Lance Armstrong

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When I was very small, my dad took me to a bike race. I don’t remember where, but I remember that it was cloudy, we were sitting on the side of a hill, and the racers went “WOOSH” as they passed by us. Then my dad drove us home in his white Toyota Celica, shifting gears with his big right hand while I watched the world pass by out the window, my little feet tightly wedged into Stride-Rites dangling off the seat.

My dad loves cycling. He loves a lot of sports – Formula 1 racing, motorcycle racing, football – but cycling is his love. One of his favorite bike frames is hanging from the brick chimney in my parent’s living room. He exudes cycling.

I didn’t understand why my dad loved cycling so much.

Truth be told, I didn’t understand a lot about my dad. I didn’t think he liked me very much. I didn’t think he loved me very much.   We were so alike, and we continue to be remarkably similar (no one can stand awkwardly with their hands in their pockets for long periods of time better than us). I sound like my mom, but I look like my dad – same flat nose, same flat feet, same long legs. Perhaps those similarities made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was getting closer to the age when his own father died.

We were two people in one house who barely spoke. But then we met Lance.

You have to understand: in 1997, my dad was alone in the wilderness of being a cycling enthusiast in the United States. Greg LeMond won his last Tour in 1990, the same year I turned 3. If you wanted to watch the Tour de France, you either taped it live at 3AM on some bullshit channel we couldn’t afford, or you hoped that Phil Ligget and Armen Keteyian would show up on 4PM on Sundays on CBS during the Tour and run through the week’s stages. Cycling enthusiasts hung out at bike shops and talked about Miguel Indurain and Eddie Merckx but no one – no one – else cared.

But then Lance happened.

Lance was a triathlete, then a cancer patient, and then a cancer survivor, and then a seven-time Tour de France champion.

He was one of the greatest athletes I have ever seen.

During a race that lasts for three weeks and over 2,000 miles, a race that has actually killed people, he separated himself from the field. He would toy with his competitors, hanging back and then exploding up mountains that towered over the French countryside while we followed along on TV. During time trials, he’d move so fast that it barely seemed like he was moving at all until you realized that the team car following him was doing 45 miles per hour.

He did things like this. 

He made literal mountains into molehills. 98 degrees in the middle of July, and he’d spurn rest or breaks to chase down an opponent and bring him back into the Peloton. I cannot emphasize enough what it was like to watch him race. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time – imagining that a human being, a human being like me and you and my mom and Bob Costas, could do that, become that.

After watching with my dad, I’d run outside and get on my bike and pretend that I was going for a Tour stage win, Phil Ligget’s voice in my head: “She’s going for it! She’s going for the win! She’s going to be Tour Champion!” Lance inspired my dad, too. He started running, entered a triathlon, biked for dozens of miles every weekend.

Doping? My dad and I never thought Lance would dope. Never. We’d been fooled before (the Festina affair, Floyd Landis) but could the man who made this Nike ad be a doper? 

As far as we knew, he was just genetically gifted. Cycling magazines told that perhaps chemo gave him the right body type to win in the Tour – pure muscle, no fat. His lungs were naturally bigger. His heart could pump more blood. He was just better than everyone else, better than LeMond, better than Indurain, better than everyone who had ever done the Tour.

Of course that wasn’t true. None of it was. Everyone was doping. Lance, George Hincapie, the entire USPS team was either doping or knew about it. As testing for doping got better, racers got better at doping. Too bad, so sad, the end.

And I know that. But I also know that for three weeks every July, my dad and I would sit in our airless living room and watch magic happen. We saw the same tiny French towns each year, the same fans, the same horses running alongside the road, the same perfect entrance into Paris on the final day. We sat together for all seven of Lance’s Tour wins, and though those wins no longer count, the hours my dad and I spent together talking about Lance, reading about Lance, arguing about whether Lance’s team was strong enough to carry him through the team time trial, watching old tapes of Lance taking on Alp d’ Huez – those moments count.

I love my dad. I love our phone conversations, our terrible World War 2 jokes, his strength. I love how he loves my mom, and how he cares for his family. I love how we finally have bridged the gap between us to be father and daughter, true friends. Lance lied to us, like how he lied to everyone around him and probably, in some ways, to himself.

But what Lance did for me and my dad? Bringing us together?

That’s true.

 

 

 

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Football Is Joy

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This post is in response to this article.

I was not always obsessed with football. There was a time in my life when Saturdays and Sundays were just days.

I grew up in Cincinnati during the 90s, when the Bengals were about as terrible as terrible can be (seriously, look up the Bengals Wikipedia page. It’s a litany of sad.) My dad spent most games doing something else – during particularly bad seasons, he’d do home improvement projects. My parents have two decks and two ponds. That’s a lot of Sunday despair put to good use.

