Jenny Thompson biography
Date of birth : 1973-02-26
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Georgetown, Massachusetts, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-06-20
Credited as : Olympic swimmer, ,
American Jenny Thompson is a bullet in the pool. She has had great success in swimming's sprint races, setting two world records: one in the 100-meter freestyle in 1992 and one in the 100-meter butterfly event in 1998. Thompson has also been a team leader for the U.S. national team, winning five Olympic relay gold medals, the most gold medals ever won by an American woman in the Summer Games. In 1998 Thompson broke through and won her first international gold medals, in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly, at the World Swimming Championships in Sydney, Australia. She continues to train with her eyes set on adding to her trophy case at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Jenny Thompson was born February 26, 1973. She grew up in Georgetown, Massachusetts. Thompson was raised by her mother, Margrid, after her parents divorced when she was two. Margrid Thompson came to the United States in 1946 from war-scarred Germany.
Thompson was drawn to the pool at an early age. "I had been swimming before I could walk," she recalled in Newsweek. "My family always was going to the pool. But I tried out for a team when I was seven and didn't make it, so I spent a whole year in swim lessons and when I came back, I was one of the best on the team." Thompson went to the pool in a Wonder Woman swimsuit. She still likes to wear red, white, and blue like her favorite superhero.
Margrid Thompson worked as a medical technologist. Thompson grew up with three older brothers. "She was going to be either the meekest person in the world or the most outspoken," one brother explained to Sports Illustrated. The family scrimped to support Thompson's swimming career. Her mother drove her an hour each way to swim practices and "her brothers built her up and cheered her on," Margrid Thompson stated in the same magazine.
Thompson credits her mother with her success. "She's a role model," she told the Rocky Mountain News. "She's been through a lot of adversity and has always come out on top. She's always been a positive person."
Bubbling to the Top
Thompson trained at the Seacoast Swimming Association in Dover, New Hampshire. The pool there was only 25 meters long--half the distance of an Olympic size pool--because it was built in a converted municipal garage. Thompson also trained in the outdoor pool at Guppey Park. When Thompson was 12 the entire family moved to Dover to be closer to the training site.
Thompson burst on the national swimming scene at the age of 14. She won the 50-meter freestyle event at the 1987 Pan American Games. Although she failed to qualify for the U.S. team that would participate at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she finished fourth in the 50- meter freestyle at the 1991 World Swimming Championships. Thompson's performances earned her a scholarship to Stanford University.
The young American swimmer became a superstar at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thompson twice broke the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. In the semifinal she swam 54.73 seconds, breaking the record set by her idol, Kristin Otto of East Germany. Thompson was the first U.S. female swimmer to break the record since Helene Madison in 1931. "It was the first time I've cried because I was happy," she told Time. "Other people get world records. Not me."
In the 100-meter final Thompson swam the second-fastest time ever, 54.63 seconds, to qualify for the Olympic team. She also set the American record for the 50-meter freestyle in a time of 25.20 and finished second to Nicole Haislett in the 200-meter freestyle, qualifying for the Olympic team in both events. Thompson won the outstanding performance award for the trials.
The U.S. women's swimming team was strong. The Americans felt they had a chance to win 11 of the 15 events, tying the record for most gold medals in an Olympics. Thompson herself had a chance to win five gold medals at the Olympics--in the 50-, 100-, and 200-meter freestyle events and the freestyle and medley relays. "It's O.K. if people expect a lot from us," she stated in Time. "We expect more."
With such high expectations anything less than gold medals were disappointing. Thompson finished second in the 100-meter freestyle--good for the silver medal--behind Zhuang Yong of China. "I choked big-time," she admitted to Sports Illustrated. The next day Thompson, still angry over her performance in the 100, failed to qualify for the final in the 200-meter freestyle. When she finished a disappointing fifth in the 50-meter freestyle Thompson was shut out of the individual gold medals. "Either you win or you're a loser at the Olympics," she explained in U.S. News and World Report.
Thompson still had a chance to win two gold medals, both in relays. "I like the relay," she explained to Sports Illustrated. "I've always liked the relay, the challenge at the end. You're always in a position where what you do could determine the outcome of the race."
