Olympian Michael Phelps journey started in Baltimore and now has covered five Olympics, winning 28 Olympic medals and 23 gold medals. He is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
On the afternoon of Aug. 16, Austin Levingston logged into Facebook and visited Michael Phelps' official page. He wanted to pay his respects. Days earlier, Phelps had capped his Olympic career with his 23rd gold medal. He had gone to Rio de Janeiro and won another race. It was, he said, the last of his competitive career.
Phelps wrote on his Facebook page days after that 4x100-meter medley relay that it was an "honor" to compete for the United States. Hours later, he posted again. He would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated with fellow Olympians Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, and that, too, was an "honor." Over 400,000 people liked it. More than 3,000 commented.
Levingston, 21, had written to Phelps before. He messaged him online a couple of years ago and didn't hear back. He sent a letter to a fan-mail address but never got a response. How was he, in a Facebook comments section, any different from the congratulatory fans from Brazil and Canada and Vietnam, or the appreciative mother of a 9-year-old boy who never dared venture outside of the pool's shallow end until he saw Phelps, or the Filipino who gave him his blessing and called Phelps the "Real Aquaman"?
Levingston started to type anyway. His comment was 156 words long. It had nine exclamation points. He said Phelps was his idol and lookalike. He said he was hoping to swim in the Olympics "just like you someday." He said he was autistic.
A new thread of replies formed. Levingston had come to a community of Phelps fans to explain why the swimmer was an inspiration. Now the same community looked inward. Levingston was the inspiration. Levingston was the one lifting them up.
"listen Austin you need to never give up on your dream. I like what you wrote. I like that phelps is your role model, because he is the best. you can be the best as well, even better than Phelps."
"I really hope Michael Phelps writes you back. You are inspiration to me as my son has Autism and he is 12. He wants to play the trumpet and become a special ed teacher. Thanks Austin!!!"
"Austin!!! Go forward and never give up!!! God bless you!!!"
"Unbelievable," Levingston said of the reaction. He had been a Phelps fan since he was 6. Now he felt like he had fans; more than 100 strangers have sent friend requests since Aug. 16. Because of the message. Because of Phelps.
"When I first posted the comment, I never thought any of this was going to happen," he wrote Monday from his Great Bend, Kansas, home, nearly smack dab in the middle of the Jayhawk State. "I never thought any of it was going to go as far it's come."
Levingston was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at birth. He said he can struggle communicating with others. Making eye contact is difficult. Asked about setting up an interview, Levingston said he preferred email correspondence; "im not really good at talking on the phone," he explained in a Facebook message.
He said he was bullied in elementary school, middle school and high school because of his disability. He said nothing was done about it. His freshman year of high school, he tried out for the basketball team, his favorite sport. He was cut on the first day after his coach, he recalled, told Levingston he didn't have the ability to play.
He turned to swimming. Watching Phelps in the 2000 Games in Sydney, he had become a fan. As the Baltimore native's medal count grew and his fame mushroomed, Levingston started to hear comparisons. The long face, the strong chin, the brown hair underneath the swim cap — Levingston kind of looked like Phelps, right? Just to be mentioned in the same breath, he felt honored.
"It has always made me feel like that people highly look up to me like I highly look up to Phelps," he said.
The pool was a safe space. Swimming felt good, he said. Levingston's teammates accepted him. His workouts strengthened him. He swam on his high school and summer-league team for four years. At the end of his club career, he was honored as the team's most inspirational swimmer.
The sport "changed" him, he said, which was no miracle. The University of California, Santa Barbara published a 2010 review of 18 studies examining individuals with autism, and found that those who participated in physical exercise typically showed improvements in behavior, academic performance and motor skills.
"The sport gave me an amazing feeling that I have never felt before," Levingston said.
He worked at a nearby fitness facility over the summer, swimming 2,000 yards at least four times a week in his spare time, but he made sure to watch most of Phelps' races in Rio. His favorite was the 200-meter butterfly final on Aug. 9. Chad le Clos of South Africa had dethroned Phelps in the discipline four years earlier, then shadow-boxed him before the semifinals in Rio.
The race was intense. The result, if you've followed Phelps' career as closely as Levingston, was predictable: another gold medal for the greatest swimmer there ever was. "Phelps burned him and got revenge," Levingston said, "which is pretty darn awesome if you think about it because you don't mess with Phelps!"
The Olympics ended, and life's currents carried on. Phelps returned home to spend time with his family, his legacy forever secure.
Levingston prepared for another year at Barton County Community College, his journey just beginning. Tabor College, a Christian liberal-arts college in Hillsboro, Kansas, is his next stop. Its athletic department is uniquely suited to Levingston's talents — the Bluejays have Kansas' only collegiate men's swimming program.
He hopes to swim there, and then in the Olympics, anything to get closer to his dreams, to Phelps. Levingston's saddened by his hero's retirement. He also can't begrudge his decision. "Nobody will ever beat him," Levingston said.
Has Phelps seen his post on his Facebook page? Levingston's unsure. So many other people have, and that's what's most important, that they understand who Austin Levingston is. But at the end of an interview, he was asked what else he would say to Phelps to convince him to return for the 2020 Games.
"I would tell him to come back so I could have the chance to compete against him in a few races," he wrote, "or maybe even be on a relay team with him one of these days."