Work in Sports
Five-time gold medalist Jenny Thompson, 27, plans to undress her younger rivals in Sydney and become the most decorated U.S. woman Olympian ever
By Jack McCallum
Issue date: August 14, 2000
The towel was white and fluffy, and the words JUNIOR NATIONAL CHAMPION ran across it in lovely blue stitching. Oh, how 12-year-old Jenny Thompson wanted that towel. "That's what was in my mind -- the towel -- when I was on the blocks," she said not long ago, recalling a 50-meter freestyle race in Orlando in 1985. And? "And I lost," Thompson said. And? "Well, maybe something like that happened in 1996. Maybe I wanted something so bad, I lost my focus."
What Thompson wanted, at the '96 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis, was something more than a towel. It was a chance to go to the Atlanta Games and win two, perhaps even three, gold medals in individual swimming events, a kind of gilded glut that would render worthwhile all those years of predawn practice in New England pools, all those years of watching women from China's steroid-tainted swim program claim the top step of the podium. But she didn't get that chance.
It's a shame that a story about Thompson must begin with what she did not do, for what she has done is this: In a sport famous for teenage flameouts, she has been near the top longer than almost any other Olympic athlete in history, long enough to have won five gold medals -- all in relays -- tying her with speed skater Bonnie Blair for the most by any U.S. woman. Thompson, 27, has been a national-class swimmer since 1987, when she was 14 and was called Young-un. Now Stanford assistant coach Ross Gerry calls her "the grande dame of swimming." Thompson almost made the '88 Olympic team at 15. She has won 23 national titles and 26 NCAA championships. She broke a world record in '92 (in the 100-meter freestyle) and another in '99 (in the 100 butterfly). That seven-year gap between world marks was unprecedented in swimming.
Six months after the second world record, which came in an event whose previous standard (set by Mary T. Meagher in 1981) was considered Beamonesque, Thompson broke her own world short-course (25-meter-pool) mark in the 100 fly at the world short-course championships in Athens. "The conventional wisdom is that most women peak in their teen years and are past it when they're my age," says Thompson. "That's wrong." She smiles. "I read it in my Human Development book." Spoken like the medical student she plans to become after Sydney.
Indeed, Thompson and others of her generation are changing the paradigm of women's swimming. Freestyle sprinter Dara Torres, 33, who also trains at Stanford, though not with Thompson, is trying to become the first U.S. swimmer, male or female, to participate in four Olympics ('84, '88, '92 and '00). Defending 50-free gold medalist Amy Van Dyken, who still has a chance to make the U.S. team despite a shoulder injury, is 27. So is Australia's Susie O'Neill, among the best in the world in both the 200 free and the 200 fly. Breaststroker supreme Penny Heyns of South Africa is 25.
The old-timer of the moment is clearly Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, who will turn 27 this month and who, during a three-week spree in May and June, tied or set seven world freestyle and butterfly records, including an eyebrow-raising 56.69 in the 100 fly that buried Thompson's 57.88. Thompson's jaw dropped when her coach, Richard Quick, told her about De Bruijn's time, but she has not questioned how De Bruijn was able to swim that fast, at least not publicly. Others have. "Pretty suss" is the way O'Neill described it, giving voice to suspicions that De Bruijn has used performance-enhancing drugs. Rest assured that De Bruijn, who has never tested positive for drugs and has denied using them, will have a harsh spotlight turned on her in Sydney.
The spotlight at this year's U.S. trials, which opened in Indianapolis on Aug. 9, belongs to Thompson. She went into the '96 trials with a chance to make the team in four individual events -- the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles and the 100 butterfly -- but qualified in none of them. Pick your reason. Quick, who has been with her since she was a freshman at Stanford in 1990 and is also the U.S. Olympic women's swimming coach, is squarely behind the too-focused-on-the-gold theory. "Too many people were coming at her from too many directions," Quick says. "'Jenny, if you get this many gold medals, you'll get this much money.' It was too much to handle."
