After becoming pregnant as a teenager, Linda Armstrong Kelly raised her son Lance Armstrong alone. Lance went on to become a six-time Tour de France champion and one of the world's best cyclists. In her new book, “No Mountain High Enough: Raising Lance, Raising Me,” Armstrong recounts the lessons of sacrifice and resilience that she and her son learned as they grew up together. She was invited on the “Today” show to discuss her book. Read an excerpt.
I would like to say right up front — I did not know about the fireballs. Obviously, if I’d known my twelve-year-old son was lighting gasoline-soaked tennis balls on fire and batting them around the yard with oven mitts, I would have been all over his case. No, I read about it in his autobiography, just like the rest of the world, and I guess I’d feel bad about that if I didn’t know this: there’s not a kid past middle school who hasn’t done something that would chill his mother to the bone if she knew about it. And I’ll bet I’m not the only mother with a few fireballs of her own — moments from the past that would take her child equally by surprise.
That’s the way it is between mother and child. You grow up, grow together, grow apart, grow old, never really knowing the true life story of that other person whose life was so entwined with your own. Mothers see what they want to see. Children see what they need. And that’s as it should be. Everyone should have a moment to believe they’re the center of someone’s universe, and my son and I gave that moment to each other. That’s what I want to tell people who ask me about Lance: that he’s my son, fireballs and all, and I would think he was the most amazing man in the world even if the world had never heard his name.
Watching him take his sport by storm (and occasionally worrying about the sport taking him), I’m continually astonished at the all-out beauty of that boy and the enormous love he brings out of me. It swept us both outward like a riptide from the day he was born to — well, right now. Right here, in the lovely foyer of my lovely home, where TV people are swarming, switching, scurrying around. They flip through my photo albums, searching for the secrets of his success. They mine my memories, stirring up dust and ghosts and odd little gremlins I thought I was done with long ago. (You know how you tuck things away in little dresser drawers in your head.)
Vivaldi was tuned in on the satellite dish when they arrived, but Motown was the music in my mind. It always is when I revisit those days. It was in the air back then, hanging in the humidity, breaking up the exhaust fumes that turned the taste of the heat smoky and brown. When I think of walking down the streets of Dallas, my freshly ironed hair swinging to the Supremes, I hear the drill team chants mingled with a girl group beat, the bluesy lyrics pattering back and forth between the boys in the sweltering alley. The harmonies lifted worn white sheets that waved on wire clotheslines between the tenement buildings, flagging the surrender of the people inside. Motown drifted from shop doors by day, from car windows by night. Now James Brown and Diana Ross and Little Stevie Wonder play alongside my memories like a movie sound track. I can’t separate the music from the smell of hot asphalt. It’s one of the ways in which my memories have been mellowed — healed by time, rewritten by compassion, surgically enhanced by this dog-with-a-bone optimism that won’t let me give up on anyone until a tree falls on me.
My son doesn’t like to revisit the past. He is a man perpetually in forward motion. Always has been. Love that kid. Head down, into the wind. No time to look over your shoulder. Nothing back there is as important as what’s ahead. But I don’t personally mind it. Revisiting. I like that word. That word makes it sound like I’m knocking on the door at Granny’s house and she’s still there to open it. Or like I’m passing by that Mooneyham girl who sits on the crumbling cement steps in front of some god-awful apartment building, fanning herself with the want ads from the Dallas Morning News. If I could drop in on that girl like a fairy godmother, whisper in her ear through the summer breeze, I know just what I’d say.
“Don’t give up. You’re gonna be okay. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
I can’t remember where I first heard that one, but I used it a lot. Even then I knew some clichés got to be clichés for a reason: because they’re true. The false old saws about knowing your place and following the rules — those don’t seem to wear as well, and anyway, I never really thought they applied to me. Even then I knew if I was going to make the life I wanted, I was going to have to color outside the lines. But that is so much easier to say at fifty than it is at fifteen.
From this perspective, I feel a great affection for that girl. I don’t cringe at the polka-dot bell-bottoms or the daisy-splattered minidress. I’m proud of what I was, where I am, and how I made the trip from there to here. And it frankly boggles my mind that a television crew is setting up their light trees and tripods in the middle of my foyer, having traveled to Plano, Texas, from New York City just to ask me all about it.
“Who’d have ever thought?” says my sister Debbie in absolute wonderment.
“Who ever would’ve?” I agree.
