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.
An hour or so after he gets back from his afternoon ride with Taylor, a change creeps over Davis, slowly but perceptibly. As the afternoon wears on, his left knee begins to twitch up and down, his hand starts to wander. "I can feel the tremor starting to creep up my leg," he says. "It'll come on in a little bit. But it's OK because I'm here now and it doesn't matter."
The meds had allowed him to go for his ride with Taylor, to rebuild the strength that his Parkinson's has been slowly stealing, and to reconnect with his son. "That's, like, sacrosanct to me," he says. Especially because Taylor had been feeling depressed: He'd just gotten back from Copenhagen, where he'd placed 10th in a World Cup. Only 10th! He had been suffering from a virus, and his legs just weren't there. There were no crowds cheering for him, either—just his mom, in her usual corner, and he could hear her on every lap: "GO, T!!!"
"He's just had his first bad ride," Garmin-Chipotle's director, Jonathan Vaughters, says later. "But I think it'll be good for him in the long run."
In the short run, though, it meant he'd have to fight for his Olympic berth. Under the arcane qualifying rules, he needed to keep a top-five world ranking to snag one of the 16 coveted start spots in the individual pursuit. Which meant that everything came down to the World Championships, held in March in Manchester, England. Riding against some of the best riders on Earth, Taylor set a new personal record but still managed "only" eighth place.
It was good enough to make the Olympics, but, more important, it meant the Phinneys could concentrate on a more pressing contest.
The day after he returned from watching Taylor at the Worlds, Davis flew to San Francisco to undergo a radical procedure aimed at beating back the symptoms of his Parkinson's. In a five-hour operation on April 9, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Jaimie Henderson of Stanford Medical Center opened a pair of holes in Davis' skull and, while he was still awake, began probing different regions of his brain with a tiny electrode no thicker than a human hair.
The doctors were looking for the best location in which to implant a bigger, permanent electrode, which they would then connect to a kind of neurological pacemaker that would stimulate the circuits of Phinney's brain that Parkinson's had starved of dopamine. The procedure is known as deep brain stimulation, and it seems to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's more effectively than medication.
Henderson switched on the device as a test. "All of a sudden they hit the right frequency and my tremors stopped," Davis remembers. "It was so cool, like they turned the power on. I feel a lot like my old self."
"The most gratifying thing is watching the life come back into somebody's face," Dr. Henderson says. "It's almost as if we've given them their soul back."
While Davis adjusts to his new life, which includes plans to see his son compete in Beijing, Taylor's looking at a busy summer. He graduated from Boulder High in late May after spending most of the month in Europe racing with the U.S. Junior National Team. This month, he's off to South Africa to defend his Junior World Championship title. Then, in August, he'll fly to Beijing for his big moment, the individual pursuit. "It's only a four-minute race," he'd said over breakfast, trying to downplay it, but it was clear it meant a lot more to him than that.
Meanwhile, it fell to Connie to make the airline arrangements—in addition to being cheerleader, muffin maker, and hospital bedside assistant, she's also the travel agent for Team Phinney. "Connie is an amazing, amazing lady," says Dr. Henderson. "Most other people would be just beside themselves, but Connie just maintains the same even keel."
Between her husband's battle with Parkinson's, her son's gold medal dreams, and her daughter Kelsey's own cross-country skiing career, she handles it all with iron discipline and an easy laugh. But she sometimes finds herself wondering when her family's life will return to normal.
If it ever does, it won't happen until this fall, after the Olympics, when the Phinney's passports and travel cases will finally get a rest. Between now and then, though, there are a lot of frequent-flyer miles to be earned. After weeks of online research to try to figure out Taylor's summer travel schedule, Connie concluded that it would be cheaper and easier for Taylor just to fly from South Africa to Europe and to train there for a while before going on to Beijing. Before he does even one warm-up lap on the track at the Laoshan Velodrome, Connie says, "He's gonna do a lap around the world."
Bill Gifford is editor-at-large for Men's Journal and the author of Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.