Every so often during the five years that Tim Cole worked on the Heather Rich case, he would leave the courthouse in the evening after the North Texas sky had grown dark and drive to the Belknap Creek bridge, just south of the Oklahoma border. The winding stretch of blacktop that led there eventually came to an end, giving way to a dirt road. Cole, the district attorney of Montague County, would follow the road north as it meandered toward the Red River, until he reached a backwater creek. He might spend an hour out there, standing on the old cement bridge, without seeing a single pair of headlights cut through the darkness. Cole prepared for the trials of Heather’s killers this way, turning over the details of the case as he stared down at the murky, slow-moving water where her body had been found.
Heather was from Waurika, Oklahoma, a town of 2,064 people that sits twelve miles north of the Red River, along what was once the Chisholm Trail. A pretty high school cheerleader, she was just sixteen—a year younger than Cole’s own daughter—when she was killed, on October 3, 1996. The killers were three teenage boys, including the captain of Waurika High School’s football team, who had engaged in a night of heavy drinking and sex before Heather was shot in the head. Long before “Steubenville” and “rape culture” became buzzwords on social media and 24-hour cable news shows, Waurika found itself at the center of a now-familiar conversation about lost values and teenage dissolution. Where were the parents? How had something this horrendous happened in such a small, tight-knit community?
Two of the teenagers who were charged with Heather’s murder, Curtis Gambill and Josh Bagwell, were bad kids as far as Cole was concerned. Curtis had a criminal record and a violent history and had been briefly committed to a mental hospital. Josh too had had brushes with the law. Except for an initial, misleading account of the crime that Curtis gave to the Texas Rangers, neither one had cooperated with the investigation or expressed any remorse. But the DA puzzled over how Randy Wood—the soft-spoken, well-regarded captain of the Waurika Eagles—had gotten mixed up in such an appalling crime. Cole had made a name for himself securing the harshest penalties a jury would hand out, but he was flummoxed by what to do with Randy. Cole knew that the seventeen-year-old had never been in trouble before, and he believed Randy was being truthful when he told investigators that he had never intended for Heather, who was a friend, to be killed that night.
To win convictions against the other two teenagers, Cole needed Randy to testify for the state and describe what he had seen take place on the Belknap Creek bridge. Before entering into any kind of agreement with him, though, Cole wanted to verify that the boy had been candid with investigators. One afternoon following his arrest, Randy was transported from his jail cell to the office of a respected polygraph examiner in Dallas, where he underwent a lie detector test. Randy told the examiner that it was Curtis who had shot Heather on the bridge, and that afterward, Josh and Randy had thrown her body into Belknap Creek. The results showed no deception.
The fact that Randy had not actually fired the gun, Cole knew, did not help the boy’s case. Under Texas law, all three teenagers—not just the gunman—were considered equally responsible for Heather’s murder. So Cole offered Randy a deal: in exchange for his testimony, he could plead guilty to murder, making himself eligible for parole in thirty years. (If he went to trial and was convicted of capital murder, he would receive an automatic life sentence and not be considered for parole for at least forty years.) Randy took the deal, and as Cole prepared to bring the two other teenagers to trial, he and his investigator began to visit Randy in jail, to glean more information before he testified for the prosecution.
Cole tried to establish a rapport with the teenager who sat across from him in the sheriff’s private office, studying the floor. Upon learning that Randy liked cheeseburgers, Cole began bringing lunch from a nearby burger stand. Once, with his investigator at the wheel, Cole took Randy, who remained in shackles, for a drive around the county so that he could glimpse the outdoors. They discussed Randy’s hard-luck upbringing and the things they shared in common, having grown up playing football in small towns on opposite sides of the river. Mostly, they talked about the case. Randy did not deny his role in the crime or make excuses for what he had done; he said only that he had not known how to stop what was happening when they reached the bridge. He had been afraid of Curtis, who wielded the shotgun. Each time Cole visited, Randy told the DA that he was haunted by his failure to stop Heather’s murder.
