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You gotta have heart

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Throw out strategy and technique and what passes for charisma. Cute smiles, glib sound bites, fat bank accounts become irrelevant. Image means nothing.

In their most grueling moments, the greatest champions reveal the character that carries them to victory.

The soul of a champion shone through Monday when Lance Armstrong took a spill in the hills of France. Clipping a road-hugging fan's bag, he fell over, bloodied his left elbow, grazed his hip, and wiped out another rider, the clatter of bikes scratching against the roar of the crowd.

Armstrong's fight-or-flight instincts kicked in, his heart pumped faster, and he felt ''a big, big rush of adrenaline.''

For days he had looked haggard. Now he fought and he flew, a mad man six miles from the finish on a grotesque 99-mile climb through the Pyrenees.

''Lance,'' he told himself, ''if you want to win the Tour de France, do it today.''

He barely avoided another fall seconds later when his right foot slipped off his pedal, and he crossed the line at Luz-Ardiden, the winner of his first stage of the Tour.

Slumped over his bike in exhaustion, he left his lead rival, Jan Ullrich, grimacing in the rear. Fifteen seconds separated them at the start of the day. Now Armstrong has a 67-second cushion, with five of the 20 stages left in pursuit of a record-tying fifth straight Tour triumph.

All victories must be put in perspective. Some are tiny, yet critical. Some are grand, yet presumed. Sports have elements of surprise and predictability. We expect champions to find ways to win, no matter the circumstances, yet they still sometimes astonish us and themselves.

The great champions have all had transcendent moments when their sheer will or inner fury carried them through Muhammad Ali standing up to a fierce pounding by Joe Frazier in Manila; Michael Jordan, sick and weak and shooting out the lights in the playoffs; Pete Sampras vomiting on court, legs rubbery, still winning.

Sampras gave what amounted to a farewell speech to tennis last weekend, a few words off the cuff during a golf exhibition at Lake Tahoe. He told NBC-TV he plans to withdraw from the U.S. Open and said ''there's a good chance'' he will retire soon.

''Not being at the Open this year ... and not playing Wimbledon I don't miss it enough to really start training, start practicing, doing everything I have to do to be where I want to be,'' Sampras said. ''So it tells me it's a sign to say, 'It's probably time.'''

Sampras dug as deeply last year as Armstrong is digging now. Winless anywhere for two years, he willed himself, body and mind, to capture one final Open for a record 14th Grand Slam title. If, at 32, content with his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, and baby son, Sampras feels he can't muster that competitive energy again, he can walk away feeling he gave himself and the game all he had.

In their very different sports, Armstrong and Sampras are men cut from the same sturdy cloth. Their trials away from the road and the court shaped them, tested them, strengthened them, elevated them to a higher level of champions.

Win or lose this weekend, Armstrong's greatest victory always will be his recovery from testicular cancer. Sampras came to know such gravity when his best friend and coach, Tim Gullikson, had brain cancer.

Sampras and Armstrong created history not by shrinking from challenges, personal and physical, but by surmounting them in full view of the world. There was never a need to manufacture drama or a phony persona. They are who they are, not creations of a PR machine.

If Sampras got stuck with the label ''boring,'' mainly by a British press that feeds on the sensational, he played some of the most dramatic matches in history.

He won when he was sick on court and won when he came into Wimbledon one year with a shoulder hurting so bad he couldn't lift his right arm to brush his teeth. He won with tears in his eyes when Gullikson fell ill. He won wobbly and wearily at Davis Cup in Moscow and brilliantly when he fended off the best of Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open.

Ask him to explain it all and Sampras is at a loss. He doesn't have Agassi's or John McEnroe's wit, doesn't look to charm, and would rather shrink away outside the lines. Nike used to dress Sampras in all its dorkiest clothes, giving the cool stuff to Agassi. Hairy or bald, Agassi could sell. Sampras simply could play.

Armstrong can do both, even if he drops from the public's view for 11 months a year, reappearing each summer to pedal through France. Relatively few American fans follow cycling; virtually all know Armstrong and his story, the epitome of perseverance.

Sampras and Armstrong are different men playing different sports. What links them is a quality called character.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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