The Man with the Golden Feet

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Here is what every superstar needs: a boy with no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, no voice. A boy whose ankles bruise when he ties his shoes and whose feet occasionally turn black. There are plenty of boys like this. There are more of them than there are superstars. Here is what every phenom needs: a boy who wears the very clothes that the phenom used to wear before he outgrew them, so that every time he looks at the boy he almost sees himself. That is, of course, when the boy's not in pajamas, with a hose down his throat to do his breathing and a tube in his neck to filter his blood.
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Before it's too late, of course. Before the superstar is a superstar and the closest he will ever come to such a boy is a charitable dash through a hospital ward, a few snapshots and cheery hellos and hang-in-theres. Before fame distorts everything. Ian Thorpe did not know that this was what he needed when he hesitated at the doorway of a room in the Intensive Care Unit at Sydney Children's Hospital two years ago. He was barely 15, a boy himself. He couldn't have dreamed, as his stomach turned and the urge to step backward flushed through him, that the step he would finally take toward the boy's bed would help make Ian--at the most perfect time of all--the greatest swimmer on earth and possibly, as Australia's head swimming coach Don Talbot speculates, the swimmer of the century.

It's just sitting there, the first week of the Sydney Olympics, waiting for Ian to own it. In his hometown. In the pool where he's already smashed records. And in the incentive clauses written into the car, cereal, bank, airline, sporting goods, telecommunications, city water and TV network endorsement deals that Australia's aqua darling has signed. Not to mention the incentive clauses for the 2004 Athens Olympics. For Ian turned 17 only a few weeks ago, and that, in a sport where males don't peak until their early 20s, leaves journalists and physiologists, coaches and competitors with a puzzle: is it Ian's 193-cm body and wingspan that propels him through the water so swiftly, or is it his outlandish size-17 feet? Is it the astonishing 3.1 m he devours per stroke when he pulls away from a field and demolishes the 200-m and 400-m freestyle world records, as he did three times in three days at the Pan Pacific Championships three months ago? Is it the regimen of his white-haired, no-nonsense coach, Doug Frost, or could it be Australia itself, the only country in the world that can make a millionaire and idol of a swimmer even before he dips his toe into a pool at an Olympics.

No one, of course, factors in Uncle Fester. What else could Ian nickname the boy after he saw that pasty full-moon face, swollen even rounder by the steroids, and those eyes sunk in dark graveyard hollows? What else could Ian call him after Ian had found it inside himself to hide horror with humor and to do all he could to help save Michael Williams' life?

They had become friends in 1996, before Michael came down with cancer and Ian came down with fame. Back when Ian's sister, Christina, three years his elder, was falling for a young man named David Williams, a rare softhearted sort who actually felt guilty about going out and leaving his little brother home. Before Christina knew it, she was double-dating: she and David all dreamy in the front seat; their kid brothers, Michael and Ian, giggling in the back. Michael was 11, Ian 14, his talent just beginning to wash him into a grown-up world of international trips with teammates a half-dozen years older, of reporters and agents and corporate sponsors a few dozen years older still. They would vanish into Ian's bedroom to wage computer and PlayStation wars, merge forces to ambush a shrieking Christina in Michael's backyard pool or sit side by side with their fists in the same bowl of chips and watch Billy Madison so many times that they could ricochet two minutes of dialogue back and forth without missing one silly word. You'd never know, looking at them before one of Ian's meets, whose reputation was at stake. It was Michael who was the jaw-grinding, wristwatch-checking wreck.

Ian still has trouble conceiving that one day Michael was the feisty, chunky age-group cycling champion of the Bankstown Sports Club, in the southwestern suburbs of Sydney; then the next day a doctor was telling him he had a 5-cm long tumor in his gut and an insanely aggressive disease called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The day after that, literally, he was rushed to Sydney Children's Hospital with a 3.6-kg tumor ballooning inside him, kidneys failing, cancer eating at his bone marrow, spine and brain, death just hours away. Ian saw Michael that way from the doorway, sucking life from a ventilator and a dialysis machine to the sobs of his mother, Sylvia.

Ian entered the room slowly but remained near the wall. No one, not even Ian's mother, Margaret, could ever quite tell what was churning inside him. He had seemed so poised speaking to reporters and stepping onto the starting blocks for the '97 Pan Pacs in Fukuoka, Japan, just a few months earlier, and then stunning everyone--a 14-year-old taking silver in the 400-m freestyle. Even when Ian and Christina were babies, Margaret, a teacher, had refused to talk baby talk to them; it had unnerved her own mother, listening to her two grandchildren and their mum conversing like adults. By the time Ian was in second grade, his teacher informed Margaret that he seemed more like a 21-year-old. He could play the part so well by 15, it was almost eerie.

