MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Retired pitching great Roger Clemens showed up in federal court today. He entered a plea of not guilty to charges of lying to Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps the most startling thing about Clemens' day in court is that it's not all that startling. Drugs have become a constant in sports. A parade of star athletes has had to answer similar charges - from Clemens to former Olympic star Marion Jones.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Ms. MARION JONES (Former Olympic Athlete): I want you to know that I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me.

SIEGEL: Today, we have a story about an athlete whose life changed by making a very different decision about drugs.

And NPR's Tom Goldman only had to go as far as his radio to find it.

TOM GOLDMAN: Sometimes, the story comes to you.

(Soundbite of archived NPR broadcast)

NEAL CONAN, host:

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Katherine. Katherine is calling us from California.

Ms. KATHERINE HAMILTON: Hi...

CONAN: Hi.

Ms. HAMILTON: ...in Larkspur.

CONAN: In Larkspur. Go ahead, please.

Ms. HAMILTON: I have a...

GOLDMAN: Katherine, from Larkspur, called into NPR's TALK OF THE NATION nearly three years ago. The show was about doping. It was a few days after Marion Jones' public admission.

Ms. HAMILTON: It just so happened, I guess I was the first caller - I think because I was so hot.

GOLDMAN: Katherine didn't want to hear any more about famous athletes who dope and get caught. That, she said, was missing a bigger point.

(Soundbite of archived NPR broadcast)

Ms. HAMILTON: There is an untold story about all the thousands -literally - athletes, men and women, who make a conscious decision - that are really great athletes, doing the right thing, working really hard. And they just drop out because they're just not willing to do the things to your body, and to go down that road.

GOLDMAN: In other words, athletes who don't just say no to drugs, but no to sport. Athletes like Katherine.

Ms. HAMILTON: My name is Katherine Hamilton. I just turned 49.

GOLDMAN: Since the phone call, Katherine Hamilton moved from Larkspur to Moraga, a small town east of Oakland. When I finally visited her this summer, she pulled out a framed collection of her sports photos. They'd been sitting in the closet.

Ms. HAMILTON: That's me approaching the high jump; that's me actually jumping 5'10".

GOLDMAN: Next to the photos, a plaque and a ribbon honor Katherine Hamilton as the 1979 Junior National High Jump Champion. Hamilton used to watch the Olympics on black-and-white TV, and she remembers that tantalizing feeling of athletic promise.

Ms. HAMILTON: When I won nationals, there was a glimpse of oh, my God, maybe this is not just something that I could just dream. Maybe this could actually happen.

GOLDMAN: Hamilton got a four-year scholarship to U.C. Berkeley as a heptathlete - the first-ever track and field full ride at Cal for a woman. But the hope and promise she felt going in faded. Hamilton discovered her sport at the collegiate level was more of a business, and that included drugs. It would be another decade before track and field had out-of-competition testing - the only way, anti-doping experts agree, to control banned drug use. Which meant in 1980, little - if any -control.

Ms. HAMILTON: I became involved in a larger community where everybody knew that this is what you do.

GOLDMAN: Hamilton started to recognize the athletes on steroids and those not.

Ms. HAMILTON: They're softer. They're not as cut. They can't last as long in training.

GOLDMAN: It went beyond her immediate world.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Steroids brought athletic glory to East Germany during the Cold War.

Ms. HAMILTON: You start looking at pictures of what your competition would be if you were on the world stage. And it's like, hmm.

GOLDMAN: And it was close to home. At Cal, Hamilton lived with a man, a track-and-field athlete, who she says took anabolic steroids in her presence. Hamilton decided she wouldn't be part of it. And then, she went a step further.

Ms. HAMILTON: I was not willing, at that point, to settle for being 20th and 30th working my ass off, with no steroids, and watching everybody else go forward year after year after year.

GOLDMAN: In May of 1981, 19-year-old Katherine Hamilton walked into the athletic director's office at Cal. She signed away her scholarship and withdrew from school. Nearly 30 years later, the memory makes her cry.

Did you react this way then?

Ms. HAMILTON: No.

GOLDMAN: Why do you react that way now?

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. HAMILTON: Because I'm thinking of myself at that age. I kind of feel sorry for that person. I feel badly for that person, to have to have made that decision so young.

Ms. GALE GROVER: I think with Katherine, she really felt that she got robbed even before the prime of her life.

GOLDMAN: It's fitting that Gale Grover is sitting on the couch next to Hamilton. For 30 years, their lives have been woven together as best friends. They met at Cal - Hamilton, a hyper heptathlete; Grover, a no-nonsense discus thrower. But after Hamilton turned away from sport, Grover kept going. She almost made the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, and then she moved to Canada, where she became national champion. From afar, Katherine Hamilton watched her friend succeed without drugs.

Ms. HAMILTON: We made a pact. Actually, you and I had a lot - we would never do that. We had these pacts that it doesn't matter how bad it gets, we're not going down that road.

GOLDMAN: The conversations with Grover were Hamilton's only connection to sport. Hamilton had, in her words, cut herself off from her body. She started smoking. She ballooned to 185 pounds on a 5-foot-8 frame. She married, had a son, got divorced, launched a career in health care.

And in 1990, nearly a decade after Hamilton made her decision, she watched her friend do the same. Gale Grover looked at the massive women in her sport making the podium at major events: women from Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany. And she saw the ceiling.

Ms. GROVER: That's when it really hit me. It was like, there is no way I will ever be able to win a medal in this event, maybe not even place top six, you know, at the Olympics unless I decide to make that choice. And I was just, there was no way I was going to do it.

GOLDMAN: Two friends taking different routes to the same destination. Even though it ended early, Grover loved her discus career: the travel, the competition, the friendships.

Hamilton missed out, but she isn't tortured by regret. There was no guarantee of success even if she took banned drugs. And with doping an even more daunting issue today...

Ms. HAMILTON: I'm even more resolved that I made the right decision.

GOLDMAN: Turns out, though, these two former athletes are not quite done.

Ms. GROVER: Still cold enough to pull something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GROVER: Words to live by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Hamilton, 49, and Grover, 50, joke about pulling muscles as they drive into Sacramento for a track meet, the USA Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships last month. It was Grover's idea. She had already competed in some Masters events.

Hamilton started bike racing four years ago. She lost a lot of weight, and rediscovered the competitive woman within. But long jump and high jump? She hadn't done that for 30 years.

(Soundbite of 2010 USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships)

Unidentified Male: All right. The next long jump will be W-40 and W-45 combined. Gina Lanier, Kim Freetly, Katherine Hamilton.

GOLDMAN: Hamilton long-jumped over 17 feet in her teenage heyday. At the Masters event, 9 1/2 feet. And she paid the price the next day: a sore Achilles tendon shut her down in the high jump. Still, she loved the experience.

Hamilton, who constantly raises her hand, inviting a high five, found camaraderie on the track, and she said the playing field finally is level - maybe.

A 52-year-old top Masters sprinter was suspended earlier this year for doping. It's there, although not as prevalent as in elite track and field.

Hamilton and Grover, who finished second in the Masters discus in Sacramento, say they're not worried, like in the old days. They're both training for future meets and happy to be back.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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