A living legend shall ride again in California…and he’s on a missionBy Rick Scott
"LIVESTRONG is exactly I guess what it says. It's one thing to live, but it's another thing to live strong, to attack the day and attack your life with a whole new attitude. Before the illness I just lived. Now, after the illness, I live strong.” – Lance Armstrong
As he promised to do, Lance Armstrong retired in 2005 after winning an unprecedented seventh consecutive Tour de France. Having rewritten the history books that assured him legendary status as one of the greatest athletes ever to ride a bike, the then 33-year-old went out on top on his own terms. Some speculated that perhaps he was too young to retire, but with seemingly nothing left to prove in cycling, the Austin, Texas native returned home to focus his attention on being a father to his three children and devote his time and energy to the Lance Armstrong Foundation (www.livestrong.org), a charity he formed during his own battle against testicular cancer even before he knew if he would survive the vicious disease that had voraciously spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain.
Last September, the cycling world received a much needed jolt of electricity when Armstrong announced his return to professional cycling. What’s different is that the 37-year old hasn’t made winning an eighth Tour de France or any other bike race his primary goal. Armstrong is riding to spread word throughout the world that cancer has become an epidemic that we must conquer together. Cancer has become the race for life that Armstrong is committed to winning. At the start line in Sacramento on Valentine’s Day, Armstrong brings his vital mission and urgent message to the Amgen Tour of California in what will likely be his only road race on American soil in 2009.
Hollywood screenwriters love a good comeback, but even the most imaginative could have never scripted the extraordinary life of the talented Mr. Armstrong. As a teenager, he raced triathlons and turned professional at age 16. Electing to focus on cycling, by age 25 the brash young man had won the USPRO National Road Race Championship, the World Road Race Championship, stages of the Tour de France and had earned the #1 ranking in the world.
But the cancer diagnosis came in 1996 and the odds were stacked against him in the battle for his life. It’s when the doubters (opponents) start doubting that Armstrong reaches deep within to summon the competitive spirit of a champion. Instead of feeling like a cancer victim, he shifted his mindset to becoming a cancer survivor. Surrounded by a strong support system, Armstrong played an active role in his recovery as he educated himself about the disease and treatment options. He utilized his knowledge and confidence in medicine to aggressively attack and vanquish his assailant.
Having won his life back, he resumed training in earnest. But his return to racing initially didn’t go too well and he nearly quit the sport after pulling out of the 1998 Paris-Nice stage race. It was too soon and he was just learning to live life again let alone race his bike. Off on a training retreat in the mountains of North Carolina with his long-time coach Chris Carmichael, the competitive fire was reignited and his passion for the bike had returned. Armstrong showed signs that he was not only back, but that he was better than before the disease. Cancer had chiseled his muscular physique leaving his upper body smaller and leaner, which made him more ideal for riding up precipitous mountains. While fighting the disease, he learned to courageously endure immense suffering, something that would later benefit him in races like the Tour de France.
In 1999, Armstrong stunned the cycling world by winning his first Tour de France. Thus began the winning strike that lasted until his retirement six years later. Armstrong’s victories and incredible story of survival made him an international superstar. Newspapers, magazine covers, television shows and best-selling books chronicled this remarkable athlete, who had become not only an icon of cycling in the U.S. and abroad, but a symbol of hope and inspiration for us all. His list of honors and accolades is seemingly endless, including Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” Associated Press’ “Male Athlete of the Year” (four times) and four-time winner of the ESPY Awards “Best Male Athlete.” He hangs out with rock stars and celebrities and possesses larger-than-life charisma. But to this day, Armstrong humbly considers cancer “…the best thing that ever happened to me.” He prides himself on being a cancer survivor first and a Tour de France winner second.
The spotlight Armstrong attracts provided him with the platform to act as an advocate for people living with cancer and made him a worldwide activist for the cancer community. In 2004, his foundation launched the LIVESTRONG campaign, which made over 65 million little yellow rubber wristbands ubiquitous. Armstrong lobbies presidents, politicians and world leaders about the need to prioritize and fund the fight against cancer. In 2008, he was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” The Lance Armstrong Foundation has flourished into one of the most influential organizations of its kind by providing practical information and tools people need to battle disease while living strong through education, advocacy, public health programs and research grants. The LIVESTRONG brand has become synonymous with Armstrong and promulgates messages of hope, empowerment and taking control of your life and health.
Since hanging up the bike, Armstrong has donned running shoes and completed a few sub-three-hour marathons to put the spotlight on the cancer fight while keeping fit. Last summer, he competed in the grueling Leadville 100 mountain bike race. Some have speculated that training for the brutal endurance race under the guidance of Carmichael sparked Armstrong’s fire and desire to get back onto the road professionally. He announced the details of his return at two press conferences late last September, including one at Interbike, the bicycle retail industry’s largest trade show. The industry was abuzz that Armstrong was returning because his successes have fueled enormous growth in retail sales figures in bikes and cycling gear.
To prepare for yet another comeback, Armstrong reunited with team director Johan Bruyneel, the mastermind who guided him to all seven Tour de France victories on teams sponsored by U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel. Armstrong will be racing without a salary for Team Astana team, which contains many former teammates, including two-time Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer. While Armstrong is a driven champion, he has stressed that winning the Tour de France again is not his primary goal or motivation. His mission is to spread the LIVESTRONG message worldwide. To that end, throughout the season he’ll be competing in races in virtually all parts of the globe, events that previously would have conflicted with his singular focus of winning the French tour.
His first race back was in January at Australia’s Tour Down Under. In May, for the first time in his illustrious career he’ll compete in the Giro d’Italia, the centenary edition of Italy’s Grand Tour which is said to be Armstrong’s primary cycling goal in 2009. And in July, he’ll be back in France either racing for the win himself or supporting teammate Alberto Contador, winner of the last three Grand Tours the 26-year-old Spaniard started, including the 2007 Tour de France. But February will be all about racing and spreading his message throughout the Golden State giving Americans the unique opportunity to see this living legend back in action. Armstrong’s foundation has teamed with race sponsor Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer initiative for the auspicious occasion.
“The Amgen Tour of California is a fitting U.S. premiere for Lance because of its long history raising awareness for cancer through its initiative, Breakaway from Cancer. Cycling is an international sport and provides him an ideal medium to set the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s message on a global course to address this epidemic that claims eight million lives around the world every year,” said Doug Ulman, president/CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Days before Christmas, miraculous news broke that Armstrong is expecting to become a father for the fourth time next June. It was believed that he would be sterile for the rest of his life after the intense chemotherapy and radiation that were part of his cancer treatment. His three previous children were conceived through in vitro fertilization with sperm banked before his first surgery. But lo and behold, this extraordinary man who deftly defied death and became a beacon of light from which boundless hope, inspiration and strength springs, has found yet another way of making us marvel. Nothing Armstrong does should surprise us at this point, but he continues to demonstrate how to live courageously by writing new and unexpected chapters in a book of life and possibilities that defies all odds and explanations.
Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.
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