For the past few weeks, Austin Levingston, son of Cindy and Beau Levingston, Great Bend, has been navigating new waters as he’s been plunged into the limelight after a post he made on Facebook congratulating U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on his success in Rio went viral. At times, it has been a little awkward, but thanks to the support and encouragement from his family and his friends, the experience has been one of growth.
The Barton Community College student shared with Phelps how his career has inspired the young man to swim competitively and how this has helped him to overcome some of his own limitations associated with autism and to attend college, with the goal of being the first in his immediate family to graduate with a degree.
His openness touched thousands of others who reached out to him through responses encouraging him to continue to follow his dreams and to believe in himself.
The posts caught the eye of Jonas Shaffer, a sports reporter with the Baltimore Sun.
Levingston visited with the Great Bend Tribune Friday, accompanied by his grandmother, Sharon Munsch. It was at her house that he decided to make his congratulatory post, and soon after, the responses started flowing.
“It was really quite amazing,” Munsch said. “Then, he received a request from Jonas, and we had to discuss what we were going to do.”
The first thing they did was request credentials from Shafer, taking it slow to ensure Levingston would not become the victim of a scam. After he received the verification they requested, Levingston and Shaffer conducted the interview through email.
Soon, he would be contacted by several other media, including the Tribune. Since Shaffer reported on how Levingston’s post went viral, the story has been reported in Time, Swimswam, The Independent Journal Review, CNN, ABC, FOX News, KSN and many other news media organizations through the Associated Press.
All the exposure has helped to pull the 21-year old man out of his shell.
“Super,” is his response when asked how it made him feel.
This is big, because according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, “autism is characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”
Levingston graduated from Great Bend High School in 2013. During his senior year, the memory that meant the most to him was when the high school swim team went to state. It was also the year he received the Most Inspirational Swimmer award from his teammates on the Golden Belt Swim Squad.
At the beginning of his high school career, he tried out for basketball, but was cut right away by the coach who told him did not have the ability to play. While the rejection was a hard blow to the 6-foot 4-inch teen whose favorite sport up until then had been basketball, it opened a door to another lasting opportunity.
Great Bend’s swim coach Steve Beaumont stopped Levingston then and suggested he try swimming instead. As it turned out, swimming was a favorite activity of Levingston’s.
He had began swimming at an early age in his uncle’s swimming pool, and later he swam at the city pool almost daily during the summers, Munsch said. He joined the team and swam with the Panthers, as well as summer swim team, throughout his entire high school career. Over that time, he came to call coach Beaumont his friend, and they continue to be friends today.
Even in high school, the similarities to Phelps were there. Both are the same height and have similar “wing-spans.” But the facial resemblance is uncanny too. Photos taken of him as he emerges from the water look so similar to the same style photos of Phelps, the casual observer has to do a double-take. These comparisons to an Olympic athlete further served to encourage Levingston to be the best he could be.
Now, as a college student at Barton Community College, he is studying to become a graphic designer, and enjoys creating abstract art and inspirational writing. A scroll down his facebook page bears witness to the young man’s seemingly never-ending positivity in the face of adversity.
In addition to college, Levingston swims at Club One Fitness four nights a week. It’s no surprise he has advice for others.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” he said.