The Americans won the 400-meter freestyle relay and the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team broke the world record set by the East Germans with a time of 4 minutes, 2.54 seconds, which was 1.15 seconds better than the previous mark. (In a medley relay one swimmer from each team swims the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle.) "I read a quote from Jenny [Thompson] that made sense," fellow swimmer Crissy Ahmann-Leighton told Sports Illustrated. "She talked about taking a punch and coming back, that Americans are good at climbing off the floor and getting back into the fight. I think that was what we did."
The U.S. women did not live up to their high expectations, however. The team from China did surprisingly well, and many Americans accused them of cheating. Coaches from the former country of East Germany--where swimmers were regularly given drugs that helped them swim faster--now coached the Chinese national team. "I want the play in my pool to be fair," Thompson complained in Sports Illustrated.
Thompson continued to train with her sights set on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. At the 1993 Pan Pacific Championships in Kobe, Japan, Thompson won six of her seven races. During the year she also won five U.S. titles and five more races for Stanford at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Women's Swimming Tournament. USA Swimming named her Swimmer of the Year.
In March 1994 Thompson won the 100-meter freestyle championship for the third straight year at the NCAA Swimming Championships, holding off Amy Van Dyken of Colorado State and Nicole Haislett of the University of Florida in a time of 47.74 seconds. She also won the 100-meter butterfly in a time of 51.81 seconds. Both of Thompson's victories were in the second-fastest times ever at the NCAA Championships.
"I felt really loose and confident before the race, like I do when I'm going to do well," Thompson said. "I tried not to look around. In the second half of the race, I just focused on what I was doing." Her only blemish was a loss in the 50-meter freestyle, where she finished second to Van Dyken who set an American record of 21.77 seconds.
Thompson also anchored Stanford's winning 400-meter freestyle relay to finish the meet. The Cardinals won the national championship, finishing ahead of the University of Texas and the University of Florida. Thompson and her teammates threw their coach, Richard Quick, into the pool.
All together, Thompson won 19 NCAA races from 1992-95 and Stanford won the national championship in every one of her years with the Cardinals. She continued to train at Stanford under Quick after graduating from the university. "He's not stuck on one thing because that's worked in the past," Thompson explained to USA Today. "He's open to new ideas, like a sports physiologist or a nutritionist or whatever. He's not married to the computer, planning workouts a year in advance. He's more instinctive."
Thompson arrived at the U.S. National Swimming Championships in August 1994 with a surgically repaired left arm held together with a titanium plate. She suffered the injury on a water slide during a fraternity party at Stanford in May. The injury required surgery, including more than 100 stitches, a plate, and seven screws. The surgery left Thompson with a six-inch scar on her forearm, but, amazingly, she missed only 10 days of training. "The doctors told me before the surgery I always had next year and I told them I didn't, that I wanted this year," Thompson recalled in the Independent.
In a remarkable comeback Thompson won the 100-meter freestyle in a time of 55.50 seconds. "This means more to me than breaking the world record," she explained to the Independent after the event. Thompson was not finished, however, also winning the 100-meter butterfly event, passing Van Dyken at the finish in a time of 1 minute 0.34 seconds. "I think I should break my arm more often," Thompson joked to USA Today. "I've done a lot better here than at other national championships. I knew Amy was ahead of me, and I was probably hallucinating, but I thought I saw other people passing me as well. For sure, I thought I'd lost." Thompson also finished third in the 50-meter freestyle, behind Van Dyken and Angel Martino.
Looking Toward Atlanta
Thompson was in the pool at the 1994 World Swimming Championships in Rome, Italy, when her 100-meter freestyle record was broken. Le Jingyi of China set the new mark, 54.01 seconds, as Thompson finished fourth. The Chinese women won 12 of 16 events at the World Championships, but nine of their swimmers tested positive for drugs a month after the meet.
Thompson had her sights set on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were held in Indianapolis, Indiana. In a major upset, she failed to qualify for the U.S. team in the 100-meter freestyle. Thompson finished third, behind Van Dyken and Martino. "I'm a little disappointed," she admitted. "I didn't expect to finish third. I felt good going in, but I just tightened up the last 25 meters."
