LANCE ARMSTRONG'S COMEBACK FROM CANCER
By Samuel Abt
Van der Plas Publications, $16.95
The old comeback trail is worn pretty thin these days, so numerous are accounts of fallen heroes making their way back up that crowded thoroughfare. Not to be too cynical about it, but many of these confessionals from recovered dopers, boozers, wife-beaters and what-have-yous resonate with "Hearts and Flowers" insincerity.
That, mercifully, is not true of this and two other new books describing comebacks not from more personal failings but from cancer. The best of these is Abt's on cyclist Armstrong. Its biggest virtue may be that it's not an as-told-to effort, so that Abt, the author of eight books on cycling, is allowed to tell the story in his own, largely clich�-free way. As anyone this side of a millennium newborn must know by now, it's one helluva story.
Of the athletes who are the subjects of these three books, Armstrong was the only one struck down in mid-career. He was also the most seriously ill. His testicular cancer was diagnosed in October 1996, when he was 25, and he underwent extensive surgery and chemotherapy as the disease spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. That he was even able to ride a bike again, let alone compete on one, is both something of a medical miracle and a rousing tribute to his indomitable grit. As it was, he was on the sidelines for nearly two years. Then—bring in the scriptwriter—he won the greatest and most challenging of all cycling races, the Tour de France.
Abt delivers a convincing portrait of a young athlete who, under unimaginable stress, lost neither his confidence nor his sense of humor. Asked after winning the Tour if he considered himself the new Greg LeMond, Armstrong said, jokingly but perhaps seriously, "No, I'm the first Lance."
LANDING IT: MY LIFE ON AND OFF THE ICE
By Scott Hamilton with Lorenzo Benet
Kensington Books, $25.95
Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's figure skating champion, found out he had testicular cancer, the same disease that struck Armstrong, in 1997 when he was approaching his 39th birthday. Hospitals were hardly foreign to him because he had spent much of his childhood in them fighting off a mysterious illness that stunted his growth, but not his will to succeed. Too small for most sports, Hamilton found his niche in skating, and he takes us through the arduous training that led to Olympic gold. So there's more here than just a cancer recovery story, and the book does have its moments, particularly in the childhood chapters. At the same time, the author's self-congratulatory pleasure in his own pixie nature is a nagging irritant, and the pages abound with such feel-good banalities as, "The world, I concluded, is a wonderful place with incredible human beings."
THE LONG PROGRAM: SKATING TOWARD LIFE'S VICTORIES
By Peggy Fleming with Peter Kaminsky
Pocket Books, $24.95
Fleming, a latter-day but much nicer Sonja Henie, received her breast-cancer diagnosis 30 years to the day after she won her 1968 figure skating gold medal at the Grenoble Olympics. When she learned of her illness, she was 50, a housewife, mother, television broadcaster and international celebrity. Like Armstrong and Hamilton, she, too, seems to have recovered after some tense times. She approaches eloquence when describing her balletic skating style, but her book is weakened by her apparent determination to portray herself as a plain Jane, lacking any semblance of glamour. Fortunately, the photographs of an uncommonly beautiful woman gainsay this patently absurd premise.