If scripted by Hollywood, the story would be dismissed as trite melodrama: A deadly disease strikes a promising athlete. Despite desperately thin odds, he manages not only to beat the affliction but also to return to the sport and win its top prize. Unbelievable, except it’s true.
But the story doesn’t end on the finish line at the Tour de France. His experience made him a part of a cancer community, and motivated him to unleash the same passion and drive he does in bike races to the fight against cancer. Since he made history in 1999, he has won the tour six more times, and has become one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era.
The Early Years
Lance’s sporting career began in Plano, Texas, where his mother Linda supported his competitive urges from the beginning. He displayed a gift early on when he won the Iron Kids Triathlon at 13 and became a professional when he was only 16 years old. At the near-cost of his high school diploma, he trained with the U.S. Olympic cycling developmental team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, during his senior year. That sealed his destiny and Lance embarked on a career as a bike racer.
His rise in the amateur ranks appeared effortless, and Lance qualified for the junior world championships in Moscow in 1989. By 1991 he was the U.S. National Amateur Champion and soon after turned professional.
Once in the pro ranks, he quickly proved himself with a USPRO Championship title, stage victories in the Tour de France, a World Championship, multiple victories at the Tour du Pont, a No. 1 world ranking, and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Lance entered 1996 as the No. 1 ranked cyclist in the world, competed as a member of the U.S. Cycling Team in the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, and signed a contract with the French-based Cofidis racing team.
The Cancer Experience
While seemingly at the top of his game, he was literally forced off his bike in excruciating pain. In early October, his doctor gave him the stunning news that he had cancer. And his life changed forever.
Tests revealed advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and his brain. Though his chances for his recovery were far less than 50-50, a frightened yet determined Lance began an aggressive form of chemotherapy.
With the advice of specialists, he tried a course of treatment that gave him a chance for a full recovery with less danger of losing lung capacity as a side effect. Remarkably, the chemotherapy began to work, and Lance gradually allowed his thoughts to return to racing.
Cancer left him scarred physically and emotionally, but he now maintains it was ”...the best thing that ever happened to me,” This new perspective allowed him to think beyond cycling and focus on his debt to the cancer community. He formed the Lance Armstrong Foundation within months of his diagnosis to help others with their cancer struggles.
Lance’s complete recovery from cancer seemed miraculous, but actually returning to racing felt unfathomable. Having departed from Cofidis, Lance found himself teamless until the United States Postal Service took a leap of faith and signed him. If he never turned another pedal, the story would be an inspirational one. But it wasn’t enough for Lance. He needed to prove himself in the ranks of the professional elite. His professional comeback, however, got off to a rocky start. Early season racing in 1998 nearly ended his career again when, in a cold and miserable Paris-Nice race, he pulled to the side of the road and quit. Many thought that was the last day on the bike for Lance Armstrong.
Lance later admitted that he wasn’t ready to return to racing – he was just learning how to live again, let alone race a bicycle. He retreated to Boone, North Carolina, with friend and longtime coach Chris Carmichael for a week of stress-free riding. It was there that he learned to love the bike again and build up the courage to try again. His first race back on the bike was a reason for celebration as he, appropriately, won the Lance Armstrong Foundation Downtown Criterium in his hometown of Austin, Texas. His new focus on life and training paid off in the form of top-five finishes in the Tour of Spain and the World Championships.
1999 came with a specific goal – the Tour de France. When Lance went to the line at the prologue of the Tour, it was already a victory – both for him and cancer survivors everywhere. But showing up wasn’t enough. He won the prologue stage and rode on to win his first Tour victory with a stunning mixture of power, aggressiveness, and team strategy. It was now official: Lance was an international hero.
Lance didn’t stop there. He has added six more Tour de France titles to his list, has been awarded virtually every sports honor there is, and has become a symbol of hope and inspiration. He also continues to be a leader and activist on behalf of cancer survivors around the world. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has become among the most influential organizations of its kind and today provides practical information and tools people need to battle cancer and live strong through education, advocacy, public health programs, and research grants.
Lance has retired, but one thing remains certain. No matter what his path, he will travel it with the sure knowledge that every day is precious and that every step matters.
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