Alan Trivett, executive director of Triathlon Canada, is calling physiologists and doctors involved in Paula Findlay’s care to determine how her case of iron deficiency could have been missed before she competed at the London Olympic Games.
The revelation about Findlay’s iron deficiency came this week after she blogged that low iron levels likely had a “huge impact” on her disastrous last-place finish in London. She discovered the problem only last week after staff at her new training base in Guelph, Ont., ordered the tests because she had been feeling sluggish.
The results from the Aug. 31 test, along with the results of two other blood tests taken last spring, showed Findlay had been suffering from severely depleted iron levels since at least May, Findlay said in an interview.
“Ultimately, if Paula’s iron levels … were low during the Olympics, that would have been, frankly, a major oversight on whoever her sports science and sports medicine team was at the time,” said Greg Wells, a University of Toronto physiologist who specializes in health and performance in extreme conditions.
“No athlete should have to enter a competition with low red blood cell levels, especially these days with Own the Podium support being what it is, athletes have integrated support teams around them. They should have a capacity to detect and deal with blood levels as a foundation for what athletes need to be able to do in training and competition.”
Iron deficiency, or anemia, is simple to detect and easily treated with diet and supplements, but can lead to extreme fatigue, weakness and other side effects if left untreated. Iron, as part of the protein hemoglobin, carries oxygen throughout the body, which is especially essential for endurance athletes.
Trivett’s investigation could take him from Victoria to Calgary to Ontario – all places where Findlay has seen health professionals including physiologists, doctors and physiotherapists over the past 14 months during a complicated quest to fix her injured hip. Her training program was complicated by a rocky relationship with her coach, whom she split from in June.
“We’ve got a number of different people in the mix here, and I need to find out who knew what, when and how it was addressed,” Trivett said, adding he should have answers by Friday. “Not all tests that are ordered by the physician actually get to the physician. Sometimes they’re ordered for physiologists. I just don’t know enough to point any fingers.”
The discovery is the latest fallout for Triathlon Canada since the Games, in which Findlay sobbed and apologized as she crossed the finish line, and former gold medalist Simon Whitfield lashed out at support staff he said mishandled Findlay’s care.
Since then, Trivett has acknowledged a “crisis of leadership” within the organization, heaping some of the blame on himself. He fired Findlay’s former coach, Patrick Kelly, as head coach of the organization’s training group in Victoria. And he hired a new high-performance director, a position which closely monitors top athletes and sat vacant for more than a year.
Findlay’s troubles began when she injured her hip shortly before a World Cup race in July of 2011. At the time, she was being managed by Kelly and was based in Victoria, where she would have had access to physiologists, nutritionists and other support staff at Canadian Sport Centre Pacific. She dropped out of the race, but trained at altitude in France later that month, Trivett said. (Athletes are routinely tested for iron levels before training at altitude, where oxygen is in short supply.)
“That’s the beginning of the crisis of leadership,” Trivett said. “That’s where we should have said, this trip [to France] is cancelled. We’re getting a whole battery of tests done. We’re going to get the best sports medicine doctors. We’re going to bring every asset we have in play to deal with this right now.”
Instead, Findlay struggled through three more races and was finally told to stop training in mid-April after a magnetic resonance imaging test in Australia revealed what a doctor diagnosed as a labral tear that would require surgery (later tests disputed that result). Trivett says it was that point that Findlay was told to go on an iron supplement, due to concerns raised by her doctor in Victoria.
“I do know that there was certainly discussion about her iron levels as early as the spring,” Trivett said. “And I know for sure the recommendation was that she be on an iron supplement. I get the feeling now that that didn’t occur, and I’m not sure why. But these are all the different things I need to explore.”
Findlay’s iron levels were also tested in May. However, Trivett said he is not yet sure if or how those results were interpreted. By mid-May, Findlay had moved to Hamilton to continue her rehabilitation with Whitfield, his coach, Jon Brown, and be treated by his physiotherapist. But she was still officially under Kelly’s watch until early June.
Findlay says she saw the May results for the first time this week. “It’s pretty clear that they dropped a lot,” she said. “They were lower than they’d ever been in May. And then in August, they were lower.”
Findlay says she thinks that so much attention and resources were being focused on her hip, that the iron was overlooked.
“I don’t want the article to come out and be pointing fingers, and the blame game again that happened after my race in London, because I don’t want people to not like me,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s my body and I need to be responsible for it too. I don’t want to blame people for my own health issues or anything, but it’s just disappointing that I do put a lot of trust and faith in the experts and medical people around me, and something that’s seemingly simple got overlooked.”