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The Man With the Golden Feet
Gary Smith
November 22, 1999
Australian swimming sensation Ian Thorpe-who figures to be a household name everywhere by the end of the 2000 Olympics—owes his world-record speed partly to his size-17 dogs but even more to the inspiration of a courageous young friend.
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November 22, 1999

The Man With The Golden Feet

Australian swimming sensation Ian Thorpe-who figures to be a household name everywhere by the end of the 2000 Olympics—owes his world-record speed partly to his size-17 dogs but even more to the inspiration of a courageous young friend.

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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—but, being Ian, levelheaded Ian, he couldn't tell a soul. 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, god bless her, had busted 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 on the job. 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-group 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—poor kid 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. His new agent, Dave Flaskas, rang everyone he could think of: Where had he gone?

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, clicking on a lamp inside the boy whose switch neither doctors nor nurses, parents nor siblings could reach. And if Uncle Fester 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....

God, how 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, when the media wouldn't let it go. "The four-letter f word," Ian called the feet that his mother had kept shod only by special order through the pro basketball team the Sydney Kings. Sure, Ian had to admit that it was an advantage to have that much more paddle slapping the water in events in which the differences among the world's elite 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 45 to 62 miles 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 an f'ing 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 couldn't help it: 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 the was pumping his fist and screaming, "Go, Ian! Go! You can do it!" With 100 meters left Ian was four body lengths behind Australian star 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 lay back in bed. Maybe he was special. Maybe his life was worth fighting for. He was the buddy of the youngest world champion in history. He was Ian Thorpe's mate.

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