Jenny Thompson is the reigning queen of American Olympians. With 12 Olympic medals (8 of which are gold) across four Olympic appearances, only one American in history (and one swimmer for that matter) has more medals than she does – Michael Phelps.
Thompson had a reputation for being the ultimate competitor. The best athletes in the world, across all sports, are known for making those around them better, and there’s no doubt that Thompson fits that mold.
All 8 of her Olympic gold medals were earned in relays – nearly twice as many as anybody else in history has. While at Stanford, she won 19 NCAA Titles, en route to four-straight team championships. She has 18 World Championships.
Simply put: when Thompson gets on the biggest stage, the fight to win, and the stats are a manifestation of her strong will and desire.
Consider the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Headed into that year’s trials, Thompson came in as a big-time favorite to make the Olympic Team in multiple events and represent the United States in front of a home crowd. But she failed to make the team in any individual events.
That didn’t discourage her from her Olympic preparations, however. Even without an individual entry, the American coaches knew who they wanted anchoring their relays: Thompson. She swam the final leg on both freestyle relays as they rolled to thunderous gold medal wins.
But that’s not even the best story of Thompson’s perseverance. At the 1998 Goodwill Games, the schedule fell so that the women’s 100 fly finished just before the start of the women’s 400 free relay – a race that would determine the meet’s champions in the US-versus-the-World team format.
Thompson won that 100 fly, leaving her roughly 5 minutes to get to the warmdown pool, slow her breathing to some extent, and return to the blocks. She literally was in the warmup pool for the first-half of the relay, arriving at the blocks just in time for her anchor position. She proceeded to dive in and win the relay, holding onto a lead provided by hear teammates.
It was Thompson’s passion that always put her in these positions to win. During her 15-year elite swimming career, she was a consistent advocate for the sport. In 1992, she led the protests for tighter anti-doping restrictions.
Even after her 16-year elite swimming career, she continues to be a tireless supporter of the sport. In 2006,when the University of New Hampshire honored Jenny for her accomplishments with the Pettee Award, she turned it down to protest the school cutting their men’s swimming team. She asked of the award presenters “How can the university honor me for accomplishments in an endeavor which they clearly do not respect?”
Jenny has proven both in and out of the pool that she is a once-in-a-generation leader. She has had unparalleled success at the sport’s highest levels. There is a pool in her hometown of Dover named after her, the Jenny Thompson pool. For someone who was always about “the team” and helping others succeed, there are few greater honors than serving as a target for the aspiration of the next generation of athletes.