Swimming is a solo sport. Sure, there are relay teams, but the glory is in personal triumph, as in the indelible image of all those gold medals dangling from Mark Spitz's neck.
You don't need to remind Jenny Thompson of that. She is America's best sprint swimmer and the most decorated female swimmer of the 1990s. Yet there is a question mark that hovers over her record like an early morning fog at the Stanford University pool where she trains.
Can Thompson finally win her very own Olympic gold medal this year in Sydney?
It's not that Thompson's mom actually needs any more trophies in the basement. No other American, male or female, has dominated swimming in the past decade as Thompson, who swims the butterfly and freestyle, has. Since she started at age 8, Thompson has broken more swim records, won more international championships and held more college titles than anyone else who has dipped a toe in the water. The 27-year-old New Hampshire native already has five gold medals, albeit all from relay teams in the 1992 and '96 Games. That ties her with speed skater Bonnie Blair as the most golden American woman.
Yet Olympic meets have meant trouble for Thompson's personal dreams. Eight years ago, she headed to Barcelona as a world-record holder and favorite for four medals. She finished second in the 100 free. "I choked big time," says Thompson, making no excuses, even though rumors had swirled that China's champion had used performance-enhancing drugs. In 1996, it was worse. She failed to even make the U.S. team in any individual events.
The crushing disappointment of the 1996 U.S. trials was a watershed. "I decided this hyper-intense, narrowly focused life wouldn't work with my much more relaxed personality," she says. From an athlete who started swimming as a schoolgirl, this was a revelation. Thompson realized she didn't need to swim anymore, but she wanted to--as a means to an end. "I began to see swimming for what it gave me: friends, the opportunity to travel the world, and the chance to earn a living doing something I love."
Swimming also provides a welcome release from her rigorous studies: she will enter Columbia University's medical school next fall. While she continues to train with Richard Quick, the masterly Stanford women's coach, she now makes her own schedule. For the past two winters, for example, she has spent part of the winter in swim-crazed Australia, hanging out with friends and working with a former Russian Olympic swim coach.
In Sydney, Thompson is a threat to spoil the party for the gold-hungry Australians because she combines technical perfection with an aggressively competitive psyche--either of which could provide a margin of victory in races that are often won by hundredths of a second. In the fly, her muscular shoulders power in and out of the water with such remarkable grace that Quick points out the obvious: "Watch Jenny's stroke. It's the best in the world."