Going For The Gold

9/16/00

Most of us enjoy watching the Olympic competitions whenever they come around. It's always exciting. World records will likely be set, and a good number of lifetime aspirations will be attained. But disappointment will most likely be more prevalent than victory. In each event, only one athlete will go away with the gold. As a general rule, when we watch, we should try to keep in mind all the hard work that lies behind both the victories and the efforts that inevitably will fall short.

My reading these days ranges all over the place. In the past couple of weeks, in addition to such ancient writers as Plutarch and Horace, I've been reading some recent books that profile what it takes to be a champion. One especially deserves your attention. It's a book about an athlete whose struggles and conquests took place in competitions other than the Olympics. But his story will enhance your enjoyment of the games that are now going on Down Under. More than that, it will enhance your life. I want to recommend to all of you interested in matters of success - in case you haven't already read it - Lance Armstrong's great book It's Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life. It's the most amazing story of one man's struggle to reach his potential and live his dreams.

As almost everyone in the world knows, Lance Armstrong is a championship cyclist who was struck down at a young age, and on a high plateau of success, by testicular cancer. The disease was discovered only at a very advanced stage, and his chances of survival were thought to be minimal. Practically no one other than Lance even entertained the possibility that he would not only beat the cancer, but return to such a level of health that he would one day ride again competitively. This extraordinary book tells the story of his fight, and heroic victory, over hardship, fear, disease, and despair. It also recounts how the worst thing in his life surprisingly became the best thing ever to have happened to him, and how it prepared him in unexpected ways to be able to go on and win the most difficult race, and perhaps the most arduous single sporting event in the world, the Tour de France. He went on, since the publication of the book, to stun the world by winning it an incredible and superhuman seven consecutive times, from 1999 through 2005.

When you hear the stories of champions in every walk of life, from sports to music and business, the most amazing pattern develops. It is a pattern of early promise followed by unexpected hardship, resistence, struggle, and failure. Any reasonable person would give up. Unless they knew that this is the most common course of masterful achievement in our world. But the determined don't always have the time or inclination to be reasonable.

There often seems to be a hidden force of inertia in the world that works to hold back anyone with a new dream. Many of the modern gurus of success promise that the universe is poised and ready to make all of our dreams realities if we will just get out of the way and let it happen. Champions like Lance Armstrong demonstrate that the universe prefers to enlist us in a collaborative endeavor instead. Hard work beyond imagining is most often what it takes. But the sweetness of the victory is directly related to the difficulty of the climb. And the things that often seem so bad when they happen are often the very things that lead us on in unanticipated ways to the development and achievement that we so deeply desire.

Let me quote one passage on this a bit extensively. It will give you a flavor for this insightful book. On page 4, Armstrong writes:

"My illness was humbling and starkly revealing, and it forced me to survey my life with an unforgiving eye. There are some shameful episodes in it: instances of meanness, unfinished tasks, weakness, and regrets. I had to ask myself: 'If I live, who is it that I intend to be?' I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man."

"I won't kid you. There are two Lance Armstrongs, pre-cancer, and post. Everybody's favorite question is 'How did cancer change you?' The real question is how didn't it change me? I left my house on October 2, 1996 as one person and came home another. I was a world-class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank. I was one of the top riders in the world and my career was moving along a perfect arc of success. I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life. Even my body is different, because during the chemotherapy I lost all the muscle I had ever built up, and when I recovered, it didn't come back in the same way."

"The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't know why I got the illness, but it did wonders for me, and I wouldn't want to walk away from it. Why would I want to change, even for a day, the most important and shaping event in my life?"

Much later in the book, on page 265, he says, quite dramatically:

"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 husband, a son, and a father."
Remarkable.

In his first professional race, long before the cancer, the promising young Lance Armstrong had finished last among 111 riders. Not a propitious start. In subsequent years, he took plenty of falls, lost plenty of races, and learned more than he ever realized that he didn't know. In the book, he talks about overcoming fear, learning patience, mastering discipline, and developing the sort of determination that the human spirit is capable of attaining against all odds. He talks about his relationship with his mother, who raised him pretty much alone. And he reflects deeply on friendship and love. Even his "miraculous comeback" from cancer was, at first, in his own words, "a disaster." This book gives the real story, warts and all, and because of that, is a powerful lesson in true success.

After winning the race of his life, he wrote:

"I had learned what it means to ride the Tour de France. It's not about the bike. It's a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the world but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider, and more: cold, heat, mountains, plains, ruts, flat tires, high winds, unspeakably bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness, and above all a great, deep self-questioning. During our lives we're faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope. The Tour is not just a bike race, not at all. It is a test. It tests you physically, it tests you mentally, and it even tests you morally."

You get the picture. This is a very good book. It's a book to savor and to share, with children and with friends. I hope you have the opportunity to find it and to read it soon.

And whenever you're watching the Olympics, or any other top athletic event, remember: Going for the gold or the winning spot sometimes means mining deep in your experience for those nuggets of realization that will change your life for good. It occasionally means panning through the muck, searching for any sight of something more. And then, as Armstrong's story shows, some of the things we encounter in life may start out as base metal, but alchemically become gold in our lives because of what we make of them. This is one of the more enduring lessons of this excellent book.

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