The hero of hope

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Do you remember when there was no coming back? When there was so little hope, so few survivors, so rare a success story?

You remember when a cancer diagnosis meant you might as well schedule the wake because fighting a killer that took millions seemed hopeless. Oh, the disease still kills. Cancer is still as ugly a word as there is. But you remember when it was worse?

Lance Armstrong did not find a cure for cancer. He didn't discover treatments. He didn't perfect medicines. Nameless, faceless heroes in lab coats and medical schools did that. Those are the true heroes in a war we are still fighting.

But every fight needs a face, needs a leader, needs someone who lifts spirits, cheers hearts and makes what once seemed impossible, now oh-so possible.

Lance Armstrong, clad in yellow again, coasted into Paris on Sunday, winning his record seventh consecutive Tour de France, an accomplishment requiring more will, more focus and more unrelenting energy than any other in sports.

But battling the Alps, the time trials and the snippy French press was really nothing compared to being the hero of hope to all of those chemotherapy patients.

Lance Armstrong is the most important athlete of our generation for all of that.

"I want you all to know that I intend to beat this disease," said Armstrong on Oct. 8, 1996, back when such talk was not likely to be taken seriously.

Armstrong was the ninth-ranked cyclist in the world at the time, a fringe player in a fringe sport in America, all of which makes his impact today seem so unlikely. He had testicular cancer, which had spread to his abdomen and lungs, which meant his boasts of beating it seemed based primarily on false hope.

"Further," he said, "I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist."

What has transpired since is so incredible, so moving, so miraculous, so important that it doesn't seem possible.

Armstrong didn't just beat cancer, he showed thousands of others how to do it, raised millions to ensure more would, and changed the entire way the disease is viewed.

Ten years ago, who didn't know someone lost to cancer? Today who doesn't know someone who has beaten it? Today when the diagnosis comes in, as gut-wrenching and horrifically frightening as it is, it isn't what it once was. It isn't a death sentence. Today, there is a chance.

Armstrong, with his Texas tenacity, with his American drive, hammered the disease and then returned to cycling and crushed all comers, winning the Tour just 18 months after a press conference many people figured would signal his death.

He did both in the same way, with a powerful purpose of winning every single little battle along the way.

Cycling is a most punishing of sports, a thankless, relentless driving of the legs up steep mountains, around tight bends, through race track style speed trials. Just the training requires a discipline that sends all but the most mentally and physically strong to some other pursuit.

And among all of those cyclists, Armstrong is the greatest, toughest, most ferocious of all of time.

The paradox is perfect, of course. Cancer is still so deadly, so dangerous, and so awful, that the only way to be one of the fortunate survivors is to face it head-on like a climb through the Pyrenees. One pedal in front of the other, one treatment at a time, one unbending will that no matter how painfully bad things get, at the end victory is possible and life is sustainable.

"Cancer," Armstrong has said, "is the best thing that ever happened to me."

The heavens work in mysterious ways but when you consider all the prayers that have been sent up against this disease it is easy to think maybe this one got answered.

Cancer is, indeed, the best thing to ever happen to Lance Armstrong because his focus and impact went beyond the bike. His Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised tens of million and even if Lance is retiring, it isn't. His yellow Livestrong bracelets are worn by millions. His ability to bring focus to the push for a final cure is unparalleled.

But more than anything he is a living embodiment of how to win to the 10 million Americans fighting for their lives.

None of them will wind up winning the Tour de France seven times. But many of them will beat cancer. Many of them will be aided by the simple idea that if Lance Armstrong can do it, so can I.

Sunday, Armstrong cemented his place as the greatest cyclist of all time with yet another title in Paris. It will be his last. But the most important athlete of this generation, thankfully, isn't even close to retiring from his most important battle.