Thompson buys Quick's theory, but only to a degree. She also notes that her "taper didn't go well" and that all week in Indianapolis she suffered from insomnia. The coach who turned her into a national-class swimmer, Mike Parratto of the Seacoast Swimming Association in Dover, N.H., believes that she did not do enough sprint work in the year that preceded the Olympics. Jenny's mother, Margrid Thompson, thinks her 5'10", 160-pound daughter was too thin and had lost some of her power.
One thing was certain: During those awful sleepless nights in Indianapolis, when she needed her back rubbed and her mind soothed, there was only one person she called on to make her feel better.
Two years after giving birth to Jenny, her fourth child, Margrid became a single mom. Her marriage to Phil Thompson dissolved, and she was left with a full household and a job as a medical technologist that barely paid the bills. Suddenly life for the Thompson kids got...better. Margrid saw to it that they all played sports, made them take music lessons, pushed them, encouraged them, drove them here, there and everywhere, loved them without qualification. If Margrid had to go it alone, then she would be the best damn single parent any kid ever had.
The diversity of vocation and avocation of Margrid's children -- Kris, 37, is a musician; Erik, 36, has a doctorate in social psychology and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis; Aaron, 32, a former national-class swimmer, has two master's degrees in education and teaches math and art at Havre de Grace (Md.) High; Jenny has a B.A. in human biology and has been accepted to medical school at Columbia -- has to be attributed, in large degree, to their mother's efforts. "Our opportunities expanded after my mom was in charge," says Aaron. "She instilled motivation and confidence in us."
Says Jenny: "She gave up a lot of her own life for us."
Jenny took flute lessons, piano lessons, toe and tap lessons, tennis lessons. She liked her swimming lessons the best, and as she started climbing in the regional rankings, her mom decided to make a major sacrifice. In the spring of 1986, Margrid moved the family 40 miles north from Georgetown, Mass., to Dover, N.H., to make it easier for 13-year-old Jenny (and, to a lesser degree, 18-year-old Aaron) to swim year-round with the Seacoast Swimming Association. The move made Margrid's daily round-trip commute two hours. (She still drives it five days a week.) "I figured it was better that I was in the car doing all the miles instead of Jenny," says Margrid. "She could walk to the pool."
After the move to Seacoast, Jenny started a rapid ascent in the junior national rankings. Aaron remembers being at a meet at Harvard with Jenny when he was a freshman at Boston College and she was an eighth-grader. They were both going to swim the 100-meter backstroke. Jenny's race was first, and she swam two seconds faster than Aaron's best. "Man, you never saw anybody try as hard as I did during my race," says Aaron, who cut four seconds off his PR.
As she got older, every college swimming power knew about Jenny Thompson, this New England anomaly who was stronger and faster than most of the girls from the sunshine states, this water sprite with the rah-rah attitude, the American-flag bandanna and the kick-ass competitiveness. "This is the sprinter Stanford's needed for so long," Quick told his admissions department in the fall of 1990 before closing the deal on his second recruiting trip to New Hampshire. Thompson would lead Stanford to NCAA team championships in each of the next four years.
In '92 Thompson became the first U.S. woman in 61 years to set a world record in the 100 freestyle, swimming a 54.48 at the Olympic trials. Off to Barcelona she went, brimming with confidence, an integral part of what promised to be one of the best U.S. women's swim teams ever. There the team met a Chinese squad that virtually everyone in the swimming world believes had gotten bigger and faster on steroids. Thompson's 54.84 in the 100 freestyle was good enough only for second, behind the world-record time of 54.65 swum by Zhuang Yong. To make matters worse, the silver medalist, not the winner, got the random drug test after the race. "I threw a fit," Thompson says. Her only consolation is that she did win two golds, on relay teams.
Though extremely disappointed and mildly disillusioned, Thompson did not get discouraged. She was primed to go after a world record at the '94 worlds in Rome, but an injured left arm (fractured while going down a homemade water slide at a Stanford fraternity party and not fully healed) limited her effectiveness. Still, Thompson kept improving, and after graduating from Stanford in '95, she steamed into Indianapolis in March '96 as the It Girl of the Olympic trials.
