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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."