The Tour de France Bicycle Race is a 2267 mile grind that takes three weeks to complete. It may be the single hardest sporting event there is. For the last seven years it was won by Lance Armstrong, whose compelling story of surviving metastatic cancer made him a hero. This year it was won by another American, Floyd Landis, who accomplished a stunning come-from-behind victory.
Floyd’s story is as compelling as Lance’s; he is virtually crippled when he’s not on the bike. He limps with pain, cannot cross his legs, and soon will have total hip replacement surgery. Floyd led for most of the Tour, but five days from its completion, he “hit the wall” in the grueling Alpine passes and fell from 1st to 11th place. Floyd made no excuses, said that he would keep on fighting. The next day he shocked everyone by making one of the best rides in the Tour’s history. He clawed his way back to third place and the following day sprinted into first and held on to win.
A few days ago we all learned that Floyd might be disqualified because they found too much testosterone in his urine sample as evidence of blood doping. This saddens me enormously, even if it turns out not to be true, the accusation will taint his achievement. Here is a man who, in adversity, found a catalyst that tapped his inner strength, the heart of a true champion. Someone who doesn’t give up when his pain and suffering (physical or emotional) seems overwhelming.
The weekend before last, I was with such a champion. I spent five days rooming with my friend W. Mitchell, one of the great joys in my life. I may be the only psychiatrist in the world he would ever share a room with. Mitchell doesn’t think much of the psychiatrists he’s known. He says they focus on the sickness and the scars, rather then help you identify your strengths. Mitchell’s inexhaustible joy always balances my inexhaustible angst.
In 1971, at age of 28, Mitchell was in a fiery motorcycle accident that left him burned over 65% of his body. He survived with severe scarring and dismemberment. Physically disfigured, he became a millionaire entrepreneur, respected businessman and pilot. Several years later he survived a small plane crash in which he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He went on to become the Mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado, and an internationally recognized ambassador of hope. Mitchell does not see himself as disabled. He is still “a babe magnet,” and says, “Before I was paralyzed, there were 10,000 things I could do; now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the ones I have lost or focus on the 9000 I have left.” At the end of a long evening of imbibing, it was I who was disabled and Mitchell graciously said, “Just put your hands on the wheelchair and let me take you home”.
These are the champions of the world, the visionaries who remind us that our successes are a combination of hard work, patience and a dream that makes us look forward to tomorrow. All of us can do incredible things, because we all have a human spirit and its infinite source of dreams.