Then, two days before he was set to testify in Josh’s trial, Randy backed out of the deal, saying he could not plead guilty to something he did not do. Cole was devastated, certain that Josh would avoid punishment. The next day, however, Randy explained that he still wanted to testify, without the protection of a deal. By taking the stand with no agreement in place, Randy would be incriminating himself under oath while awaiting his own capital murder trial. Over the frantic protests of his attorney, the boy did just that, recounting to jurors what he had seen that night. Cole was dumbfounded. If Randy understood that he had doomed himself to a future trial at which there would be no presumption of innocence, he didn’t seem to care; he said he wanted everyone to know that he was speaking the truth—something he felt he owed Heather and her family. It was the legal equivalent, Cole remarked, of committing suicide in the courtroom.
Randy Wood, who is 34, at the James V. Allred Unit in January 2014.
With Randy’s testimony, Cole was able to secure a capital murder conviction and a life sentence for Josh. By then, Curtis had pleaded out, earning himself a life sentence as well. When Randy turned down another plea bargain before his own trial, again refusing to say that he had killed Heather, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. He had forced Cole’s hand. The DA prosecuted Randy for capital murder and asked a jury to find him guilty. He was convicted and handed an automatic life sentence.
Randy at the same facility in 2002.
Years later, long after Cole had boxed up his case files and stowed them in the attic of the Montague County courthouse, he would find himself thinking about Randy. Cole had not lost sight of the horror of Heather’s murder or of Randy’s own culpability; he would never forget the awful details he had recounted to jurors during Randy’s trial. But the prosecutor was moved by the knowledge that the teenager had tried—too late—to make things right. Seventeen was an awfully young age to be given up on, Cole thought, and he wondered sometimes if Randy was not deserving of mercy.
Last summer, Cole was sitting at his desk, surrounded by the files of other felony cases he needed to attend to, when he began to do some quick calculations. He was startled to realize that Randy was 34 years old. The teenager he remembered had spent half his life in prison. Cole began to wonder: What would the right punishment have been for Randy? What number of years would have accounted for the dreadfulness of what he did, while also considering the good? And then another thought hit him: What would it be like to sit and talk with Randy again?
Heather had slipped out her bedroom window shortly before midnight on October 2, 1996, having made plans to meet up with Josh. It was their first date. Josh was a senior at Waurika High School and came from a wealthy family who owned land along the river. His mother, who was divorced, was an attorney in Lawton, an hour’s drive away, and his grandparents, whom he lived with, exerted little control over him. He had a predilection for sports cars and assault rifles, both of which he owned, and he bristled at authority. (Once, after he was arrested for drunk driving, he scuffled with police officers, yelling, “I want my f—ing attorney!”) Heather, a sophomore, was elated that he had said she could ride on the back of his Dodge Stealth in the homecoming parade later that month.
Heather in a 1996 school photo.
In a time when teenagers were not ceaselessly interconnected by texting and Twitter and Instagram, Heather was rarely content to stay at home. Sometimes she would climb out her window to smoke a cigarette or catch a ride and cruise all three blocks of Waurika’s mostly shuttered main drag. Three years earlier, her home life had been plunged into chaos when her father, Duane, an electrician for a utility company, was horribly burned on the job after a transformer blew up. To support the family, her mother, Gail, had purchased the local Subway franchise and worked constantly to make ends meet. Heather put in long hours at the family business and helped care for her father during her mother’s absences. She began acting out in self-destructive ways that fall, discreetly cutting herself with a razor blade. Less than a week before she sneaked out to meet Josh, she was suspended from school for three days after she was caught drinking while leading cheers at a Waurika Eagles football game.
When Josh was late to pick her up that night—the plan had been for him to wait by the church near her house at midnight—she decided to strike out on her own, walking nearly a mile down Waurika’s darkened streets to the travel trailer behind his house, where he had mentioned that he and some friends would be hanging out. No one was there, but she decided to wait.
When Josh arrived at the trailer, he was accompanied by two friends of his, Curtis and Randy. The boys had spent the evening draining a bottle of whiskey. Besides football, there was little else to do in Waurika. There was no movie theater or coffee shop or public park, only a Sonic in Comanche, seventeen miles away. On weekends, teenagers drove the back roads out to Lake Waurika or headed into the country to pasture parties, where methamphetamine—the cheap, homemade speed that was becoming popular in North Texas and southern Oklahoma—was passed around as often as marijuana. Heather had smoked pot before, and she had tried meth that fall, but despite her best efforts, she was not much of a partier; a few beers left her unsteady on her feet.
