Phelps Fulfills Wish Of Young Friend With Cancer

It has been said time and time again that Michael Phelps is a machine in the pool but this story shows a different side of Phelps. For all the medals he has won, for all the mistakes he might have made (yes he is only 23 years old), here is a great thing this man did for a family going through a real tough time. A great piece here by Alan Abrahamson of NBC

It was late, after midnight, and a little boy lay asleep in his bed. Just 11 years old, he was a desperately sick boy. He did not, as it turned out, have many more days left to live.

It was late, and Michael Phelps’ plane had been delayed, and so by the time he got to Stevie Hansen’s bedroom, Stevie could not be roused. No matter. Michael sat there on Stevie’s bed, holding Stevie’s hand. Just talking, certain Stevie could hear him. For two hours. Maybe longer. No one remembers exactly.

The next morning, Stevie woke up and said to his mom, Betsy, “I wish I had woken up. But I know he was here.”

Betsy Hansen sighed and said, “He was so thrilled.”

A little more than a year has passed since that night, since Michael quietly paid tribute to the fighting spirit and the soulfulness of a little boy who, before cancer took over his body, had himself been a swimmer, too — a boy who dreamed of one day being like his idol, Michael.

“He was an inspiration to me,” Michael said Monday.

Michael Phelps is one of the greatest American athletes of his generation. At these Beijing Games, he won eight gold medals, the most ever at a single Olympics, topping the seven that Mark Spitz won in Munich in 1972.

His fame is staggering.

But it can be nearly impossible in our sound-bite culture to see Michael as he typically is away from the spotlight — the genuineness about him, the profound and fundamental decency.

To be sure, Michael is not perfect. He is not a saint. He is still but 23 years old. He has made mistakes, and acknowledged them.

But in the relationship he forged with Stevie Hansen, and as time went on with Stevie’s family, his parents Betsy and Steve and younger sister Grace, Michael’s uncommon decency could not have been more evident, more profound.

Here was a life lesson as a life was slipping away — what it means to be a real friend, and what real friends do for each other.

“He’s a very giving person,” Debbie Phelps, Michael’s mother, said. “He has always wanted to give back and make people happy and make them — give them a little piece of him, a piece of his heart. Because he has a great heart.”

Betsy Hansen said Michael “bravely came into our lives” when doing so meant “he was himself going to feel some pain,” adding, “It takes courage to embrace a family in that position. He did it.

“It wasn’t to better his image in the community or in the world. He just reached out to a little boy who thought, ‘You’re a really cool swimmer, I’ve always wanted to meet you.’ ”

Stevie was only 7 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, in October 2002.

Stevie was, even at that young, a promising age-group swimmer in Maryland, where Michael grew up and was training — the Athens Olympics were still almost two years away.

As a 6-year-old, Stevie was already not only swimming but winning awards.

The day before surgery, Michael came over. He brought a flag, some shirts, a poster. They shot hoops in the driveway. They talked — about how each of them loved junk food.

Michael sent balloons to the hospital. When Stevie woke up, his dad, Steve, recalls, he “just clutched the balloons, smiled and went back to sleep. It was like a lifeline: ‘Michael cares.’ ”

Over the next year, Stevie seemed to get better. That next summer, Michael sent Stevie a note saying he wanted to come watch Stevie swim at a local meet. Which he did — showing up unannounced.

“Stevie came over and said, ‘Wow, you came!’ And at a full run he leaped into Michael’s arms,” Steve said.

That afternoon, Michael watched from behind the blocks as Stevie raced in the free, the fly and a relay. Michael was coaxed into swimming a relay leg himself in a parents’ and coaches’ race — even though he had to borrow a suit.

Michael and Stevie had lunch together. Michael signed autographs for all the other kids as well; he signed for Grace using a red Sharpie on her forehead. She calls Michael a “special friend.”

That October, doctors found tumors on Stevie’s spinal cord. He underwent another surgery; again, Michael “sent a big basket of stuff to the hospital,” Steve said.

Stevie would, ultimately, undergo two more surgeries.

Michael would go to Athens, win eight Olympic medals, six gold, come home a star. He would move to Michigan, following his longtime mentor and coach, Bob Bowman, to train for the 2008 Games.

Still, Michael stayed in regular touch with Stevie, with Grace, with Steve and Betsy, and when, in April 2007, Betsy called Michael’s mom, Debbie, to say, “We have a disaster here … he wants to see Michael,” Michael made it happen.

His plane was late. Bags were lost.

Still, Michael made it happen. He and Debbie showed up at the Hansen house well after midnight.

And stayed for two hours, maybe longer.

“Michael never dropped his hand,” Betsy said. “It was so touching, so touching — to see this big guy touched by the frailty of life, that Stevie wanted him.”

Stevie had told his parents he wanted Michael to try to win an Olympic medal for him.

Even though Stevie wasn’t awake to hear it, Michael made him that promise.

“I said I’d try to get a medal and hopefully it’d be a gold one,” Michael recalled Monday.

Debbie was there that night, too, and when mother and son left the Hansens, stepping softly across the grass, wet with dew, it was hand in hand. “Death as we know it is not an easy thing to take as an adult, let alone a child,” Debbie said.

The next day, Michael posted a note to Stevie’s personal page on an Internet site for people confronting serious illnesses. It read, “Stevie, it was great to see you last night. I’m really glad I got to visit. You are very brave. You really are an inspiration to us all. Talk to you soon — Michael.”

Betsy responded with this post: “Yours was a gift,” she wrote, “like none other.”

Stevie died on May 29.

The memorial service took place on June 4.

Michael came back to Baltimore for the service. He sent a “spectacular spray of purple flowers,” Betsy said, adding, “Purple was Stevie’s favorite color.”

He stood with the Hansens as they greeted friends and family. “A wonderful, selfless display of caring,” Betsy said.

“It was never about people knowing he did it,” she said. “It never went out in the press that he was here. Never.

“No one ever knew the depth of the relationship between them.”

Michael said Monday, “When he passed away, when we went to the funeral — it was hard. It was an honor for me to have someone like him look up to me.”

He paused and added, “I’m sure he’s looking down on us and I’m sure he’s cheering from above.”

Grace Hansen watched from far away this week, back in Maryland, as Michael won those eight medals.

“I saw him swim every day,” she said by telephone and then added in a remark about Michael the swimmer and Michael her friend, “He’s really good.”

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