Brady Ellison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Brady Ellison knows exactly how close he came to losing his archery career.
Fifteen little pills saved him.
They were all that stood between Ellison, the No. 1-ranked male archer in the world who routinely hits bulls-eyes 70 meters away, and a doping suspension that would prevent him from making his fourth Olympic team.
On October 28, 2020, Ellison, a three-time Olympic medalist, was notified that he had tested positive for a banned substance in an out-of-competition test. The substance, hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ), is in a class of diuretics, or masking agents.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way that I failed the drug test,’” said Ellison, 32. “I’ve never taken anything. I don’t do supplements. I don’t do anything.”
He doesn’t even take pain relief tablets.
After consulting a lawyer, Ellison suspected that prescription medication for a thyroid condition – which he’s taken since he was 17 and has no ingredients on the banned list – was somehow contaminated. He needed to send a few pills to a lab for analysis.
“I get a 90-day supply and I had 15 pills left,” Ellison said. “But if I didn’t have any, then I’d be sitting on a ban right now and my career would be over.”
He had to wait nearly seven agonizing weeks for the results.
“You’re terrified, because you’ve worked so hard your entire life, and you’re looking at a possible ban for something that you didn’t even do,” Ellison said, “and then you get angry off that you’re even in this situation because all you’ve ever done has been super careful.”
Finally, in mid-December the lab confirmed HCTZ contamination in the pills at a level consistent with the trace found in Ellison’s sample. When his lawyer called to tell him, Ellison said, “My wife cried and I cried a little bit and it was just, ‘It’s over, thank you.’ We knew it had to be in the medication and if it wasn’t there, then it was going to be harder to find.”
He said they would have tested tap water, food, anything they could think of.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to do that. “Now we can just go win the Olympics,” Ellison said.
Road to Tokyo Resumes
He will open his outdoor season this weekend at the Arizona Cup in Phoenix and expects to compete every weekend through June. Ellison, who won the individual bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and team silver medals in 2012 and 2016, will be aiming for that elusive gold in Tokyo.
“I’m excited to start getting back into the swing of things,” he said, “I have a pretty tough tournament schedule going into the Games. I’m ready to kind of knock all the dust and rust off from not competing and be all nice and shiny by the time we get there.”
However, if the doping decision had not gone his way, Ellison said he would have taken the first job he could find at a fast-food restaurant, big-box store or even one of the copper mines in Globe, Arizona, where he lives. His wife Toja, who is also a competitive archer, was pregnant with their first child when he found out about the positive test.
“If I get a ban, I’m out,” he said. “I need to get a job, I need health insurance - you realize everything that you’re going to lose, and then how do you make up for that? What am I going to sell to fight everything, because it wouldn’t have been over. I would have brought this to court.”
Amid all of this anxiety, the Ellisons’ son Ty was born on November 14.
“We think the stress of all this made him come four weeks early,” Ellison said of Ty, who was healthy upon arrival.
Imagine if Ellison had been notified of the positive test after all of the pills in that particular batch were gone.
“It’s scary in the doping world where you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
On December 21, a press release from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency cleared Ellison in a “no-fault” case. USADA announced that Ellison had tested positive for a prohibited substance “which was determined to have been ingested by him without fault or negligence.” Thus, there would be no sanctions by USADA or the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, said there have been more than 25 of “these tragic no-fault cases since 2016, and the injustice keeps happening. On behalf of athletes, USADA will continue to urge WADA to reform the system to be more fair, effective, and efficient.”
Reaching Out To Other Athletes
In a nearly 9-minute Facebook video in December, Ellison warned other athletes that this could happen to them, too.
“I believe [USADA and WADA] are still working on something to let people be aware of it,” said Ellison, who hopes to contribute to some education pieces so other athletes don’t have to go through what he did. “They’re putting together some papers and research with some independent companies to show how much cross-contamination is in medication that’s still allowed by the manufacturers.”
And yet the testing process, as it stands now, picks up those traces. “The way the rules are right now,” Ellison said, “they can’t dismiss it without going through the process.”
He believes that for some substances, such as a diuretic like HCTZ that is a common contaminant, a 0.0 tolerance may not be fair to athletes anymore.
“They’re not trying to catch clean athletes that have bad things happen to them,” Ellison said. “They’re trying to catch the people that are cheating.”
And he still intends to send four or five pills from every batch to be tested because he’s not taking any chances.
Support From His Peers
Since the archery world found out about his situation, Ellison said, “I haven’t had one athlete that’s been like ‘Hey, you should have known better.’ Everyone’s like, ‘I had no idea that this was a thing. Thank you. I’m going to start saving stuff.’”
Ellison began taking the thyroid medication – one pill a day – when he was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, which happened about the same time he started being drug-tested in 2005. He figures he’s been tested well over 100 times - probably five to eight times a year out of competition and at least four times a year in competition.
If Ellison didn’t take medicine to regulate his thyroid, he said he would gain two or three pounds a week. “Your thyroid is pretty much the first thing that fights for your immune system and it regulates so many hormones,” he said, “that if I didn’t take thyroid medicine there’s a possibility that years get taken off my life.
“A lot of people think that because you’re an athlete all we do is just train and compete and that’s all we have to worry about. But there’s so much more behind the scenes that we have worry about and watch out for just to make sure that we’re following the rules and being safe.”
The ordeal actually marked the second time Ellison’s career has been in jeopardy since the Rio Games.
An injury to the middle finger on his right hand caused him so much pain that he flinched at the indoor world championships in early 2018 and finished 12th.
“I thought that was going to be my last one; I really did,” Ellison said. “I’m so stubborn that we just kept fighting through it.”
Toja, a native of Slovenia who became a U.S. citizen in February, found a doctor in her home country who was a specialist in bioenergetics.
“He disagreed with all the other doctors that I should quit,” Ellison said. “And he was able to heal me in three days.
“Since that happened I’ve had two of the best seasons I’ve probably ever had.”
Record-Setting Year Pre-Pandemic
He won his first world outdoor title in 2019. No American had been world champion since Rick McKinney in 1985.
Later that year in August, Ellison set a world ranking round record of 702 points (out of a possible 720) at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. It was the first time the recurve men’s ranking round world record had been broken outside the Olympics since 2012. In Lima, Ellison won a gold medal in the mixed team event with Casey Kaufhold and the men’s team bronze with Thomas Stanwood and Jack Williams.
Ellison also was selected as Team USA’s flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony.
In February 2020, he became the first recurve archer to shoot a perfect 900 at the Vegas Shoot. After the pandemic shut down most competitions, Ellison was training at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California when he tested positive on Oct. 7.
Doping offenses are rare in archery.
“In my sport hard work and time and being mentally tough gets you to the top,” Ellison said, “and there’s not really any drugs we can take to really make us perform better.”
While beta blockers are mentioned as possible performance enhancers for athletes like archers and shooters, “If you step to the line and you’re all numb and have no emotions then why do it?” Ellison said. “You do this to get excited and get that adrenaline rush, not to stand there and feel nothing.”
With the worry of the doping case off his shoulders, in February Ellison won the men’s recurve division at the Rushmore Rumble in South Dakota. Toja won the compound women’s division (which is not an Olympic event).
Ellison said that his strength is coming back and he believes he is better technically than he was in 2019 and early 2020. If he can figure out a “few little hiccups,” he can get to “a level that I haven’t been to before and hopefully way better than I was in 2019.”
And he’s got his sights set on a successful trip to Tokyo.
“The world can come together,” Ellison said, “and for at least a month - with the Olympics and Paralympics - just have a timeframe of happiness and maybe where we can forget about things a little bit.”