Austin Levingston with 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps during their 2017 meeting in Chicago.
By MIKE COURSON
Great Bend Post
Few young athletes ever get a chance to meet their idol face to face. Even fewer get to do it twice. Former Great Bend High School and Barton Community College swimmer Austin Levington first met 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps in 2017. The duo was reunited just before Christmas via a FaceTime chat. Austin still cherishes that first meeting in Chicago.
"Nov. 4, 2017," he recalls. "He gave me an award, like a trophy. We shared a hug, and we talked a little bit."
Levingston, now 28, was diagnosed with autism at birth. Upon moving to Great Bend, he had a chance encounter with former Great Bend High School swim coach Steve Beaumont in the hallway at school.
Some of the gifts Austin has received from the Phelps Foundation.
"When he started school in Great Bend, he didn't know what he wanted to do, basketball or football," said Austin's father, Boe Levingston. "Steve Beaumont caught him in the hallway and asked him if he'd be interested in swimming. Austin gave it some thought and said he would."
Austin swam under Beaumont for four years at GBHS, becoming a state alternate by his senior season. He went on to swim for Barton Community College, joining the Cougars at the national swim meet in Florida. Austin continues to swim under the USA Swimming umbrella, competing around the region. He recently qualified for the Missouri Valley Senior Championships in one event.
Levingston has compiled many trophies and medals as a high school and collegiate swimmer.
A chance relationship with Phelps began in 2016. Phelps was coming off his 23rd Olympic gold medal at the Rio Summer Games, and Austin was one of thousands of fans to comment on Phelps' Facebook page. Austin wrote about his autism and shared a photo to show how closely he resembled his idol. More than 4,000 other Facebookers have since liked that comment. The Baltimore Sun reached out to Austin for a feature story.
"When they both do the butterfly, if you look at Austin's picture, and you look at Michael Phelps' picture, they look identical in the water," Boe said. "Standing next to Michael Phelps and (Austin), you can hardly tell the difference between the two. So it's a big inspiration for Austin to meet Michael Phelps and keep his dreams going with his swimming."
Fifteen months after making that Facebook comment, Austin met Phelps in Chicago. The Michael Phelps Foundation picked 30 Special Olympic athletes for the occasion, covering all costs for Austin, his mother, and sister to make the trip. Phelps presented Austin with a trophy and a signed copy of his book.
"I'm his dad, so I was very proud he got to see this and do this," Boe said. "There are a million kids out there that don't get the chance to meet somebody like Michael Phelps. He was just one of the chosen few that got to do this. I was pretty excited over this."
The Phelps Foundation has stayed in touch with Austin, and just before Christmas, invited him to the FaceTime chat with Phelps. Austin said he was able to catch up with the greatest swimmer of all time and update him about life since the first meeting in 2017. Austin even received a text back from Phelps after the meeting.