AUSTIN, Texas -- To this day, Lance Armstrong insists cancer was the best thing that happened to him.
By beating the disease that spread from his testicles to his lungs and brain, Armstrong gained the courage and will to conquer the Tour de France, considered one of the most grueling events in all sports.
Armstrong went from having a 50 percent chance to live in 1996 to four straight Tour championships, earning worldwide praise and admiration from sports fans and other cancer survivors. On Thursday, he was named The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.
Armstrong and Barry Bonds were the top two vote-getters for a second straight year, only this time the San Francisco Giants' star finished second. Armstrong received 45 first-place votes and 292 points from sports writers and broadcasters. Bonds had 31 first-place votes and 233 points.
''Uh-oh, hopefully he's not mad,'' Armstrong said, referring to Bonds. ''It's nice to be recognized.''
Tiger Woods, who won the award 1999 and 2000, finished third for the second year in a row. He received seven first-place votes and 110 points.
Armstrong's comeback has given him the platform to lead public-awareness campaigns against cancer. He started the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which funds cancer research, and fills his rare free time with hospital visits and fund-raising speeches.
While he has no stump speech, his message is the same: Cancer made him the person he is today.
''When I came back, I said if I ever get a chance to do this, I'm going to give it everything. I'm going to train correctly, eat right. I'm not going to mess up,'' he said. ''That's why I say all the time that the illness is the best thing that ever happened to me.
''I would never have won one Tour de France if I hadn't had it. No doubt.''
Winning one Tour would have secured his place in cycling history. Capturing four in row put him among the greatest riders ever.
A victory in 2003 -- the 100th anniversary of the race -- would tie the record of five. Spain's Miguel Indurain (1991-95) is the only rider to win five in a row. Armstrong raced in three of Indurain's victories and holds the Spaniard in high regard.
''He was an incredible time trialist, the best that ever lived,'' Armstrong said. ''I can win a time trial today, but I would do it by seconds. He could win by a couple of minutes.''
Armstrong was a time-trial specialist himself before the cancer. It was during his recovery that he amazingly turned himself into a dominator on the Tour's punishing mountain stages, where his breakaways up steep climbs separate him from the rest of the pack.
Tour officials already have added mountain stages for the 2003 race, but there are fewer severely steep climbs. That still bodes well for the 31-year-old Armstrong winning No. 5.
While he's already eyeing a possible sixth title in '04, Armstrong won't get caught daydreaming.
''The illness taught me to focus on what's going on now,'' he said.
Away from his bike and his cancer-related work, Armstrong is a proud family man. He met wife Kristin while taking chemotherapy. His son, Luke, was born in 1999, when Armstrong won his first Tour. Twin girls Isabelle and Grace were born last year.
It's his family, and the realization that he almost never had one, that drives Armstrong.
''Seeing your kids tomorrow isn't guaranteed,'' Armstrong said. ''Look at this life like it's a gift. That's the way I try to view my life, my family -- as a gift.''
A downside to his riding dominance is that it raised suspicions among French media and officials that Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team were using performance-enhancing substances.
Heckled by fans during last year's race, Armstrong has repeatedly denied taking banned substances and has never failed a doping test. French authorities in September closed a two-year investigation because of a lack of evidence.
Cancer, however, ultimately gave Armstrong the thing he's maybe most proud of: the label of survivor.
''Sports will come and go, and I will be forgotten,'' he said. ''But something like the illness will never go. I'll always have that tag.''
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