Back in the days when we played Lawrence Welk Show (Debbie and I were Kathy and Dee Dee Lennon, while our little brother Alan was pressed into service as Myron Floren), we thought, to be on television, well, that must make you something pretty special. Poverty has this way of making a child feel invisible, I think. Maybe that’s why we dreamed so dearly of being someone worth noticing.
When Lance was fourteen or fifteen, he was interviewed on an ESPN program called KidSports, and I’ll tell you what, I saw my son on national television and — oh, my God! There was my son on national television! I was immediately on the edge of my seat, trying to coach him through the glass. “Okay, son, stand up straight. Look at the camera — no, wait! Maybe you’re supposed to look at the guy with the microphone — no, wait! Look at the crowd. And smile! And — and be sure to thank the —”
Lance was unflappable. He was so caught up in the thrill of winning, he apparently forgot to be thrilled about being on TV. He’d been riding hard for two hours, so he was breathless and sweaty and still in his Speedos. He bounded to the platform like some big goofy puppy — completely raw, innocent, and radiating a child’s liquid joy.
“I’m just so excited to win!” he said happily. “Sometimes I even get paid if I win, and my mom doesn’t have a lot of money, so that really helps her.”
“So I guess it’ll feel pretty good to get home and rest up for a few days, huh?” said the guy with the microphone.
“Oh, no,” Lance replied, “I’m gonna race again tomorrow! That’ll really cap it off.” He hoisted a gallon jug of water, slugged some down, and wiped his mouth with the side of his hand, still breathing hard and grinning larger than life. “I was gut-checkin’ out there! Had to get away from that other guy. Man, he has a motor on his bike!”
That’s all it was about for him. The race was the thing. Winning was the goal. Losing was an opportunity to learn what might help you win next time. Being in that inner circle, being recognized and applauded — that was part of the rush, I suppose, but not enough to make someone go through what he had to go through to make winning happen. He was never nervous about getting up on the platform at the end of a race, smiling for the cameras, talking to the microphones. He was eager to share his joy. Isn’t that the heart of celebrity? Celebration? It took us a while to figure out that all those accolades — well, it’s like a big ol’ peach pie. Wonderfully sweet. But eventually it draws ants. Hornets even, if you don’t keep a lid on it.
Nonetheless, ya gotta make hay while the sun shines. That’s what I tell my son. There’s a window of opportunity for an athlete, and it’s nothing so enduring as Motown. Someday in the not-so-distant future it’ll all be a scrapbook, so today praise the Lord and pass the Colgate. I’m gonna mug every photo op like a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. I am a bona-fide show dawg. I fix up quite nicely, if I do say so myself, and the camera and I have a mutual understanding: it adds ten pounds but subtracts ten years. I am unutterably proud of my son and happy to do whatever I can to make sure the rest of the world feels the same way. Sign me up. Lights, camera, action.
“Gotta go,” I tell Debbie. “They’re looking at me like they expect something.”
“B’bye,” we both say to our stylishly tiny phones.
“Do you mind if we remove the swag?” asks the producer, but apparently this is a rhetorical question. She has already dragged the swag down and yanked the tall drapes closed. Too much sun, I guess. The artificial light is sharper, narrower, easier to harness than all that dayshine. But it irritates me, this lack of regard for the labor of love it was. The interior decorator — a terrific lady who owns a little shih tzu just like Sam — and the window treatment lady — who had a baby last year — reverently fluffed and tugged and smoothed for half an hour to get it just so, and it’s hardly been touched since, except with a feather duster.
“Oh, hon, set that on the rug,” I tell a young man who has pushed aside a standard of silk gladiolas and is opening a huge metal box on the round mahogany table. I see the glance he exchanges with another crewman, but I don’t care. Let them think this is some rich lady’s house and she’s all uptight about it. I make no apologies for loving my beautiful things. Isn’t that terrible? Materialistic or something. But I’ve worked very hard for what I have and know what it’s like to do without. This house is quite literally my dream home. A Technicolor Emerald City, in contrast to the sepia-toned projects of Dallas where I grew up.
And it’s not because I’m rich. I’ve felt the same way about humbler surroundings in the past. A house is never just sticks and bricks to me. It’s a sanctuary sometimes, a tornado shelter at others. It’s the place where I nurture my family and my cooking skills and my stubborn vision of the life I want to create. A porch where a boy on a red bicycle deposits the morning paper. A door where a daddy leans in, removing his hat for his welcome-home kiss. A bay window with lace curtains on the inside and neatly trimmed hedges on the outside. A table with wedding china and good silver and seconds on beef Stroganoff if you want it. As a child, I studied this dream on television — "Donna Reed" and "Father Knows Best" and all the commercials in between — so I knew it was possible, and I hammered away at that possibility in every room at every address I’ve had since my son was born. I wanted that for him. And for me. Still do.
