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. No worries, there are enough such boys to go around. 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.
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 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 6'4" 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 meters he devours per stroke when he pulls away from a field and demolishes the 200-meter and 400-meter 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 an Olympic pool?
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's 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 seal: their kid brothers, Michael and Ian, giggling like hyenas 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. Kind of nice, having a squirt around with whom Ian could still be a kid. 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 a single 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 eyes-darting, jaw-grinding, wristwatch-checking wreck.
Ian still has trouble conceiving this: One day Michael was the feisty, chunky age-group cycling champion of the Bankstown Sports Club, in the southwestern suburbs of Sydney; the next day a doctor was telling him he had a two-inch-long tumor in his gut and an insanely aggressive disease called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The day after that, literally, he was being rushed to Sydney Children's Hospital with an eight-pound tumor ballooning inside him, kidneys failing, cancer already 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-meter 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. He discussed investments or world politics with an um-less and uh-less ease that made his elders forget they were speaking with a ninth-grader.