Wait On You

Tommy Milanese/The Players' Tribune

If you’ve clicked on this article, you’ve probably already heard the news, or maybe you’ve just been wondering why you haven't seen me play for Spurs in a while.

I’ve been banned for nine months for a doping violation.

I can’t play, train or even go to watch a game until next season.

I’m not gonna lie to you, that sucks. It really does. 

I’ve experienced every possible emotion in these last months — some I didn’t even know existed. It’s been chaotic, lonely, and above all really tough. But I wanna talk about it.

The law is black and white, but the reality is far more complex.

Chioma Ubogagu

If you’ve read the FA statement, maybe you’ve already made up your own mind about my situation. I’m a pretty open-minded person, but I know I probably would have too. It’s just that word doping. It’s so definitive, right? It’s synonymous with steroids, cheating, trying to get an athletic advantage.

But that’s not me.

I’m not here to blame anyone for doing their job. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I wanted to write this for two reasons:

  1. So that you know what really happened from my side 
  2. Just in case my story can help even one athlete out there in a similar situation

The law is black and white, but the reality is far more complex.

When I got the text on October 28, 2021, my heart sank.

I was just finishing dinner at my place, when I looked at my phone. It was Craig, our team doctor at Tottenham Hotspur Women. The message said:

“You’re not allowed to take that. That’s a banned substance.”

I froze. 

You see, I’d just been sending him pictures of my acne prescription asking if he could set me up with a refill.

I couldn’t believe there was a problem. Like, DangAcne medication?? Really???

To give you a little context here, I've been struggling with my acne for a loooong time. 

Back when I was a teenager, I remember my mom would always say it was because I didn’t shower properly after football hahaha!

Sometimes I would come home from playing and go straight out with friends or start playing my brothers, Oggy and Okwus, on FIFA, instead of jumping in the shower immediately. She’d be like, “Chioma, this is why you have acne!” But we all thought it was just a phase. A lot of teenagers have problems with their skin, right? 

But throughout high school, college, adulthood, it remained a continuous problem.

I went to a bunch of dermatologists and I tried all sorts of stuff, from your basic face washes to different antibiotics. You name it, I’ve probably tried it!

The issue was that whatever the treatment, it always seemed to work for a bit, but then I’d get stressed, or my environment would change and it would get bad again. Really bad sometimes.

That happened as I was leaving Real Madrid last year, so I went to the dermatologist I’d been seeing in the States, where my family lives, and she prescribed these two drugs: minocycline and spironolactone. 

At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Obviously, I should’ve known better, but it never occurred to me to check them on the banned substances list. My dermatologist knew I played football professionally, and I never had any issues with anything she’d prescribed me before. Nothing could’ve seemed less performance-related than skin treatment. 

This time, when I sent him the pic of the box, I got his reply with those words: banned substance.

Chioma Ubogagu

When I joined Spurs in the summer, I didn’t actually meet our medical team right away ’cause of quarantine and COVID protocol. Even my physical was done over Zoom from the States.

After that, I went to my dermatologist and got my prescriptions  — which, by the way, is why they never came up when disclosing my medications in the physical — before heading to London.

Once at Spurs, one of my first interactions with Craig was over email to ask about medication refills, and he’d been like, “Yeah, just send me the names. I can write you a prescription. No issues.”

When I ran out of the first medication, minocycline, I sent him a pic of the box and he wrote me the thing, I went into Boots and got the refill. All good.

But then, on October 28, I ran out of my other prescription: spironolactone.

This time, when I sent him the pic of the box, I got his reply with those words: banned substance.

I found out that spironolactone is not performance-enhancing — and to be clear it gave me zero athletic advantage in my sport — but it’s banned because it is a diuretic. Basically, it can be used to mask other substances. I had absolutely no idea.

My stomach sank. I got goosebumps. I kind of froze for a second and then I had to explain to Craig, "Hey, listen, I was actually drug tested three weeks ago … I think this could be a problem.”

I didn’t sleep much that night, but all credit to Craig and the Spurs staff who took control of the situation when I felt totally helpless.

