"You can go faster."
Lance Armstrong is talking to his teenage daughter Grace, who is driving a speedboat on Lake Austin. He peers ahead, before you see a different version of Armstrong, who is more than 20 years younger — pre-cancer diagnosis, prior to his first Tour de France win, and before he became arguably the most divisive sports figure of the 21st century. Again he’s on a speedboat, his right hand resting on the steering wheel as he stares ahead toward the Pennybacker Bridge.
"It was really an Austin story, to me," Marina Zenovich said, describing the scene that takes place halfway through the first episode of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary she directed, "Lance," which airs at 8 p.m. on Sunday. The second episode airs on ESPN on May 31.
That younger version of Armstrong had most of his life ahead of him, but he’d already been an Austinite for nearly a decade. He had just built his first house in the city, spending by his account less than $1 million for the lakeside land and construction contract. There’s footage of him poring over the blueprints with ESPN’s Chris Fowler.
"Sold it for 2 (million)," he tells Grace. The figure sounds absurd in 2020, considering how much Austin real estate prices have skyrocketed in the years since.
On its own, the scene is a reminder that from the time he was a precocious teenager and long after his downfall, one of the world’s most famous athletes has always been synonymous with the Texas capital. Through survival, glory, defiance and, finally, disillusion, there’s no separating Austin from Armstrong.
Might we be entering another stage of his convoluted story? Redemption? Is that why Armstrong, now 48 and seven years removed from his interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to the world he had used performance-enhancing substances throughout his seven consecutive Tour de France victories, decided it was worth reopening old wounds?
"Lance had an epic fall, and I think he spent a lot of time processing what he’s gone through, what his family’s gone through," Zenovich said. "I think he’s had a lot of therapy — family therapy, couples therapy. It affects the whole family.
"I can’t speak for him, but I felt like he wanted to talk. I don’t know why. I didn’t ask. I just was willing to ask the questions. I give him credit for wanting to, I really do. It’s not easy. It was a great challenge for me just kind of pushing and pushing. We developed kind of a playful relationship where I was always pushing and trying to get more."
Armstrong declined comment for this story.
While other films have dissected aspects of Armstrong’s story, Zenovich captures something different — an Armstrong who is open to discussing the ugly parts of his story at length. At times combative and confident as ever, he claims from the outset to be telling us "my truth. And my truth is not my version. My truth is the way I remember it."
Zenovich said her visits with Armstrong took place between March 2018 and August 2019. There were glimpses into his life in Aspen, Colo., the scene on Lake Austin and eight sit-down interviews.
"He was different in each one," she said.
Three of those conversations took place in Austin. There were scenes shot that didn’t make the film, including his running of the 2019 Austin Marathon and a speech at the Austin Press Club.
Most of the first episode serves as a comprehensive retelling of Armstrong’s early life, from his childhood growing up in Plano all the way through the first Tour de France victory in 1999. It includes his cancer diagnosis, recovery and the founding of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now Livestrong).
"I didn’t understand that this story was going into the hearts and minds of Americans and embedding itself in American sports history," Armstrong says in the film.
The second episode picks up with the well-known story of domination, confrontation and disgrace that played out from 2000 on, as he cemented his place among the world’s most famous athletes. Armstrong shares his side of the story, but Zenovich pulls from a cast of former teammates, friends and rivals — including Floyd Landis, who filed a federal whistleblower suit against Armstrong. Armstrong pulls no punches on Landis — to provide further context and perspective.
It’s a story that is as compelling now as it ever was, but is by no means over. Armstrong, who hosts a podcast and appeared on NBC’s coverage of last year’s Tour de France, isn’t fading from view anytime soon.
"He’s living his life," Zenovich said. "He’s such an iconic figure and such a divisive figure. So many people have such strong feelings about him. We’re all kind of a study in paradoxes, and he is in an epic way. He’s incredibly complicated."