He's got the genes and the killer instinct, and at age 18 cyclist Taylor Phinney is a good bet to medal in Beijing. But more important than any Olympic hardware for the prodigy is that, after radical brain surgery, his dad—the legendary Davis Phinney—is back in the saddle.
The symptoms started showing up a few months after Taylor was born, at the end of June 1990. Davis—who was known by his teammates as "Thor"—had to rush off and ride the Tour de France, and within a few months of his return home Connie noticed that he seemed to be tripping over his own feet. Cyclists generally detest walking and often aren't very good at it anyway, so Connie chalked it up to laziness. "I thought he just wasn't picking up his feet," she says.
There were other signs. Davis became more easily fatigued, which he first attributed to the stress and travel involved with his post-cycling job as a commentator for NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Outdoor Life Network (now Versus). Connie started to worry: Her mother had suffered from multiple sclerosis, and Davis' symptoms seemed eerily familiar. Then, she read an article in People magazine about Michael J. Fox, who had just revealed that he suffered from Parkinson's disease. "I remember saying, 'Huh, this might be what you have,'" she says.
Parkinson's is a disease of aging that generally shows up in people in their 60s and 70s. Davis was only 40 when his doctor sat him down, in May 2000, and told him there was no doubt he had Parkinson's. Scientists aren't sure what causes the disease. It may be genetic, in part, but it might also be related to environmental factors or a history of head trauma. The Phinneys wonder sometimes if Davis' problems didn't start in 1988, when he crashed headfirst through the window of a team car in a Belgian race and needed more than 150 stitches.
Parkinson's originates in the subthalamic nucleus, a bean-size region of the brain that produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for, among other things, smooth, controlled movement. For an athlete, Parkinson's is a particular form of torture. "A lot of what you lose is just your natural ease of movement," Davis says, "and your sense of feeling comfortable in your own skin."
The good news is that you probably won't die of Parkinson's. The bad news is that it will never get better. Your speech becomes slurred, mumbly and sloppy, and your balance starts to get dodgy. Muscle groups sometimes simply don't do what they're told, even for such simple tasks as swallowing. There are medications that can relieve the symptoms, but there is no cure. The closest thing, for Davis, is to go for a ride with his son—to try and keep his body fit, at least, until medicine figures out how to write a new ending for his story.