By Robert Lipsyte
Special to Page 2

It's all about the pain.

His mother was 17 when he was born, and his biological father left two years later. A step-father whipped him. Too small for football and too poor for the in-group in Plano, Texas, he discovered early that he could smother psychic pain with the real pain of long-distance swimming, running, cycling. That pain was self-inflicted yet comforting because he controlled it. Of them all, cycling was the best because "a bike is freedom to roam, without rules and without adults."

Lance Armstrong
How can you not be impressed?

Lance Armstrong created his own monster out of his humilation, his fears, and his pain, as well as a heart almost a third larger than average, a resting pulse of 32 beats a minute that can accelerate beyond 200, and lungs that can consume record amounts of oxygen. From such materials he created, in my mind and in a majority of yours, the greatest athlete of our time.

Along with soccer's Mia Hamm, Armstrong won Page 2's readers poll as the world's ultimate athlete. He did it convincingly, getting 70 percent of the 130,000 votes cast in his final matchup against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. On his way to the finals, Armstrong beat Barry Bonds, world decathlon champ Tom Pappas, triathlete Tim DeBoom, tennis star Roger Federer and wrestler Rezadadeh Hossein.

But before we get carried away, let's demystify this superhero. Lance is a hardcase, rational and blunt, so he should appreciate some straight talk. For all his superb conditioning and mental toughness, he wouldn't last a minute in the big leagues of any stick-and-ball sport; he never perfected those skills. Bo knows, he is no "all-'round" athlete. He just does one thing, something that shreds your body, your mind and your emotions for hours at a time for days on end, and he does it better than anyone else on Earth.

He is no iconic lone rider, an individual in a SportsWorld of team-members. Lance gets more protection than Michael Vick. He has "domestiques," as cycling's offensive linemen are called, blocking for him, screening wind for him, chasing down rivals and fetching food, water and jackets. He has a tactician in his earpiece and doctors analyzing the information being transmitted from his body. He's no robot; he has a lot to keep track of while he pumps uphill and tries to avoid crashing into kids, dogs, other bikers.

Also, Lance gets too much credit for "beating" cancer. Medical science did that. He beat something considerably tougher, the brutal treatment for his cancer and the tendency to become a victim who'll take the easy pass. He became a survivor and more -- he built on that pain, too.

Mia Hamm, ultimate female athlete
Mia Hamm's awards, records and gold medal all prove she's an elite athlete. But proof that she is the best in the world? Look no further than how she changed the perception of women's sports -- on a soccer field no less.

Then, it's no surpise that Mia Hamm is Page 2's Ultimate Female Athlete.

How'd she do it? Well, the same way she handles a soccer ball -- with relative ease. Hamm navigated her way to the goal by defeating heptathlete Carolina Kluft, track and field star Marion Jones, gymnast Carly Patterson, triathlete Barb Lindquist, and finally tennis star Serena Williams -- each time accumulating more than 60% of the vote.

Each time a tribute to what she's done for the world of sports.

In 1999, when he won the Tour de France, probably the most demanding major sports event in the world, his victory was described as one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. But it was far more than that, because he had never won it before. He was not "coming back" to where he had once been; at 25, he was a world-class rider but had simply never fulfilled his potential. He was said to be uncoachable, lacking in discipline. He was brash and raced disrespectfully. His character was in question; he failed to finish most of the Tours de France he'd entered. He needed cancer to find out just how tough he really was.

He told me once that he had approached cancer the way he approached a race.

"Get in shape," he said. "Find out as much as you can; be motivated by small results. The lesion shrinking a little gave me the same kind of encouragement to keep going that I would get when my uphill times got slightly faster."

By the time he told me that, he had won three in a row and become the first real hero I have ever had in sports. We had a connection. He had received his diagnosis of testicular cancer five years after my third operation for the same disease. Fittingly for the difference in our athletic ability and physical conditioning, his was a far more dangerous type of tumor in a far more advanced state than mine. His cancer had reached his brain. As cancers go, testicular has become "carcinoma lite," thanks to effective chemotherapy drugs. But the surgery and the chemo can be debilitating. Remembering how wasted and often discouraged I felt through two years of treatment, I can barely imagine how he trucked on through far more invasive surgeries and more toxic drugs. I only had to crawl back to my computer; he had to climb up on his bike.

We did share a positive side effect -- an intensification of focus and an appreciation of our own capacity for endurance. I wrote harder and faster, concentrating on what felt important to me, confident that I could finish the course. Armstrong rode harder and faster, concentrating on training for the long races, especially the three-week, 2,142-mile Tour. His old team had dropped him, but he never lost faith in himself, which can be magnetic. Doctors, nurses, friends and coaches rallied to him, giving and gaining energy.

He returned to the races in 1997, and established a foundation for cancer education and research. It's about the most inspiring and hands-on charitable work I've ever seen accomplished by an active athlete.

Lance Armstrong
AP Photo
Could a movie about Lance come close to matching the real-life drama?

Several years ago, he invited me to moderate a panel on athletes and cancer that his foundation was sponsoring at Stanford University. I was reluctant to accept. The skeptical sportswriter part of me wondered if he was using the event to promote himself. The sentimental fan part was afraid he would turn out to be yet another pampered jock brat. I had an emotional investment in my fantasy.

When he won his first Tour in 1999, I ran out and bought my first bicycle since childhood. Cycling became my basic work-out. On hills seemingly too steep for my bursting lungs and screaming thighs, I would yell, "Lance Armstrong! Lance Armstrong!" and invariably get to the top. I didn't want to risk losing that magic by meeting the real Lance Armstrong. Well, I'm still riding and yelling "Lance Armstrong!" Maybe even louder. He turned out to be smart, tough-minded without being arrogant, friendly without being fawning, and refreshingly unsentimental about cancer. When someone in the audience asked him how his belief in God had helped him as a patient, he replied with a bracing directness: "Everyone should believe in something, and I believed in surgery, chemotherapy and my doctors." Don't expect Armstrong to dismount and become a politician.

I sometimes wonder what's going to happen to him after he does dismount. He's 32. World's greatest athlete is no permanent title. The almost supernatural alchemy of turning pain into athletic energy requires a focus that can shut off the normal give-and-take of emotional relationships. He recently divorced the mother of his children. As psychic pain resurfaces, what will he do to smother it when he isn't inflicting physical pain on himself? Beyond winning, will suffering be the only thing?

That's up the road.