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A tale of two Armstrongs: What will be your legacy?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Culp
  • 375th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander
As a young pre-schooler, I remember listening to a small, flimsy 45 r.p.m. record (this was well before cassettes, CDs and i-Pods entered the scene) that inspired the imagination of this impressionable child and future engineer. Some 40-plus years later, I can't remember where that record originated, but believe it may have been glued to the inside cover of the National Geographic magazine to which my dad subscribed.

Deep in the content of that record laid a famous declaration: "Houston...the Eagle has landed," followed by the first spoken words ever uttered on the surface of Earth's moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Neil Armstrong, a former Korean War veteran, test pilot, university professor and aerospace engineer, instantly became a household name recognized and revered throughout the United States. His single act of walking on the moon's surface emerged as the apogee of an intense decade of engineering and space exploration. This achievement brought our nation an incredible sense of accomplishment and unity during an era of domestic unrest and international uncertainty. America needed a hero, and Neil Armstrong fulfilled that dream in 1969.

Three decades later, sports-minded Americans filled with pride when their native-son, a cancer survivor and founder of a respected cancer support foundation, secured a first-place finish in the Tour de France bicycle race.

Lance Armstrong was the second American since 1903 to win the three-week-long race. Incredibly, Lance proceeded to win the Tour de France for each of the next six years between 1999 and 2005. Like Neil, Lance Armstrong quickly became a household name in our nation and was idolized by athletes everywhere.

The United States lost her beloved astronaut and hero in August 2012 when Neil Armstrong passed away as a result of complications from coronary artery bypass surgery. He was 82 years old. In a sense, that same month America "lost" its most famous cyclist and beloved athlete when the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Lance Armstrong of all of his wins since 1998, accusing him of using banned substances to enhance his competitive performance. The Union Cycliste Internationale agreed with the USADA's decision in October and stripped Lance of his seven Tour de France titles. Lance contested the charges passionately until his infamous admission of guilt on national television in January.

By all counts, both Armstrongs achieved near deity status for their stunning accomplishments. Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered as the first man to set foot on the moon, and his famous "leap for mankind" phrase has been eternally immortalized. Lance Armstrong was clearly an incredible athlete by any measure, and thousands of people suffering from cancer have benefitted from the success and generosity of his charitable Livestrong Foundation.

But sadly, Lance will now be remembered as someone who didn't play fair, one who cheated in order to win top honors in his sport. It remains to be seen how or when he will recover from his mistakes and create a new legacy. That chapter is not yet written, but undoubtedly it will take a lot of effort to write a new one.

Tragically, moral missteps are all too common and tarnish the legacy of people who would otherwise remain at the pinnacle of their game. We live in a very competitive and challenging world. Pressures to succeed, to become the best among our peers, continue to mount--along with the immoral temptations that accompany them.

Multi-billionaire and renowned philanthropist Warren Buffet once said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

What will be your legacy?