BY JASON FRANCHUK
Jenny Thompson appreciates what swimming gave her, and where it took her on life’s paths.
What she doesn’t miss fully is the rigorous early-morning swims, even though she has since settled into a medical career that demands daily 6 a.m. office visits.
That’s about the only paradox to be found of the great Olympic swimmer, who will turn 40 next year and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate on July 12 in Chicago as one of the top medal winners in history. She joins Olympic teammate Gary Hall Jr. as the swimming inductees in the Class of 2012.
“In the midst of it, I was always trying to progress,” Thompson said from Maine, where she is an anesthesiologist with schooling from Stanford and Columbia. “I was always trying to improve myself, get better. I think I was always looking forward to the next challenge.”
When those challenges came in the pool, Thompson found historic times and 15 world records. She retired after the Athens 2004 Olympic Games with 12 medals — including eight gold. Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin have also earned 12 medals apiece.
But the four-time Olympian considers her finest moment to have come in 1999, when she broke the world record in the 100-meter butterfly and ousted a record that stood nearly two decades because of a woman that Thompson idolized. It was an 18-year mark held by Mary T. Meagher. Meagher, dubbed “Madame Butterfly,” set the record at 57.93 back in 1981. Thompson was clocked at 57.88 — 6,581 days after Meagher set her record.
This particular highlight being held in the famed Sydney pool right before the Olympic Games — was “very special to me,” Thompson said.
While in the pool, in the tunnel vision of her career, Thompson admitted to being frustrated that she never did win an individual Olympic gold despite often being one of the favorites every four years during her run from 1992-2004.
But she did take eight gold medals in relay events and 12 medals total, noting that she always did swim faster Olympic times when they were part of team events.
“I appreciate what I was able to do, and the opportunities swimming has provided me,” Thompson said. “But you get away from competing, you also have even greater appreciation for all of the people who helped along the way. That goes for family and friends, trainers and, of course, teammates that helped you win events.”
Her background, and what it took to reach the top, speaks to what the Olympic Games — and arguably the United States — is all about.
Growing up in a single-parent family (mom, Magrid, was her biggest fan) in a small New Hampshire town, Thompson hadn’t seen much of the East Coast, let alone the country or the world. A scholarship took her to the Bay Area to swim for powerhouse Stanford, and her swimming success took her around the globe. Her work ethic — Thompson built upon great physical genetics that her teammates often would praise — also landed her in medical school in New York City.
She went from being an impressionable 19-year-old, surprised to see free McDonald’s available all over the Olympic Village, to a beloved veteran who swam valiantly for her mother, who died shortly before the 2004 Games in Athens.
Thompson even had the fortune to witness an Opening Ceremony, 1996 in Atlanta, because it was the one time when she didn’t have an event the next day. That Opening Ceremony featured one of the most memorable moments with Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame.
Thompson lists one of her memorable moments as that from her first Olympic venture, when at a news conference she spoke openly about the event’s drug-testing policy. In 1992, it was more random. Admitting now that she was fortified with the confidence that comes with being a college kid, she piped up that the gold medalist should always be tested.
“I would say it again,” Thompson said. “I believe it’s true, and I believe it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.”
Now, in a way, she’s helping younger swimmers believe in themselves. Thompson has limited pool time these days, being married and with a hectic career. But she still is part of an annual camp in her adopted hometown of Dover, N.H., at a recreation center that bears her name.
“I’m from a blue-collar town, from a single-parent family with modest means at best,” Thompson said. “The message I like to give kids is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, but if you have the determination and the commitment to goals — then you can attain them. I’d like to think I’m a living example of that.”
She even found ways to have a balanced life, an example being her ability to get refocused on world-caliber swimming for the Athens Games in 2004, even though she was also already vested in medical school.
In 2010, she even became famous again for fighting off a couple of attackers as she rode her motorized scooter in suburban Boston. Thompson was punched first, but fought back. She was scraped up on the face, but that’s about it.
Reaching the level she did in swimming helped, she thought.
“You start to think of yourself as being able to overcome anything,” she said.