A former coach at the Nike Oregon Project shares his first-hand experiences working with one of the most polarizing figures in sports.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he took performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. This news didn't surprise me, and I'm sure it didn't surprise many others, either, as the mounting testimony from other riders, out-of-this-world performances and all-around controversy surrounding him for over a decade was just too much to ignore.
For generations, athletes have been known to do sketchy stuff in the name of performance, and as a competitive athlete and coach of elite athletes, this has always infuriated me. My first real exposure to the culture of doping was in grad school when I took a class that was taught by a visiting professor named Verner Moller, who had written two fascinating books on doping and cycling, sharing stories of what riders in the Tour de France would do to stay a step ahead of the drug testers and turn in awe-inspiring performances.
I argued that fantastic, mind-blowing performances could occur without the need for such drugs. My professor was doubtful, but based on my own experience training with Alan Webb, who was only two years off running his magical 3:46 mile, and Moise Joseph, who would go on to make the semifinals at the world championships in the 800 meters that summer, I knew for a fact that there were still top level athletes who did things the right way.
So when I met Lance for the first time in 2011, it was a day of mixed emotions.
I was working at Nike alongside Alberto Salazar, and Lance came to the company's headquarters in Oregon several times to work with us and others. He was beginning his transition toward becoming a competitive triathlete and wanted our help for the running portion of it. Lance was friends with Alberto, who had helped him get through a marathon a few years before, so it was a natural fit for us to work with him on his running form and training. Over the course of a couple different visits, we worked with him on his running mechanics, and there were even a few weeks where I was emailing him suggested hard workouts.
The first time I met Lance I was thrilled and intrigued, but part of me distinctly remembers feeling angry over the fact that I was even somewhat excited to work with him. After all, he was the enemy, the guy who did things the wrong way. It's easy to brush that feeling off by saying, "well, he hasn't tested positive," and part of me wanted to do so. I realized that was nothing more than a justification -- a way to put my mind at ease and give my brain an easy way out of a tough situation. And the more brief interactions I had with him, it became obvious that most people must have taken this path, and decided to let their mind go the easy route.
Lance commanded attention wherever he went. He had a very intimidating presence and a way of interacting with people that almost made you want to do whatever he said. He drew people in with his ability to be a "guy's guy" -- throwing out jokes and dropping curse words as if everyone in the room was in the locker room or just hanging out at the bar. He portrayed himself as one of the guys, someone who just wanted to have fun. It was almost as if he was downplaying the training he was doing as he got back into triathlon.
Glimpses of his ultra-competitiveness would rise to the surface. You could see the focus in his eyes when he was instructed to do something different, such as alter his arm swing. He wanted to do it right and he had to be perfect at it. This carried over into conversations about what he wanted to do in his training. He had a coach for his swimming, was going to us for running-related things, and genuinely seemed like he enjoyed training hard.
What was even more intriguing about Lance, however, was the effect he had on others. It was interesting to listen to colleagues at Nike gush to Lance about his natural ability and athleticism, and tell him that with minimal training he could run quick enough in the marathon to win the Ironman. There might have been some truth to these statements, but it was as if everyone who surrounded Lance told him exactly what he wanted to hear. People were captivated by him. Combine this level of captivation with his "I'm just one of the guys" personality, and it was hard to go against Lance. I believe this explains his ability to transfix the media, as well as his fans, who in turn overlook his flaws and ignore any of the evidence against him.
I do not claim to know Lance Armstrong well, but in my eyes and through my brief interactions with him, what intrigued me most was this split focus he possessed. One day, he would be the guy out late drinking with his buddies and joking about not being able to do morning runs too early, and on the next he’d be the singularly focused athlete wanting to destroy whatever goal he had set for himself. It was almost as if the care-free attitude was a defense mechanism to make it seem like he was the "cool kid" who didn't need to train hard to win. His ultra-competitive nature is what led him to take drugs and do everything possible to win, and so it makes some sense that he'd try to downplay that around other people.
I've kept up with the Lance saga, and to me his apology fits well with my experiences. The man wants nothing more right now than to compete. That is his goal and he’s going to do whatever is necessary to reach that goal. At this point, it seems he thinks that means an apology to shift public sentiment and get a reduced ban. I keep asking myself, "Why is the desire to compete again so paramount?" To me, it comes down to his competitiveness. He needs to be able to compete and set records, because that’s been the one constant in his life. But even with a reduced ban of let's say two years, we are looking at a Masters triathlete in his mid-40s. How competitive can he really be against the best in the sport?
When I left Nike last year, I often thought back to my interactions with a known drug cheat like Lance. I saw the extreme competitiveness and manipulative tendencies that fuel the psychology of a doper. The desire to be great and the willingness to do anything to win is a trait that many great endurance athletes possess. In the past, it meant Emil Zatopek doing to 400-meter repeats in army boots. Now, for some it means crossing the gray line into cheating.
This past fall the college cross country team I coach was preparing for a race in Austin, Texas. I got the word that Lance would be competing the same race. It briefly crossed my mind to take my athletes over to meet Lance, giving me bonus points for being the "cool" coach who knew someone insanely famous. Instead, in our pre-race huddle, I simply told my team, "Lance Armstrong is in your race. Beat him. He cheated and took drugs and you guys are doing it the right way. Go beat someone who took EPO."
It doesn't matter how famous someone is or what success they achieved. For these college kids, it was about doing things the right way and this was an opportunity to teach that to them. The lesson is not to be mesmerized by anyone. At the end of the race, there were no pictures or autographs with Lance, but rather talk about beating him, kicking him down in the last 100 meters, and a surprising lack of Livestrong gear for the rest of the season.
I hope that Lance's reported confession to Oprah doesn't lead to instant forgiveness. I hope those who stood up to him and had their careers ruined get some sort of retribution, not because it would be "fair" but rather because when one of the most recognizable athletes in endurance sports finally gets busted, there is enough attention and momentum behind it to demand change. We need athletes who are drug-free to do amazing things that captivate sports fans everywhere.
Just as I did years ago with my professor, I'm still going to argue that amazing things can happen in endurance sports. I've been involved in this sport at high levels for a number of years, have coached amazing athletes like Jackie Areson and Sara Hall, and have seen the work athletes like Alan Webb and Ryan Hall put in day in and day out. This gives me faith that amazing things can be done the right way, without the need for performance-enhancing drugs.
My interactions with Lance and other athletes have shaped who I am and influenced why I coach. I see the frustration in endurance athletes who do it the right way, and my hope is that I, along with other coaches, can help athletes achieve those unbelievable performances cleanly, without having a cloud of suspicion hanging over them, which is an unfortunate reality in sports today.
We all start off as naive fans, and progress to becoming a skeptic before hitting a fork in the road. At this fork there are currently two options: 1. Take the easy way out and become blind and oblivious, or 2. Become an extreme pessimist and say everyone is dirty. My hope is that we develop a third option, that being an awareness of doping as a problem, but not a broad condemnation to everyone who does something unfathomable. My dream is to get to the point where an American does something Beamon-esque in the endurance events, and we can point to them as role models in our sport without having to worry if five years from now they will be exposed as a low-life drug cheat. Play clean.
Steve Magness coaches cross country and track at the University of Houston and formerly coached alongside Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. He maintains the blog ScienceOfRunning.com which is essentially a place for him to display his inner science and running nerd to the world. He owns a best of 4:01 for the mile and has a M.S. in Exercise Science from George Mason University.