Lance’s 6 in a row
best sports feat

Jul 27, 2004 5:57 AM

Does everyone in the room really understand just what Lance Armstrong has done? Put differently, CAN anyone in the room fully understand what he has done?

His accomplishment, winning probably the most difficult, tortuous and grueling contest in world sports, against the best in the world, six times in a row, is mind blowing.

It is unprecedented. To my mind, it is the greatest sports accomplishment ever.

Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics were stunning, but they were recorded over several days and Spitz then largely disappeared from the swimming scene.

Joe DiMaggio’s hitting in 56 consecutive games in 1941 was a monumental feat, immortalizing him as one of the greatest hitters and all-around stars in baseball.

Woody Stephens training the winners of five consecutive Belmont stakes in the 1980s comes close, but was a feat of skill and knowledge, not a test of the physical limits of the human body.

Pause a moment and consider that Armstrong, after his much publicized and transforming battle against testicular, lung and brain cancer, came back to spread his supremacy over world class competitors six years in a row, in an event that not only tests the limits of the human body but of the human will.

A look back reveals much about this superhuman athlete.

Armstrong won’t be 33 until Sept. 18, but he was a super athlete before he reached his teens. He was just 13 when he won the Iron Kids Triathlon, combining as in the adult version, swimming, running and cycling.

Some mothers encourage their children to be dancers, actors, models, tennis players, ice skaters. Armstrong’s mother, a single parent, for whatever psychological reason, wanted her son to be an athlete. Of the triathlon events, cycling became an obsession with him, and by the time he was a senior in high school he had compiled a rolodex file of sponsors in the sport. He qualified that year to train with the U.S. Olympic developmental team.

In 1989, at 18, he qualified for the junior world championships, held in Moscow the following summer, and his globe-girdling far beyond Plano, Texas, where he grew up, began. Two years later, he won the U.S. National Amateur championship, and competed in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

The next year he turned pro and won 10 championships, becoming the youngest road racing cycling champion ever, and winning a first stage victory in the Tour de France that year. He won the $1 million Triple Crown that year, and another stage of the Tour de France in 1995. Then, in 1996, cancer.

Surgery and chemotherapy saved his life, but his chances of ever riding competitively again seemed slim. He has been quoted since as saying that "cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me," referring to the inspiration and determination to beat it and his success in doing so. He formed a non-profit foundation, originally for cancer research but now primarily a source of survivorship training to help cancer victims cope.

By 1998 he was back on the cycling circuit, but while struggling in cold rain in a race from Paris to Nice on the Riviera, he pulled over and quit, deciding he had it with cycling.

He and two friends, one of them his coach Chris Carmichael, took a break in Boone, in the hills country of North Carolina, about as far away from the turmoil of daily life as one can get. They rode without pressure, and Armstrong’s competitive blood began boiling again.

A year later, inspired and back in peak form, he won his first Tour de France, then a second and third and fourth and fifth. Four others in the history of cycling had done that: Jacques Anquetil, a Frenchman, who reached five in 1964; Eddy Merckx of Belgium, whose fifth came in 1974; Bernard Hinault of France, 1985; and Miguel Indurain, a Spaniard, in 1995.

It is interesting that those performances each came a decade apart. It will be another decade, or two or three or more, before anyone again reaches six. There is, of course, another possibility. The kid from Plano may decide to go for seven.