The stepfather of Lance Armstrong says he drove his famous stepson “like an animal,” using corporal punishment and the disciplinary style of a taskmaster to shape his future personality, for better or worse.
Terry Armstrong made these statements during Part 1 of the new ESPN 30 for 30 film “LANCE,” which aired Sunday and delved into the upbringing of the disgraced cyclist in Texas before his rise to world fame as a seven-time winner of the Tour de France.
“Lance would not be the champion he is today without me, because I drove him,” Terry Armstrong said. “I drove him like an animal. That’s the only thing I feel bad about. Did I make him too much `win at all costs’?”
Lance Armstrong had a different take on it, saying his stepfather “just beat the (expletive) out of me.”
Such formative details in Part 1 sets the stage for Part 2, which airs next Sunday and focuses largely on the unraveling of his empire of dishonesty. The two-part film is helping ESPN fill the sports void during the COVID-19 pandemic after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Here are a few takeaways from Part 1:
The film lets viewers draw their own conclusions about whether Armstrong’s troubled childhood influenced how he mistreated others as an adult. His mother gave birth to him when she was 17 and said she was in an “abusive relationship” with his biological father. After he left the picture, she married Terry Armstrong, who said he adopted Lance when he was about 3.
Lance said Terry was “kind of terrible” and would punish him for leaving his drawer open.
“Sure enough, I would leave a drawer open, and he would pull out his fraternity paddle and just beat the (expletive) out of me,” Lance said.
Terry Armstrong acknowledged he was tough on Lance about cleaning his room. He said Lance’s mother was “always there” and explained that his parenting style was influenced by his military school background. “It was bend over and take your licks,” he said of punishing Lance.
“I was a taskmaster, but I didn’t put my arms around him enough and tell him I loved him,” Terry said. “I was always there, always coaching him, always pushing him. But I didn’t show him the love that I should have.”
The opening scene
Lance Armstrong opens the first two-plus minutes of the film with a profanity-laced story about how a group of strangers confronted him near a bar, showed him their middle fingers and told him “(expletive) you!” over and over again. This was in more recent years and happened after Armstrong had been exposed as a bully and cheater who lied for years about using illicit drugs and blood transfusions to gain an edge on his bike.
Instead of fighting back, Armstrong said he turned the other cheek. He said he gave the bar his credit card number to pay for their drinks on one condition: that the bar tell these instigators that he was paying for their drinks and that he “sends his love.”
Such a tale raises questions without more information: Did that really happen and where?
Armstrong has told this story before, but his history invites skepticism. He didn’t return a message seeking comment. Director Marina Zenovich told USA TODAY it took place in Denver.
“I actually went to the bar and filmed at the bar, and ended up not using it,” she said. “I filmed with the bartender who was working that night.”
Lance Gunderson is now Armstrong
How important is Armstrong’s last name to his brand? The name Armstrong evokes images of muscle and power – a strong arm. It also evokes an American hero, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
But that’s not Lance’s birth name. His biological father was Eddie Gunderson, who died in 2012. Stepfather Terry Armstrong gave Lance his last name, though Lance said he considered changing it after his mother divorced him when Lance was about 15. He said it was too late by then.
“I was already establishing myself and my career and brand or whatever that means,” he said. “I like the name Lance Armstrong. I think that’s a good name. It’s better than Lance Gunderson. That’s kind of a weird name.”
Competing illegally at 15?
As a teenager, Armstrong said he used a forged birth certificate to circumvent minimum age requirements for entering triathlons. “You had to be 16, so we’d forge my birth certificate,” he said.
He described the process like this: “Forge the certificate, compete illegally and beat everybody.”
In retrospect, this seems entirely in character for Armstrong. At the same time, it was sort of like cheating in reverse. He was breaking rules, much like he did later in his life with illicit doping methods in the Tour de France. But he wasn’t exactly gaining an advantage from it. He was competing against older athletes.
“I understand the reason for the certain age requirements because there’s a lot of liabilities,” his mother Linda said in the film. “They were going to swim in a lake, and this and that, but it meant so much to him.”
Zenovich spoke with a wide range of sources for the film, including Armstrong’s family and friends. She documented his fight against cancer, when he lost his hair and underwent brain surgery. She also tracked down his old triathlon coach Rick Crawford, who said he saw bully issues in Armstrong’s character “from day one” as a teenager. He said he chaperoned Armstrong during a trip to Bermuda for a triathlon and rented him a scooter to get around.
In return, Crawford said Armstrong abused the scooter, didn’t return it when he should have and disregarded his concerns about it. In effect, Crawford said Armstrong seemed to be sending him the message that “I can beat you” and “there’s nothing more you can do for me.”
He said he told Armstrong’s mother that “he’s mouthy and disrespectful.”
He said she replied that she didn’t have any authority over him.
“That stung,” Crawford said. “That stung a lot.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.