Sylvia Williams, during that first hospital visit from Ian, took the hat on which Ian had written live your dreams and perched it on the IV stand over her almost lifeless boy. Ian's lips remained clamped, as if the wave of revulsion behind them might come sluicing out. But then, even before Michael had gotten sick, Ian had been near-silent for weeks, returning home from swimming practice, gulping down a cup of tea and disappearing into his bedroom. In the five months since the silver medal in the Pan Pacs, as the '98 World Championships in Perth approached, the downward tumble of race times that Ian now considered his birthright had mysteriously come to a halt. He tried harder, grew tighter, swam slower, grew grimmer. It baffled him. For the first time he felt no urgency when his alarm screeched at 4:08 a.m., felt no hunger as he pushed two slices of toast into his mouth while Christina, with her own Olympic swimming dreams, stewed in the driveway waiting for him. He felt his passion for his sport leaking away. Had he peaked already? He felt once more like the chubby little boy whose cricket bat threshed air even when his dad, Ken, a superb cricketer, aimed the ball directly at the bat; the boy who watched Christina trump him in every game that required instinct and reflexes; the boy playing goalkeeper who sat on the ground stifling a yawn when his soccer team moved the ball upfield.

But Christina had broken her arm falling down a hill, and when the orthopedic surgeon recommended swimming as therapy, she was so taken by the pool that Ian had found himself staring into chlorine vapor during weekend after weekend of five-hour swimming carnivals, bored to eight-year-old death, and he decided, Bugger this, why not fall in and thrash around myself? He had an instinctive feel for the water, a stroke that, under Frost's tutelage, soon became the most efficient that the coach had seen in 30 years. By 13, Ian was cutting preposterous deals with his eye-rolling mum--Yes, all right, if you break the state record in all 10 events you enter in the New South Wales age championships, you can have the following Monday off from school--and cashing them in. It all seemed so automatic: hard work, faster times, bigger medals and louder acclaim ... until now, as he stared down the barrel of the biggest event of his life, the worlds in Perth.

He kept saying, the week after that first hospital visit, that he should go back and see Michael, who hadn't even been conscious the first time. But Ian didn't go. What could he say? What could Michael say? Virtually none of Michael's friends were going to see him. It didn't feel good to stay away, but the prospect of entering that room felt even worse. Then one day, on a trip to downtown Sydney to visit one of his sponsors, Ian vanished.

Michael blinked. Through his fog walked an apparition, the 15-year-old who had Australian teenage girls squealing: Ian Thorpe. It's not easy for a kid clouded by morphine, riddled with inoperable cancer and nauseated by chemotherapy to beam--but he did.

Magic happens, but not that fast. The 26 lumbar punctures to deliver chemotherapy to Michael's spine, the searing mouth ulcers, the arms bruised by so many needles, the hair falling out in clumps, the inability to keep even a piece of bread in his stomach, the ravaging pain and the loneliness of losing most of his friends made Michael tell his mother he wished only to die. Word got back to Ian. He started calling or just showing up, bringing a video for them to watch together, the newest PlayStation game to clash over, an autographed poster or T-shirt or a story from his most recent swimming trip. He brought a grin to Michael's face by calling him Uncle Fester. And if Michael kept insisting on planting his foot beside Ian's to see if his was still just half as long as Australia's most notorious size 17, well....

Ian loathed it, but never let on, when beered-up corporate types sidled up to him and compared shoe sizes, when interviewers asked him to lift a foot and show it to the audience. The four-letter f word, Ian called those feet. Sure, Ian had to admit that it was an advantage in events in which the differences among the world's Úlite were often hundredths of a second. Didn't his South African opponent Ryk Neethling say that swimming in Ian's wake was like being in a washing machine? He was starting to feel like a freak, and even well-meaning comments like those by Talbot--It's genetics gone bloody crazy!--seemed to diminish the five and six hours of training Ian did each day, the 72 to 100 km he swam each week. But if the f-word coaxed Michael out of bed and upright to do some measuring, well, then, it was an honor to be a freak.

An exchange was occurring between the boy who had lost his hunger to live and the one who had lost his lust to swim. Ian found himself leaving Michael's hospital room and entering other rooms in the ward, talking to other children who were staring at death. He found himself in the pool before dawn, strangely relaxed and yet flush with energy and will. I came to realize what was wrong, he says. That my talent was a gift, and that I'd started questioning it, expecting too much of it. I'd almost gotten greedy, instead of being grateful for it. What I saw because of Michael was how precious life is, how important it is to love what you do, every day. It changed my life. It opened my eyes to the world. When I was feeling pain in workouts, I'd start thinking, This is nothing. Michael's feeling much more. There are plenty of people feeling much more.

