Orlando Sentinel – Jul 12, 2005 – George Diaz – Cyclist Lance Armstrong has a chance at a perfect ending to his career. Some other high-profile athletes haven’t been as fortunate.
It seems so much easier to walk away with your dignity unscathed, and your knees not screaming in pain when you get up every morning.
The ache in body and soul reflects the passion of many professional athletes who can’t face the consequences of deteriorating skills. They bury the rough edges in their mind, clinging to a revisionist history.
It gives us all the more reason to celebrate Lance Armstrong.
He churns through the mountains in France, each spin of the bicycle wheel moving him closer to the opportunity to script the perfect ending to a marvelous and poignant career.
Already a six-time winner, Armstrong quite possibly could capture an unprecedented seventh Tour de France title. The three-week odyssey concludes in Paris July 24 after 2,242 miles. Win or lose, Armstrong has said he will retire.
“I feel excited and obligated to win,” Armstrong said during the early stages of competition.
Despite surrendering the overall lead in the ninth stage Sunday, Armstrong is primed to regain his top-dog status in the Alps when the tour continues today after Monday’s brief break.
Assuming he snags another title, Armstrong won’t have much company in the historical sports archives.
John Elway walked away with a Super Bowl trophy to celebrate the 1998 season and didn’t bother messing up the perfect ending. Charlie Ward celebrated a Heisman Trophy and national championship in 1993 before shutting down his football career to make a living in the NBA. Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano retired undefeated.
A few others have walked away in their prime: Marvin Hagler lost a controversial decision to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987, and moved to Italy, leaving million-dollar paydays behind. Barry Sanders could have become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, but abruptly retired in 1999 after gaining 1,491 yards during the 1998 season.
Most often, the story swings the other way.
The memories are not pleasant.
We like to think of Muhammad Ali as a skillful, sharp-tongued artist in the ring, instead of an old man sucking for air between rounds of his last fight in 1981 in Jamaica. The image we have of Michael Jordan has him flying through the air in a Chicago Bulls uniform instead of his plodding along with a mediocre team in Washington. Johnny Unitas wearing a San Diego Chargers uniform? Please.
“Athletes are often times the last person to know,” said John Murray, a sports psychologist based in Florida. “They have the skills, that competitive drive that got them to the top. That is the same thing that clouds their thinking. But again, it’s an individual choice.”
The choices are often thought to be poor ones, although those assumptions are not necessarily fair. Athletes have a limited shelf life, are extremely competitive, and at times do not properly prepare for a life outside the lines.
This volatile mix clouds an athlete’s vision. He or she sees one more dramatic run at scripting a perfect ending. More often than not, reality crushes those aspirations. They are left scraping for relevant time on the playing field, or alone in a boxing ring with slowing reflexes that no longer can defend against a younger man’s power.
“In reality there are few walk-off home runs, and I think the passion for competition and that underdog euphoria that comes with overachieving is very hard to replicate,” said Reggie Williams, who played linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals for 14 seasons. “That’s why a lot of us — myself included — maybe went a little longer than we should have. I played my 14th year when there was an opportunity after just missing a Super Bowl victory, but I just couldn’t go out that way. Being close to the mountaintop wasn’t enough. I needed to try again.”
Williams gave it one more run, and the Bengals fell short of the Super Bowl.
He is now vice president of Disney Sports Attractions.
Armstrong fits within the team sport concept only in loose parameters. The cadre of other cyclists on his Discovery Channel team are basically there to watch his back and defend against attacks. They didn’t help him during the eighth stage of the competition, which Armstrong lost because he had no tactical help.
His dominance in competitive cycling reflects the strength in fighting a greater battle — overcoming testicular cancer that had metastasized, spreading to his lungs and brain.
His bike is decorated by New York graffiti artist Lenny Futura and engraved with the numbers “10/2” — marking the day, Oct. 2, 1996 — when doctors informed him that he had a 50 percent chance of dying.
Armstrong did not compete in 1997 and 1998 while he was recovering from cancer. He chose invasive surgery to remove brain lesions, and a severe course of chemotherapy. Standard chemotherapy would have meant the end of his cycling career, because a known side effect was a dramatic reduction in lung function.
Armstrong made a triumphant return in 1999 to become only the second American after Greg LeMond (1986, 1989 and 1990) to win the event.
No racer had won more than four straight or five overall before Armstrong etched his dominance on the tour. His streak of six consecutive titles, coupled with his fight against cancer, has made him an international celebrity.
Just look at how many people are wearing “Livestrong” yellow wrist bracelets, commemorating the fight against cancer. Armstrong has since called the 10/2 anniversaries his “Carpe Diem Day.”
The Latin phrase means “seize the day,” reflective of Armstrong’s tenacious approach toward defending his titles six times.
“What it teaches is this: pain is temporary,” Armstrong said. “Quitting lasts forever.”
His miraculous comeback has not been without controversy. Armstrong has long been dogged by allegations of using performance-enhancing drugs, though he has never tested positive for any illegal substance. Armstrong did take one of the banned substances — EPO — to help in his recovery during his cancer treatment, but that was an approved medical use.
Citing family obligations, Armstrong announced his intentions to retire in April. He missed considerable time with his three children — a son (Luke) and twin daughters (Isabelle and Grace) — while training in Europe over the years.
“It’s time for me to not miss key moments in their lives,” he said then.
Assuming he retires on top, he will also share a few precious moments with a legion of fans cheering for him.
“I admire him because of consistent excellence,” Williams said. ” I used to do nothing but bicycle during the offseason because my knees were so bad. It pales in comparison to what he has risen to, but I know the pain I went through just to stay in shape.
“He’s the best in the world. Hopefully he will finish on top.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.