John Shearer: Former Chattanoogan Rick Crawford Was Early Mentor To Lance Armstrong

Thursday, July 9, 2020 - by John Shearer
Rick Crawford, left, with Lance Armstrong in the 1980s
Rick Crawford, left, with Lance Armstrong in the 1980s
- photo by Courtesy of Rick Crawford

Nearly 50 years ago, Rick Crawford was a blossoming young athlete at Bright School and at Baylor School in the lower grades before his family moved to the Atlanta area.


He later realized he had a gift for endurance sports, and that carried him into a career as a long-distance runner at Georgia and then as one of the nation’s top professional triathletes and cyclists for a period in the 1980s and 1990s.


Over the years, he realized he had a knack for endurance and longevity in the field of coaching, training and instructing as well.

In fact, it is work that has continued through the present.


And early on when he was a professional triathlete and looking to begin a coaching career, he happened by chance to meet a teen-age Lance Armstrong, who went on to become a seven-time Tour de France champion before doping allegations and revelations.


It was a meeting that would grow into relationship in which Mr. Crawford served as his informal mentor, coach and training partner for a period, an association that was highlighted in the documentary, “Lance,” which recently aired on ESPN.


As Mr. Crawford recently reminisced over the phone from the Durango, Colo., area, where he now lives, he said he first met Mr. Armstrong in Dallas.


“I was in Dallas for a race and I was staying with friends and I happened to be at the same pool he swam at,” he said.


“He was living in (nearby) Plano then. I remember meeting him there. He picked me out and wanted to pick my brain.”


At the time, Mr. Armstrong was just in his mid-teen years and was more than a decade younger than Mr. Crawford. But he was already blossoming into a good age-group swimmer who was becoming interested in the triathlon before focusing on bike racing.


A short time later, Mr. Crawford ended up moving to that area because his wife was from Allen, Texas, and he and Mr. Armstrong renewed the acquaintance and common interests. Mr. Crawford became kind of his unofficial coach, mentor and training partner.


“Once I got back, we started training together,” he said. “I did have the desire to coach and he was a very ready student.


“He was a great training partner and was really strong and driven. I enjoyed the relationship.”


He said he even encouraged Mr. Armstrong to race in the then-high-profile President’s Triathlon pro event in Dallas despite his young age and helped pull some strings to get him in it. Mr. Crawford jokingly remembers never seeing Mr. Armstrong, who quickly pulled ahead of him and finished third, resulting in plenty of media attention for the then-rising star.


Mr. Crawford continued to mentor and coach Mr. Armstrong for free, but the relationship unfortunately soon came to an end. As was chronicled in the ESPN documentary along with the Dallas race when Mr. Crawford was interviewed, the two were in Bermuda for a competition when an unfortunate incident occurred. Mr. Armstrong, who was then starting to get more independent minded, trashed and failed to return a rented scooter.


That pretty much ended the relationship, Mr. Crawford recalled.


“He was getting unmanageable and I couldn’t control him anymore,” said Mr. Crawford. “And he didn’t want to be controlled.”


Mr. Crawford said he still feels bad, and they did not communicate or run into each other a whole lot after that. He said he would occasionally get a call from Mr. Armstrong over the phone years after that, but it was just to pick Mr. Crawford’s brain for information.


And the unresolved relationship still bothers him, he said.


“I would like to patch up with him, but don’t think that will happen,” Mr. Crawford said. “I am not really bitter about it, but it is still alive in my mind.


“It is one of the things I’ve learned to live with. I would love for it more than anything to be over with.”


He added that watching the ESPN documentary brought all the unresolved issues back to his mind.


Athletically, though, his admirations for Mr. Armstrong’s gifts continued. Mr. Crawford knew he was going to be great, and he realized he was transitioning more into bike racing as his forte, although he was a good swimmer. Running, Mr. Crawford remembered, was probably Lance’s weakest skill.


“It became apparent that cycling would be his strength,” Mr. Crawford said, admitting that Mr. Armstrong was bigger than a typical cyclist, but had a gift for endurance through his unusually strong heart and lungs. “He started getting attention from USA Cycling.”


As the documentary mentions, it was during the 1990s, several years after Mr. Crawford worked with him, that Mr. Armstrong became involved in doping. At the time, cyclists realized how much of an edge it gave them, and many could not resist the temptation.


Mr. Armstrong went on to win every Tour de France from 1999 through 2005 in a feel-good American story of someone who had overcome cancer until he later lost those titles after the doping allegations were confirmed. He later publicly admitted the indiscretions.


