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January 19, 2013

My experience with Lance Armstrong ... and my hope ...

After having covered Lance Armstrong and knowing him personally since 1993 (and blackballed as a reporter covering him since 2000 - more on that in a moment), I watched like everyone else as Armstrong was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey over the last two days.

Here's what I hope happens: Armstrong can continue to get comfortable with the truth. After lying for so many years and covering up so much, telling the truth is obviously a new concept for Armstrong.

He lied to Winfrey when he said he didn't have a good relationship with the UCI (the governing body of cycling), when the USADA investigative report is filled with testimony about how Armstrong repeatedly paid off officials in the UCI to keep quiet about failed doping tests.

Armstrong destroyed people's lives yet couldn't even remember who or how many of those lives he destroyed with lawsuits and savage attacks against anyone who dared try to tell the truth about him.

There are a few things about Armstrong I always determined in my own mind were the reasons he was the way he was.

He grew up poor, with a mother who had serious self-esteem issues, by her own admission, who bounced from bad relationship to bad relationship. His mother, Linda, got pregnant as a teen-ager, and the father was abusive and then was quickly out of the picture (according to Linda Armstrong's book).

She then married Terry Armstrong, who would adopt Lance and give him his last name, but who also cheated on Linda (and Lance was the first to discover this fact, according to his book). When Lance got crossways with his stepfather, Linda sided with her husband, not her son.

It was at that point, as a young teen that Lance Armstrong became Lance Armstrong, the loner, the me-against-the-world guy who found safe haven, alone on the road, training for triathlons. The only place he found comfort was running, cycling or swimming.

He became determined to be the best triathlete ever and was willing to put in the training.

His mother ultimately realized her husband was cheating on her, left him and made Lance her world. The two rallied around Lance's athletic career (he turned professional as a triathlete as a teen-ager). She was a secretary looking for a better life and realized her son might be able to take her there.

And he did. They did.

When I went to Armstrong's rented house off Lamar in 1993 for my first interview with him as a writer for The Associated Press, Armstrong had just won the World Championship one-day road race. He told me, "I want to be the Michael Jordan of cycling."

And he became that.

But not until he successfully beat cancer.

I observed a humbled Armstrong in 1996 and 1997 while taking on his life-threatening situation. He was a likeable, human Armstrong, who told doctors in Indiana, "You can't kill me. Hit me with everything you got. Just dump it all on me. Whatever you give to other people, give me double. I want to make sure we get it all. Let's kill this damn thing."

But as soon as Armstrong's cancer was in remission, he gradually turned back into the self-centered, single-minded, win-at-all costs Armstrong, who dumped the girlfriend who stood by him during the cancer and traded up for his future wife, Kristin.

Kristin was a smart, polished public relations professional from a well-heeled family. Kristin had helped put together the initial Ride For The Roses weekend in Austin for her PR firm and met Lance in the process.

Armstrong would ultimately cheat on Kristin, the mother of three of his children, with Sheryl Crow, according to sources close to the couple. And according to the USADA, Armstrong involved Kristin in his doping.

If Armstrong thought he could cheat on his wife, who knew everything about his doping, and still think his lies would be protected, brazen doesn't begin to describe the monster he'd become.

Lance, like his mother, had horrible self-esteem and always needed validation from the opposite sex. And Lance has always needed validation from competition.

In 2000, I was supposed to cover Armstrong in the Tour de France for The Dallas Morning News. Armstrong was in 35th place before the mountains, and my bosses decided not to have me cover the Tour.

I told them Armstrong would take over the Tour in the mountains and would probably win again (after his comeback victory in 1999). But they sent me home (I was already in London covering Wimbledon).

I had gotten all the access I wanted with Armstrong up to that point. But after we pulled the plug on the Tour coverage that year - after I told Armstrong his hometown newspaper (he grew up in Plano) would be there - he basically cut off my access. My phone calls and interview requests were ignored.

You were either all in or all out with Armstrong. And I was suddenly all out.

The allegations of doping mounted against Armstrong over the years.

But in 2004, my mother, Judy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She found hope in Armstrong, read his books and read every word he ever had to say about cancer. She lived on the Livestrong website. She wore a yellow, Livestrong bracelet and would talk about how she was going to beat her cancer the same way Armstrong beat his.

In January of 2005, her cancer was in remission. And she thought she had won. But in May, the cancer was back, and she died by the end of that month. In her final 24 hours, she pulled the Livestrong bracelet off her wrist and asked me to wear it to remember her.

I have never taken it off - almost eight years later.

Whenever I look at her Livestrong bracelet on my wrist and think of Armstrong and whether I should take it off, I think of the one thing we truly know about Armstrong: that he beat cancer against all odds.

He ignored the pain in his testicle for months, allowing his cancer to spread from his testicle to his abdomen, to his brain. He was given a less-than-50-percent chance for survival. But he won. He beat cancer.

My dad was a surgeon for 27 years and often operated on cancer patients. He would tell me that he could sometimes tell if a patient was going to survive the serious fights from their attitudes. If they were up for the fight, they had a better chance of survival. If they were afraid and pessimistic, their fight was often not as successful.

My mom wanted to fight because she heard how Armstrong fought cancer. How he told the doctors to hit him with everything they had because they couldn't kill him. She found hope in her fight because of Armstrong.

And that's what always bothered me and nagged at me if it ever became certain Armstrong doped and spent a career lying about it. Would that revelation diminish his ability to serve as an inspiration to those fighting cancer across the globe every day?

Honestly, we have sort of come to expect the world's best athletes to look for every edge they can find, whether it's HGH or Adderall. But it was the WAY Armstrong denied it that stands to ruin him as a spokesman for the one fight he won fair and square - his battle with cancer.

It's my hope Armstrong won't take his excommunication from the Livestrong Foundation as the end of his work with cancer patients and cancer research.

It's my hope he'll end this charade of trying to compete in triathlons and marathons again and just enjoy the training (which is what he loves most) and get back to serving as an inspiration to those who need him most - those who are fighting for their lives, such as my mother in 2005 and Armstrong himself, as a humbled-yet-determined warrior in 1996.

That's the one race we know Armstrong won. And it's that victory against cancer that made him an international icon. Others had won multiple Tour de France titles, such as Miguel Indurain (5 straight titles).

It was Armstrong winning 7 in a row as a cancer survivor that made him one of the most recognized people on the planet.

Here's to Armstrong reconnecting with that humbled warrior who beat cancer. To reconnecting with the truth more and more every day. To reconnecting with the kid shut out briefly by his own mother as a child, remembering how awful that felt, and then trying to imagine what he has done in bullying all of those he sued as liars for nearly two decades.

Armstrong never truly realized his impact as a cancer survivor because he was so obsessed with becoming the Michael Jordan of cycling. It made him rich, but it's also robbed him of his soul and destroyed countless others along the way.

It's time for Armstrong to stop thinking of himself, get into the cancer community and finally realize he can help others, even if it requires that he face his demons every day to do it.

That's the one race in which people might cheer for Armstrong again.



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