Lance Armstrong tried to shed his serious public persona Saturday in Ellicott City by poking fun at the elephant in a room about half-filled with triathletes: his lifetime competitive sporting ban.
His host, Brock Yetso, president of the Ulman Cancer Fund, asked the recently dethroned seven-time Tour de France winner why he planned to participate Sunday in the Rev3 Half Full Triathlon at Centennial Park.
"You have done a lot of races. … Why are you here? You could race, arguably, any race in the world," Yetso said.
"Well, that's technically not true," Armstrong quipped.
The famed cyclist is prohibited from taking part in sanctioned sporting events after Armstrong decided to drop his fight against allegations from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Authorities claimed that he used drugs to perform better and faster. Armstrong denies that he cheated.
Zachary Lederer — a brain cancer survivor and 19-year-old broadcast journalism major at University of Maryland — said he hopes to have an impact similar to Armstrong's. Lederer started a group, "Zaching Against Cancer," that began when a picture of him, muscles flexed, in a hospital bed went viral on the Internet.
"I think it's cool that he's a normal guy," Lederer said of Armstrong. "That's one thing you have a tough time seeing on ESPN."
Armstrong took about a dozen questions submitted by audience members that put his personality on display but steered clear of the doping controversy.
Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer, founded the Livestrong foundation, which has raised more than $470 million to fight cancer. Meanwhile, his personal life, such as his past relationship with musician Sheryl Crow, has also been a subject of discussion.
One question Saturday asked what Armstrong, 41, hopes his five children will someday say about him.
"Most of the population thinks I am this guy that's serious all the time and intense and not a ton of fun," he said. To his children, Armstrong said, he is anything but.
Two of his daughters were at the event Saturday and joined their father on stage briefly, dressed in costumes from the drama department at Centennial High School, where the forum was held.
Armstrong, dressed in a jeans, a black sweater and ball cap, revealed he would want his tombstone to read: Father, survivor and athlete — in that order. He said the fastest he has ever gone on a bike is 75 mph. He shared his exercise routine these days, which includes running daily, swimming almost every day and biking when his friends ask to join him on a ride.
Kristin Metzger of Columbia, a nursing student at Howard Community College and president of the Student Nurses Association, asked Armstrong to share a story about his encounter with a nurse from his treatment in the late 1990s.
Armstrong said one nurse in particular stood out for her confidence when she told him, "You are going to be just fine, Lance."
Metzger said the website for Livestrong is a tremendous asset for those who want to learn about cancer or find support to beat it.
"He has been a strong role model, especially for young people," Metzger said. "He is such an inspiration."
Charlie Lambrecht, a sophomore aerospace engineer at North Carolina State University, said he came to Ellicott City for the triathlon, but wanted to prepare for the race rather than attend the forum with some of his teammates at the university's triathlon club. He left after taking a collegiate photo at the high school.
Lambrecht said he is of two minds when it comes to Armstrong. He said Armstrong has made valuable contributions, especially when it comes to finding a cure for cancer, but his presence at sporting events can deter elite athletes.
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Armstrong's participation in Sunday's event required the triathlon to relinquish its sanction. But race organizers have said their objective is to raise cash for the Ulman Cancer Fund, and for that reason Armstrong's involvement is a boon.
"The doping and cheating was so widespread, but waiting until now to start the witch hunt. ... It was what it was," Lambrecht said.
Money from the sales of $50 tickets for "Lance Unplugged" on Saturday benefited the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. Organizers raised $2,500 by auctioning off a black-and-yellow bike signed by Armstrong and fetched $5,000 for an autographed jersey.
Yetso also announced plans for the charity to establish a fifth navigation program for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The services are free to adult cancer patients and survivors age 18 to 40 and are intended to help access resources, increase knowledge of treatment options and improve clinical communication.
The fund is named for Doug Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, who is president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Armstrong and Ulman joined efforts to fight cancer in 1997.