In February of 1998 my family had gotten some pretty disturbing news in regard to my youngest daughter Megan. At the time she was 14 years of age. A trip to the doctor had revealed that she could possibly have cancer. That preliminary diagnosis had taken place in Abilene, Texas. Her doctor, who was not an oncologist but a very smart and seasoned professional, quickly referred her to a trusted friend and oncologist at Scott and White hospital in Temple, Texas. I will never forget the trip as her mother and I accompanied her to Temple the night before her scheduled surgery that would either confirm or deny our greatest fears. We had made reservations at a nearby hotel because her check-in time was very early in the morning.
Trying to keep our minds off the worst case scenario we went to the pool. Thankfully it was indoor and Meg loved to swim. That was a good way to pass the time and keep our minds off the next day’s proceedings. I had gotten out of the pool and picked up an edition of the Sunday paper and began of course with the sports section. And the first article that I read was about a recovering Lance Armstrong.
As has been well documented through the years, he had overcome testicular cancer. It was a story that I needed to read because at that point I was searching high and low for any good news; anything positive about a young person defeating cancer. Needless to say it gave me hope and a newfound belief that if the tumor growing in my daughter happened to be malignant then victory was possible.
Two days later brought the dreaded news that the tumor was indeed malignant. I couldn’t help but think back to the article about Lance Armstrong and all that he endured in becoming cancer-free. As torn up as I was inside I could at least hold out hope in my heart. And my wife who is quite the reader and researcher was also inspired by Armstrong. She especially needed that success story to hold to since her career in medicine had presented her far too many opportunities to see the losing side of cancer as well as observing the fight it took to beat that dreaded disease.
Megan did fight a year-long battle and yes she like Armstrong came out cancer-free. It was great news but with the continued follow up treatment and further surgeries she too became well aware of the heroics of the fast-rising bicyclist. In a way our entire family rallied around everything that Lance accomplished. And of course when he established his foundation named Livestrong, we all bought into the concept.
He had won his first Tour de France title in 1999 earning him the title as the greatest cyclist in the world. We were so very proud of this young man. He seemingly was a fantastic family man, a great athlete, and most importantly an inspiration to a legion of admirers for the hope that he provided in beating cancer.
In the early 2000’s my wife finally got her hands on the book that had documented his journey through cancer and on to winning the world’s greatest bicycle race. As she read she updated me on the man and his determination. I could tell that she was not necessarily picturing this man as most newspaper and magazine articles had portrayed him. It was as though he was always the little guy fighting the giant, or the underappreciated always striving to gain the recognition that he felt he so very much deserved. It just seemed that anything that stood in his way of controlling any situation was immediately pushed to the top of his “bad” list.
This was more than unnerving unless of course you were as familiar as our family had become with what it takes to beat a relentless enemy such as cancer. So for that reason, we always defended his questioned character and what seemed, all too often, as unfair judgment by his foes who had been obliterated by this incomparable athlete.
Year after year as he would claim yet another victory on the most challenging course in the world, there would come these accusations that he was cheating. Supposedly he was taking performance-enhancing drugs. I continued to think to myself: so what, it takes drugs out of the ordinary to defeat cancer and he was entitled to a few things that might be off limits to the other riders simply because of his medical history.
With each title our family celebrated! And we also delighted in the fact that his foundation was doing incredible things for cancer research as well as assisting those who had fallen victim to cancer. My feeling was “Live Strong Lance, Live Strong”!
But as time went on and I kept hearing testimony after testimony of former teammates, close friends, colleagues, and those in the governing body of cycling about his alleged doping, I began to have doubts. But it just seemed that somehow he beat every testimony and always had an answer even when the odds were stacked against him. So I continued my belief in Armstrong.
And then in 2012 as the walls began to close in on him I started to hear that he was no longer trying to completely destroy anyone or any testimony about his use of illegal drugs that were definitely enhancing not only his performance but the performance of the entire U.S. Postal riding team.
By now too many of those who had been bullied by him and even threatened had been called to testify under oath about the entire operation. Time and again those who would not perjure themselves told the same stories. All his fans such as I waited with the hope that somehow he would once again have a legitimate answer as to how he could have performed so brilliantly without the assistance of illegal drugs.
Finally he announced to the world that he had agreed to an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he would come clean. He would indeed set the record straight and just perhaps he could save just a small amount of integrity. I watched the entire interview and listened to the critics.
One of his harshest critics, was H.G “Buzz” Bissinger of Friday Night Lights fame. Bissinger had at one time been one of his admirers, such as me. But even then I still didn’t buy into the fact that that this once great champion was as bad as he was being accused. I knew from the book that he had grown up tough and that the absence of any tearful emotions was no surprise. For me it was about forgiveness and I felt that I could do just that, even though I was disappointed and felt that he truly was a phony as an athlete. But I thought to heck with sports, it really is about the person.
But then tonight on “Sixty Minutes” host Scott Pelley interviewed the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) Travis Tygart. This interview with a man who believes in his role of maintaining the integrity of bicycle racing or any other athletic contest was very clear in his disdain, not necessarily for the person but for him as a cheater, disclosed so much more for me than the Winfrey interview ever did. Clearly Oprah is very good at interviewing in some pretty tough situations, but she was no match for Armstrong simply because most of his adult life had been consumed by the racing world and hers had not. But Tygart was very familiar with methods and strategies of anyone who tried to cheat to gain any kind of advantage, and he cut him no slack.
In the Winfrey interview Armstrong had admitted to being a bully, but bullying is something that is mostly observed in school yards and city streets. Tygart actually used a term that indicated that the mafia may have been involved and that death threats for him and others actually existed. Former teammates also backed that statement up with experiences of their own that showed Armstrong and his goons as more than just bullies. Tygart and Pelley spoke of prison time and millions of dollars in fines. And by the time the interview was finished I felt the need to see Armstrong in a prison uniform and bankrupt.
Falling from my good graces is nothing, but what Lance Armstrong, “The King” did is completely deplorable for anyone hoping for the great athlete to also be the great person. This man had so much to bring to the table, so many ways to be a ray of hope that would last a lifetime, and a hero whose legend would live forever. His accomplishments, however, will go down as one of the greatest scandals in the history of sport. Shame will forever be his best friend.
So Mr. Armstrong, your only hope is forgiving yourself and trying to make peace with your conscience. Just as you once gave my family hope, we now have hope that you can indeed find that inner peace!