"I won't kid you. There are two Lance Armstrongs, pre-cancer, and post. In a way, the old me did die, and I was a given a second life."
-It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins
By Kim Shanley
To The TennisONE Community
For those of you who've read my newsletter over the past few months, you know I've been pretty tough on the old ego. I've said the ego is the needy, greedy part of our self, the part that's addicted to pleasure and runs away from pain. I've talked a lot about shedding the ego and letting go of attachment to winning and success. I can't seem to say a good word about the ego. Until now.
The ego is who we think we are. It's the person our family, our friends, and our past tell us we are. Some things we like about this ego (thin, attractive, athletic, rich), others (you name it) we're not so hot about. The ego is the boss within our self. In the Freudian scheme, no matter what our desire (Id) tempts us to do, no matter what society (super-ego) forbids us to do, me, the boss, the ego, finally decides what to do. By and large, when most of us look in the mirror, we like what we see. And that's a good thing, because without a certain measure of self-esteem, it's just about impossible to accomplish anything.
But I'm still being stingy with my accolades. Let's give the ego the praise it deserves. The ego is the great lookin' guy or sexy lady driving a shiny new convertible down the highway of life, admired and lusted after by all. In our secret ego-heart, no man or woman can resist us, all our needs are gratified, and we endure no pain or discomfort. In the fantasy world of our ego-heart, we are the world's Number 1, the super-star. We have all the money, adulation, glamour, pleasure, food, luxury, and sex that we ever dreamed of. But there's a catch (isn't there always?). The catch is what Freud called the reality principle.
The reality principle is one, overwhelming cosmic NO. The reality principle is your mother and father, your older brother or sister, your teacher, your boss. They're all wagging their finger in your face and telling you, "No, no, no. No, you can't eat dirt. No, you can't eat all that Halloween candy. No, you can't do what you really want to do today, which is sleep in this morning and miss your boss's boring staff meeting."
Grouchily, the ego reluctantly releases its grip on the goodie it has fixated on (whatever that is) and heads off on its daily commute. But we're still simmering with rage about being deprived of our prize, and if anyone cuts us off in traffic, watch-out, major road-rage. Why else would you want to kill complete strangers on a daily basis?
So how does the champion's heart differ from the ego-heart? When Pete Sampras retired this year, he said there are ten things you have to do to be a champion. When he couldn't bring himself to do one of them, practice for Wimbledon, he knew it was time to quit. A few readers asked me, "What were the other nine things a champion has to do?" I told them, as far as I knew, Pete didn't say.
I don't think we have to wait for Sampras's or Agassi's auto-biography to catch a glimpse into the mystery that is the champion's heart. Read It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. This is the story of Lance Armstrong's struggle to overcome cancer and his triumphant comeback to win the Tour de France, perhaps the toughest athletic contest on the planet.
Abandoned by his biological father, Armstrong was raised by his mother who taught her child to convert the pain of life into a positive. "Nothing goes to waste, you put it all to use, the old wounds and long-ago slights become the stuff of competitive energy." Cycling became Armstrong's sport because cycling was a "suffer-fest," and he was good at it. He even called himself the "king of pain."
Armstrong, driven by the jet-fuel of ambition and anger, broke into the cycling world with an ego the size of Texas. He told anyone who cared to listen that he not only wanted to compete against the best in the world, he wanted to be the best. And though he lost race after race because of his habit of prematurely jumping ahead of the pack (pelatron), at 21 years old he had won a $1 million cycling event, as well as an early stage of the Tour de France.
This is where the journey of champions gets interesting, when they've won their first major victory. Pete Sampras won his first major at the 1991 US Open. Andre Agassi won his at the 1992 Wimbledon championships. Inevitably, there's a let-down, and how the player reacts to that let-down reveals the difference between, as TennisONE associate editor Dave Smith would say, champion and chump.
Why the let-down? When a player reaches that first big victory, the ego-heart has arrived at its heaven. Now all the adulation, money, success, and sex the ego craves is showered down on the starving ego. And oh-boy, does the ego-heart love it. Suddenly the thirst that drove the ego is quenched. This accounts for the collapse of many players once they reach the ranking of world's number one player. Think about what happened with Rios, Moya, and Safin. No more thirst, no more ambition, no more practice. Acting like a spoiled-child, the ego-heart refuses to continue the hard work that produced the wins.