And Michael? He found himself looking forward, fidgeting with anticipation. When finally it came, the evening that Ian stepped onto the starting blocks for the 400 in the world championships, Uncle Fester was glued to the television in his hospital room, a puddle of nerves. Hope he's gonna win, Mum, hope he's gonna win, he kept repeating. The race started, and the boy who had wished only to die was pumping his fist and screaming, Go, Ian! Go! You can do it! With 100 m left Ian was four body lengths behind Australia's Grant Hackett, so it shouldn't have been possible, not remotely, for a boy of 15 years and 94 days to close with a gasping rush and win. The nurses heard screams in Michael's room and came on the run. What's wrong? they cried. Ian won the world championship! croaked Michael. Mum, you gotta go tell everybody on the ward, right now, quick!

Nobody heard much more from Uncle Fester that night. His voice was gone, his joy too much for words anyway. He was the mate of Ian Thorpe, the youngest world champion in history.

It was a strange time, says Ian. All the sponsors coming into my life, all the interviews and the limelight...It's wonderful, don't get me wrong, but I realized how little it meant. It gave me no power to help Michael. At the end of the day, fame counts for nothing. Michael's chemo and radiation dragged on another six months, and at every regression, every fever and every chilling blood count, there was Ian, pulling the levers of fame, making it something shiny, something golden. He bartered his new celebrity for moments a sick boy could never have dreamed of, the chance to meet the brightest lights of sports: the Waugh brothers, Dawn Fraser, Kieren Perkins, the Wallabies and--why not, while Ian was at it?--even Belinda Emmett, soap-opera star, on whom Michael had a crush. Ian traded his fame for the opportunity, just a week after the main chemotherapy tube was removed from Michael's chest, to have the boy and his parents flown by one of Ian's new sponsors to the '98 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, where the Malays insisted on touching and photographing Michael because someone that pale must be an angel or a ghost, and where Ian reaped four more gold medals and tossed the stuffed monkey that winners received into Michael's trembling hands. Ian used his renown to bring Michael into the locker room of the Sydney Swans, the night that the boy's feet turned black but he couldn't bring himself to go home, and he ended up being rushed back to the hospital, where a doctor would tell him, Your platelet count is near zero. Do you realize how close you came to dying?

When Michael was well enough to return to school, and a few boys at East Hills Boys Technology High--where Ian was a straight-A student before he decided to postpone his education and focus on swimming--made fun of the new bald kid, Ian passed the word, and the insults ceased. When the Williamses were about to drown in bills, Ian took every piece of swimming memorabilia he could lay his hands on and sold it at a fund-raiser.

Selfless? No, not by a mile--Ian was a phenom with a credit card, grinding teammates into the dust on mall sprees during overseas trips. But most every piece of designer clothing he tired of or outgrew showed up flopping over the palms or heels of Uncle Fester. Came in handy at times like the '99 Pan Pacs in Sydney, when Michael's chest puffed up so grand that anybody else's shirt might have burst. Thorpedo, as Ian had come to be known, hijacked the country's front pages that week in August with world records on three straight nights, hacking an astounding 1.97 seconds off Perkins' 400 record with a 3:41.83 on Sunday, a third of a second off Hackett's 200 record with a 1:46.34 in the semifinals on Monday and another third of a second off his own 200 world record with a 1:46-flat in the final on Tuesday. I have never seen anything like that, declared former U.S. Olympian Rowdy Gaines.

Along the way Ian anchored the Aussies' 4 x 100 relay gold, donated the $16,000 bonus for being the Olympic pool's first world-record breaker to children's cancer research and a youth crisis prevention program, left Michael teary-eyed and hoarse yet again, and began speaking of a new goal, a career combating health and economic problems in Third World countries. He's far and away more aware of the big picture than any young man I've ever been around, coach Frost says of Ian, and that may be the most important part of the package. He is what you could say is the dream swimmer.

Just a few weeks ago, the dream swimmer strode to center stage at the Australian Olympic Committee's $1,000-a-plate One Year to the Olympics dinner in Sydney. People often ask me what my inspiration is, he said into the microphone. It's not something I can write down. But I can show you. He exited the stage, and Michael materialized. Standing in a single spear of light, the 13-year-old boy opened his mouth and spoke, but no words came out. He hesitated, mortified--had he lost his voice again?--then started over, but all that filled the hall was silence. The audience, baffled at first, sat hushed, then broke into applause. The microphone was dead, but the boy with the 3.6-kg tumor was standing there, free of cancer for a year, alive.

Later, offstage, the two boys rolled their eyes at the sight of each other, both in formal wear--a dry run for next March, when Christina marries David, when Thorpedo and Uncle Fester become family and co-stars in the wedding party. It was time to resume their running battle, one that no Australian but Michael Williams could wage with Ian Thorpe.

I'm best man.

No, I'm best man.

No, I'm best man....