At the trailer, Curtis, Josh, and Randy began working their way through a case of beer. It was a Wednesday night, and there was school in the morning, but none of them much seemed to care. Their plan, if they even had one, was to drink themselves into oblivion.
Randy was already halfway there. For him, the evening was not unlike many others. He often had the dazed look of a kid in his own world. Randy had first smoked pot in the third grade, after stealing it from his mother, Kathy, who was an avid partier. He was fourteen, he remembered, when he got high with her for the first time. One night during his junior year of high school, he had come home to find Kathy and her dealer sitting beside a mound of meth on the kitchen table; he recalled his mother instructing him to take some and leave. Kathy did not know who his father was, and she had moved him all over Oklahoma when he was a kid, so much so that he had attended three different schools during the fifth grade alone. Funny and easygoing, Randy was universally liked wherever he went, but no matter how many times he started over, he had never been able to leave his drinking and drug use behind. Only one adult—a high school history teacher who took him aside his freshman year—had ever warned him to slow down.
Of the three boys who were at the trailer that night, Heather knew Randy best. They had dated before, although things had never gotten serious. She had brought him with her to First Assembly of God Church and helped him with his homework, which he struggled with. He had ferried her around Waurika in his grandmother’s old brown Cadillac Fleetwood, the only car his family owned. Once, after driving Heather to an orthodontist appointment in Duncan, half an hour away, he had let her take the wheel of the Cadillac for a heart-stopping ride along the shoulder of U.S. 81. That was as exciting as things ever got. There had never been much of a spark between them, just a comfortable friendship. Not long after the start of school that fall, he had broken things off after hearing that she had gone skinny-dipping at a coed pool party without him.
The outlier that night was Curtis. The wiry nineteen-year-old did not attend Waurika High, and Heather had never met him before. He was from Terral, a tiny town south of Waurika on the cusp of the river, and he was a drinking and hunting buddy of Josh’s. Randy had met him one summer when they both worked in the watermelon fields, loading ripe fruit into the backs of semi-trailers. On their lunch breaks, they had gotten high together, but Randy had seen little of him since. Randy knew nothing about Curtis’s past—how he had spent years in juvenile detention centers and had broken out of each one. How he had brought an unloaded gun to school and threatened to kill his teachers. How he was eventually kicked out for terrorizing other students. How he was rumored to have slaughtered neighbors’ livestock. How he had once boasted that his fantasy was to kidnap and rape a girl, then “blow her head off.” All those details would emerge later, during the investigation. That night, Randy just thought he was someone to get wasted with.
Andy and Patty Grove never planned to settle outside of Texas. Their roots in the state reach back many generations. Patty’s ancestors came to Texas on a wagon train from Tennessee in the 1830’s (an elementary school in Houston is named for her great-grandfather); Andy’s father owned a tract of land that is now part of the posh Houston neighborhood of Hedwig Village.
I don’t remember the first horse I saw or touched; I just know that horses have always been with me. In them, I see what I hope are the best pieces of myself. Horses are at once familiar and unknowable. Each of their individual parts, a razor ear or a knobby fetlock, is fantastically peculiar and ungainly looking, but taken together, the whole is a graceful machine. They are brave beyond reason. They smell good. They have complicated emotional lives; they remember and forgive. There are other things about horses, harder to fathom, that also draw me to them. This resonance I don’t understand fully, but there it is, as native to me as the dimple in my cheek. Genetics are partly to blame. My father loved horses as a child growing up in New York City, where he cadged rides by working at a tony Bronxville hunter/jumper stable and hand-walked hot Thoroughbreds after their morning workouts at Belmont Park. After he was drafted into the Korean conflict, he gave up horses and did not return to riding as an adult. Life got in the way. At times, life has gotten in my way too. But even during the long stretches when I did not ride—periods of a suburban Fort Worth adolescence when riding wasn’t possible, or dark years at a rainy Oregon college where horses seemed distant and unavailable—the desire never left.