Then it began. Pressure. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. Fear, even. "I was a basket case," says Thompson. On the first day she finished third in her strongest event, the 100 freestyle, and it all went to hell after that. Thompson is not a high-adrenaline competitor. She performs best when she's relaxed and focused on the blocks. "But at those trials?" she says. "My mind was all over the place."
The knowledge that the slightest excess labor in the stroke, a mistimed breath or a less-than-flawless turn can mean third instead of first dances around a swimmer's consciousness, and Thompson, out of character, let it dance into hers. Away from the spotlight, she cried. She called her mother, who was staying at a different hotel in Indianapolis. She cried some more. They talked for hours, Jenny in the hallway outside her room as the night -- and the specter of failure -- closed around her.
"What can you do as a mother?" says Margrid. "You love your daughter. You give her comfort. You talk to her. It was awfully difficult, but we got through it."
They got through it fine. Sometime during that awful week, sometime between the failed 100 freestyle and the failed 50 free, her fourth and final event, Thompson started thinking about what made her happy. It was the training and the competition. It was belonging to a team, too: the practices at dawn, the bus rides, the banquets, the friendships. It wasn't the money, because there wasn't much. It wasn't the fame, because there wasn't much of that, either. So Thompson stood up during one of those long phone calls, wiped her eyes and told Margrid, "If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I can say I had a good life."
Quick puts it in even more dramatic terms. "I think Jenny made a decision that changed the course of her life," he says. "She learned that swimming wasn't everything and that she could go on without it. When she discovered that, she became a better swimmer. And had a fantastic Olympics."
In Atlanta she anchored the U.S. team to victory in both freestyle relays and picked up a third gold medal by swimming the prelims in the medley relay, an event the U.S. went on to win. She was also the team's de facto captain, the role model. "I latched onto her and didn't want to leave her side," says Catherine Fox, then an incoming Stanford freshman. "Just being around her, knowing what she had been through, was so calming."
Thompson wasn't as sanguine as she seemed. Watching the individual events go off was agony. Just before the 100 freestyle, Quick sent a note to her in the stands that read, "Jenny, I love you very much. You'll always be my champion." Neither coach nor competitor is particularly sentimental, but the note left them moist-eyed. After Thompson's final relay, NBC sportscaster Jim Gray asked her about her postswimming plans. "Wait a minute," she said, "I may not be finished yet."
She wasn't. Endorsement contracts with Speedo and the vitamin company Envion, combined with World Cup prize money and performance bonuses from U.S. Swimming, provided a six-figure income that enabled Thompson to train without taking a full-time job. She has worked endlessly on her strength and her strokes, gaining a hundredth of a second here, a hundredth there. Stanford's swimmers look at her with awe but not necessarily envy. "It's a lonely path Jenny has chosen," says Gabrielle Rose, who was Stanford's co-captain with Fox last season. "I see her training alone, getting on planes alone, going to international meets alone, and I wonder about her. I could never keep it going the way she has."
Thompson doesn't consider herself lonely. She is in E-mail contact with dozens of international swimmers. She is making plans for medical school a year from now. As many as 10 hours of her day are taken up with training, although she has tapered off as she nears the trials. "What keeps me going is finding out how far I can push myself," she says. "How fast can I be? How long can I stay on top? That striving for excellence, that feeling of knowing you have trained till you don't have one drop of energy left, that's what keeps me happy."
But given her competitiveness, Thompson knows what has to happen in Sydney to make her truly happy. Five relay gold medals are nice, but Blair earned her medals with victories in individual events. That's what Thompson wants, and lord, has anyone ever deserved it more?
"Conventional wisdom is that most women peak in their teens and are past it at my age. That's wrong."
"It's a lonely path Jenny has chosen," says Rose. "I see her training alone and traveling alone, and I wonder."
Issue date: August 14, 2000