Wasps star Ashley Johnson: 'The worst bit was kids saying to my son 'your dad is a drugs cheat''
No matter the circumstances, the stigma of doping is hard to wash away. As Ashley Johnson discovered, it sticks to everything like tar, including family.
The date was March 16, 2018. Johnson, the Wasps forward, was picking up his children from school when an unrecognised number showed up on his phone. The caller was Stephen Watkins, the RFU’s head of anti-doping, and the news was not good. He has failed a test.
Johnson’s head started spinning, particularly as he had no idea how he had returned a positive result. “It was total utter shock,” Johnson told The Daily Telegraph. “I was thinking what am I going to tell the kids? What’s going to happen to my family? Obviously you know it is a two-year ban but I didn’t know what I had done wrong and I was questioning everything.
“At that point, I didn’t know what was in my body. I could have got it from anywhere. Anything that goes into your body is obviously your responsibility but I did not know where it came from or what was in my body. That was my worst fear.”
By a pain-staking process of elimination Johnson went through everything that he had consumed in the days prior to his adverse finding on February 7. Eventually, he concluded that the offending substance was contained within his wife’s dietary supplements.
Life as a professional rugby player involves consuming several rounds of pills every day and, fatefully, both his club approved supplements and his wife’s were stored next to each other in containers with matching blue lids. Over a typically chaotic family breakfast with three children competing for his attention, he picked up the wrong container.
With hindsight, Johnson accepts that it was a disaster waiting to happen and does not seek to shift the blame for what happened. Rather he wishes to outline the steep price of a single moment of inattention. “It is always my responsibility in terms of what goes into my body, but as rugby player life happens,” Johnson said. “It goes quick. I have a family and kids to look after and sometimes you can take it for granted how easily mistakes can happen. I still take responsibility for what happened. You need to be diligent in everything you do.”
Johnson tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, which is a diuretic used for weight loss. It does not provide any performance enhancing benefits – in fact the opposite might be the case – but it can be used as a masking agent. That Johnson was slightly above his ideal playing weight at the time helped his cause. So too his remorse and quick acceptance of responsibility.
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On July 26, the Rugby Football Union and UK Anti-Doping announced that Johnson was serving a six-month suspension, backdated from the date of his failed test, becoming the first Premiership player to be banned for a non-recreational drug in seven years.
That the ruling found him to be careless rather than a cheat mattered little in the court of public opinion and he quickly deleted his social media accounts. Yet no matter his best efforts he could not shield his family, including his nine-year-old son, Jordan, from the fallout. “The worst part was probably when my kid came home after being bullied at school by kids saying your dad is a drugs cheat,” Johnson said. “I sat him down and explained it to him. Fair play, he handled it like a champ.
“That hit me the hardest in terms of how he was going to deal with it, but at the same time we didn’t want to remove him from the school. As much as it was a character test for me, it was a character test for him and hopefully it will make him stronger so in the future he can deal with challenging situations so much better. He got through it by holding his head up high and believing in me and knowing who I am.”
Johnson, meanwhile, had to train by himself away from his teammates. As one of Wasps most outgoing and popular characters, he felt the isolation acutely, even if he tried to keep himself busy with work experience. Every day his mum called from South Africa reminding him to keep his chin up.
“The guys at Wasps tried to keep me positive,” Johnson said. “They made sure that I was never alone. Even when there were times when I didn’t really want to go out, the boys dragged me out of the house to go for coffee and keep sane. That was a massive help.”
Support also came from the top led by owner Derek Richardson and director of rugby and Dai Young, who is unequivocal that Johnson would never seek an unfair advantage deliberately. “Since I have had him here, he has been nothing but exemplary in everything that he has done,” Young said. “I would trust him with my life and I would not say that about many people. There was no way it was anything but a mistake.”
Young’s faith was demonstrated when he named Johnson captain for the opening preseason game against Connacht. “I think I gave away a penalty from the kick-off, I was so eager just to smash someone,” Johnson said. “Just pulling on the jersey and being in the back on the field was awesome. I had been at the club a long time and the embarrassment that I had caused the club and myself was tough, but the Wasps family was like a rock behind me.”
If any good can come out of the experience, Johnson hopes that other players can learn from his mistake. “In hindsight now you see loads of gaps in my lifestyle where I could have been more diligent and more careful,” Johnson said. “If it helps other guys realise how easily it can happen then I will do it. You can do all these education programmes but as soon as it happens to a teammate or opponent it becomes so much more real.”
Still the stigma remains. Johnson knows that no matter that it was an accident, his name will forever be linked to doping. “It is something I will have to live with. Again it is up to me to control that and how I see myself. How people perceive things and what they want to say is up up to them. I can’t control that. I can only control what I feel. It does not take anything away from the rest of my career and what I have achieved. I just want to make the most of every opportunity I have remaining with both hands.”