Never mind Oprah, what will Lance Armstrong tell his kids?

My membranes ruptured at 22 weeks during my pregnancy. It was the evening of July 5th, 2003. Two days later my first son was born and died. The task before me was bed rest and squeeze as many more days (hopefully weeks) out of the pregnancy as possible to save my other two sons. It was, to put it mildly, a very low time.

To pass the hours I read, slept, cried, and watched TV (this was a time before wireless Internet was widely available and smart phones didn’t exist). The hospital only had a few channels and so there were two things that didn’t make me want to put a stick in my eye: Law & Order and the Tour De France. Law & Order because there are so many freaking episodes and the Tour De France because in 2003 Lance Armstrong was going for what would be his fifth straight title. The coverage was unbelievable.

My perinatologist (high risk OB) was a Texan and a big Armstrong fan. He spent a lot of time in my room watching the Tour and giving me the back story on Armstrong. Obviously, the networks covered his amazing comeback from Stage 3 testicular cancer to potential 5 time Tour De France victor in detail.

I was riveted by the Tour. It started on July 5th, the day my tragedy started. I thought about Armstrong and, my God, if he could get through cancer and then climb those hills in France, then I could get through this. I could rally my body.

And so day after day I willed my body to stave off infection and day after day I watched the tour. Lance Armstrong won his amazing 5th straight title on July 27th and I was still pregnant. A victory for both of us.

I developed an infection a few days later and delivered my sons at 26 weeks on July 31rst. I don’t think the end of the Tour had anything to do with getting the infection, but I believe watching Armstrong for those twenty-two days helped me stave off boredom and also helped me think more positively. For that I am grateful.

I suspected he was doping. I have a few friends in cycling and had heard that the sport was rife with it. It didn’t really lessen the thrill because I suspected everyone else was doping too. He was competing against like. The real miracle for me was that Lance Armstrong came back from Stage 3 cancer to be a professional cyclist, not that he wore the yellow jersey more than any other man. It’s too bad he couldn’t see the victory in that.

When I tell my kids how I got through that dark time, I’ll tell them I was stubborn, I did everything the doctors recommended and more, and I thought positively. It’s all one can do when one is faced with death. I suspect that is how Lance beat cancer. I would have lied and cheated to save my son who died. I would have even walked down to the gates of Hell and made a deal with the Devil himself. I suspect Lance would have lied and cheated to get rid of his cancer. However, I wouldn’t lie and cheat for a job. I won’t lie to my kids. Those are thing that that separate us.

My kids know that I got through that terrible ordeal by grit and force of will. We talk about how to get through tough times. About how honesty and sense of self will get you places.

I wonder what Lance Armstrong tells his kids?

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  1. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this whole Armstrong affair since the USADA started its investigation a number of months ago but I’ve been really busy with MCAT and application related stuff. But, now that he’s going to admit the obvious, I think I’ll take the time to weigh in on some of this.

    There are a number of things that really disgust me about the entire thing, even more now that I’ve read through all 100+ pages of evidence that the USADA released. I don’t want to put down or belittle your experience and I’m glad that you see his real success was in living a healthy life after stage 3 testicular cancer. Many, including himself, do not and I suppose that is probably the reason that millions of non-cycling fans have worshipped him for years and ignored all of his shady, illegal, and unethical behavior. Certainly, that is the reason that HE believes he should be worshipped, because if it isn’t, then he is not “the only one”.

    The Armstrong affair pisses me off for a number of reasons and all of my friends have, at one point or another, listened to a rant from me on the issue over the past few months. Keep in mind that, unlike baseball or football, the cycling world is very small and celebrities don’t really exist. Unlike a Barry Bonds or a Peyton Manning, it’s not uncommon among cyclists to know a few people that have raced in Europe at one point or another. Every bike shop I’ve worked at had a Wednesday night group ride during the road season and local pros that actually made their living racing bikes usually showed up. Pro racers are more or less living hand to mouth because the line between professional and top amateur is very small. The majority are sponsored, but it isn’t a million dollar endorsement deal. Pros will usually get a couple of frames, a few wheelsets, and occasionally a full bike. Cycling is an expensive activity and pros break a lot of parts. Most are not mechanics – many can not change a flat tire – and bike service is also expensive. I usually didn’t charge racers for working on their bikes and they typically responded with the occasional six-pack for the shop for the help.

    If a local pro gets picked up by a European team, the story doesn’t change much. Their gear is all paid for and they obviously live and race in Europe, but they aren’t making millions. They are still broke, but they’re living their dream to race in Europe and be numbered among the fastest men in the world. Virtually none have an education of any real merit, although college racing in the US has started to take off, so hopefully this will change. Most of the individuals that I’ve known that have done this come back after a season because they weren’t able to compete at that level. The majority are known as domestiques, cycling shorthand for a support rider. Cycling is without a doubt one of the greatest team sports. A big part of the reason that Armstrong won all those races was his team. I’m not going to try and explain why cycling is a team sport and you certainly don’t hear Lance brag about how strong and amazing guys like George Hincapie got him to the top of the mountains first. At any rate, I say all of the above to try and give an impression to non-cyclists about what it’s like as a pro racer – you aren’t really anything special, you’re broke, one injury away from being homeless, and for the majority, it’s a job like anything else.

    Now with that out of the way, here are the things I’d ask people to keep in mind about the upcoming Oprah interview.

