Taking One for the Team

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Last night, Tyler Hamilton spoke to the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail community, sharing his story of doing what it took to be a winner, and the painful consequences he suffered.  You may not recognize his name if you don’t follow bike racing.  Tyler is the one who outed Lance Armstrong and the rest of the U.S. Postal Services Pro Cycling Team for its doping practices a few years ago.

Tyler’s story was gripping.  He was a quickly rising star in the pro-cycling community when he was first offered steroids by the team trainer.  He knew it was wrong, he said, even though everyone told him it was “for his health” and that he needed to take care of himself.  Doping was rampant, expected, and administered by the team and its physicians.  It was a necessary element to winning on the tour.  Eventually, doping was pushed underground by enforcement actions.  The methods became more risky to the athletes’ health and yet they continued.  He said that he began to focus more energy on his fear of getting caught than he did on winning.  But he was a winner.  He won an Olympic gold medal.  He was on the team that won the Tour de France.  He achieved the glory that most athletes dream of.

Even when he tested positive for doping, he said he “took one for the team” by lying and denying any wrongdoing.  He felt that he had to keep protecting the culture of cycling, his teammates and his friends.  He feared being blackballed and undermined if he told the truth.  He kept quiet for 14 years, even after his retirement.  He suffered depression, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts due to the burden of holding the secret. He felt alone.  His ethical and moral core was at odds with his environment and he suffered from the inner conflict.

When he was subpoenaed about the team’s and Lance’s doping practices, he finally shared the truth, releasing the pressures of his secrets.  Eventually, he shared the story very publicly on 60 Minutes and felt the wrath of his former teammates and the cycling community.  He broke the unwritten rule of solidarity and betrayed those with whom he shared the bond of silent wrongdoing in the quest for greatness.

He says that he wishes he had been better prepared when that first pill was offered to him. He wishes that he could have seen how far he could have gotten without performance enhancements, although it’s likely he would not have been a winner.  He will never know.  Those decisions to dope altered his world forever. He lives a life of regret, but he seems at peace with himself now that he spoke out.

Part of Tyler’s message is his concern for our nation’s twisted focus on winning.  It is not enough to give one’s best effort if it doesn’t result in a win.  Only the winners get our attention and accolades. And human nature craves that recognition.  And it goes well beyond sports.  People in all facets of life will face pressure to do whatever it takes to achieve success: cut corners; break laws; risk lives.   In the quest for “winning,” people will feel the need to cheat in school, lie on resumes, or mislead investors.

Our culture is teaching our kids to win at any cost.  My son played lacrosse for many years, often at a highly competitive level for his age group.  One evening, I stood on the sidelines cringing as the other team hacked and pushed and tripped our boys.  Twenty yards from me, I heard a mom from the other team screaming at her boy to “Hit ’em! Hit em! Bring ’em down!”  And when one of our kids was laid out flat after a cheap shot, she clapped and cheered.  These kids were 10 and 11 years old, being taught to do whatever it takes to win.

How do we change this about our culture?  How do we encourage our kids to be the best that they can be, and push them to find their limits, without it being at any cost?  How do we shift our collective mindset to recognize the value in the one who never wins but keeps showing up anyway?  How do we arm our kids so that they can resist a shortcut when “everyone is doing it” and push back against the pressure to “take one for the team” when it’s not right or it’s unhealthy?  How do we help kids to find their voice in the face of an unwritten rule of silence? How do we teach a kid to take pride in an average grade that is achieved with her own mind and merit instead of an “A” that came from cheating?

Example is often the greatest teacher, and sometimes a lone voice can instigate change.  Tyler sharing his story, exposing the weaknesses in himself, admitting his regrets and shining a light on a pervasive problem is a good step.  Thank you for that, Tyler.

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