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Former Olympian sets her sights on a new goal – becoming a surgeon

From throwing a hammer in Bird’s Nest Stadium in the 2008 Summer Olympics to studying to become a surgeon at CU Anschutz, former Olympian Loree Thornton is no stranger to pushing herself to the limits in pursuit of her dreams.

Since watching the 1996 Summer Olympics, Thornton knew that when she grew up she was going to be an Olympian. She didn’t know what her sport would be, but she envisioned competing in the games and meeting her teenage crush – a Russian gymnast. She went so far as to take four years of Russian in high school.

“I was like, ‘I need to speak Russian so I can meet him,’” Thornton shares with a laugh in an interview, “because, you know, I’d meet him and get married.”

She didn’t learn what her event would be until she was an undergraduate in college. One day, her track-and-field coach suggested she try the hammer throw.

“I was like, ‘Cool what’s that?’” Before that day, Thornton admits, she’d never heard of hammer throwing. The hammer isn’t a typical tool, but rather a metal ball that weighs about nine pounds. Attached to a steel wire, the ball gets swung above the head and released to fly across the field.

“I think it picked me,” she says of the sport she adores.

Breaking records

From then on, Thornton worked toward her goal of reaching the Olympics. At Colorado State University, she trained about four hours a day with her coach, going on to set a hammer-throw record.

“I broke the collegiate record – the furthest-throwing female to throw a hammer of all time,” says Thornton. “That’s why I think it chose me; I loved it.”

Loree Thornton swinging her hammer
Loree Thornton competes for the U.S. in the hammer throw.

In 2008, her dreams became a reality. She earned one of the three spots on the U.S. hammer throwing team for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. She admits that walking into Bird’s Nest Stadium was one of the most surreal experiences of her life. She had given over 10 years in pursuit a dream.

“You question yourself, you question the process, and then to walk into a stadium that’s vibrating with energy wearing USA across your chest is one of the best feelings,” she says. “I cried when I walked out. I thought, ‘all that work for this moment.’ It was pretty exciting.”

Connection to Winter Olympics

Even though Thornton participated in the Summer games, she is connected to the Winter Olympics. Some of her former track teammates went on to participate in bobsledding, and a former roommate from her first year of medical school is a gold-medalist speed skater.

Her favorite Winter Olympic sport to watch?

“I love figure skating. It’s really cool to see all those years of hard work come out so beautiful,” she says. “It’s where sport meets art.”

After the 2008 Olympics and four more years of throwing hammers, Thornton retired from competition in 2012 to chase another dream: to become a surgeon. Being a doctor had always been on her mind, but she had doubted her abilities – even after going to the Olympics.

“I came from a pretty underprivileged background. Saying you want to be a doctor is on par with saying you want to be an astronaut. People don’t do that, not people like you,” she says. If going to the Olympics taught Thornton anything, it’s that any dream, no matter how seemingly unattainable, can come true with enough hard work and dedication.

Sights on a new goal: surgeon

Thornton applied to medical schools and, upon hearing that she had been accepted into CU School of Medicine, she cancelled all other school appointments.

“I thought, ‘I got my number one choice – I’m done!’” she laughs.

Training to become a surgeon isn’t exactly like the long hours in the gym, but she is finding new ways to challenge herself to become the best-possible doctor. Thornton admits that when people suggest the kind of surgeon she should become – orthopedics is an oft-mentioned specialty – she thinks she wants to take a different path to prove them wrong. Whatever surgical route she chooses, Thornton continues to work tirelessly.

“There are some weeks where I get five hours of sleep a night. I’m getting my butt kicked, and I’m tired, but then I go into clinicals and I’ll learn about a disease in class and I’ll see it and feel like I’m helping a patient. That’s my favorite part: It reminds me of why we do what we do,” she says. “One day someone’s going to need the best of us.”

Thornton is currently in her second year of clinicals at CU Anschutz, on track to graduate with the class of 2020.

Similar to the way a sport picked her years ago, Thornton believes CU Anschutz likewise came calling.

“I feel happy where I am,” she said. “I’m supposed to be here.”

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Doping in sports: official tests fail to pick up majority of cases

Doping is remarkably widespread among elite athletes and remains largely unchecked despite the use of sophisticated biological testing methods. This is according to Rolf Ulrich of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Dawn Comstock of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. They are lead authors of a study in Springer’s journal Sports Medicine.

The researchers conducted anonymous surveys among athletes competing at two major sports events in 2011. At least 30-45% of athletes at these events acknowledged that they had used banned doping substances or methods in the previous year. This is a serious concern because doping not only compromises fair play, but it is potentially detrimental to the health of athletes.

Biological tests of blood and urine typically detect doping in only 1-3% of competitors at elite international competitions. However, the new study suggests that the true rate of doping is far greater, because cutting-edge doping schemes seem to make it possible for many athletes to beat the biological tests currently in place to detect prohibited doping.

“Given the numerous recent highly publicized doping scandals in major sports, one might guess that the proportion of such undetected cheats is high,” write Ulrich and his coauthors. In their paper, the authors cite several recent commentaries suggesting that technical, human, political and financial factors are all contributing to flawed results from current biological testing techniques.

The research team conducted anonymous tablet-based surveys of the prevalence of doping at two major sports events in 2011. These were the 13th International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Athletics (WCA) in South Korea and the 12th Quadrennial Pan-Arab Games (PAG) in Qatar. The surveys used a randomized response technique, a method that visibly guaranteed the anonymity of the respondent, thus permitting the athletes to answer honestly about their doping without fear of exposure. Surveys were completed by 2167 athletes at the two events.

Even after assessing statistically for various possible forms of bias in the results, the authors estimated that at least 30% of athletes at WCA and 45% of athletes at PAG had engaged in doping during the previous year. The statistical analyses suggested that, if anything, these figures may well have underestimated the true prevalence of doping at the two events. By contrast, on biological testing at WCA, only two (0.5%) of the 440 athletes tested positive for illegal substances. At PAG, 24 (3.6%) of the 670 athletes tested showed positive results.

“These findings suggest that biological testing greatly underestimates the true prevalence of doping in elite athletics,” Dawn Comstock, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz, said. “It indicates the need for future studies of the prevalence of doping in athletics using randomized response techniques to protect the anonymity of the athletes.”

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