The woman who taught a champion never to quit

June 26, 2005|By Susan Reimer

IF I HAD BEEN GOING to hear Lance Armstrong speak, I'd have had to rent a bus.

The athlete who survived cancer to win six straight Tour de France bicycle races is going after his seventh victory next month, and he's on the cover of every magazine on the newsstands except Architectural Digest.

But I was going to hear Lance Armstrong's mother speak, and nobody wanted to come along. Not even the Lance-alot bike racers who leave their equipment all over my house and the houses of my friends.

"Lance Armstrong: six tour victories. Linda Armstrong: zero," one young cyclist joked in response to my invitation.

Another young said, "Why would I go?"

My own response was that Lance Armstrong did not spring, fully formed, from the mind of Zeus. In fact, this child of a single mother had survived more than cancer to become the international sensation that he is. Isn't it possible that his mother holds some answers to the question of what makes Lance go?

Apparently not, because I traveled by myself to a charity auction to hear her speak.

Linda Armstrong Kelly, a little bit of a thing with a Texas accent that could melt asphalt, was appearing at the Howard County Central Library in support of The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, a charity and a cause close to her son's heart.

When Lance was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 24, there was no information and no support for cancer victims his age.

That was also true for Howard County's Doug Ulman, who was discovered to have cancer while a Division I soccer player at Brown University.

Ulman wrote to Armstrong for advice and their correspondence became a friendship. Ulman recently left his own organization to work in survivorship support for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which has raised almost $60 million by selling those yellow bracelets you see everywhere, the ones that say "Live Strong."

Linda Armstrong Kelly, who wears six of those bracelets, is also the author of a new book, No Mountain High Enough: Raising Lance, Raising Me (Broadway Books, $24.95). It's a lively and colloquial account of her pregnancy at 16, her abusive first marriage to Lance's father and her determined survival of poverty and rejection.

Linda Mooneyham herself was the child of alcoholism, divorce and poverty. Her mother, her sister and her brother moved often as her mother determinedly sought better and better jobs. They never bothered to unpack their clothes, she recalled, because there was no point.

It would be the same path Linda would follow after her mother kicked her out of the house upon learning that she was pregnant as a high school junior. She would eventually get her GED and work her way up to a corner office in a telecommunications firm because of her ferocious work ethic, inspired by the love she felt for her son.

"I grew up with him," she said.

When Lance discovered his love of cycling and triathlons as a young boy, she made a deal with him, "You train and race, and I will take care of the rest." Each of them more than held up their end of this bargain of love.

"After work and on weekends, that baby was my life," she said.

And when Lance was discovered to have cancer, his mother assumed the same "project manager" role she had played in his athletic life. Her charts, graphs, notebooks, Rolodexes and calendars were a wonder.

One of the most poignant moments in the book comes when Lance emerges from the surgery that removed two tumors from his brain. He asked immediately for his mother and said, "I want you to know how much I love my life," he said, "and how much I love you for giving it to me."

The mother and son share a never-quit attitude as certain as anything else in their DNA. Lance writes in the foreword to her book about the time he was near collapse in a triathlon. "She strode beside me and said, 'Son, you never, ever quit. Whatever you do, you stick to it. You may have to walk, but you're going to finish.'

"With her next to me, I did."

Linda Armstrong Kelly's story of indefatigable determination to make a better and better life for her son peaks when he signs his first professional deal as a teenager and is earning many times more than she. It has its satisfaction when she brings her organization skills to the building of his dream home in Austin, one he would name "Casa Linda."

And when he is diagnosed with cancer, she was his inspiration.

"...There was something familiar about the sensation of battling once again side by side with my mother."

Lance Armstrong has his own book. In fact, he has a couple. But after meeting his mother, I am put in mind of the title of one of them: It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.

I am thinking it might be about the mother.

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