While their relationship came to a halt, Mr. Armstrong’s blossoming success did have one positive -- coaching doors did open for Mr. Crawford at a time when triathletes or cyclists did not have a lot of coaches.


“As a result of Lance, I did develop a coaching career,” he said. “Nobody else was doing this. I was one of the first private coaches at the high school level.


“I probably wouldn’t be a coach if it weren’t for him. I’ve probably dropped his name a million times since the ‘80s. I did benefit from being able to say that, but I earned it.”


Mr. Crawford’s work over the years has included coaching a number of elite cyclists, including multiple Tour de France participants. He has also been a director of a feeder squad for the Slipstream/Garmin-Cevalo racing team, was director of the premier Fort Lewis College cycling team, and he has also led other training and wellness programs.


During his coaching time, he also developed a stress scoring system that incorporates peripheral stress parameters as measurable training factors. And he has also written a regular bike training column over the years for magazine.


Mr. Crawford later admitted that he also got caught up briefly in the doping scandal about 20 years ago by helping facilitate doping programs for two pro athletes he coached.

In the early 2010s, he came clean and admitted his wrongdoings with the proper authorities and in a magazine article, now saying his feeling of guilt has left him.

"I was able to dump it from my own conscience. As hard as it was, I have no regrets about confessing,” said Mr. Crawford, adding that he had quickly decided to leave the pro ranks after that involvement and go work at the college level, where he could speak out to athletes about the dangers and pitfalls.

"I love cycling very much, and the best time of my cycling career was working with the collegiate teams I coached between 2001 and 2012.” 


Currently, he works with Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Colorado helping teens, young adults and families struggling with such issues as addiction or mental illness by offering outdoor-focused therapy programs.


“You let the wilderness work it out,” Mr. Crawford said of the work, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has increased interest in the program among clients and their families even more.


The good laws of nature also led him to discover his own talents of having a gift for endurance sports. But, like Lance Armstrong, he was well into his teens before he discovered his true calling.


He had been interested in a variety of sports when he attended Bright School, including playing sixth-grade tackle football for a Bright team volunteer coached by his late father. He then enrolled at Baylor School in the seventh grade in the fall of 1972.


While he was there, his mother, Gretchen Crawford, worked in the Baylor administration office.


In 1974, he had to leave Baylor after the eighth grade when his father took a job in the Atlanta area.


In Georgia, he continued participating in such sports as football, wrestling, baseball and track while attending Clarkston High School in DeKalb County. He lettered in all four, and he won a countywide distinguished scholar athlete award.


But he had still not really discovered his true athletic calling of triathlon-related sports. However, about the time he was finishing high school, he became more interested in long-distance running.


“I had a friend who was an endurance runner, and I started running with him,” he recalled. “And when I went to school (what is now St. Andrews University in North Carolina), he convinced me to run cross country.


“I enjoyed it. Once I started doing it, I realized I had an affinity for it.”


After two years there, he walked on the track and cross-country teams at the University of Georgia and became a solid contributor on the competitive Southeastern Conference level.


He also started getting into bike racing while at Georgia, and, with the help of some people in the burgeoning bike racing community in Athens, he became a serious biker and member of the U.S. bicycling team.


He also transitioned into triathlons and soon became a professional. In the mid-1980s he won the Riverbend Festival’s Bencor triathlon in Chattanooga sponsored by the successful builder, triathlon hobbyist and future mayor and U.S. senator Bob Corker.


Mr. Crawford said that was actually the only local triathlon competition he ever competed in.


“I wish I had raced more in Chattanooga,” he said.


He would see plenty of other mountains and ridges literally and figuratively as a professional triathlete from 1985-92, though, including when he became the 1987 U.S. national champion at the 70.3-mile distance (now commonly called a “half Ironman” length).


Despite his personal athletic accomplishments that came at the same time he was also enjoying the initial coaching reward of working with the blossoming young Lance Armstrong, he still cherishes his youth in Chattanooga.


In fact, the tone in his voice indicates his time in the Scenic City and learning to put forth effort in academics along with athletics was almost equally memorable and meaningful.


“Bright School and Baylor School developed such good habits for me as a student that public school was a piece of cake,” he proudly recalled.

Rick Crawford, far left, with Fort Lewis college team he worked with in early 2000s
Rick Crawford, far left, with Fort Lewis college team he worked with in early 2000s
- photo by Courtesy of Rick Crawford

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