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.”
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