Drug Found in Russian Skater Kamila Valieva's System Could Help Her 'Train at a Higher Intensity'

Cardiologist Dr. Sean Heffron also tells PEOPLE that it’s “highly unlikely” that she could have tested positive because her grandfather takes the medication, as her team has claimed

Kamila Valieva
Kamila Valieva. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva is on her way to a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics, but with the cloud of a doping controversy hanging over her achievements.

The 15-year-old, who currently sits in first place in the women's singles event in Beijing, tested positive for the heart medication trimetazidine — which is banned by global antidoping laws — when she underwent drug testing in December, Russia's antidoping officials said last week.

On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided that as a "protected person" — a minor — Valieva could still compete, though if she wins or medals there will be no ceremony for her or any of the other athletes, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) saying it would not be "appropriate" to celebrate.

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And further reviews of Valieva's drug test showed that she also tested positive for two other heart medication drugs — hypoxen and L- Carnatine — which are not banned substances, but unusual to see in a teen athlete.

"The theoretical benefit of trimetazidine would be in the lead up to competition, in training," Dr. Sean Heffron, a preventative cardiologist at NYU Langone's Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases, tells PEOPLE. "It might allow for an athlete to be able to train at a higher intensity for longer periods."

Kamila Valieva
Kamila Valieva. Lintao Zhang/Getty

Trimetazidine is a heart medication usually used to treat angina, and acts to "inhibit fatty acid metabolism, which shifts the body's metabolism to glucose," he explains. That means muscles are using glucose for energy, and when blood cells are not getting enough oxygen — for example, when someone is training or exercising — "this can be a beneficial shift for them."

"It could provide that that capacity to train longer and harder, potentially, which would then translate into better performance and competition," Heffron says.

The benefits would be marginal at best, he adds, though for athletes at the top level, any gain can make a difference.

"A lot of performance-enhancing agents like this would not have any benefit to most individuals, but if you're an elite athlete, a 1% improvement in your training capacity or in your performance could actually be meaningful."

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The other two drugs would have fewer benefits, and possibly cancel each other out, Heffron says.

"Hypoxen, as far as I'm aware, is only used in Russia, and it's another medication that could alter energy metabolism," he says. "Then L-Carnatine is an amino acid that you can probably buy over the counter in the U.S. — it's a supplement that helps with fatty acid metabolism. It's kind of paradoxical to use L-Carnatine and trimetazidine to me, since the trimetazidine is supposed to inhibit fatty acid metabolism."

Heffron says that there's no reason why a 15-year-old elite athlete like Valieva would need to take trimetazidine.

"Certainly not one that's competing in the Olympics," he says. "That would be very unfortunate and unusual, and they certainly would not be competing in the Olympics without a doubt."

Kamila Valieva
Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images

And the reasoning from Valieva's team as to why it was in her system — that her grandfather takes the medication — doesn't make sense.

"That seems highly unlikely," Heffron says. "I suppose if it was dissolved in the liquid and she had some of the liquid that had this dissolved medication in it, maybe, but my understanding is it's taken in pill form. But still, it would be incredibly unlikely for levels within his saliva to get in there and to get into her system."

For Valieva to have all three medications in her system "would seem more than exceptionally coincidental," he says.

"Without a doubt, she would be an incredible athlete without any performance aid — and who knows if she's gotten any performance aid from these, if indeed she is taking them," Heffron says. "But this is incredibly unfortunate to potentially influence her, and given her age, she's probably not making all these decisions on her own."

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