milken conference: agassi, armstrong, and nyad


I'm at a table up front for the conversation between Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong, moderated by Diana Nyad. There's quite a crowd here, so I doubt I'll bringing back a Lance Armstrong autograph for my younger son. But I'm close enough to snap a cameraphone photo, and to feel engaged with what's going on here.

(There are a lot of recognizable names at the tables around me; I literally tripped over Richard Riordan's feet on my way to my seat...)

Nyad starts with a retrospective of Andre Agassi's career, with photos projected to illustrate it. Mentions that he's raised 52 million dollars to help kids through his charitable foundation. That's followed by an equally rich intro of Armstrong's career. (He was a world champion triathlete at 16!) I didn't realize that his testicular cancer had spread to his lungs and brain when he was diagnosed. She notes, quite rightly, that this is one of the most impressive athletic achievements ever.

She asks Armstrong to talk about the talent necessary to be an endurance athlete. He's often asked whether the physical or mental aspects are more important. They're both necessary, he says. You need to be born with the physical capability--but the mental capability is, if anything, more important.

Upon reflection, it's not being int he best shape of his life he'll miss the most, nor is it the glory of being on the winner's stand. He'll miss the dinner with the 8 guys on his team, those moments at the end of the day, even more.

Armstrong describes himself as "old" at 35...and Andre says wryly "Yeah, I remember that." (At which point Armstrong, not jokingly, describes Agassi as his hero.)

Nyad poses a similar question to Agassi--are his talents something he was born with? Or is it something you can learn? He was born with athletic skill, but his skill was nurtured properly by his family. He was never taught things that held him back down the road. (He's quite engaging and funny--I'm utterly charmed.) About his playing style, he says "The most important point to me is the next one."

She asks him how you keep focus when you're older and have a more complicated life. He says that having good people around makes all the difference. A wife that's willing to travel with him. A business manager that's been his friend and partner for decades. It's not (just) a sport where you have to train, it's a sport where you have to recover. (Interesting; I hadn't thought of it that way.)

Is it tougher to recover now that he's older? Yes, absolutely. But you get smarter, too, and can train smarter as a result. "A strong body obeys and a weak body commands." Now that's a quote worth posting over my mirror. He says he's very goal-oriented, but his goal is tomorrow, not Wimbledon. Tomorrow is the next step to Wimbledon, perhaps, but that's not the whole focus.

(I note that Nyad and Armstrong are both wearing jeans, which makes me feel oh-so-much better about not wearing a suit today.)

Nyad asks Armstrong how age has affected his performance. He says the most valuable thing you can have as an athlete is experience. Cycling, he says, is made up of the three things--marathon (because it's grueling), NASCAR (importance of drafting), and chess (tactics are crucial). Life is harder now that he's not racing--racing is simpler. All you have to do is eat, sleep, ride (as long as you're wearing the yellow or holding the cup over your head, he notes wryly).

She asks Agassi about the state of technology in the sport today. He's known as someone who researches every aspect of his sport--so where is he now with that? He was ahead of the curve in terms of the importance of physical training in his sport. When he started nobody did weight training, for example. Tennis doesn't have an off-season, so you have train differently. Equipment has made tennis a ballistic sport--it's violent, he points out. When you can serve at 150mph, what does that mean for the person on the receiving side?

Armstrong responds to the same question--talking about the fact that cyclists want a weight lifter's legs on a jockey's body. ("My soulmate!" cries Agassi, to much laughter in the room.) Keeping your weight low is the most important thing. After the illness, he was 15-20 pounds lighter, which made a big difference. The bike he rode for his first win was 22 pounds, and the bike he rode for the last win was 14 pounds. His team spent lots of time on technology to lighten the weight--clothing, gear, etc.

One last question for Agassi--what was it like when he was at his lowest. "I never played a match I expected to win. I never took one thing for granted." Most importantly, he said, he never tried to be more than one day better each day. Each day can be better, but you have to take it one day at a time. He never knew where he'd end up, but he knew that tomorrow he'd better than today, because that was in his control.

And a last exchange for Armstrong about his commitment to cancer survivors. The fans move on to a new sports hero. But what you do off the sports stage is what will matter for the long term. This army of people, this family of cancer survivors, those are the people you have to make time for. She asks if cancer will be solved in his lifetime. "While we're sitting here," he says, "there's a 47 year old woman dying in a hospital here, leaving 3 children behind." Why is he here and she isn't? Because each of these cancers is a different disease, and we need to be working to understand and treat all of them.

Nyad closes by saying that in sports there are many winners--but few champions. And both of these men are champions.


Thanks Liz, that's very touching. It gives me a whole different level of respect for both of these fellows.

Thanks very much!
I have always admired both Andre and Lance and have never missed out on reading any of their interview transcripts (that I could find). I was looking for a transcript of this conference everywhere, so I am very delighted to have found the summary of it here.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on April 24, 2006 5:58 PM.

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