The Anabolic Checkmate

NO DRUG TESTS FOR BAND, CHESS CLUB (Los Angeles Times) “Unlike athletes, there is no evidence that drugs are used to enhance a student’s flute playing, choir performance, chess playing, debating, math team or farming skills.” --Excerpt from ruling by Shasta County Superior Court Judge

When Sheldon Mishnik finished his sophomore year at Parsons Preparatory Academy, he was a diminutive apple-cheeked teen with a savannah of emerging facial hair and a voice that Betty Thompson, his math teacher, described as sounding “like someone tuning between AM radio stations.” But when Mishnik returned last fall as a goateed, chiseled 245-pound junior with BALCO tattooed on his right hand, eyebrows were raised.

“I remember in band practice Shel became so enraged during a run-through of ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In’ that he punctured a security door with his clarinet, then tipped over a riser holding the entire brass section,” Thompson sighed. “That’s not like him.” A week later he tested positive for HCL, an illegal performance-enhancing steroid.

A Times reporter has learned that Mishnik’s outburst is not uncommon in the highly competitive world of high school band and chess competitions. Behaviorists are speaking out with increasing alarm on the new widespread use of steroids in band, chess, and speech club circles.

Having first shrugged off Miskin’s BALCO tattoo as a moniker for “Bay Area Local Community Organization,” the 15-year-old finally admitted to “juicing,” or taking banned substances.

“When I arrived at Parsons in 2007, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to perform and perform at a high level every day,” a teary Mishkin said in a subdued baritone. “I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being first clarinet. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry for letting down the entire Badger Marching Band and all our fans. Since then, I’ve, like, proven to myself and everyone that I don’t need any of that [stuff]. From now on, it’s just X-Box 360 and Mr. Pibb [a popular uncaffeinated beverage used to ease the withdrawal from youth steroid abuse.]”

Sadly, Mishkin’s is not an isolated case. A spokesman for the Woodwinds Transitional Foundation (WTF), a Shasta County anti-doping agency that specializes in regulating the behavior of reed players and bringing them back into the fold of normal school band activities, was unmoved by Mishkin’s admission and apology. “He’s just sorry that he got caught—he’s a role model for other band members, and that kind of behavior is inexcusable,” said Earl Tarnow, president of the group.

Tarnow says the use of banned substances has crossed the line from sports like baseball, football, and basketball into the “shadow clubs” like band, chess club, and 4-H. “They don’t want to be perceived as geeks anymore,” he said dejectedly, “and I don’t know if it’s ever going back to the way it was, you know, skinny kids with crummy complexions screeching on a tenor sax or sacrificing a bishop. It’s full-on war games now.”

Last December, an 8th grade Junior Orchestra player at Carver Middle School was taken into custody when her frenetic bowing set a $15,000 cello afire, abruptly ending Carver’s annual performance of The Nutcracker and setting off a panicked sprint for the exits. She tested positive for HCG, a substance used to jump-start testosterone production. “She wanted to play better, and she didn’t want to be a teen pregnancy statistic, either. She figured she could, you know, kill two birds,” the girl’s mother explained.

“These kids don’t know what they’re playing with,” said Superior Court Judge Judy Portnoy. “This isn’t smoking corn silk behind the barn—it’s pretty hardcore. That said, I had an awesome listen to “Electric Ladyland” on baked banana skins once.”

What was once a concern about 12-18 year olds going to drug-fueled “rave” parties has now turned into a full-on initiative to curb an even more insidious form of casual drug use. “Ecstasy? No way,” explained one 15-year-old girl banned for life for steroid use during debate finals at a state speech contest. “We’re smart kids. We’re into Bach and ABBA.”

“These are children of privilege, not ghetto teens,” said Dr. Michaela Entrada, PhD and head of the addiction studies department at Granger University in Topeka, “so the emphasis is significantly less playa’ driven. There’s no milkshake bringing these kids to the yard.”

