New York Times sports columnist Juliet Macur is constantly on the move—whether traveling the world for her job, rowing on a D.C.-area crew team, or chasing after her toddler daughter. Just a week after she returned from covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Macur’s first book was released by HarperCollins. Cycle of Lies is an in-depth account of the rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong, a biography based in part on the years Macur spent covering the controversial athlete.
A few minutes after dropping off 2-year-old Allegra with her grandmother, Macur sat down for a brief respite in a Times conference room. She calls Armstrong a “dark, troubled, sad figure.” She says the book is less about cycling and more “a biography about how Armstrong lied to millions of people and did not flinch,” and how the American public fell for it. She never just writes about scores and statistics. She says, “I want people to be interested who don’t watch sports 24/7.”
Macur was one of the few reporters to speak in depth with Armstrong after he confessed to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey last year. That was just a few months after cycling’s international governing body stripped him of seven consecutive Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport for life. Armstrong’s sponsors dropped contracts worth about $75 million in future income.
Macur’s contact with Armstrong began a decade ago, when she started covering cycling for the Times. In 2006 the cyclist’s lawyer threatened to sue her over a story about doping issues. A few days later, Armstrong started calling Macur frequently to try to influence her reporting. She became suspicious: “He was so obviously doping, so I kept good notes.” She added to those notes last year by interviewing more than 100 other sources, including Armstrong’s family and friends. Her efforts paid off. The book hit The New York Times best-seller list in March, and is being published in 20 other countries.
Journalism wasn’t always Macur’s career ambition. Growing up the daughter of Polish immigrants in New Jersey, she aspired to be a lawyer. After graduating with an American history degree from Barnard—where she was captain of the Columbia crew team—Macur worked as a paralegal at a Manhattan law firm. She logged overtime with a purpose in mind: saving money to train and try out for the U.S. national rowing team. When that didn’t work out—“I wasn’t good enough. My knees were bad.”—Macur applied to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She pursued sports reporting on the advice of her mentor, special lecturer Sandy Padwe. “Juliet perseveres, she’s got talent, and she works hard,” says Padwe. “You could see that discipline as a rower in her reporting. She’s dogged.”
After graduating in 1997, Macur interned at the Orlando Sentinel. Soon, she had a full-time gig covering the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and NASCAR. Reporting on racing as a woman and “a Yankee” was tough, she says, not to mention socially isolating. “I was so lonely I cried almost every single night for three years.” Macur stuck it out, however, by ignoring her critics and diving further into her work. She moved on to The Dallas Morning News a few years later. There she met her husband, fellow reporter Dave Michaels. “He covered city hall, while I worked as a features reporter in the sports department.”
When The New York Times called in 2004, Macur was excited to move closer to her family. Besides cycling and Olympic sports, her significant projects have included a series about sports and soldiers in Iraq and another about the Chinese sports system leading up to the 2008 Olympics. She became the “Sports of the Times” columnist last fall.
Macur now lives in D.C. She works from the Washington bureau and sometimes rows with the Capital Rowing Club. For the roughly 10 days a month she travels, she often brings her mother to care for her daughter, because “I can’t be without Allegra that long.”
As for Lance Armstrong, Macur does not expect to hear from him again. “He has no self-awareness whatsoever,” she says. “He would have a hard time looking at himself in a mirror.”
—by Kristi Berner
—Photograph by Andrew P. Scott