As the meet progressed Thompson failed to qualify for the Olympic team in any individual event. She also finished third in the 50-meter freestyle, seventh in the 200-meter freestyle, and failed to qualify in the 100-meter butterfly. "I felt I should have done better, seeing where I've been the last couple of years," Thompson explained in the Star Tribune. "It's time for me to pass the torch. This is the first bad meet I've had in my life. It's just unfortunate timing."
Thompson did qualify for the Olympic team as a relay member. "I feel bad [for] feeling bad for myself because I'm on the Olympic team," she confessed to USA Today. "I was thinking first or second [in the 100-meter freestyle]. It's sort of a shock to be third."
Thompson came to Atlanta with a heavy heart, watching her teammates score success after success in the pool. "A lot of it had to do with the kind of pressure I was putting on myself at the '96 trials," she stated in Newsday. "Then in the meets leading up to the Olympics, I was swimming times that would've made the Olympic team. So it was very difficult to sit in the stands [during Olympic individual races] and realize, `I could be right there, going for the gold.' But those other guys did it when it mattered, in the Olympic trials, so more power to them."
Thompson made the most of her opportunities in the relays, though. In the 400-meter freestyle relay, she, Van Dyken, and Martino, huge rivals in the 100-meters, came together as a team to win the gold medal. Thompson swam the anchor, or last, leg of the relay as the United States won the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 3 minutes, 39.29 seconds. This is .17 seconds faster than the previous record set by the United States in 1992. In the last leg Thompson faced Le Jingyi, the woman who had broken her world record. The race was close as Thompson entered the pool, but she slowly pulled away to give the Americans the gold medal win over the Chinese.
Teamwork won the race for the Americans. Thompson hugged Van Dyken after the race and told her she was awesome. "Jenny Thompson is supposed to be my big rival," Van Dyken said. "That was so cool. It's what the whole Olympic thing is about. It was so fun to race with them instead of against them."
Thompson swam the freestyle leg for the United States in a preliminary heat in the 400-medley relay. Van Dyken replaced Thompson for the final, which the United States won. Thompson, as a member of the team, was also awarded a gold medal for the event. "We're having a tremendous meet," she told Newsday. "The Americans have risen to the occasion." The Olympics ended for Thompson with her third gold medal as she once again swam the anchor leg, this time in the 800-meter freestyle relay. The team set another Olympic record with a time of 7 minutes, 59.87 seconds.
With her fifth Olympic gold medal (two in 1992 and three in 1996) Thompson entered the record books. She now had won more Summer Olympic gold medals than any other American woman. Thompson also tied speed-skater Bonnie Blair for the most Olympic gold medals ever won by an American woman. She also became the first woman to win three relay gold medals in one Olympics. (The only men to win three relay gold medals in one Olympics were Mark Spitz and Jim Montgomery, both from the United States.)
Another World Record
Thompson continued to swim following the Olympics, pointing toward the 2000 Olympics in Sydney Australia. She went home after the Olympics and studied videotape of Alexander Popov of Russia, the world's best male sprinter. Thompson worked to copy his style and fine-tune her stroke. "I'm getting my elbow a little higher and looking down more so that the water is flowing over my head," Thompson explained in USA Today. "It almost feels as if I'm swimming downhill."
Thompson tested out her new stroke in winning the 100-meter and 50-meter freestyle titles at the U.S. National Swimming Championships in February 1997. "I'm ready to get excited about swimming again," Thompson said. "I felt sluggish in the water, so to do this well is a good sign that I'm back." The wins gave Thompson 17 national titles, the most by an active American swimmer.
In April 1997, at the World Short-Course Swimming Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, Thompson defeated Le Jingyi in the 100-meter freestyle event. "This is my first short-course meet ever and I'm actually pretty surprised that I won," Thompson admitted. "I thought I was fading at the end. I didn't think I had it until I saw the scoreboard." In the 100-meter butterfly she achieved her second world record with a time of 57.79 seconds. Thompson edged Cai Huijue of China and Misty Hyman of the United States. All three swimmers finished with times that broke the previous world record. Thompson also won the silver in the 50-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle relay.
