Cycling is in the news again for all the wrong reasons which reminds us of a local businesswoman who played her part in exposing the doping scandal in the cycling world.
Emma O ‘Reilly (centre above), now owner of the Body Clinic in Hale, was Lance Armstrong’s favourite masseuse during the period when he and his teammates in the United States Postal Service Cycling Team (USPS) were achieving huge success. This experience resulted in a very dramatic episode in Emma’s life but Emma’s achievements are much greater than this!
To start at the beginning, Emma grew up near Dublin and became Ireland’s first female electrical engineer. Her job, working on switch gear and motor controls for ventilation equipment in hospitals, left her time to pursue her interest in competitive cycling and through this she managed to get a summer job working with the Irish cycling team. Eventually Emma left the switchgear behind and trained as a massage and sports injury therapist. Her work brought her into contact with the ‘Shaklee’ cycling team and she was offered a job with them, moving on after a while to the USPS team, where she became Lance Armstrong’s favourite masseuse.
In another ‘first’, Emma was the first woman working as a full-time soigneur in international cycling. The soigneur’s role involves taking care of the riders’ diet, massage and clothing. At the time cycling was a traditional and male dominated sport. Teams were often on the road for six to eight weeks at a time and the presence of women in the entourage was seen as a potential distraction. Emma was very aware of this and took great pains to ensure that her behaviour could never be called into question. She is proud that her high standards obviously blazed a trail for other women as female soigneurs are now commonplace in cycling.
Emma with Lance
At this point the USPS cycling team was a small team with big ambitions. Emma travelled with the team to all the big cycling competitions in France, Holland, Germany, Belgium and Spain, her role expanding as the team become more successful. Eventually she become the head soigneur, leading a staff of eight and organising the team in different countries at the same time. The job left Emma and her colleagues with little time to eat properly or to exercise but it was not only the support staff who were leading unhealthy lives. The riders, elite athletes, were always being pushed to the edge physically and mentally. They were under huge pressure to stay skinny and to perform and, perhaps unsurprisingly, medical interventions were used to squeeze the most from them.
After five years of being on the road in this exciting but exhausting environment, Emma left and moved to live in San Francisco – a long cherished dream. However, personal reasons led her to England and Emma found herself first in Shrewsbury and then in Cheshire. She bought her current business in Hale in 2003. By this time, Emma had begun to be concerned about the long-term effects of the performance enhancing drugs that she knew some professional cyclists were taking. She began to see cyclists dying from drug taking and realised that the legacy of this activity within the sport reached further into the lives of the riders than she had realised.
There had long been suspicions about doping in cycling in wider circles. When Emma was approached by a journalist from the Sunday Times and asked to corroborate information that he had gathered, she saw an opportunity to do the right thing and call time on what she had realised was a dangerous practice. Emma explains that she was not intending to ‘shop’ Lance Armstrong, with whom she had had a good relationship, but to change the culture in the sport. However, when ‘LA Confidential’ was published Emma was the book’s only named source and she had to endure a vicious reaction from Lance Armstrong and the rest of the cycling world.
In view of what happened next Emma is amazingly generous to Armstrong, describing him as ‘very kind, very decent’ although ‘an egotist’. She says that she can’t watch any of the many programmes and films made about him which portray a monster that she doesn’t recognise. When she made her accusations about him it was perhaps inevitable that he would take it personally and his egoism certainly came to the fore as he defended himself against the accusations.
Armstrong sued the book publishers, as well as the Sunday Times for an article based on the same claims. Although it was unusual for witnesses to be sued it did seem that action was going to be taken against Emma and she found herself at risk of bankruptcy and of losing her home and business. Armstrong spoke out against Emma personally, accusing her of betrayal and attempting to ruin her reputation by falsely alleging that she had to leave the USPS Team because of unprofessional behaviour.
Lance denied doping claims - at first...
Three ‘years of hell’ followed for Emma until the case against the Sunday Times was settled in 2006. The issue didn’t go away though. In October 2012, a report by the US Anti-Doping Agency confirmed Armstrong’s doping, saying the team he controlled ran “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme the sport had ever seen”. In 2013 came the interview with Oprah when Armstrong confessed all. He admitted that his accusations against Emma had been false saying, ‘She is one of those people I have to apologise to.’ He has apologised and they have spoken but Emma has moved on with her life now.
Whilst Lance is still in big trouble, Emma is now the contented owner of a thriving physiotherapy and sports injury clinic in Hale, The Body Clinic. She still looks after high level athletes, including Victoria Pendleton, but is equally interested in caring for the local community. Women’s health, children’s growth issues, pre and post-operative care and therapy for sports injuries are among the services offered by Emma and her experienced team.
Emma seems to have put her years of aguish behind her but if you have an appetite to find more about this dramatic episode in her life she did co-write a book about the experience ‘The Race to Truth’ – the foreword of which is written by none other than Lance Armstrong.