August 25, 2005

Hell to seventh heaven - demystifying a super athlete

H Natarajan

Lance Armstrong’s life is not just about sport. It’s a spectacular study of the mind’s boundary. It’s an exemplary revelation of what can be achieved if desire is incredibly overpowering than the odds. It’s proof that mental scars – even those inflicted on juvenile minds - can be turned to advantage by the power of positive and purposeful thinking. Armstrong’s saga provides eloquent commentary that impossible is nothing if ordinary people have extra-ordinary will.

Armstrong is different. Very, very different. When asked once what pleasure he got out of cycling for so long, he replied: "Pleasure? I don't understand the question. I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.” He said he became a happier man each time he suffered.

If that statement is hard to fathom, think what a mountaineer undergoes through to climb the Everest, or a navigator faces in a solo expedition round the world or a swimmer trying to conquer the shark-infested, icy waters of the English Channel. Think of the pain they are willingly subjecting their bodies to, think of the protracted ordeal against the forces of nature. And emerging successful at the end of it all must surely be giving them the kind of happiness that is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.

If one analyses what Armstrong has said at various times of his life, it becomes evident that his statement about pain was not meant to shock or dramatise. Juxtapose his above statement with what he said at another point of time: “The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son and a father.”

Two distinct aspects of the man’s personality emerges from the statement:

a. That he viewed his life-threatening ailment as a powerful tool to bring about positive changes in his life Unlike most others in similar circumstances who would have thought it was the end of their lives, Armstrong saw Oct 2, 1996 – the day he first knew he had cancer - as his rebirth.

b. The second aspect reveals the importance he gives to what he is as a person than what he has achieved one of the biggest ever legends in sports.

As an influential personality of our times, he saw himself as an instrument, a catalyst, who could change the life of millions worldwide by conveying the right message with meaningful utterances. His words carried weight because it came from a doer and not someone like a rhetoric-spewing politician.

Armstrong has been a maverick. It has meant ruffling feathers. But it apparently didn’t matter to him; what mattered were his own convictions. He always lauded the role of his mother in helping him achieve what he has as a single parent. His gratefulness for his mother towered over everything and everyone. He was 21 years old, and in just his second full season as a professional, when his devotion towards his mother came in for a royal test of character. He had won the World Road Racing Championship in Oslo, Norway, to become the youngest rider ever to win the race, whose history dates back to 1927. In the brouhaha that followed, he received an invite to meet the King of Norway. Armstrong wanted his mother to accompany him, but the royal aides said no. Armstrong spurned the invite saying that he would not go if his mother couldn’t. How many would dare to turn down a special royal invite? He finally met the King, but after another invite followed to get his mother along! Armstrong has the courage of conviction to believe what he does, and does what he believes in.

It was this self-belief that helped him cheat malignant testicular cancer that doctors gave him 40% chance of survival after they discovered that it had spread to his lungs and brain. He underwent two painful and dangerous surgeries to remove cancerous tissue from his brain and malignant testicle. Then followed four potent rounds of chemotherapy that played havoc with his musculature, caused permanent kidney damage and left burns on his skin from the inside out. Incredibly, just five months after the diagnosis, he began cycling and training.

Armstrong described his tryst with cancer as "a special wake-up call." He formed the Lance Armstrong Foundation soon after learning about his ailment. The non-profit foundation was to aid cancer research, create awareness and help people survive the disease. He had turned a huge personal setback into an opportunity to serve vast sections of the society. His crusading efforts have helped the foundation reap millions of dollars.

Armstrong has a big heart - not just figuratively but literally as well. His heart, apparently, is almost a third larger than average. Widely acknowedged as one of the finest-tuned athletes, he has a resting pulse of 32 beats a minute that can accelerate beyond 200. Tests conducted on him to determine his aerobic ability, how much oxygen his lungs were capable of consuming during exercise, revealed that he could do twice more than an average healthy man. He also has one of the lowest body fat among super athletes. And not the least granite will.

It was this extraordinary will that saw him back on track and, in time, focus on the Tour de France – one of the most punishing sports spread over three weeks and 2,300 miles. Scientific studies have revealed that cyclists on Tour de France expend 6,500 calories a day, peaking to 10,000 calories, against the 3,500 calories active people burn in day-to-day life. Someone described it as the equivalent of running 20 marathons in 20 days. People were aghast that a cancer-ravaged man who had just 40% chances of survival could even think of competing again in such a grueling event, competing against the world’s fittest and best. Armstrong had failed to finish in three of his four previous attempts – 1993, 1994 and 1996 – and the one time he did, he finished 36th.

Cancer may have momentarily weakened him physically, but it solidified his determination. "I knew if I could beat cancer, I could get over any mountain…I could always draw strength from the fact that, no matter how hard things might look at a given moment, they could never be as hard as when I was back in Austin in a hospital bed with my hair falling out."

What he went on to achieve is in the realms of fantasy. He not only won, but won a record seven consecutive Tour de France. “I wouldn't have won even a single Tour de France without the lesson of illness. What it teaches is this: Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

As Lance Armstrong rode into sunset with his children and nine-time Grammy winner girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, it left many wondering if the American is the greatest sports superheroes of all times.


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