Just as the ego gets pumped up by winning, it is crestfallen when it loses. Because only winning gives the ego-heart what it needs. Losing is death to the ego-heart. This is exactly the reason why players choke. They fear the pain of loss so much their bodies lock up with anxiety. The young champion, spoiled by success, can't stand these losses, becomes disheartened, and thinks about quitting.
After Armstrong won an early stage of the Tour de France at 21 (the youngest man ever to win one,) Armstrong quit the Tour a few days later after a brutal hill-climb. He told reporters, "The Alps got me. They were too long and too cold."
So Armstrong's story might have been no different from that of many young champions. Except he got cancer. Not just any old cancer. But a virulent type of testicular cancer that killed Chicago Bears fullback Brain Piccalo, whose story was told in the TV movie "Brian's Song." To learn you've just come down with testicular cancer is bad enough, but Armstrong was also shown the x-rays how it had already spread to his lungs and brain. He underwent immediate surgery to remove the cancer-infected testicle, and this was quickly followed by brain surgery to remove the cancerous lesions on his brain. What then followed was 18 months of the most painful and grueling regiment of chemotherapy that a strong young man could tolerate. The doctors had no choice. They had to nearly kill the patient to save him.
Despite the agony of the treatment, here's what Armstrong says about his cancer: "The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." Why does he make this amazing statement? Because he knows that in his struggle to overcome cancer, Lance Armstrong shed his ego-heart and embraced a champion's heart. "I won't kid you. There are two Lance Armstrongs, pre-cancer, and post. In a way, the old me did die, and I was a given a second life."
The brash, arrogant, impatient Lance Armstrong was gone, and it was a humble, brave, and patient man that climbed onto his cycle again. Before the cancer, Armstrong was rash, and now he became the most patient rider on the Tour, even letting go of the glory of winning individual stages in order to win the entire race. Before the cancer, Armstrong was a sprinter, not a climber. Now he prided himself on training on the toughest mountains in all kinds of weather. "I was pretty sure I was the only fool who was willing to climb it in that weather, even once, much less twice. But that was the point."
Does a champion have to live through a life-threatening disease to earn a champion's heart? Pete Sampras didn't get cancer after his first US Open win at nineteen years old. But he did suffer a type of ego-death when he lost to Stefan Edberg in the 1994 Open final. Pete said. "I felt like I gave in that match; I felt it was good enough getting into the final. After that, the fact that I gave in bothered me a lot. I learned the hard way and went from a kid who didn't know what he wanted to knowing exactly what he wanted in the course of one match."
No, Pete Sampras didn't get cancer, but his coach and surrogate father, Tim Gullikson did, and he died of it in 1996. Sampras seemed to transmute the painful loss of his good friend into a deeper commitment to become a great champion. When he won the 1996 US Open, Sampras said, "Today was Tim's birthday. He would've been 45 today. I was thinking about him a lot all day. I still feel his spirit. I wouldn't be here without him."
Andre Agassi didn't get cancer either. But he also suffered an ego-death when he lost to Sampras in the 1995 US Open final after a brilliant summer win-streak. That defeat sent Agassi into a severe tailspin, and his ranking sank to 141 by November 1997. Soon after this Agassi was hit by another blow, his mother and sister were diagnosed with breast cancer, and he took two months off to take care of them (they recovered). "It was a pretty difficult time," Agassi said. "It was also pretty eye-opening in many ways, personally." Thereafter, like Armstrong, Agassi emerged from his spiritual valley of death a braver, more dedicated athlete. It's only then that we started to hear that Andre had given up his beloved McDonald's diet (just like Armstrong gave up his beloved Tex-Mex) and was sprinting up the killer hill behind his house in Las Vegas (just like Armstrong sprinted up the killer hills behind his house in Nice).
Armstrong says what climbing the hill meant to him, "As I continued upward, I saw my life as a whole. I saw the pattern and the privilege to it, and the purpose of it, too. It was simply this: I was meant for a long, hard climb."
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