In addition, my dad went to Northwestern (which just won the only bowl game they’ve ever won during my dad’s lifetime) and my mom went to Carleton, so I grew up in a college football-free home.

As an incredibly awkward (fat, braces, unkempt hair, an inability to not use giant words in everyday conversation, definitely not heterosexual) kid, sports were a no-go for me. I was part of that generation of kids where either you were spectacular at sports – select soccer, AAU basketball – or you avoided them like the plague. I read a lot. I thought a lot. Maybe too much. I was very lonely, and I thought about being lonely all the time. In high school, all of this thinking would go to a very bad place and end with me spending some not-so-fun times at Children’s Hospital.

When I got to college, I wasn’t concerned about college football. I was 18, and finally out of Ohio, and I was ready to start my life over again. No one at Michigan knew me. They didn’t have to know about the time I wore a cape around school or how uncomfortable I could be around other people or how long I spent staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, hoping to not wake up the next day.

Michigan football was shitty my freshman year.  After barely losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl the year before, and despite having future NFL standouts like Leon Hall, Jason Avant, and Lamarr Woodley on the team, Michigan decided to find out what it would be like to be unable to hold onto a lead or maintain a drive for longer than four plays (those four plays: run left, run left, incomplete pass, punt.) We lost to Minnesota. We lost to Notre Dame. The season would eventually end with a nearly successful multiple lateral play in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska.

That doesn’t matter. Just know that it was a season, and not a great one.

I went to one game. It was my first time at Michigan Stadium. It ended with this:

Complete chaos.

Chaos cannot be controlled. You can’t defend chaos. There’s no nickel package that can combat chaos. That chaos is why some coaches sleep in their offices.

The entire empire of college football media, from recruiting rankings to Mark May and Lou Fucking Holtz, is built on trying to make chaos into order, trying to tell you and themselves that if this 4* QB goes to this school and learns under this system, he will throw to this receiver and there will be this touchdown. This team will win, this team will lose, and this can all be borne out in statistical analysis explained to you by Jesse Palmer. But that’s bullshit, and once or twice a year, we learn that lesson.

The moment that the ball is snapped, there are so many possibilities and permutations of what might or could happen that it’s almost inconceivable that any play works as designed.  If you’re a good enough team, you can create enough plays that work that you can almost overrule chaos – a fumbled handoff, the QB dropping the ball (heh, Tommy Rees, heh), a sack and strip of the running back. But that chaos is always there, watching and waiting.

In my life, I hate chaos. I like certainty. Order. Rhythm. But I crave football chaos. Football chaos leads to upsets and plays that you don’t even believe are real while they’re happening. I lie on the floor and I tweet and I have panic attacks and I scream and I jump around and I totally lose my mind from that chaos. Football chaos creates joy.

Joy is elation. Joy is ephemeral. Joy is like getting thrown into the air and exploding into tiny  shiny pieces. Joy is the moment that Chad Henne threw that ball to Mario Manningham on a 4th and 1 with 1 second left on the clock against an undefeated Nittany Lion squad in front of 108,000 people. Joy is like getting kicked in the face by magic.

There’s just a second right before the ball is snapped when time stops. The center looks up, looks back, looks up, snaps. In that moment, nothing matters and everything matters. Anything is possible. You hang in this moment, and then that moment is gone. The play is run, the whistle is blown, and it’s over.

I’d give everything I have to always live in that moment.

I love football because it makes me useless. History is useless. ESPN and CBS and ABC are useless. Everything is useless but that moment, that breath before the play. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing I can be can make Michigan win. I can leave my head and exist in that moment, that play, that catch, that tackle.

I love football because nothing on earth makes me happier. College football has given me moments that have held me, safe and content, through some of the most difficult moments of my life. When my mom was in a coma my sophomore year of college, I watched the 2006 Michigan-Notre Dame game so often that I can quote large sections of the color commentary. Sometimes, my anxiety makes me feel so alone and so scared and the weight of it on my chest makes it difficult to breathe. But then I watch Courtney Avery intercept Braxton Miller’s 4th down pass at the end of the 2011 game against OSU and for a moment, just for a moment, I’m free.

I don’t know if other women feel this way. I bet they do, but again, I don’t know. I don’t know why it matters to some GQ writer who doesn’t even like football. I don’t know why women aren’t allowed to like things without becoming ‘a woman who likes a thing’.

I don’t know very much of anything. Uncertainty – about myself, my life, my future – is fairly standard for me. Perhaps the only things I am certain about are about football. I know that I love Michigan football. I know that I will always love Michigan football. And for now, that’s enough.