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Jenny Thompson Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further InformationCONTACT INFORMATION


American swimmer

With eight Olympic gold medals, the most ever awarded to an American woman, a stellar NCAA record, and world record-setting times in two events, Jenny Thompson was the most dominant American woman in swimming during the 1990s. Her career has been filled with many dramatic chapters, including medal-winning performances in relay events at three Olympic games and the failure to win an individual Olympic gold medal. In a sport dominated by young swimmers, Thompson has continued to improve her times and conquered the distractions of becoming a celebrity. Remarkably, Thompson is swimming into her thirties, having set her sights on the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She is also a medical student at Columbia University.

Thompson has said that she could swim before she could walk. It was one of several interests that her mother Margrid was determined to foster, despite the difficulties of raising four children as a single parent. When her daughter began swimming with the Seacoast Swimming Association, the family moved to Dover, New Hampshire so that Jenny could walk to practice. Margrid began a forty-mile commute back to her job in Massachusetts. In 1987 Jenny became the youngest U.S. gold medal swimmer ever at age fourteen, having won the 50-meter freestyle at the Pan American Games.

Thompson quickly earned a reputation for being strong and fast. She also became known for her competitiveness and passion for the American flag, which she wore on a bandana and other clothes. When she accepted a scholarship at Stanford University, Thompson wanted the experience to be about more than swimming and earned a degree in human biology. Many of the best American swimmers do not complete college in order to reap financial opportunities. This makes Thompson a standout in NCAA history with her nineteen individual and relay titles, and participation on four consecutive national championship teams.

Also during the early 1990s, Thompson broke a world record for the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 54.48 at the 1992 Olympic trials. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she won two gold medals: one in the 400-meter freestyle relay and one in the 400-meter medley relay. Thompson placed second to China's Zhuang Yong in the 100-meter freestyle despite swimming 54.84, amidst American suspicions that the Chinese team used steroids. Possible steroid use also colored the experience of having her 100-meter freestyle record broken by Le Jingyi of China at the 1994 World Swimming Championships. Just a month later, nine Chinese swimmers tested positive for drugs.

Jenny Thompson

Thompson broke her arm in May 1994 at a fraternity pool party, but recovered quickly after having it surgically repaired. She won two gold medals at the national championships that August and now had the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in sight. But when Thompson swam in the U.S. trials in Indianapolis, Indiana, she did not have the mental composure to qualify in any individual events. She agonized about performing well and suffered sleepless nights. In the process, however, she came to realize that gold medals and endorsement contracts were not why she was there. What Thompson loved was training, competing, and being part of a team.

Having been selected as a member of three U.S. relay teams, Thompson's discovery was reinforced at the 1996 Olympics. When she had to watch the 100-meter freestyle from the stands, the U.S. coach and Thompson's coach at Stanford, Richard Quick, sent her a note saying "Jenny, I love you very much. You'll always be my champion." In the 400-meter freestyle relay, Thompson swam with Amy Van Dyken and Angel Martino, two of her greatest rivals, to win the gold medal. Her anchor leg broke the Olympic record by .17 seconds. Thompson also was part of the victorious 800-meter freestyle relay team, which set another Olympic record, and earned a third gold medal by swimming in the preliminaries of the 400-meter medley relay.

Revitalized, Thompson won her first individual gold at a major international event in 1998, when she won the 100-meter freestyle at the World Swimming Championships. More medals came in the 100-meter butterfly, the 400-meter freestyle relay, and 400-meter medley. They combined to make her the first American to win four World Championship gold medals in one meet since Tracy Caulkins in 1978. At the 1999 Pan Pacific swimming championships, the swimmer set a new world record for the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 58.15, trumping a time that had been the record for eighteen years.

When Thompson entered the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, she had endorsement contracts with Speedo and the vitamin company Envion, as well as other swimming income. She proceeded to win three gold medals: the 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter freestyle relay, and 800-meter freestyle relay. Her time in the 100-meter freestyle earned her a bronze medal. She now had eight Olympic gold medals, more than any other U.S. woman.

Having long been focused on maintaining a well-rounded life, Thompson entered medical school at Columbia University in the fall of 2001. That put her in New York City on September 11, when she witnessed firsthand the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The experience convinced her to return to swimming in order to give something back to the sport she loves so well. She began combining the rigors of medical school with training and competing. Despite having taken more than a year off from swimming, Thompson soon proved her mettle by winning the women's 50-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacifics in August 2002. Just weeks earlier, she had been, at age 29, the oldest swimmer at the U.S. national summer championships; the youngest swimmers at the meet had not even been born when Thompson began swimming in national competitions at age twelve.

Thompson's new goal of helping other swimmers may send her to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. If she were to win yet another Olympic gold medal, it would tie her with Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, and four other Olympic superstars. But that possibility is not what keeps Thompson in the pool. As an international champion since 1987, experience has taught her that other, equally important rewards can come from swimming. Her greatest joys have been the excitement of competing and the strong bonds with teammates, friends, and family that have been made in the process.


Address: c/o USA Swimming, U.S. Olympic Training Center, 1750 E. Boulder St., Colorado Springs, CO 80909.

Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott

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Famous Sports StarsSwimming