"It was a strange time," says Ian. "All the sponsors coming into my life, all the interviews and the limelight. A top swimmer here has the level of fame of a pro basketball or football or baseball player in America. 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."
True. So very true. False. So very false. 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 Aussie sports: the Waugh brothers of cricket, the three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Dawn Frazer and the two-timer Kieren Perkins, the rugby legend David Campese, Australia's national rugby union team and—why not, while Ian was at it?—even Belinda Emmett, the 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 Australian Football League team, 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 on campus, 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've 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's 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 new 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 man 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 AOC'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 eight-pound tumor was standing there, free of cancer for a year, alive.