I drew horses, dreamed horses, saw make-believe horses in my backyard. My parents, hallelujah, allowed me to take riding lessons when I turned seven. My teacher, Myrna, was friendly and bright-eyed, with quickness in her movements and her speech, like a grackle with a checkered scarf at her neck. She was probably in her forties then, the matriarch of a close-knit confederation of grown kids, shirtless toddlers in diapers, slouchy teenagers, sons-in-law, and benign ne’er-do-wells wearing welding caps and permanent squints from cigarette smoke. I’d never encountered a family like Myrna’s, in which women wore kerchiefs to batten down the high-rise of curlers in their hair and everyone lived in a thicket of mobile homes parked amid the barns. Their world, full of slinking cats and apologetic dogs, was as exotic and beguiling as a gypsy camp. Myrna was a wonderful teacher, patient, exacting, quick with a correction or a you-can-do-it, but life among her tribe was complicated. Sometimes we’d drive out for a lesson and there’d be no parade of wash hanging on the line, which meant Myrna and her crew had bugged out, maybe for a week, maybe a couple of weeks, with no word of where they’d gone or why.
I rode next at a barn with fine-boned, sensitive Arabian horses and, after that, with an encouraging college student who taught me to jump and told me I had talent. I was in middle school by that point, and taking weekly lessons was expensive and sometimes tricky to schedule. I loved it, but I let it go. We could not support a horse. I could not get myself to lessons. I didn’t necessarily want to compete, but going round and round a ring wasn’t what I wanted either. I was thirteen, after all. I didn’t know what I wanted, much less how to get there.
Decades passed. I’m a colossal late bloomer and come to things slowly. My first horse finally materialized in my thirties, a tall, solemn red gelding called Alazán, the Spanish word for “sorrel.” My husband, Michael, and I had settled in Marfa, and along with our house in town we owned a scrubby seven-acre plot where Michael kept a cabinetmaking woodshop. For years, buying a horse was always something that would happen someday, but never right now. Other things were more important: a roof on the house, a crown for a busted molar, vet bills for our aged red heeler. Then one afternoon a rancher friend mentioned that he was taking horses to auction, older animals that could no longer do the work required of them. They’d likely be sold to the meat men for 60 cents a pound. Inside my chest, a bowknot untied. Someday became right now. I announced I’d match the meat price for the red gelding, and 24 hours later, he was chewing hay in our pen.
Alazán was a ranch horse who had hauled cowboys and chased bulls for years in some of the roughest country Presidio County offers, which is saying something. He was rather a giant, more than 16 hands and 1,250 pounds, his bone heavy and his mane and tail streaked with white and gold. Alazán had not been abused as a ranch horse, but he’d been used hard, and consequently he wasn’t much of an optimist in terms of what to expect from people. It was months before he came to me on his own. He used to turn his back to me when I went in the pen. I spent afternoons reading on an upended bucket, ignoring him. Eventually, curiosity won over, and he tiptoed behind me and whuffled my hair with his nose, then exhaled with a great sigh and smacked his lips. After that, he brightened up when our family came to see him. Never an overtly affectionate animal, he’d slide near us and hover while we cleaned the pen or washed out his buckets, hoping for a scratch or currying.
Most of my rides were alone. We would mosey down a dirt road, Alazán dancing and snorting as we passed the pasture with llamas. I admired his mane riffling in the wind and the lightness of his step in spite of his size. Riding disguises your humanity and allows you to go almost unseen by wildlife. Jackrabbits don’t zigzag away when you pass. Coyotes trotting a ridgeline take a glance and look away. The badger trundles to his burrow. One day my friend Sherman, a rancher and a former game warden, came out to admire the horse. “He was a fine, fine-looking fellow when he was young,” Sherman said. “I bet he loved to work.” Indeed, if we were out and spotted cattle, Alazán would perk his ears and swing toward them on his own in a long-strided trot—in his mind, there was work to do. We sometimes rode on the ranchland of friends, where I let Alazán open up. He leaned forward, accelerating keenly, the rush of wind a roar all around us and the passing mountains a blur. It felt very fast. Perhaps it was.
