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TeachNet NYC: Lesson Plans
Lance Armstrong - Tour de France

Project URL: http://teachnet-lab.org/unhs/Armstrong1.htm

July 26, 1999

The Ultimate Overachiever: Lance Edward Armstrong

Even before October 1996, when he was found to have advanced testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong had much to prove. He had always been bright and charming, but he had also been brash, almost angry for having to show that he could overcome life's stacked deck.

His victory in the Tour de France Sunday made him only the second American to win the world's most prestigious bicycle race (Greg LeMond won it three times). It was the ultimate payoff for someone who had an unsettled childhood, achieved remarkable success on a bike, almost died and then found rejection from the cycling community he had enriched.

There was even rejection of sorts the last two weeks. French newspapers insinuated that he had taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. It turned out that with permission from cycling authorities, he had used a skin cream to treat a rash caused by saddle sores. The cream had minimal amounts of a banned substance that did not affect performance.

Armstrong said he had taken no drugs since his chemotherapy two and a half years ago.

"I've been on my deathbed," he said, "and I'm not stupid."

In this ultimate team sport, Armstrong has always been a team player. In the United States professional championship last year in Philadelphia, he covered early breakaways and kept the pace fast, helping a teammate, George Hincapie, to win the title. Hincapie was one of his support riders on the United States Postal Service team in this Tour de France.

In the 1995 Tour de France, a Motorola teammate, Fabio Casartelli of Italy, crashed and died during a high-speed mountain descent. Armstrong vowed to win a one-day stage of that Tour for Casartelli, and three days later he did. In the final meters, Armstrong raised his eyes and index fingers, pointing to the heavens.

"There's no doubt there were four feet pushing those pedals that day," Armstrong said.

Lance Edward Armstrong was born Sept. 18, 1971, in Dallas. He does not talk about his early family life, although his mother, Linda, has said she dropped out of high school when she was 17 to give birth to Lance and then found a job to support him. At 19, she married Terry Armstrong, who adopted Lance, but Lance never liked him and when Lance was 16 the marriage dissolved.

"Lance's whole life has been against all odds," his mother said.

He has always been protective of his mother. In 1993, after he had won the world road-racing championship in Oslo, he was invited to meet the Norwegian king, Harald V. His mother was not invited. He told the officials: No mom, no Lance. Mom got to meet the king.

Armstrong grew up in Plano, a Dallas suburb. His first sport was swimming, and at 14 he took up the triathlon, which combines swimming, cycling and running. At 16, he won the United States junior triathlon sprint title.

Chris Carmichael, then the coach of the United States national cycling team and still Armstrong's personal coach, saw a cycling champion in the making.

"It was kind of like an iceberg," Carmichael said. "You saw this kind of peak, but you knew there was much below the surface. He was so aggressive that he'd either tear the field apart and win, or pull everyone after him so they'd blow by him at the end."

Armstrong gave up the triathlon for cycling, and in 1991 won the United States amateur cycling title. Late in 1992, he signed a professional contract with Motorola, the only American team then competing internationally.

In 1993, his first full season as a professional, he won the world and United States pro championships and a stage of the Tour de France. After the 1996 season Motorola withdrew from cycling, and he signed with a new French team, Cofidis, for $1 million a year for two years.

For months, he had been experiencing groin pain, but dismissed it as the price of riding on a hard saddle five or six hours a day. Two weeks after he turned 25, he became dizzy, his vision was blurred and he was coughing up blood. Only then did he go to a doctor.

The findings were devastating. He had an especially lethal variety of testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and abdomen (which had 12 tumors, some as large as golf balls) and his brain (two lesions). His right testicle was removed in one operation, and the brain lesions were repaired in another.

Doctors gave him no more than a 50 percent chance of survival. He underwent four rounds of intense chemotherapy, each a month apart, and after each one-week session he would get on his bike and ride 30 to 50 miles a day.

The cancer disappeared -- "a miracle," he said.

He sat out all of 1997. When he decided to race again, Cofidis did not want him and paid only 25 percent of his contract. Other teams shunned him. Finally, the United States Postal Service team picked him up.

Early last year, in the middle of a French race, he found he was not mentally ready. He dropped out, flew back home to Austin, Tex., and, he recalled, "I didn't unpack my bike for four weeks."

He was about to quit cycling, but after riding in the North Carolina mountains for 10 days that spring with Bob Roll, a friend and former road racer, he changed his mind. Armstrong said he learned there that "it's not just the convalescence of the body, but it's the convalescence of the spirit as well."

Now, at 27, he is riding better than ever. At 5 feet 10 inches, he is trimmer than ever, too. His weight, once over 170 pounds, has dropped to 158, which means he has less bulk to carry up the mountains. While still boyish, he is more mature than the Wunderkind who seemed the descendant of an early Wheaties hero, Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy.

His salary is $500,000, and his Tour de France victory will earn him $1 million in bonuses and probably more than that in endorsements. He has been living in France during the spring and summer racing season, and in the off season in a $1 million, 5,000-square-foot home he built on the shores of Lake Austin.

His comeback has astounded Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, the oncologist at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis who supervised his treatment.

"It's one thing to recover and go back to work as an accountant," Einhorn said, "but it is very, very difficult to perform as an athlete, after all the terrible fatigue you go through and everything else."

Armstrong is not on medication now. Tests show he is cancer free, and Einhorn said there was only a 2 percent chance the cancer would return.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Armstrong's story will be made into a movie by Bud Greenspan, the Olympic filmmaker. Mostly for fun, Armstrong has entered the Mercury Tour, a five-day mountain-bike race from Aug. 25-29 in Steamboat Springs, Colo. And there will be more road races, more chances to make the public aware of cancer, more chances to raise money to find a cure.

Armstrong is leading the way himself. Last October, the Lance Armstrong Foundation awarded two medical research grants worth $350,000.

"You go through this whole spectrum and cycle of the diagnosis, and the bad news and the depression and the treatment," he said. "You spend a year so scared and terrified that you feel like you deserve the rest of your life to have a vacation. But you can't. You have to return to your life and your family and your peers."

In May 1998, he married Kristin Richard, whom he had met a year before when she helped market his benefit bike race. They are expecting their first child in October, so he will pass up the world championships.

"You have to get your priorities right," said the man who seems to have done just that.



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