The promise

Editorial Notebook

July 05, 2008|By Peter Jensen

To those who spend their summers at a Baltimore-area pool, especially for anyone involved in competitive swimming, watching native son and daughter Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff dominate the field at the U.S. Olympic swim trials this week has been a thrill.

Beijing may be a long way from local summer swim teams, with their 6-year-olds struggling to finish 25 meters of backstroke without veering off into the lane lines or preteen breaststroke heats so slow that timers may be tempted to trade their stopwatches for calendars, but the connection is there nonetheless.

Even the awesome Michael Phelps, the recently-turned-23-year-old destined to be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time, once swam on Saturday mornings in the Central Maryland Swim League - just as thousands of area youngsters will do today.

Perhaps it is that connection that explains why twice last year, Mr. Phelps broke his Olympic training regimen to make brief trips to Baltimore County that escaped notice in the press. The first was in April, when he flew in to sit at the bedside of 11-year-old Stevie Hansen, easily the best swimmer of his age group at nearby Springlake Swim Club, who had spent five long years battling cancer in his brain and spine.

Stevie slipped into a coma that night before Mr. Phelps' arrival, but his parents, Steven and Betsy Hansen, remember the Olympic swimmer sitting beside his bed until 2 a.m., holding his hand and quietly making him a promise before having to leave for a return flight west.

Mr. Phelps' second trip was to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Lutherville some weeks later, where he attended Stevie's funeral.

The Hansen family and their friends are grateful for Mr. Phelps' devotion to Stevie. Even after Stevie's death, he continues to send them various autographed bits of Olympic memorabilia. Last month, Mr. Phelps' mother, Debbie, and oldest sister, Hilary, helped raise money for pediatric oncology at Sinai Hospital, where Stevie underwent chemotherapy.

The Hansens are still a swimming family. Over the years, Stevie's 10-year-old sister, Grace, has developed into a formidable year-round swimmer herself at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and this summer, she's been rewriting Springlake's record books.

But there is also one piece of unfinished business. That night at the Hansen home, Mr. Phelps' promise was to win a gold medal this summer for Stevie.

So as the rest of us proudly watch Maryland's Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff set records and continue to dominate the field in Nebraska today and tomorrow, the Hansens will have a more personal stake - and it doesn't require breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics.

With each qualifying victory in the pool, Mr. Phelps moves one step closer to keeping the pledge of Olympic gold he made more than one year ago to a young fellow swimmer. For all those who knew and adored Stevie, that now seemingly inevitable moment will be precious beyond measure.

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