Yuliya Stepanova faced a soul-shaking decision in 2013.
She could continue her conflicted life as a doping Russian athlete married to an anti-doping crusader. She was a world-class 800 runner with visions of competing in the Olympics.
Or, she could join her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, in a quest to cleanse sport.
“I can lie and cheat or I can be with my husband,” she said this week, describing her dilemma to a crowd of students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
She chose her husband’s cause and eventually produced an earthquake felt round the sports world. The family crusade led to the ban of the Russian track team from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The crusade also led to Vitaly and Yuliya fleeing Russia. A spokesman for president/autocrat Vladimir Putin described Yuliya as a modern-day “Judas.” The couple now lives in a secret location in a mid-sized American city.
The crowd of students laughed when Vitaly recalled his first date with Yuliya. It was 2009, and he labored as an idealistic crusader in Russia’s official anti-doping agency. He — get this! — actually believed Russia wanted to prevent its athletes from cheating.
Yuliya offered quick personal advice.
“Stop being an idiot,” she said.
She spoke those words in August. They were married in October. It was an unlikely union, filled with tension and contradiction. Vitaly opposed doping even as his wife actively doped.
She was, she told me, surrounded by athletes who doped and coaches who believed fervently in doping. She felt she had no choice but to dope.
“Only drugs can help you achieve result. You can’t run fast without drugs. This is what my coach told and what coaches in Russia believe,” she said.
But in February 2013, a blood test revealed she had used a prohibited substance and she was banned from competition for two years. She felt an acute sense of betrayal. The coaches who virtually demanded she cheat were left unpunished.
“I was just tired of listening to the lies and because I have my husband — he believed in clean sport — I have a chance,” she said. “Others, they just play on one side. They don’t have anyone like my husband who tried to show another way.
“I decided to use my chance and tell the truth and try to change something for better.”
She was aggressive in her pursuit of revealing the truth. She first wrote a highly detailed report on her cheating, filled with names and specific substances. Then, she used a hidden smartphone to record coaches and administrators talking about the cheating culture in Russia.
Vitaly delivered the recordings to his contacts at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and soon all the Russian lies were there for the world to see.
The couple was scorned in their homeland.
“That girl is a traitor,” an elderly Russian woman told the British Broadcasting Corporation. “She blackened our government and the whole country. Yuliya was taking those drugs herself and now she tries to look whiter than white!”
The WADA report that led to Russia’s expulsion from the 2016 Games relied heavily on Yuliya’s work. She was cited more than 100 times in the landmark document.
I stood in the back of the room as Vitaly and Yuliya talked of the price paid for their bravery. Theirs is not a simple story, which increased its value to the listening students.
Doing the right thing can carry a painful, lasting price. This is the hard truth of the Vitaly and Yuliya story. This is the hard truth of many stories of bravery.
Vitaly and Yuliya are exiles who remain in danger of reprisal. The Putin regime is known for harsh response to critics. “We try not to think about that,” Vitaly said, with a shrug.
He works as anti-drug consultant for the International Olympic Committee. Yuliya, even though she's 32, still yearns to compete in the Olympics. The couple, Vitaly said, hopes to solve "immigration-related issues" and remain permanently in the United States.
The shaking up of their lives, they say, was worth the price. Vitaly called these years of crusading beside Yuliya “the best of my life.”
Late in the presentation, Vitaly looked directly at the students. When you see wrong, he said, do something. Don’t be passive. Be aggressive.
“You have to speak up,” he said as he sat beside a brave woman who did exactly that.