Shooting gave LeMond the ability to say no

December 09, 1990|By Elliott Almond | Elliott Almond,Los Angeles Times

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The shotgun blast pierced the still spring morning with a deafening ring.

Greg LeMond would recall two years later that the blast sounded as if it had come from his gun, not from one 25 yards away.

"My first realization that anything had happened was that I saw there was blood on the ring finger on my left hand," LeMond told Samuel Abt in the book, "LeMond: The Incredible Comeback of an American Hero."

"Then I felt numbness. When you get shot, you go into shock instantly and don't really know what's going on. I must have tried to stand up . . . and I almost passed out. I tried talking, but my right lung had collapsed and I could barely breathe."

Kathy LeMond, Greg's wife, was pregnant with the couple's second child April 20, 1987, the day LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law during a turkey hunt in Northern California. She went into labor, but visited LeMond after his emergency surgery.

"They had just lifted Greg up to change his sheets," she told Abt. "Out of every single hole in his body he was dripping blood. It was just like a colander. I asked, 'Are you sure he's going to be all right? He has all these holes in him.' He had 60 holes and he was just dripping blood out of every single hole."

Pellets were removed from LeMond's liver, kidneys and intestines. About 30 remain lodged in the body, including two in his heart lining.

Three years later, however, he is all right.

LeMond, who in 1986 became the first American to win the Tour de France, survived the ordeal to become one of the world's best-known cyclists.

Although he had to skip two tours -- in 1987 because of the shooting and in 1988 because of cycle-related injuries -- LeMond returned and won the 1989 and 1990 tours.

Those victories represent an inner strength that friends say was solidified after the hunting accident. They say the shooting profoundly affected LeMond and everything he has done since then.

LeMond agrees.

On the verge of death, LeMond said he learned a valuable lesson about life.

A crowd of Southern California bicycling enthusiasts swayed as if being rocked by an earthquake. With hands out, they waved pieces of paper in LeMond's face.

"Hey, Greg. Greg LeMond! Over heeeere. Won't you sign? Pleeeease!"

LeMond honored thousands of requests at the recent DuPont pro cycling championships here in a scene that is repeated around the world when he greets his public.

LeMond has learned the subtle art of signing autographs while not ignoring a sponsor, reporter or whoever else is competing for his attention.

"At the Tour de France, he can't even get out of his car, so many people want him," said Greg Miller, LeMond's bicycle mechanic.

The bottomless sea of requests is daunting, yet LeMond does not flinch. He shows no hint of resentment when tapped on his left shoulder to mug with a fan for a photograph, then tapped on his right shoulder to face the glare of television lights and a microphone.

"You couldn't put on the smile and do the things he does if you weren't genuine," Miller said. "You would lose your cool with people after a while."

But one can shake only so many hands, accommodate only so many people.

"He tries to please everyone, and sometimes it is too much," Kathy LeMond said last July in Paris.

After the shooting, Greg LeMond had nothing but time to ponder his future as he lay in bed, barely able to move. He said he began to realize his family meant more to him than any Tour de France victory.

"It just makes you realize how fragile life is," he has said. "Everything can be going along perfectly, and then suddenly -- boom -- you're dead.

"The accident is exactly why I won't dedicate myself [exclusively] to cycling. . . . I train as hard as anybody, but I have different priorities. The accident made me realize that a healthy family is the most important thing in the world to me."

For the last three years, LeMond has struggled not to undermine that perspective.

The LeMonds have three children -- Geoffrey, Scott and Simone. The children are shuttled between homes on Lake Minnetonka, near the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and Kortjik, Belgium. That way, when LeMond is competing in Europe, he can always spend time with them.

LeMond hoped this trans-Atlantic homesteading would satisfy both worlds. But some of the old issues still confront him.

As his wife reminds him, LeMond never will be completely free until he learns to say no.

"It is something that I'm better at now," he said.

He was polite but firm in his resolve not to ride in the Newport Beach race, for instance. LeMond was advertised as the race's star attraction, and Southern California fans were disappointed that he did not compete.

But his season had ended three weeks earlier. He did not want to alter his schedule for a meaningless event. Race promoters knew the situation but continued using LeMond's name to draw a larger crowd.

LeMond was bound by a contract with DuPont to appear at the event.

In other years, he has been pressured into riding, then regretted it when he performed miserably.

So, this time he said it -- "No."

"I figured there would be no point to racing if I was going to stop halfway," he said. "You can train for 10 years and if you take six weeks off, it's like you're back at ground zero in your training."

Cycling experts praised LeMond's decision. After the World Championships in October, most of the international elite took a break. The cycling season runs from February through October, so November is their month to rest.

LeMond, 29, failed to follow such a regimen after the 1989 season.

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