From the window of his room at the Miles Davis Clinic in Chicago, Noah Kleig, 17, can see the “El” platform where he scored his first vials of pemoline from a Northwestern University oboist known only as “El Jefe.” Noah’s parents, both music theory professors at the University of Chicago, had put “crushing” expectations on Noah from the start, when he was assigned the triangle at his first music recital in 4th grade. Furious at their patronization in referring to him as a “their little percussionist,” Noah began his descent into the nightmare cycle of performance enhancement with a strict regimen of Rockstar energy drinks and Skittles.

“Within a few months I had already crossed the invisible line between social and abnormal substance use, but, [WTF], it was just corn syrup and fructose. How bad could it get?” But the high he achieved became quickly unsatisfactory. By dipping Starburst chews in hashish oil, he could avoid the letdown of the sugar rush while still maintaining top performance on the triangle and cymbals as well as the gragger during Purim services. Then, after nodding out during a junior high marching band practice of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Shining Star,” he stepped up to the next level, consuming regular doses of DHEA and Jolt cola. His frenetic castanet runs, while stunning to his teachers and fellow Wolverines, were cause for concern. His forearms became thigh-sized, and he began to break out like a relief map of Afghanistan.

“But I was playing well,” he explained. “Nobody wanted to say anything. People came to our games just to watch me do a 14-minute maracas solo in the middle of our fight song. I was a star.” The acclaim led to jealously among the drum line and horn sections, and rumors began to circulate. When he was told of impending urine test Noah began a regimen of dextran, vitamin water, and compulsive chewing of Folgers coffee crystals to mask the steroid. “I wasn’t going to get caught,” he explained.

His downfall was swift and embarrassing. “The band was playing a tribute to our drum major, Eddie Hancock, who was hospitalized for a prednisone mishap. “Halfway into ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ I mistakenly began to play the break to Kool and the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’ and couldn’t get out of it.” Stuck in a PED-driven musical cul-de-sac, Klieg was finally subdued by three defensive ends and the quarterback and placed in a waiting ambulance, still playing. “I knew I needed help,” Noah said softly. “Thank goodness for Frank Emory and his people.”

Months earlier, Emory, an Illinois state senator from Lake Forest, had pushed his colleagues to adopt a statewide high school steroid testing program because he was concerned that young band members and board game enthusiasts were emulating the bad habits of some professional athletes. “Is there enough steroid use in band circles that spending a couple million bucks a year against everything else that the state needs to spend money on is worth it?” Emory asked incredulously. The senator’s words became a rallying cry, albeit a long one. Illinois established band clinics for PHD-juiced players to bring them into the mainstream, a program that has been emulated in seven states including California, a flashpoint for the arts doping debate.

“I’ve seen kids go into ‘roid rages over public policy debates,” Emory said, his eyes widening. “One kid tried to slice another kid’s throat with a 4 x 6 card simply because she disagreed over the calendar definition of ‘fiscal.’”

Emory’s plan involves rigorous and random testing of all students in arts programs, taking it so far as to start an investigation into specialized events such as 4-H Club. “These children need help, and if the parents won’t give it to them, we will,” he said. “I don’t want to see anymore seven-minute chess tournaments.”

The program has a startlingly good long-term recovery rate, with only 15% recidivism, mostly among cheerleaders and guys in the animation club. “We’re looking into the reasons for that,” he said, “and we’re going to address it at our next session.”

Meanwhile, Sheldon Mishkin sits on the couch in his parents’ Palo Alto home, occasionally indulging in reading between six-hour bouts of Armageddon on his adapted Wii game. “It gets him on his feet and moving,” his mother says happily, “and he’s more accountable.”

That said, new disclosures have led Emory’s group into ordering random urine tests during SAT preparatory classes. “We’re seeing an uptick in kids who can finish the whole test in half an hour, and we’re trying to find out why.”


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