It came up again a few months back. Natalie Newhart was in a new state, a new gym and there it was: her name plastered across the bottom crawl of the TV screen. CrossFit athletes dream of that kind of recognition from CrossFit HQ’s Update Show. But not when the subject is violating the sport’s drug policy.
They say cheaters never prosper and Newhart —who tested positive for the anabolic agent oxandrolone in February 2016— will be the first to agree. She lost sponsorships she already had and some in the making. She lost her reputation and her drive to compete, leaving the sport completely in favor of bodybuilding for a while.
“The thing is, you may run through the consequences [of taking steroids] in your head but you have no idea how bad it is and what you are going to deal with,” Newhart said. “It’s not worth it. I can’t go anywhere without explaining it. Nothing will prepare you for the aftermath. This will haunt me until the day I die.”
Like it or not, it is how Newhart —whose two-year ban will expire in March — will ultimately be remembered. But what drives an elite athlete to cheat? And how do you begin to try to pick up the pieces? Newhart opens up.
For as long as the CrossFit Games have been a money-making, television-wielding, limits-defying spectacle, there have been whispers at the elite level. Rumors, whether wrong or right, about who may be cheating. At the upper echelon of sport, the slightest edge can make all the difference.
“I always thought I’m never going to do that, I’ll just work my butt off,” said Newhart, who competed at the CrossFit Games in 2013. “[I thought] I’ll kill myself before I take something.”
Then came the 2015 Regionals. She couldn’t clean the heavy barbells quick enough. Couldn’t snatch as much as the other women.
Strength had always been Newhart’s kryptonite. She placed 30th at the 2013 Games after failing to record a single rep on the Cinco 1 workout, which featured heavy deadlifts.
Over the years that followed, she had changed coaches, tightened up her nutrition, even moved to a crappy bed-bug ridden apartment in Ohio to train at Westside Barbell under the famed Louie Simmons for a few months. Nothing worked. Newhart had been stuck at the same numbers for two years. And the ’15 Regionals was the last straw.
“I never thought, ‘Hey, I should take this [pill]. A friend recommended it because he was tired of me being in tears,” Newhart said. “He said, ‘I think the problem is you aren’t recovering enough. You should take this [to help] with your recovery.
Honestly it wasn’t that hard of a decision, I was at the breaking point.”
The pill was an oral medication called Anavar, a popular anabolic steroid. Newhart’s friend assured her the side effects were minimal and she wouldn’t need a huge dose. So, she started that fall. By the six-week mark, there were noticeable physical changes. She was leaning out without changing her diet. By eight weeks, she was hitting PRs, busting through the numbers she had been stuck at for so long.
That little pill had made CrossFit fun again. It also forced her to lie to gym members and friends about where all these newfound gains were coming from. No matter. Newhart pushed that uneasiness aside. She was on a high. And then it all came crashing down.
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” —Warren Buffett
The drugs were working too well. By the winter Newhart was winning every offseason competition she entered. Companies were contacting her to be sponsored. It was everything she had dreamt of.
Then she got the fateful call on a Friday night in February driving back up from Denver. Newhart —who had gone to do CrossFit Open workout 16.1 at a friend’s box— had gotten missed calls all day long from an unknown number.
She had dismissed them, figuring it was some kind of sales call. By the time she got back to her home gym to coach, Newhart had an email from a drug testing company. She would find out later someone had suggested to CrossFit HQ that her recent surge be looked at closely.
“When I saw that email, everything broke down in my body, I froze up,” Newhart said. “It’s that right before you get into a car accident feeling. I was scared shitless.”
“I wanted to leave the country. I wanted to flee. You start thinking of crazy things,” Newhart said. “I wanted to escape. But I thought there was no way around it. I could have not met her—left the state or something. But even if I did that I’d get probation or something like that.”
Newhart hadn’t given much thought to cycling off the drugs in-season. She knew people cycled on and off stuff —though CrossFit has since implemented year-round drug testing—but she never had a plan.
Instead, she drank a ton of water and hoped for a miracle as she met the drug tester the following morning.
“I don’t know what was worse, the weeks leading up to [the result] or after,” said Newhart, who continued to do the Open workouts and acted as if nothing was wrong. In reality, the stress was consuming her.
Newhart got the results emailed to her a few weeks later, telling her she tested positive and asking if she wanted to fight the result and start an appeal process. She declined, begging HQ to not publicly release the result and her ban. She never heard back and —like others before and after her— saw it announced on the CrossFit Games Update Show several days later.
“I was so embarrassed. I wanted to die. Everything had gotten stripped away from me and you just feel so low. Like trash. Your whole self worth was just taken away from you,” Newhart said. “I wanted to own up to it because I had heard of other people getting caught and making up a stupid story saying ‘I didn’t know’. I had always thought that’s ridiculous. The test isn’t going to lie.
I wanted to at least do what I could to save my character, or what I had left, by owning up to it and apologizing to the community.”
Newhart released an Instagram video saying just that. She couldn’t bear to look at the comments, but the omission of guilt stayed up for a week before she deleted it, ready to face the consequences.