No beast on this planet eats bitter produce, unless forced by dire circumstance. But man eats grapefruit, and therefore is no beast. Grapefruit is bitter because it contains a flavonoid called naringin, one of many bad-tasting compounds Mother Nature created to protect plants from hungry animals and to let animals know which plants are likely to hurt them. Naringin can, in fact, hurt us: it interacts in unpredictable ways with many common medications, including antihistamines and blood-pressure drugs.
In 1981, when my father was 26 years old, he quit his job at a chemical plant near Houston, loaded his family into the car, and moved us back to Big Spring to get rich on the boom. It was a journey similar to one his own father had made during the Depression, when he’d struck out from Georgia in a T-model Ford and headed for West Texas and the sea of oil that lay beneath it. My grandfather found work as a roughneck and derrick man and started his family in a shotgun house owned by Conoco.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are seventeen, just a slip of a thing, all elbows and knees but with bright, determined eyes. At the mercy of your mama, you have lived in so many places and gone to so many schools you can’t remember them all. Mississippi, California, Illinois, Nebraska. Sometimes you and your little brother spend all day hiding from her rages at the movies, watching the same show over and over till they shoo you out. Sometimes she’ll gamble with you for your lunch money in a card game, and when you lose, you go hungry.
There are only two things that separate you from the other raggedy kids you’ve seen all your life. One is that you are smart. The other is that you are fast. Your long legs and strong thighs can move you like lightning down a crooked sidewalk or around a dusty track. In high school you win medals for your speed, and the coaches marvel at your gift. But you don’t run for them. You run because you have to, because you long for movement—the sight of tall pines shooting by as you fly down a dirt road. That movement is home.
March 30, 2013, in Austin was the kind of spring day that portends the unbearable summer to come. The clouds were heavy and gray, and the air was thick—not an optimal day for running, but the athletes who crowded into Mike A. Myers Stadium at the University of Texas for the last day of the Texas Relays were undeterred. The Texas Relays is, after all, the most important track-and-field event in the state and one of the most important in the nation, drawing some 6,000 high school, college, and professional competitors from across the country. About 20,000 spectators had come to witness the weekend’s speed events—sprints, hurdles, relays—and to catch sight of big names like four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross. Inside the stadium, they crammed into the bleachers to watch as the runners burned up the track, wearing uniforms in electric shades of purple and red, green and yellow—and, for UT, bright white.
It was a mostly black crowd, unusual in Austin, maybe, but not in the world of track and field, a sport dominated in the U.S. by African Americans. Over the years, the Texas Relays has morphed into a kind of South by Southwest for ambitious black Americans, who travel to Austin not only to watch the runners but to network with athletes, politicians, executives, and even movie stars. The weekend’s activities are hardly confined to the track: witness the after-parties, galas, and concerts held around town, including the Austin Urban Music Festival, which has taken place on the same weekend since 2006.
For most of the past two decades, the reigning queen of the Texas Relays was Beverly Kearney, the head coach of the University of Texas women’s track-and-field team. Bev, as she is known to almost everyone, was one of the most acclaimed coaches in the country. She had produced more Olympic contenders and NCAA champions than any other track coach in the history of UT. She was a three-time NCAA outdoor coach of the year, a two-time NCAA indoor coach of the year, and a fifteen-time conference coach of the year. Every spring at the Texas Relays, young women with their heads full of Olympic dreams would crowd toward the track just for a glimpse of her. A slight woman who normally kept her face plain and her hair pulled back, Kearney embraced her celebrity at these races: she’d get her hair and makeup done, and she’d accessorize her black track pants with a black T-shirt studded with rhinestones in the shape of a Longhorn. “I’d always have some bling on,” Kearney, now 55, told me recently. “I’d never wear traditional Longhorn gear.”
