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
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
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?
are past it at my age. That's wrong."
training alone and traveling alone, and I wonder."