The U.S. National Swimming Championships were held in Nashville, Tennessee in July 1997. Thompson won the 100-meter freestyle event, edging out Van Dyken by three-tenths of a second. Her time of 54.95 seconds was the fastest in the world up until that time in 1997. "It felt really good," Thompson said. "I've been working on my stroke and I think it has helped me. Some said, `Welcome back' when I got out of the pool. But I don't think that I've been anywhere."
Her performance at the national championships earned Thompson a spot on the American team for the 1998 World Swimming Championships in January. The World Championships were held in Sydney, Australia, the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics. In her first race, the 100-meter freestyle, Thompson won her first individual gold medal at a major international event. She defeated Shan Ying of China, the prerace favorite.
"I've never won an individual gold at either the World Championships or the Olympics so this really means a lot to me," Thompson confessed. "It hasn't been a life or death thing for me but it's something that I would've been disappointed if I didn't achieve. I've never really swum for gold medals, I've always competed because I just love swimming but it was a bit frustrating. It's a great accomplishment and I don't take that for granted. I'm really proud of it."
Thompson was not finished. She also won the 100-meter butterfly and her time of 58.46 seconds broke the championship record and was the third fastest time ever. She edged former world record holders Hyman and Ayari Aoyama of Japan. Thompson also anchored the American's victorious 400-meter freestyle relay team and swam the butterfly leg of the gold medal-winning 400-meter medley relay team. Her butterfly leg was the fastest ever in the history of the event, 57.89 seconds, beating the record of 58.04 seconds set by Mary T. Meagher of the United States at the 1984 Olympics. Thompson also won a silver medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay, as the United States finished second to Germany.
Thompson became the first American to win four World Championship gold medals in one meet since Tracy Caulkins in 1978. "I had a great time with my friends," Thompson told Sports Illustrated for Kids. "That was a big factor in my success." Thompson earned recognition as the female performer of the World Championships.
In August 1998 Thompson became only the sixteenth swimmer in U.S. history to win 20 individual national titles, winning both the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly races at the U.S. National Swimming Championships in Fresno, California. "I feel privileged to be in that category but I don't think I will swim long enough to get to the top of that list," Thompson declared in the Los Angeles Times. Tracy Caulkins won 48 individual titles. In October 1998 USA Swimming named Thompson the Swimmer of the Year.
Thompson hopes to win an individual Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. "That would be really nice, but it's not the be-all and end-all for me," Thompson told the Rocky Mountain News. "I've done a tremendous amount in this sport. I could have retired two years ago [in 1996] and felt satisfied."
Out of the Pool
Thompson collects American flags and any other products that have the flag on them. She likes to paint her nails different colors before important swim meets. For the 1998 World Championships, she painted them red, white and blue. Before a meet she hangs a Wonder Woman Christmas-tree ornament on a light next to her bed and spins it for good luck. "I have to make Wonder Woman dance before I swim," Thompson explained in Sports Illustrated for Kids.
Thompson trains four hours a day. She tries to lighten her workouts by making her teammates laugh. Thompson graduated with a degree in human biology from Stanford in 1995 and studied at Mills College to prepare for medical school. She hopes to enter medical school after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The pool at her former swim club was renamed "The Jenny Thompson Pool."
Thompson intends to keep fighting until the year 2000. "It's not my nature to stop doing this after what happened in '96," she told Newsday. "I'd like to end my career on a good note."
Won the 50-meter freestyle event at the Pan American Games, becoming the youngest U.S. swimming gold medalist ever, 1987; set a new world record in the 100-meter freestyle, U.S. Olympic Trials, 1992; earned two gold medals, in the 400-meter freestyle relay and the 400-meter medley relay, and a silver in the 100-meter freestyle, 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona, Spain; won six gold medals at the Pan Pacific meets, five U.S. national titles, and five NCAA titles, 1993; won two gold medals, national championships, 1994; won three individual events (100-yard butterfly, 100-yard freestyle, and 200-yard individual medley) and anchored two winning relay teams, NCAA Championships, 1995; won an unprecedented 19 NCAA titles (individual and relay) in four years with Stanford, and led her team to four consecutive national championships.