They got in contact with UK Anti-Doping to explain what had happened and started the process of applying for a TUE (that stands for Therapeutic Use Exemption). They even sent me to a local dermatologist who looked at my case history and was like, “Yeah, I would've prescribed the same.…”

The club had to give some statements and file some paperwork in the following weeks, but I was still playing in games, so as time went on, I started to relax. 

Wait On You | Chioma Ubogagu | The Players' Tribune
Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty

In my head, I was like, O.K. everything’s going to be fine. The club has got you.… You’re gonna get the TUE and it’ll all go away. They’ll understand. Maybe there’ll be a warning but that’ll be it.

Even after it came back in December that I had failed the drug test, I was pretty cool about it. We just had to wait for the exemption. 

Then one day, I remember our head coach, Rehanne Skinner, sat down with me for a chat. I think she’d noticed that maybe I wasn’t quite getting the magnitude of it all.

She made it hit home.

“Just so you know, a ban can be from two to four years.” 

I remember just sitting in silence for a sec as I stared back at her.

“Yo, ummm ... what?”

That was the first time I genuinely understood how bad this could be.

Not long after that I got the news that my TUE was denied — turns out I would’ve had to apply for it before taking the medication — and on January 18, 2022, I was sent my provisional suspension by the FA.

There I was in my flat reading this letter that said I can’t train with the team, I can’t go to games, I can’t even be in the facility. Nothing. This is really happening.

I remember looking at the charge statement from the FA, and it was all very official and legalease, but what jumped off the screen were the same words Rehanne had used: Two to four years. 

That could mean up to 48 months.

That was terrifying.

You know, there’s only a certain amount of time you can do this job, and two to four years is such a prime chunk.

At my age — I’m 29 — you start to think, Is this it? Because of acne medication?

What was really wild was that we were supposed to play Liverpool in the FA Cup the day after I received the provisional suspension and I’m like, O.K. I can’t even go to the game now? How do I even explain this to the squad?

I was freaking out. I had to send a group text to the girls: 

“Hey guys, I’m gonna be away for a little bit. I promise I’m alright, but I just need you guys to trust me and when I’m able to explain more, I promise I will.”

The vaguest message ever, but I didn’t wanna lie and I didn’t have answers. I didn’t even know what I could say while I waited for the hearings and the final sentence.

I was trying to keep them calm but of course, I got messages flying in from everyone individually.

“Hey, are you O.K.?”

“What’s going on???”

Every time, though, I would repeat the same vagueness. I knew they really cared and that made it 10 times harder. 

That was the start of a tough four months while I just kinda had to sit in the uncertainty, the unknown, waiting to hear how bad it was gonna be. 

I felt isolated, so cut off from the thing I’d loved since I was three years old. When that provisional suspension hit, it changed me. I couldn’t watch games on TV anymore. And I’m someone who watches football all the time. But it became this reminder of what I was missing and I just couldn’t face the possibility that this could all really be over.

One night, I called my mom, getting all worked up as I talked through my fears for my career. I couldn’t understand why. And why was it happening now?? I had just had a great Christmas holiday with family and friends, I’d trained well over the break, and I felt so refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the season in the new year. Why was this happening?!

My mom has this way of saying things with total conviction, and she was like, “Well, Chioma.… Maybe football isn’t what you are meant to do.”

That hit me hard.

Honestly, I still get emotional thinking about it.

Before you go thinking that’s a super harsh thing to say, you’ve got to understand my mom. She is always 100% authentic and I love that about her.

Since I was a little kid I’d told her, “I wanna be a professional footballer” without ever really thinking about what that meant — especially to a Nigerian mother raising three kids on her own! While she was always supportive, she was also like, “Mmmhmm.… What else you got? What’s plan B?”

But as my dream became more realistic, she became my biggest fan. She went from not knowing the offside rule to doing Sky Sports-worthy analysis on my matches, for real! To this day I have no idea how she did it, but she always made time to come to my high school and college games, while also putting in 12-hour shifts as an NICU nurse at one of the best children’s hospitals in the States.