Kearney was also the star of the weekend’s non-athletic events. She had established a nonprofit organization to mentor college and high school students, the Pursuit of Dreams Foundation, and during the Relays she would host the Minority Mentorship Symposium. The affair drew high-profile figures—dubbed Gents of Distinction and Divine Divas—from the worlds of sports, politics, business, and entertainment to serve as inspirational speakers for students. Banquets held over the weekend were likely to feature Kearney honoring hip-hop star Eve or former state representative Wilhelmina Delco or actor Hill Harper (best known as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI:NY) or state Supreme Court chief justice Wallace Jefferson. During the weekend Kearney also put on a leadership conference at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and organized youth rallies. She seemed to be everywhere at once.
She was a magnetic, inspiring presence, and not only because of her success in Austin. In a near-fatal car accident in 2002, Kearney had been paralyzed from the waist down, and yet she now walked with two canes, like a mountain climber in a blizzard. Added to her already impressive life story—she had risen from a poor and rootless childhood, overcoming countless obstacles—the accident made her a formidable role model and a universal symbol of perseverance. “Failure is not an option,” she liked to say, and she was living proof of her own maxim.
That is, until this past spring, when Kearney was nowhere to be found at the 2013 Texas Relays. She didn’t ride onto the track on her burnt-orange scooter. No Divine Divas or Gents of Distinction were honored by her Pursuit of Dreams Foundation. At the parties held that weekend, there was no sign of the woman who had inspired so many people. That’s because right after Christmas, to the shock of many in the world of track and field and beyond, UT and Kearney had bitterly parted ways.
The email came on May 4, 2010, calling forth all artists, activists, and journalists who could gather the nerve to cross the Santa Fe Street Bridge from El Paso into Mexico. “We’ve turned our back on Juárez,” declared the sender, a local bar owner and writer named Richard Wright. “Some of us stopped going back in the nineties, when news accounts of the femicides reached their peak. Now Juárez is a wholesale murder factory. We wring our hands, and sign petitions, and pray. So far to no avail.” He lamented, “I miss Juárez.
“Hey, babe,” Lance Armstrong called to his girlfriend, Anna Hansen. “I’ll take the girls. Do they have all their gear? Shoes and whatnot?” He stood in the door of the den of his West Austin home at 3:45 on a Thursday afternoon. It was almost time for his eleven-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Isabelle, to be at basketball practice, and I could hear the girls in the kitchen, talking with a friend. “Okay,” he said, “five minutes.”
Lance closed the door, walked back to the couch, and sat down. It was January 31, just two weeks since his two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which, after more than a decade of fierce denials, he had finally admitted to an audience of 28 million people that he had used performance-enhancing drugs for most of his cycling career. Six months earlier, Lance had been widely regarded as one of the greatest champions the world had ever known. But then he’d been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his Olympic medal and dropped by his corporate sponsors. The Oprah interview, the ultimate revelation in Lance’s drawn-out, painfully awkward downfall, had been the most talked-about mea culpa since Bill Clinton admitted to having sex with Monica Lewinsky.
Except Clinton had fared better. In print and on the Internet, across the country and around the globe, reviews of Lance’s cold, careful performance had been universally scathing: he was a narcissist, a sociopath, a douche bag. He had selectively told the truth; he hadn’t seemed contrite. The most common refrain was that he hadn’t shown enough emotion. In the days after the interview, Lance had fled Austin to his home in Hawaii. His Twitter feed was uncharacteristically silent.
Sitting on the couch now, however, in black shorts, a black hoodie, and slippers, Lance was the picture of ease. He had about five days of beard on his chin, and his short hair was awash in gray. He had just come from a round of golf with a friend. As we talked, he seemed unfazed by the reaction to his confession. “It’s been a bloodbath,” he said. “But we expected that. You gotta put that stake in the ground and say, ‘Okay, we’re turning it around.’ That had to happen first.”
He paused. “There are days I think, ‘I shouldn’t have done the interview.’ But then I see my kids, see the way they’re acting, the way they’re interacting. I see the way my son plays basketball, the way he hustles, the way he’s focused. I see a different kid.”
He was talking about Luke, his thirteen-year-old. Lance had told Oprah that the reason he was confessing was his children. In the one moment during the interview that he had shown any real feeling, Lance’s eyes had welled with tears as he related how he had told his oldest son to stop defending him at his middle school.
