Lance Armstrong has spent the past year dealing with the consequences of his drug cheating but here, in a quaint little town in Florida, he is about to face the woman who brought him down.
Emma O’Reilly was a soigneur on the US Postal cycling team Armstrong represented in winning the first six of his seven Tour de France titles. Her job was to feed him, massage him, take care of his every need so he could focus on riding his bike. Not only that; she used concealer from her make-up bag to cover up needle marks on his arm and travelled to Spain to collect banned substances on his behalf.
She was also the person who first told the truth. The whistleblower who first spoke out because she could no longer stand by and watch Armstrong and his team-mates cheat in a culture encouraged by the officials and team doctors she feels should also be held to account. Twenty-six riders died in suspicious circumstances in less than two decades.
Unfinished business: Emma O’Reilly confronts Lance Armstrong a decade after they worked together
Fronting up: Armstrong comes alone to meet his former masseuse O’Reilly and Sportsmail’s Matt Lawton
For that, Armstrong trashed her reputation, publicly branding her an alcoholic whore and including her in the legal proceedings that she feared, for years, would ruin her. ‘I thought he was going to take everything from me,’ she said.
Today they are reunited, the accuser and the drug cheat, for the first time since she exposed him nine years ago. They haven’t met, in fact, since she resigned in 2000 because she could not accept the drug culture that had developed within the US Postal team. But now she needs closure. She needs to look into his eyes, into his soul, and see that he really is sorry for the way he treated her.
‘It was too big a situation to just have a chat about it on the phone,’ she says. ‘I wanted to eyeball him. You can’t keep kicking an injured dog. I wasn’t here to humiliate him. But I wanted closure.’
When Armstrong’s mea culpa moment arrived in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in January, he named O’Reilly as one of those to whom he owed a personal apology.
Admission: Armstrong confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey
Now Armstrong has travelled from his Texas home to finally meet again. She hears him before she sees him. Standing at the hotel reception desk, she is suddenly aware of that distinctive Texan voice. There are slightly awkward smiles, a brief hug. O’Reilly has never been one for public displays of affection, so much so that it used to be a bit of a joke on the US Postal team.
Armstrong has come alone, while O’Reilly’s desire to retain some control of the situation led to her asking me to accompany her on the flight from Manchester to Orlando to report on their meeting. It should be made clear that she paid for her own flight and accommodation.
But why now and why the invitation to a journalist to join her? Not because she is frightened but because she figured once Armstrong had told of their reunion and word began to spread, she would face an avalanche of questions.
And because, for all the hurt and stress Armstrong caused her and her then partner, Mike Carlisle, there is also part of her that feels compelled to defend him against what she now thinks is becoming a serious injustice.
Laid back: O’Reilly, pictured here giving a massage to Armstrong, accompanied Sportsmail to Orlando
History: O’Reilly trained as an electrician, then as a sports masseuse before landing the US Postal team job
For O’Reilly, it was never just about bringing down Armstrong. It was about speaking out to protect the riders and expose the people who allowed a culture of doping to develop in the sport.
‘I took what you said about me on the chin but what upset me more was the way it hurt my boyfriend at the time, Mike,’ O’Reilly says to Armstrong. ‘You’re a lad’s lad, Lance, and if someone had said that about your girlfriend you’d be very upset.’
Armstrong asks that they discuss Mike, already by that time battling the cruel physical effects of multiple sclerosis, when they head out for dinner. O’Reilly agrees.
‘I never expected to see Emma,’ he then says. ‘I wanted to talk to her. I felt it was necessary to have a conversation because there were definitely people that got caught up in this story who deserved an apology from me. When I reached out in January it was to talk. Emma, I appreciate, wasn’t ready for that. But it’s good that, tonight, we are doing this in person.
We need to talk: Armstrong sent O’Reilly a text message issuing a plea to speak with his former masseuse
Face-to-face: O’Reilly brought Armstrong down – and Sportsmail was there in Orlando to here his apology
‘At the time, when I said what I said about her, I was fighting to protect a lot of positions. But it was inexcusable. It’s embarrassing. I was in a conference room, giving a legal deposition, and I had no idea it was going to get out. But that doesn’t excuse it. I guess you should always assume that, in that setting, the whole world will watch it the next day. It was totally humiliating for Emma. And if I saw my son do that, there would be a f***ing war in our house.’
To dismiss O’Reilly as naive or as some kind of stooge for Armstrong would amount to a grave misjudgment of this tough but compassionate 43-year-old woman from Dublin. She trained as an electrician, then as a sports masseuse, and worked first for the Irish cycling team prior to landing a job on the American outfit with the biggest budget on the pro tour. From there she would build the thriving business she has today: a sports injury clinic in Cheshire.
This is how she justifies her actions. ‘I implicated other riders as well as the management of the team. But it became about Lance when I felt I was trying to help clean up cycling and protect these young lads who were being pressured into taking drugs.
Read more: Daily Mail