No dream: Thompson's back

Updated: July 9, 2004, 9:31 AM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It was an incredible September morning in New York City but it was not the pristine, cloudless blue sky or brilliant sunshine that found Jenny Thompson fixing her gaze through the bay window of her Washington Heights apartment.

"I could see the towers from my apartment," said the American swimming legend, describing a memory that will not go away.

We didn't talk about it, but she knew her mom was there (Thursday). It's hard not to think about her. She has always been a big part of this operation. This is an emotional
John Collins,
Jenny Thompson's coach

Most of us watched the surreal smoldering of the World Trade Center's twin towers by turning on a television that day, Sept. 11, 2001, but the owner of eight gold Olympic swimming medals in relays, 10 Olympic medals total, sat amid the still of her residence as a sickening uneasiness swept across Manhattan that morning.

The days that followed, the days that left the lives of Americans changed in ways only now understood, were especially powerful for New Yorkers like Jenny Thompson. The three-time Olympian, America's most decorated female Olympian, was now retired and sure it was a career in medicine through which she'd channel the energy once unleashed in pools around the world.

But clarity suddenly was gone after Sept. 11. As she peered through the bay window without those glistening towers on the horizon, Thompson felt a longing to do something, anything, to help a grieving nation.

It was that emotional passage that found Thompson at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Thursday -- at 31, a temporarily retired Columbia University medical student, and an un-retired swimming great, 100 meters removed from her fourth Olympic team, and only two Olympic medals shy of becoming the most prolific all-time American medal earner in any sport.

"I realized that swimming is how I give back to people," Thompson said earlier in the week. "As a first-year medical student there wasn't a lot I could do (after Sept. 11)."

In her quest to inspire others Thompson afforded herself the best imaginable reward -- Thursday's second-place finish in the 100-meter butterfly final that locked up her place on the Olympic team that will travel to the Athens Games next month. Rachel Komisarz, 27, won the final in 58.77 seconds to qualify for her first Olympic team, edging Thompson's 58.98 effort.

"Relieved" was Thompson's first reaction to the achievement as she awaits with far less anxiety two more events still to come on the trials schedule -- the 100 freestyle (in which Thompson was third last year at the world championships) and 50 freestyle.

Her emotions were considerably more complex than mere relief, of course. Thompson's delight in returning to competition in 2002 was tempered by the decline of her mom's health as she endured esophageal cancer, a decline that medical intervention ultimately would not stop. Margrid Thompson died at 66 last February, six months ahead of the Athens Games' opening ceremony.

Margrid Thompson was a divorced mother who brought up four children, including Jenny, in Dover, N.H.

"We didn't talk about it, but she knew her mom was there (Thursday)," said Thompson's coach, John Collins, who watched the race with a chocolate brown wool cap knitted by Margrid last December in his pocket. "It's hard not to think about her. She has always been a big part of this operation. This is an emotional time."

With the benefit of time and experience, Thompson said she savors an achievement such as Thursday's, and weighs the meaning of success yet to come, in ways that many younger swimmers cannot.

"Swimming is a really special part of my life, and it's helped me get through really hard times," said Thompson, who collected 79 medals competing in international events going back to the 1987 Pan American Games. "Winning changes with maturity. I try to enjoy the process more now. Before it was about results; now it's about a process."

A finger on Thompson's left hand bears a delicate, simple gold ring -- her grandmother's wedding band given her by Thompson's mom before her death. It is a small piece of the past she carries around.

In another place and time, Thompson's first reflex would have been to finish a race, check the scoreboard, then find her mom in the spectator section. They always exchanged a wave. She has had to train herself not to do that any more. But that doesn't stop the memories from surfacing at the least expected times.

Just this week, her memory of Margrid materialized in a dream.

"She's in my dreams sometimes but this was a rare one where it was really ... she was glowing," Thompson said, her eyes welling.

As Thompson's fingers touched the wall Thursday night, 8,408 spectators in the temporary stands erected for these trials knew they were seeing a legend doing what some legends often fail to do when they un-retire. Jenny Thompson was back.

It was no dream.

When Thompson looked to the stands, there were 8,408 glowing faces beholding her personal triumph.

Her coach agreed: "I think everybody is a Jenny Thompson fan."