Alumni Profile: Prentice Steffen, MD
Coasting to the finish line
Prentice Steffen, MD’86, grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the son of a general surgeon and a homemaker. As a college student at the University of Oklahoma he took up cycling, a sport that would allow him to travel the world, cross paths with Lance Armstrong and put him at the center of the doping controversy that plagued the sport for more than a decade.
Eager to expand his world view, Steffen left Oklahoma for Nashville when he was admitted to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. An orthopaedic surgeon helped secure a position for Steffen at the 1986 Road World Cycling Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “That was a big break for me early on. I got to do pre-season evaluations, which hooked me up with some people in the sport,” he said.
As an Emergency Medicine resident at Highland General Hospital/UC-San Francisco, Steffen worked as a member of the medical staff for several races including the Tours DuPont and the Tours de Trump. From 1993 to 1996, he was the physician for the team that would ultimately be known as U.S. Postal Service, which became Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s team.
“Emergency physicians take care of every type of injury; we have the training and experience to figure out anything,” he said about caring for competitive cyclists. “I can take care of it 80 percent of time; for the other 20 percent, I know who to call for assistance, but the first five minutes to an hour is on me to figure out and get treatment started.”
In 1996, at the Tour of Switzerland, two well-known U.S. Postal Service riders approached Steffen and asked for information about administering performance-boosting drugs. After declining and then reporting the incident to the team’s director, Steffen’s contract was not renewed.
“Cycling has a terrible history in the area of performance enhancing drug (PEDs) use and it has cost many people dearly,” said Steffen, who went on to work four seasons as team physician for Mercury Cycling before starting with the Garmin-Slipstream program. In 2008 he became the first American physician to care for a team competing in the Tour de France in its 100+ year history and has now worked seven Tours de France.
“Slipstream Sports and I were the first team to make that our primary mission, to eliminate the use of PEDs by creating a culture and ethic of anti-doping. Cycling has changed a lot through our efforts and those of other teams and cycling governing bodies,” he said.
After traveling extensively with the team to Europe, Australia, Asia, South America and the Middle East, Steffen recently joined forces with a new up-and-coming American team, Rally Cycling, and is retiring from his Emergency Medicine practice at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California.