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Steroids a growing issue for women

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The prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports and the corresponding media coverage have combined to produce a trickle-down effect.

And it's not one that most experts expected.

"That's probably the most tragic part of this whole thing," said Mike Barnes, director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. "In the last few years, use among females is more than double, and the age where girls are using has trickled down to junior high school."

He points to a 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control. It sampled more than 15,000 high-school students and reported a 5.3 percent usage rate among females. A similar study in 2000, Barnes says, showed that steroid use was down in the same age group.

"What's the difference between now and then?" Barnes asked. "It's a lot more prevalent in society across the board. It was far and away the biggest sports-related story of the past few years. I mean, come on, it's out of control."

Steroids just aren't stereotypical anymore. They can't be boxed into categories reserved for linemen and bodybuilders and baseball players.

They're being used by seventh-grade girls and older in your local high schools and junior highs, to make them leaner, make them faster, make them better looking. They're being used by females in college.

And they're being used by female Olympians. Like Kelli White, once the fastest woman in the world, now a banished disciple from the California BALCO laboratory. Or other Olympic athletes, like the ones Jennifer Devine, a Washington graduate, competed against at two Olympics. One woman she rowed against in 1996 in Atlanta was banned for life a year after the race.

"I wouldn't say that steroid use is as prevalent in women's sports as it is in men's," Devine said. "But I'm not ignorant. I know a lot of women use them. Men can make a lot of money off getting big and ripped. Society is not kind to women who are muscular."

Devine can attest to that. She says to try to imagine being a muscular woman wearing a tank top to a bar. Then imagine what drunken men would say.

"People tell you they're just insecure," Devine said. "But that doesn't hurt any less, I can tell you. I threw a drink on a guy one time."

Most women who take performance-enhancing drugs aren't doing so to be muscular. Especially in high schools, says Dr. Diane Elliott, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.

Elliott helped develop a prevention program called ATHENA - Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives - aimed at helping middle-school and high-school girls.

The program stems from a study conducted in Oregon and southwest Washington that found the same usage as the CDC did. The goal of the program is to educate about nutrition and strength training and to prevent depression.

They followed the original schools involved in the study and compared them with a control group. Use is down by about 30 percent, Elliott said, and she has testified before Congress on her efforts.

"This is deterring kids from using drugs," Elliott said. "It works."

While ATHENA has been instituted in 30 states, female use of performance-enhancing drugs is still spreading.

"We're seeing it more and more on the women's side," said Dr. Mark Webber, team chiropractor the Seattle Thunderbirds and a doping official for several international bodybuilding associations. "Typically, it wouldn't take as much for a woman to get effects."

Possible side effects from steroids include the development of male characteristics, hair loss, menstrual irregularities, birth defects, severe acne, blood clots, and liver, stomach and kidney damage.

The key, according to Barnes, is to be straightforward with teenagers about the dangers. To give them the right information so they can spread it through their peer group.

"Scare tactics don't necessarily work," he said. "They're like, `Look at her. She won all these awards. She's a genetic freak. Of course she's juiced to the gills. That's what I want to look like.' These kids have long-term plans that are three months away.

"Which is why we need to help them as early as we can."


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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