The Champ was her pen pal of 30 years

SEATTLE • To the rest of the world, Muhammad Ali was a boxing legend; but to Ms Stephanie Meade, he was her pen pal of 30 years who saw her through her difficult childhood when her father became disabled.

Telling the BBC how his letters transformed her life, Ms Meade said she was 10 when she penned her first letter to Ali, whom she described as "the single greatest impact on my life".

"Everyone told me that he would never write back, but three weeks from the date of my letter, I received a handwritten letter from The Champ," she said, using one of his nicknames.

The handwritten letter, a photograph of which was published on the BBC website, read: "Dear Stephanie, thanks for the sweet letter. One day I hope to meet you also. Tell all my fans I said, 'Hello, from me'."

"Kiss Mother and Daddy for me and wish them my love. May Allah always bless you and guide you. Love from Muhammad Ali," the heavyweight boxer and social activist scrawled.

Ms Meade spent much of her childhood cooped up at home watching television with her father, who was disabled when she was four. She was particularly captivated by videotapes of Ali's fights.

An unlikely friendship blossomed between the two, as Ms Meade sent him her report cards and shared her secrets with him.

They met for the first time in 1992 when she was a college student. By then, the 1960 Olympic boxing champion was having problem speaking, a symptom of Parkinson's disease.

In 2014, Ali invited Ms Meade and her family to visit him - that was the last time she saw him alive.

"I was telling him how very much I loved him, and, although he was unable to speak, his eyes were alive and he squeezed my hand and hugged me," she told the BBC.

"Yes, Muhammad Ali loved me back. I cannot put into words what that felt like."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'The Champ was her pen pal of 30 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe