By John Maher, American-Statesman Staff
Glen Luepnitz remembers the moment when, out of the blue, he received a call from Richard Quick, coach of the US women’s swim team. Quick, a former coach of the University of Texas women’s swim team, had heard about Luepnitz’s work with athletes while visiting a daughter in Austin. He asked Luepnitz if he would consider working with some of Quick’s swimmers and provide advice on nutrition and supplements.
“I had just finished firing a couple of my patients,” Luepnitz recalled. “I had great suspicion they were cheating. So I kind of read him the riot act. I told him if I found athletes who were cheating, I would turn them in. And I said if he knew they were cheating, I’d turn him in.”
When the response was silence, Luepnitz figured the conversation, and the opportunity, were over.
Quick finally said, “Twenty-five years I have been trying to find someone who would say that.”
Thus began an unlikely partnership that has been extremely productive, even as it has become somewhat controversial. A week ago, the Houston Chronicle ran a story charging that Luepnitz had obtained his doctorate at a diploma mill. Quick and star swimmer Jenny Thompson came to his defense when later questioned by reporters in Australia.
“He’s a brilliant man, and I trust his judgment,” Thompson said.
“I have no doubt about his qualifications or his advice to our team,” Quick added.
After enjoying stunning success with two of Quick’s swimmers, Thompson and Dara Torres, Luepnitz now is serving as an adviser to the US swim team. It’s not a paid position, far from it.
“My out-of-pocket expenses will be $68,000,” Luepnitz said, pointing out that employees at Lone Star Oncology would still have to be paid while he was in Australia footing his own bills. “But once I said yes, there was no backing out.”
While no pay comes with the position, there are perils, some of which still lie ahead. Luepnitz runs a risk that a U.S. swimmer might break his rules and end up testing positive at the Olympics for a banned substance.
“That petrifies me, to get a black eye,” Luepnitz said. “It could really hurt me. Whatever control I have, I try to utilize.”
Improvement Without Cheating
Luepnitz, 41, specializes in nutrition and the use of supplements and how they can relate to the prevention of and recovery from cancer. But he’s also been pulled into a tangential field.
“Sports-performance enhancement is new and legal. There are a lot of people out there who don’t want to cheat,” Luepnitz said. “My interest in athletes and nutrition started with the moms and dads in the Austin area who had children participating in the semi-elite level. They were referred from local physicians. Some of these athletes went on to distinguished athletic careers in college. My name spread by word of mouth. Before I knew it, I was having elite athletes come and see me.”
Quick, a longtime and outspoken opponent of illegal drug use, was looking for ways to enhance performance without cheating or doing anything unhealthy for the athletes. In May, Luepnitz began providing advice on nutrition and supplements for Thompson and Torres, both of whom trained with Quick at Stanford.
“He started doing some counseling by phone, and then I sent him some blood samples to work with,” a pleased Quick said after the US swimming trials.
Thompson and Torres are about as different as swimmers can be.
“The have different body types and hormone profiles,” Luepnitz said. The powerfully built Thompson, 27, was trying to stay at the top of her game, while the taller, thinner Torres, 33, was attempting the near impossible, trying to make the Olympic team after seven years away from the water.
When Thompson went on to swim some of her best times, that was impressive. When Torres swam faster than she had in in her prime, making the Olympic team in three individual events, it was downright incredible. After the tour de force at the trials, other coaches were eager to have Luepnitz work with their athletes.
After the trials, Quick explained, “One of the reasons I have Dr. Glen Luepnitz working with our athletes is that I want those supplements that the athletes are taking to be No. 1, safe, No. 2, healthy and No. 3, legal. In today’s society where one of the heroes of the world of sport, a fellow who hit quite a few home runs, was using a performance-enhancing drug that was banned by the USOC, you could see athletes flocking into your local health food store or supplement store and just buying stuff randomly without supervision, without understanding if it’s safe, if it’s completely legal or not, then, going by the salesman’s idea of how much they ought to take and when they ought to take it.
“So, I’ve been on a search for somebody who had experience working with elite-level athletes in a safe, healthy manner.”
Not long after Quick named Luepnitz to work with the US team, however, Luepnitz’s credentials were questioned in a story in the Houston Chronicle. Luepnitz received his doctorate at LaSalle University in Mandeville, La., which grants degrees by mail. Luepnitz defended his degree to the Chronicle and said that in addition to course work, he’d written a thesis that exceeded 300 typewritten pages with another 150 pages worth of charts.
In Australia, Quick defended Luepnitz, saying it was difficult to get a degree in that kind of field and that Luepnitz had taken courses from schools all over the world.
They Almost Can’t Eat Enough
In athletics, however, courses and degrees don’t guarantee results. Athletes are interested in results, even if they don’t always grasp the process.
“The average athlete has no idea of how the body utilizes food,” Luepnitz said. Luepnitz and his elite athletes are a little secretive about his methods, lest the competition catch on. But he talked about the basics, which begin with the never-ending fight to keep the body from storing fuel as fat rather than burning it.
“Your body believes every meal is the last thing you’re going to eat. Survival rules,” Luepnitz said.
Under Luepnitz’s regimen, Thompson and Torres were taking almost two dozen supplements a day, including amino acids, minerals, protein powders and some controversial, but legal, creatine. But Luepnitz said such measures are only the top of a pyramid.
“The base of the pyramid is extremely good nutrition,” Luepnitz said. “You have to eliminate the toxic junk that even athletes eat. When you’re processing the chemicals from your own food, you’re not processing energy.”
Cokes, tea and coffee predictably are on his hit list. But so is too much juice, even if it’s fresh squeezed orange juice.
“Juice is sugar water,” Luepnitz said. Another surprise is the athletic power drinks, which Luepnitz said are OK during competition but a lot of empty calories afterward.
“The most common fallacy is the carbohydrates,” Luepnitz said. “Athletes eat too many carbohydrates. That creates spikes in the blood sugar and insulin. The other fallacy is that they believe they can’t eat meat. Beef can be very lean. The average athlete is protein-malnourished. An athlete might need 17 ounces of meat a day. And I’m asking them to eat six times a day. Fueling the elite athlete is a huge problem. They almost can’t eat enough.”
He continued, “The next step in the pyramid is proper rest. Most Americans are sleep-deprived.”
He said aspiring young athletes “need eight to 10 hours of sleep. I tell them they should be in bed around nine. They have to get into the concept that athletics is a lifestyle, a 100 percent lifestyle commitment.
“Next above sleep is the type of exercise. I don’t step into that area. Above that are supplements. I consider them to be an edge.”
He’s big on glutamine – an amino acid – and protein supplements, and also uses antioxidants and minerals.
Quick said, “He doesn’t represent any company. He’s not trying to sell any product. He’s interested in helping athletes achieve a great performance again in a healthy, safe, legal way.”
You may contact John Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-3956.