I told Lance that a close friend of his had informed me that, in 23 years, he’d never seen that happen. “I’m not that emotional of a person,” Lance replied. “It wasn’t ever gonna be one or two or three hours of grabbing tissues.”
His life since the interview, he said, had remained pretty much the same as before. He swam, ran, and biked. He hung out with his kids. He occasionally went out with Anna and friends to a handful of local establishments—Whole Foods for lunch, Uchi for dinner, Deep Eddy for beers. So far, he’d experienced minimal fallout from the confession. “No one’s come up to me and said, ‘Hey, f—er,’ ” he said. “Though I’m sure that’ll happen.”
He was proud of his cancer charity work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation and peeved that all of a sudden people didn’t seem to want to give him any credit for it. Still, he was realistic about his situation. “The stain’s not going away—my girls will grow into it. My two little ones will grow into it. This stain will live forever. I’ll never get rid of it. I’ll just try and do the best for my family, my community, my constituency—whatever that may be.”
Twelve years ago, when we’d first met, there wasn’t a doubt who Lance’s constituency was. He was on top of the world back then, and as part of a story I was doing on him, I attended the Ride for the Roses gala, a high-dollar, star-studded fund-raising party for the foundation. Lance came out at the start of the evening to almost giddy applause. “This night is going to be unbelievable,” he said. The crowd clapped wildly at everything—the inspirational videos, the audience members who had raised large sums for the foundation. Lance was treated as a savior. “Lance does something to those of us who know him,” said emcee Harry Smith, “and those of us who admire him.” Shawn Colvin played a song partly inspired by Lance. Survivors came out and told their stories; when Cara Dunne-Yates spoke (she was a blind Paralympic medal winner fighting her third round with cancer), nearly everyone in the room had tears in his eyes. Lance followed her to close the night. “Stories like this are what get me on the bike every day and get us out there.” At the very end, a man yelled out, “Tear it up, Lance!”
Lance always had his doubters, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that back then he was almost universally beloved in Austin. That spring he took me along on a training ride across town (at one point when I couldn’t keep up he’d had to literally push me up a long incline with his hand on my back). Twice we were hailed by locals. The first time was two burly white guys in a moving truck. “Hey, Lance!” the passenger called. Lance smiled. “How’s it going?” he shouted. A few minutes later a black guy in a Delta 88 drove past, slowed, pulled over ahead of us, and got out. He asked if he could take Lance’s picture. Sure, Lance said, and stopped. “Appreciate it!” the man called as we rode away. “Thank you!”
As the years went on, Lance became more than just a local hero—he became a personification of the city itself. Fit, driven, cool, fast, young, weird: Lance and Austin were made for each other. On any given day now it seems as if everyone in town is running or biking on the ten-mile hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. Packs of colorful cyclists cruise the streets at all hours. Austin is home to healthy businesses like Whole Foods and RunTex and healthy weirdos like Willie Nelson. It’s a hip, high-tech, liberal city in a conservative state, a city without a big-time professional sports team—but with a famous athlete whose sport is revered in Europe and mostly ignored in the U.S. Lance gave Austin swagger and Austin gave Lance a home. It was, he announced after his 2005 Tour win, “the greatest city on the planet.”
But now the incredible feats of athleticism and courage that built his reputation have been wiped out, his foundation is fighting for its existence, and those who loved and admired him are trying to figure out what happened to their idol. For many in Austin, it is an impossible and agonizing puzzle: What does it mean that the things that ultimately led to his downfall—his will, his arrogance, his fighting streak—were the very things that had once made him great? That his single-mindedness harmed so many of his teammates and peers yet benefited so many cancer survivors? That the same defiance that inspired his rise now seems to prevent him from showing remorse like a normal, decent human being? Who is the real Lance, anyway?
I told Lance how I think people in Austin want to like him again. “You were a hero here,” I said.
He shook his head. “That was too perfect,” he replied. “Now the media, certain people out there, my enemies, my foes want me to be a monster.” He paused.
“Mike, I wasn’t a hero, and I’m not a monster.”