“In an instant, everything you had been working for gets taken away. And not just taken away but now you look like a piece of shit,” Newhart said of getting caught.
“I’m a good person, I know I’m a good person. I’m a hard worker. But when people find that out about you, you immediately have no self worth. People just look at your differently. I felt like I wanted to die. I was ashamed to show my face, I had no confidence, I was scared. Everything I loved was taken away from me, and I was so close to having everything I ever wanted.”
“One lie is enough to question all truths.” -Unknown
What they don’t tell you when you take those tiny pills is how long your penance will be. How you will be turned away from unsanctioned competitions for months —no, years— after word leaks out. How you will be judged, whispered and pointed at at every gym you walk into. How every time another high-level athlete gets popped, your name will come back up, a continuous playback of your worst mistake on full display.
“It just got worse. It got worse and worse for what seemed like up until now, honestly,” Newhart said, 20 months removed from her suspension announcement.
“After I got caught- I was like, ‘Now what do I do? This was my life. I got back into the gym and I’m like, ‘What am I training for?’ It’s the only thing that makes me happy and it’s all I know. I was super lost and I felt alone and I felt just disgusted of myself. Because I knew that’s what people thought of me.”
Suspended from the Open, Newhart emailed other local CrossFit competitions and was told she couldn’t compete. Take a year or two off, they said.
Shortly after, she found a small competition in Wyoming. The director said he’d have to ask the other athletes if they were OK with Newhart participating. Half of them said no. She was ultimately allowed to compete but told if she won anything she’d have to forfeit her prizes. Newhart was OK with that- she just wanted to be back on the competition floor.
When she arrived at the competition she didn’t have a welcome bag, nor was there any record of her even registering. Her scores in each event didn’t count and her name wasn’t even up alongside the rest of her heat. It was like she was a ghost at the end of the athlete floor.
By the last event, Newhart was done with CrossFit.
“I couldn’t live in this shadow people see me as. I felt like it was never going to be the same,” Newhart said. “The biggest thing that hurt was the respect. Nobody respected me. To the point where, I went to that competition and they didn’t even acknowledge me as a person.”
“I understood- don’t get my wrong. I was more than willing to take on the hate and shit that goes with it, but there was a point where I was still a person.”
She spent the next year competing in bodybuilding and training in Oregon.
“Mistakes build character. It is not what you have done. It is what you do with the pieces after you have put them back together.” —Charjisme
Newhart’s ban will end in the middle of this year’s Open, ensuring she won’t be eligible to compete until 2019. It is on her radar. Newhart started CrossFit again in July, recently competing in the Cascade Classic —her first big competition since going to Wyoming.
She is prepared for the looks and for the whispers. Newhart —who is still in the drug testing pool year-round— swears she hasn’t touched Anavar since the moment she got that life-changing email in 2016. She knows there are people out there who don’t sympathize, who won’t ever believe her and who will always label her as someone who tried to cheat her way to the top.
“Yeah, it helped me recover. I understand it’s not a fair playing field,” Newhart said. “Everyone is trying to find their own edge. Mine was definitely cheating and against the rules. I took the risk. Everybody thinks about trying it. Who doesn’t want to know what their potential is?”
“People may always think, ‘She’s still on it. But I don’t think I’d be so open to talking about [steroids] if I was. I could never do that again. It hurt too much.”
Animosity from strangers on social media is still present, those wounds still fresh and re-opened every time an elite-level CrossFitter goes down a similar path. As was the case this past October, when third-place Games finisher Ricky Garard was stripped of his award and Newhart’s name was mentioned again on the television scroll.
She is in a new region, a new state, a new gym—training with fellow Games athlete Carleen Matthews— and yet Newhart is forever linked to every cheater that comes before or after her.
“I’ve worked so hard to get over this, to get past it and rebuild myself up and then I get called out again,” Newhart said. “That’s the worst part is the respect you lose.”
Newhart initially reached out to Garard, offering to lend an ear if he needed it to get through this tough time. She knows what a long road it will be. But a lot of that empathy went out the window when she saw his statement, a contrived apology that said Garard didn’t know what he was taking and accusing other Games athletes around him of cheating as well.
“Shit’s already going to be bad and I think it just makes you more pathetic. Why not own up to it?,” Newhart said. “ It’s already over, it’s not going to get any worse. You may as well say, ‘I did it and this is why’. You may as well be honest and genuine and let people learn from it.”
Perhaps that is what has allowed Newhart to finally forgive herself, to get up and get back to training. She cannot change her past, or how she will be remembered in the sport. But she can control what is done from here and how she responds from the lowest of lows.
“I can’t go anywhere without explaining [my suspension]. I went to the Games, then got hurt and am trying to make it back still. It’s this weird awkward couple years of your life that you try to get over but it’s always going to be there,” she said.
“You may as well deal with it the best you can. For me now, hiding shit doesn’t feel good. Let’s talk about it and learn from it, you know? It’s a lot easier to deal with it that way and try to make the best out of it.”