She’s also the only person who’s been to every country I’ve played in professionally. That’s just how supportive she is. So when she suggested that I might need to accept the possibility of a life beyond football, it really hit home.

I’m a believer. I have faith in God’s plan, but up until that point, I was so certain that football was my vessel.

I was obsessing and striving for World Cups, Euros, Olympics, and domestic trophies. I was working hard and trying to put myself in the best situations for my dreams to come to fruition, but after talking to my mom, I realised that there is only so much I can do in my own strength. I had to stop trying to lean on my own understanding, and I had to surrender the outcome to Him. That’s faith.

To be clear, I never gave up on anything, I just stopped allowing the unknown to have such a grip on me.

Chioma Ubogagu

I remember, around the same time, a friend of mine in London, Andrew, sent me a message with a link to this gospel song “Wait On You” by Elevation Worship and Maverick City. I put it up on the TV and as I just listened to the lyrics, I lost it. I broke down in tears.

I’ve tasted Your goodness

I’ll trust in Your promise

I’m gonna wait on You

A lot of the time when you’re injured or you’ve had a bad result, there’s stuff in your control as an athlete. But these months? In this situation? There was literally nothing I could do. I couldn’t will it to be better. I couldn’t work harder or do another rep or set. I just had to have faith and wait. After I accepted that, I had this kind of peace come over me. 

To be clear, I never gave up on anything, I just stopped allowing the unknown to have such a grip on me.

I chose to believe in something bigger than me. 

When we finally got the appeal decision in April that my ban would be nine months — backdated to start from January 18 — I felt relief like I’d never felt before. Like I finally understood what that word really meant haha!

Had someone told me a year ago that I’d be celebrating a ban of nine months at this stage in my career, I would’ve thought they were crazy … but everything in perspective, right? Nine months is long, but it’s not The End. I’m buzzing that I’ll be back next season and I just wanna make the remaining years I have left count.

While this whole episode has helped me put football in perspective, I’d be lying if I said I am not dreaming of that first game back. I still have the same goals, and I cannot wait to keep chasing them. I’m a big believer in visual manifestation, so you better believe I’ve already scored 100 goals in my mind! 

I have to give thanks to Spurs for their support throughout everything, from Rehanne to our GM, Heather, and Director Becks. Big shout out to the boss, Rehanne. She drove all the way to my place to chat and genuinely wanted to know how I was doing with everything. They’ve all been just outstanding at looking out for me and treating me with compassion and friendship — when that isn’t always the way in this industry.

My teammates too, who I finally told the truth to last month, have been so supportive. My voice was shaking the entire time and I was so scared of what they would think. Their teammate is admitting to doping, right? But all their concerns were for my health and well-being and once it was out there, it was like I was back in the team again. I didn’t have to hide anymore.

The other person I’m thankful for is Kendrah, the barrister who took up my case. She was a total badass in the hearing, when I was sweating through my blazer.

She fought for me and my honest mistake, but she was also straight with me and told me the truth about how black and white the system is. 

“You didn’t cheat? O.K., that gets your possible maximum suspension from four years to two years. It’s going to be difficult to lessen it from that. It’s still a possibility of two years because the fact is you took a banned substance.” 

You see, the system doesn’t really make concessions for mistakes, however honest.

I said at the top of this article that I want to write my story if it helps even one person in a similar situation. My advice to all athletes out there is to check everything. Whether it’s skin treatment or cough medicine or whatever. YOU are responsible for what goes into YOUR body.

You might know in your heart that you’re not a cheat, but you may still end up with a ban the same as someone who is. The system is just that severe, so you need to be extra careful.

Check the website, ask your doctor, and check again!

But if it’s too late for that, then all I can say is that these months have helped to show me that when my life with football is over, I'll be more than O.K. And you will be too.

There is so much to do in this world, and because of the time forced on me with my suspension, I got a great glimpse of it. So I can say with the utmost confidence, when it’s time to face it, you’ll figure it out too.

As my mom would say, “What else you got?”