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Paying The Price For Pumping Up : Steroid use by high school athletes is dangerous, and that message appears to be getting through.


Anabolic steroids help athletes build muscle size and develop strength, but they do so at a price.

That's why athletic directors such as John Barnes at Los Alamitos don't want steroids anywhere near their programs.

"I can't imagine any high school football players who need them," said Barnes, also the school's football coach. "Three years ago, I went to workshops on steroids and they reaffirmed everything I knew or thought. . . . They have no purpose in sports, especially in high school. They do more damage than good for the normal kid.

"We have told our kids that what they do in the weight room is fine; they don't need anything extra. I think it [steroid usage] was more widespread five to six years ago, but it may have topped out. I hope the message got out."

Evidently, it has. Most county coaches and doctors interviewed for this story say they haven't noticed any rampant outbreak of steroid use at the high school level.

"I don't think it's a problem," said John Azevedo, coach of Calvary Chapel's highly successful wrestling program. "I know there have been people who have done [steroids] at all levels of wrestling; but its appeal didn't take any significant hold. There were never many cases where people saw a benefit."

Al Britt, Esperanza's track and field coach, said he has heard of high school athletes using steroids and going on to college before they were questioned about it, but "that was hearsay."

"It's not a problem that I see," said Dr. Ronald Axtell, family practice physician and team doctor for Mission Viejo High's athletic program. "People will get them if they want them bad enough. It's not the blue-chip kids who need them, they need guidance.

"When you've got 100,000 kids in California playing football, it's a small percentage who use steroids. But I think the risks far outweigh the benefits."

Axtell said he has never prescribed steroids for a high school athlete, and doesn't know a doctor who has.

"The benefits of strength training from weights--without steroids--have been proven," Dr. Axtell said. "With hard work by itself, you can improve your strength and become the athlete you need to be."

Bill Pendleton, Esperanza's defensive coordinator and strength coach, says most teen-age users of steroids don't understand the risks involved--and might not care. "Half the problem is," he said, "the more information kids are exposed to, the more they want to use it."

Steroids--made from the male hormone testosterone or synthetically created--have been around sports since the 1940s, according to Scientific American magazine. They are taken by injection, or by pill. Their popularity began with weight lifters and body builders in the 1960s, and spread among football and track athletes in the 1970s.

Athletes use them to increase strength by regenerating tissue and to recover faster from their workouts. The effects begin to reverse themselves when steroid use is discontinued.

Among the common side effects are hair loss, acne and mood swings. According to most medical research, long term--and high dosage--steroid use has been linked to hardening of the arteries, liver damage, liver dysfunction, testicular shrinkage, impotence, heart disease and cancer.

Football star Lyle Alzado, who died of brain cancer in 1992, often tied his 20-year steroid use to causing the cancer, even though he had not used steroids for five years before his death, and there was no controlled study or research producing evidence that such a neurological calamity had occurred.

Athletes who use steroids can put on as much as 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in a month, according to Mike Mooney, a writer and medical research associate with the Program for Wellness Restoration, a nonprofit AIDS research group based in Houston.

Mooney said continued moderate use of steroids, in cycles of six to eight weeks, can make it harder for their use to be detected in drug testing.

"The reality is there is an advantage created by using them," he said. "The athlete who doesn't use them at the upper levels [professional sports] is an unusual athlete. And all kinds of athletics are using them. For track runners, certain brands of steroids increase endurance, reaction time and overall mobility and strength without increasing size."

Steroids have been a federally controlled substance since 1990, and are banned for use in most competitive sports. For example, the NCAA banned their use from collegiate athletics in the 1970s but did not start testing for steroids until 1986.

But though they are a prescription drug, steroids are easily obtainable through the black market. "The connections for the drugs are made through local gyms, not the high schools," Pendleton said. "I've been working with kids for 20 years, and in my experience the [steroid] use may be down the past couple of years but it's still constant."

Pendleton said parents at other schools had accused Esperanza of using steroids to bulk up its football linemen.

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