — you still have to go out and belt yourself.”
After two years of little improvement in his power numbers, Gallagher was seeing gains of roughly 5% when on EPO. It gave him the motivation he’d been struggling to find.
“It was motivating just seeing those numbers; it was motivating to know you were getting better again,” he said. “I was seeing numbers that were better than I’d seen after 10 or 12 years of training.”
But while the doping was providing the improvements he was after, it also lead to feelings of anxiety. He spoke to no one about his doping — he insists he did it alone — and started taking precautions to reduce his chances of getting tested.
“I would predict where I thought there was likely to be a test somewhere”, Gallagher said. “I no longer went to the VIS [Victorian Institute of Sport] gym during the winter; I just went to the local gym. I went for a bike fit at the Adelaide Superdrome so I assumed there might be a test there and stopped a period of time beforehand.”
That cautiousness didn’t stop him from racing in club and state-level races while on EPO, however, something Gallagher describes as a calculated risk.
“Racing was always a regular part of my training and found it a lot more motivating than doing solo intervals,” he said. “[I was] sort of rolling the dice at this stage but I had never seen an ASADA presence at [lower-level races] before.”
Ultimately, it was an unannounced test and an ill-timed double-dose of EPO that lead to Gallagher’s downfall.
He’d skipped a dose in the lead-up to a visit to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) — fearing he might get tested there — and made up for the missed dose the next time around. It wasn’t long afterwards, on his first night at the Italian training camp, that the anti-doping testers came knocking.
“They came that night that we got in. I was really nervous about that,” he said. “I had been tested twice after I started taking the stuff and I was nervous with each of the tests, really. But this one just seemed … a bit more specific.
“They took double bloods, they also had a new human growth hormone test … and they were sending the tests to the Cologne lab in Germany which is a state-of-the-art EPO-testing lab. So if anyone was going to find it, they were.”
Sure enough, the A sample came back positive and the wheels of Gallagher’s demise whirred into motion. He was notified of the result, kicked off the Paralympic team, and awaited ASADA’s announcement and the news that would follow.
While Gallagher’s decision to take EPO has almost certainly spelled the end of his career as a full-time cyclist he’s not disappointed he was found out.
“For me going forward it’s a good thing, for my life, that I got caught,” Gallagher said. “I’m not annoyed I’m caught; I am annoyed that it became an option.”
Gallagher admits he wouldn’t have stopped if he hadn’t been caught. While his plan had been to stop doping in the six weeks directly before Rio, he’s convinced he would have continued on afterwards. Indeed, with his haematocrit at 47.7, compared to the highest mark of 45.9 he’d achieved while clean, he says “There was still scope to take more with no health risks and stay under 50 …”
“Definitely, I wouldn’t have stopped,” he admits. “My first intention was to stop after the first load — ‘I’ll just get myself going out of this slump of motivation and stop’ — but once you’re there it’s like … It just becomes your standard preparation.
“Who knows where it would have led.”
While the main reaction to Gallagher’s positive was one of surprise, there was no shortage of anger and frustration directed at the Victorian. The social media commentary was scathing and comments on online articles conveyed a similar tone.
For those that had raced against Gallagher, including at club level in Victoria, the news gave rise to understandable speculation: Had he always been doping? Is that why he was so phenomenally strong?
Gallagher is adamant that it wasn’t until late 2015 that he first started doping.
“Late last year was not only the first time I used EPO, it was the first time I ever used anything against the WADA code. That’s fact,” he said. “I disclosed 100% accurate info to ASADA and even dobbed myself in for previous undiscovered use.
“Rather than the ‘I only used once; you caught me’ approach I went for complete honesty as the first step in admitting my problems.
“If some domestic riders want to jump on some bandwagon with accusations of my past, I can’t control that. I guess I even leave myself open to those because I did cross the line. That will always be the case.”
He says he takes people’s criticisms to heart because, ultimately, he knows they have a point. He knowingly broke the rules, and is now paying the price.
“I knew it was wrong and I never should have went that way,” he said. “Cycling’s given me so much without going there. I was a role model, I was coaching people …”
For Gallagher, one of the hardest things has been reconciling his actions with the person he feels he is. He hasn’t just let others down; he feels he’s let himself down.
“I saw many people … they couldn’t understand it,” Gallagher explained. “I’m a nice guy, I actually think I’m an honest guy. If someone drops $10 I would tell them that, I wouldn’t try to cheat anyone deliberately of anything. I felt like I’d ripped people off more so of the person I am, [being] sort of two-faced.
“It was a wake-up call for me, realising I’m in a place I didn’t want to be, but somehow I ended up there.”
In the time since he returned his positive test, Gallagher has spoken to ASADA and told them everything he can. He’s explained how he doped alone — “If you’re to let anyone know, the chances of it all falling over are [higher]” — how it was only EPO he took, how he obtained the banned substance, how he avoided testers, and much more.
He’s expecting his official sanction to be handed down sometime in the near year, possibly accompanied by the stripping of some results. For now though he’s trying to process what he’s done and the impact it’s had.
“I’m still bitter about what I’ve done. I’m getting over it now; I’m starting to forgive myself a bit,” he said. “At first I felt like I really ripped myself off with everything I’d done in the past [and] I can no longer say with any joy or fulfilment inside anything I have achieved because I crossed that line.
“It’s been good to not have that secret any more. There’s been a lot of good support; a lot of people that see the human side to me now. I feel I’m in a situation where I have always just identified myself as a bike rider only so that’s a bit of a transition now. But the new job is keeping me busy.
“I’m also just enjoying riding too. I’m going for a ride tonight — no checking two minutes at these watts and four minutes at that — it’s just riding around.”
He’s made some progress in recent months, trying to get his life in order, to put his mistakes behind him and move on. But there’s a long road ahead.
“There’s still a lot of things to be done. The wake-up extended to me putting all those right things in place,” he said. “Through Medicare they have a mental health plan and that’s just to get back on track. [I need to] patch up relationships and get my life back in order. It was very out of balance. That’s what I need to work on.
“I think I’m headed a bit in the right direction at the moment, but there’s still a long way to go.”
1. Gallagher races as a C5 Paralympic cyclist, a classification for athletes with cerebral palsy, limb impairments and amputations. He has Erb’s palsy in his right shoulder, a nerve condition that causes paralysis to part of his arm.
3. Haematocrit is the volume percentage of red blood cells in blood. The UCI enforces a 50% haematocrit limit for male cyclists.