Jennifer Elisabeth Thompson could swim before she could walk.
Born in Danvers, Massachusetts—17 miles north of downtown Boston—February 26, 1973, she and her three siblings were raised by a single mother. Hers was a blue collar family of modest means, yet Margrid Thompson made sacrifices so her daughter could swim. In the summer of 1980. “Jenny Beth” swam for Cedardale Country Club. During the winters, she trained at YMCAs in Danvers and Andover. In 1986, Margrid moved her family 50 miles north to Dover, New Hampshire, so her 13 year old daughter could walk to workouts with Seacoast Swimming Association, a nationally recognized competitive team. While Jenny could walk to Seacoast as well as Dover High School, Margrid Thompson commuted 40 miles each way to her medical technician job in Burlington, Massachusetts, outside Boston. The sacrifices paid off, as Thompson won the 50 meter freestyle at the 1987 Pan Am Games to become, at 14, the youngest gold medal winner in the history of American swimming. After graduating from Dover High in 1991, Thompson left New England for California to swim for Stanford University. In the early 1990s, the Cardinal had some of the most dominant collegiate teams in history, winning NCAA team titles in each of Thompson’s four years in Palo Alto. At Stanford, she won 19 NCAA individual and relay titles and won the Honda Sports Award as outstanding college female swimmer of the year as a senior.
While a college freshman in March 1992, Thompson broke the world record in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials. At the Barcelona Olympics four months later, she finished second to Zhuang Yong of China, who later tested positive for steroid use. Thompson won two relay gold medals at the 1992 Games. At the 1996 Olympic Trials, Thompson failed to qualify in any individual event, but anchored the U.S. women to gold in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 meter freestyle events, setting new Olympic records in both. She captured a third gold in the 4 x 100 medley race. Thompson claimed the first individual gold medal of her career in the 100 free at the 1998 World Championships. She also took gold in the 100 meter butterfly and two relay events to become the first American woman to win four gold medals in one meet since Tracy Caulkins [Daily Dose, April 8]. One year later, she established a new world record in the 100 fly at the 1999 Pan Pacific Championships, breaking an 18 year old record set by Mary T. Meagher—Madam Butterfly—in 1981. Thompson added to her medal total at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, winning three gold medals to bring her career total to eight, more than any other woman in U.S. Olympics history. Four years later, the 31 year old Thompson qualified for her final Olympic team. Sadly, Margrid Thompson died shortly before the 2004 Athens Games and did not see her daughter claim two more silver medals. Ms. Thompson retired following the 2004 Olympics.