PLAYGROUND NOTES: Young cyclist opens Armstrongs eyes

J. Michael Moore

Joseph Tokarski is like most 13-year-olds.

He goes to school. He plays video games. He rides his bike.

The bike riding has gotten him extra attention in recent years, though. He has turned his hobby into competition, becoming one of the best junior cyclists in Texas.

But a problem lurking on the inside set Joseph even further apart from his peers, putting him in a Houston hospital bed the third week of January, awaiting a heart surgery that no one expected.

It was one of those dirty surprises — a hidden secret that had been haunting him since birth.

Joseph was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning that his aortic valve had two flaps instead of three. An infection invaded his body sometime before Christmas, settling in the vital organ.

The surgery took nine hours.

He was hooked up to a heart and lung machine while surgeons clamored to sweep away the infection.

His heart was cleansed in a chemical bath, and his aortic valve was replaced.

Doctors designed the surgery to allow the young athlete a good chance at competing again.

One cardiologist that examined Joseph said he had read of a cyclist who had the same procedure done.

But no one knows the future.

His 105-pound frame fits nicely on a bike.

For years he has been pedaling.

Pedaling through the mountains of North Carolina with his father during the summer.

Pedaling on concrete tracks and hot asphalt streets.

Pedaling and winning.

Joseph didn’t do anything to deserve the setback. Winning was his focus. Cycling was his passion.

He did it every day, every weekend. It wasn’t uncommon for him and his father to ride 120 miles or more in a three-day stretch.

But there was the infection, invading his heart while he was riding away on his bicycle.

Everyone prayed for his healthy recovery. Family flew and drove to Houston to be there for his parents and take care of his little brother, Parker.

Then the phone rang.

Joseph was still under anesthesia when the nurse answered to hear Lance Armstrong on the other end of the line.

Armstrong, a fellow Texan and professional cyclist, was taking on another role — that of inspiration. If anyone can inspire a miraculous recovery and return to competition, it’s him.

He was selected as Sports Illustrated’s Man of the Year after winning the Tour de France four straight times and returning to the streets after a well-documented battle with cancer.

Joseph opened his eyes, commenting that his chest felt better.

Turns out, the young cyclist had been having pains since Thanksgiving, but he wrote them off to his strenuous hobby.

He told no one.

Joseph is improving by the day. He’s now far from those scary first moments. He closes down the hospital’s game room almost every night.

He’s beginning rehab.

And playing video games.

Since no artificial devices were placed in his chest, he stands a good chance at competing again.

Doctors have even asked for an autographed picture and want to watch Joseph’s return to competition.

Maybe it was the fact that Lance Armstrong was once as close as the phone next to him, but Joseph appears on a faster track these days.

Joseph is my cousin — distant, yet ever the inspiration.

Armstrong is the pinnacle of all success stories, the master sportsman with the master story and the Texas-sized heart.

But I know a 13-year-old who has all the makings to give him a run for his money.

J. Michael Moore covers women’s basketball for the Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]