    1. Armstrong’s denials of doping are nothing new. Every athlete that cheats denies it for ages until they can deny it no longer. What should really enrage people is how Lance and his legal team targeted anyone that chose to speak up about what was going on in the peloton. Through his relationship with Trek Bicycles, Lance more or less bankrupted the Lemond brand of bicycles because Greg Lemond chose to speak out about the rampant usage of EPO within the pro ranks. Armstrong targeted people that he had once called friends because they spoke the truth in courtrooms under oath. Think about that for a second – Lance threatened and intimidated people that would not commit perjury for him. This alone makes him a villain in my book.

    2. Because of his celebrity persona, Lance threatened to blacklist sports networks and journalists that published negative or skeptical articles about him. More of the same type of behavior. Travis Tygart does his job, investigating for the USADA, and Lance turns his media mallet on him and deploys the cancer shield again. Disgusting.

    3. Lance took impressionable young people like David Zabriskie and pressured them into doing drugs in order to keep their job. This story doesn’t get out much because the media is still obsessed with the cancer story, but it’s in Tygart’s report and it was something that sent me through the roof. Dave Z. grew up with a drug addict father and he escaped from all of that to become one of the more promising amateur cyclists in the US. He made a promise to himself early on to never do drugs like he’d seen his father do. He signs with USPS, goes to Europe, and finds out that, if he wants to keep racing bikes, he’s going to have to start a program. He resisted for a while, but ultimately, his boss told him he had no choice. His boss was Lance Armstrong.

    4. In order to feel inspired by watching Lance winning all those bike races in Europe, people need to ignore all of the people, careers, and lives that he destroyed in the process. A lot of clean racers that weren’t willing to break the law in order to win were unable to keep their jobs. A lot of people that chose not to commit perjury to protect Lance and his doping program endured relentless legal and professional pressure for doing so. And scores of professional cyclists were put in the impossible position of either breaking the law, cheating, and lying about it, or going home broke and busted. I’m not excusing their behavior and I don’t think the sanctions they received now that they’ve confessed are really fair, but it at least explains some of the reasons they did what they did.

    5. A lot of people want to say “It all happened in the past and we just want to leave the past alone and move on”. I guarantee that this will be part of the narrative that Lance puts together tonight with Oprah. The problem with that reasoning is that it isn’t true. It’s not the past. It’s the present. All of the people that were complicit in the huge Pharmstrong machine are still there. The doctor that enabled all of this, the shady people in the corporations that financed it, the people within the UCI that took bribes to hush up negative tests, and all the other actors in this nasty drama are all still there and without people at the top paying the price for breaking the law, it will all continue.

    6. One last thought, and then I’ll try to end my rant. My friends sometimes ask me why I take it so personally. I don’t know Lance. I’ve only met him once at the shop I worked at and he’s an incredible douche bag. I’ve known several people that were high up in the Livestrong foundation and they said more or less the same thing. I think the reason that it has always hit me this way is because it marginalizes what so many other people have done. There have been incredible acts in cycling that were not fueled by EPO, testosterone, or blood doping. But the fact that they’ve become so commonplace diminishes many of them in my mind. Every cyclist remembers Armstrong riding away on the road to Sestriere or that epic stage 17 that Floyd Landis rode in 2006 after losing eight minutes the previous day. All of the great things that clean riders do are diminished because of the other-worldly things that the cheaters do. This type of unfairness really bothers me a lot and I suppose probably reveals more about me than I would like. I came from very humble beginnings and I’ve had to bust my ass for virtually everything I have. Seeing other people cheat or get special treatment pisses me off to no end. Knowing it’s happening to others in a sport I love does the same.

    I guess my answer to your question is this. What Lance SHOULD tell his kids is this.

    “I broke the rules, hurt a lot of people, destroyed a lot of lives, convinced kids to do drugs, punished those that didn’t, made millions in the process, and lied to everyone for years. I threatened friends that wouldn’t lie under oath for me and I tried to get my friends in Washington to end a federal investigation into my illegal actions. I was so blinded by my own ego that I didn’t care who I destroyed or what I had to sacrifice in the process. I let my ego convince me that my real significance was the number of times I could say I wore a yellow jersey and drank champagne on the Champs-Élysées. If I had stayed in retirement, I’d have probably gotten away with it. But my ego wouldn’t let me do that and I had to try again, but when I came back, the climate was different and I didn’t have the power I had before. In the end, my ego destroyed me. Don’t let yours destroy you.”

    Sadly, his ego will prevent him from doing this too.

  2. Dr. Gunter, I am sorry for your loss of your first born, I can only imagine how horrible you felt on bed rest, even though I have two children. I admire you for how you handled it and how you deal with it today with your kids. I’m also proud to be able to be honest with my children. I am enjoying your informative and witty blogs, thank you!

    1. This.

      Dr Jen – last year you were a light in the darkness. You took on subjects (and people!) that others brushed away, and did so with clarity and tenacity. You didn’t flinch from taking on the architects and footsoldiers of the War on Women, and deconstructing their lies and spin.

      I can only hope that some of the readers from your adopted country realised that they’d been lied to. I hope they realised that universal healthcare is. a good thing, that abortion is just another medical or surgical procedure, and that access to reproductive education and care is a right, not a privilege.

      Thank you for changing those minds. It can only make the world a better place.

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