“Can we see Lance’s room?” asks the producer.
“Well, you’d have to ask him,” I tell her. “It’s at his house.”
“Oh.” She seems crestfallen. “This isn’t where he grew up?”
I just have to laugh at that.
She seems pleased when I bring out the photo albums. Yes, this is more like it. Lance’s third birthday party on the cramped cedar deck of a run-down apartment complex. Lance grinning in the driveway outside the quintessential mid-seventies suburban crackerbox. Lance wheeling down the block in his little Darth Vader costume. A giant’s humble beginnings. That makes for good television, I suppose. That’s what they’re here for. The Legend of Mellow Johnny. They think I somehow made him be the way he is and should be able to tell them how to make their child be that way too, so they can bottle and sell it. They want to know why my little boy loved his bike, and I wonder, why don’t they ask a little boy? Someone who hasn’t forgotten that a game is to play, a ball is to throw, a bike is to ride.
Of course, these folks have no more patience for that sort of thing than they do for a carefully arranged swag. They’re so busy with their flashbulbs popping over his rock-star status, I’m not sure they even see how beautiful this genuine human being is when he moves — what a great idea God had when He sat down at the drawing board and mapped out how He could make the most of two legs, two lungs, a brain, and His own breath.
On days like today I sit on the embroidered silk dais in my foyer, blinking up into the lights, prepared to give them my best sound bites, even if it isn’t always what they want to hear. The producer prompts and coaches, suggesting things for me to say, but I know how to speak for myself. They come looking for Vivaldi. Motown is what they find. I won’t perpetuate the myth that a parent’s role is to relentlessly drive a child in some direction or other — or that it’s even possible to drive a child in one direction or another. (There was a time when I truly believed Lance’s best hope for prosperity was an associate’s degree in computer science, and you’ll notice he doesn’t have one.) If there is some microwavable recipe for raising a wunderkind, I haven’t got it. I won’t pretend I do. And I simply reject the belief that certain people are born blessed, predestined, lucky — however you want to say it. We were lucky enough to have it tough, I guess. We were blessed with challenges that forced us to grow. But if there is some cosmic master plan, it didn’t cut us any slack. I can’t let people look past the blood, sweat, and road rash Lance has invested in his accomplishments (or the brains and hard work I have invested in mine). That would let them off the hook when it comes time to invest the same sort of effort in their own dreams.
The sound crew wires me with a little microphone, and I tuck the battery pack into place.
“Okay, I just need you to say something so we can sound-check,” the technician tells me.
“Voice check ... one two three ...”
“Got it,” nods the producer. “So, Linda. Tell us. How did you do it? How did a single teenage mom manage to raise a real live superhero?”
“Well,” I smile my best Donna Reed smile, “I always made sure he had a good hot breakfast.”
“Biscuits and gravy usually. Eggs and bacon when we could afford it. Waffles maybe. On special occasions.”
“No, really. I know it sounds unimportant, but — well, think about it. Instead of sleeping in and then tearing around and rushing out the door, we got up early enough so he could sit down and eat this breakfast I made for him, and we’d talk about the day and what was going on with him and what was going on with me and ... whatever. We had a hectic schedule. I wanted to spend that time with him. I wanted him to know he was the first and best thing in my day. Every day.”
“So he had a healthy diet, structured schedule — but so do a lot of kids. What did you do that made Lance Armstrong who he is today?”
Funny. They never ask about what I failed to do. What I couldn’t give him. But the truth is, those are the things that made him who he is. The things he had to go out and get for himself. He’s a child of necessity, and I’m a mother of invention. That’s how we got by. A child doesn’t build a life on what you give him. He builds his life on what you show him. The good and the bad. And one of the good things I showed my son was how to climb hills. I can think of no firmer foundation for this soap bubble of fame than the broken pavement of the Dallas projects, where I grew up too fast and brought that extraordinary creature into the world.
This is the value of memory, I guess. Grounding. Perspective. And if you’re lucky, understanding.
Excerpted from "No Mountain High Enough: Raising Lance, Raising Me" by Linda Armstrong Kelly. Copyright © 2005 by Linda Armstrong Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.