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Awakened from a Nightmare Diagnosed with narcolepsy, Tracy Bonner successfully fought a drug suspension

June 12, 2000
June 12, 2000

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June 12, 2000

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Awakened from a Nightmare Diagnosed with narcolepsy, Tracy Bonner successfully fought a drug suspension

Tracy Bonner had a ready rationale for her daily dozes in class:
The teacher's lesson had put her to sleep again. At her Houston
high school and later at Tennessee, where she earned a B.S. in
exercise science and a master's in sports administration, the
Olympic diving hopeful often left classes with notepads of
squiggly lines that had trailed off the pages and onto her
clothing. I'm a typical student-athlete, Bonner figured:
overworked, overtrained and underrested.

This is an article from the June 12, 2000 issue Original Layout

It wasn't enough that she'd been a nationally ranked diver who
trained six hours a day since 1992, when she was 18. Bonner was
also an Academic All-America who danced in a Nutcracker
production, attended regular Bible study and volunteered in an
elementary school reading program. If anyone was entitled to the
odd nod, she was. "I was usually so active," Bonner says. "I
never figured it was a disease."

But Bonner was conking out just about everywhere. One minute
she'd be stretching her legs on the pool deck; the next minute
she'd be limp: right leg all the way forward, left leg behind,
forehead slumped over her right knee. Bonner dozed the first time
she took the SAT, then stayed awake during a retest and raised
her score 200 points. She fell asleep standing up while taking a
shower, fortunate not to pitch headfirst to the floor. She even
snoozed while driving on what was luckily a straight stretch of
Texas interstate, despite blasting the radio and air conditioning
to keep herself awake. She could bob and shake to country and
contemporary Christian music on her Walkman between dives, then
fade as though someone had just flipped on John Tesh.

Finally, at the suggestion of several friends, Bonner checked in
to the Sleep Disorders Center at Baptist Hospital of East
Tennessee in February 1996. After hooking her up to electrodes,
recording her movements with an infrared camera and monitoring
her brain waves while she slept, doctors diagnosed narcolepsy, a
disorder of the brain and central nervous system that causes
abrupt sleepiness and severe bouts of muscle weakness. According
to the National Sleep Foundation, about one in 2,000 Americans
suffers from the disorder.

With little warning the narcolepsy would induce Bonner to bypass
the early stages of slumber and fall straight into the REM stage
of deep sleep. Doctors prescribed medication containing
dextroamphetamine, a stimulant on the IOC's banned list. Fearing
sanctions, Bonner tried herbal cures, including Yohimbe, an
extract of the bark of an African tree of the same name, which
were unsuccessful. Then she took the prescribed stimulant in
25-milligram pills and declared it on competition forms, in case
she was tested for drugs.

With her narcolepsy under control, Bonner and her diving partner,
Kathy Pesek, won three straight national outdoor titles and two
of three indoor crowns in the synchronized three-meter
springboard. Despite these results--and a bronze medal in the
worlds in the same event in '98--Bonner wasn't chosen for a random
test until May 1999, after a competition in Montreal. Last
August, FINA, the sport's international governing body, suspended
her for a year. That apparently ruined her bid to make the U.S.
Olympic team. "They wanted me to choose between diving and living
a normal life," says Bonner, who appealed her case to the Court
of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. She
continued training while studying for a second master's (in human
resource development) and helped care for an octogenarian with
Alzheimer's, while also opening a massage-therapy center in
Knoxville called Bonner's Bodyworks and fancying a future as an
amphibious acrobat with Cirque du Soleil.

After examining a two-inch-thick sheaf of prescriptions,
declaration forms and medical communiques that Bonner had amassed
since her diagnosis, CAS reduced her suspension to two months,
which amounted to time served on last Oct. 8, her 26th birthday.
Just as important, she can now take her medication and not worry
about being suspended when she's tested again.

"The medication doesn't give me any advantage," she says. "I just
wanted a chance." It won't be easy for Bonner, who placed fourth
in the individual three-meter springboard at the indoor nationals
in April and will need to finish first or second at the Olympic
trials later this month in Seattle to earn a trip to Sydney. (The
U.S. did not qualify a team for the Games in synchronized
three-meter.) Until then she can rest assured there is still room
in her sleep for an Olympic dream.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
She fell asleep standing up while taking a shower, fortunate not
to pitch headfirst to the floor.