A first-class exit
by Janet Evans, Yahoo! Sports
August 21, 2004
ATHENS, Greece â€“ It was sad here at the Olympic swimming stadium Saturday evening. There already was a sense of nostalgia as the U.S. men collected their gold medal for the 4×100 medley relay, the final event of the final evening of competition.
Because it was all over.
There also was a sense of sadness because we will no longer see Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe dominate their races. We will no longer get teary eyed as we watch the athletes celebrate their victories.
And the thing that makes me the saddest is that we will never see Jenny Thompson fly down a swimming pool again.
Saturday night marked Thompson’s final Olympic race. She swam the butterfly leg of the women’s 4×100 medley relay for the U.S. Team USA was leading into the fly, led by great relay legs from Natalie Coughlin (backstroke) and Amanda Beard (breaststroke).
But as Thompson dove into the pool, she didn’t look so good in the water. I started to worry.
Thompson struggled at these Olympic Games, the fourth time she has represented her country at the greatest competition of all. She placed sixth in the 100-meter butterfly earlier in the week, a far cry from her performances we remember from 1992, 1996, and 2000.
But there is a reason. Thompson is 31 years old and in the middle of medical school.
Still, it would have made my Olympic Games to see Thompson swim a little bit better here in Athens. Leading into these Games, she had won ten Olympic medals â€“ eight gold, one silver, and one bronze.
So you might be wondering why she came back for more. Why didn’t she move on with her life? After all, she is the winningest U.S. female Olympian in history.
The answer is simple: All of Thompson’s gold medals are in relays. She came to Athens to win her first individual gold medal ever.
I knew it would be a struggle. After all, she is considered old for a swimmer. And she obviously had a few things on her plate.
Add the fact that she lost her ever-supportive and beloved mother earlier this year, and you couldn’t help but cheer for her. The romantic in each of us thought that this could be her moment.
But it all ended this evening in the 50-meter freestyle. She lagged behind the field, placing seventh. She was never in the race.
Thompson’s rival, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands dominated the race. It just about broke my heart to watch Thompson exit the pool.
With the race for an individual gold behind her, Thompson stood up for the relay leg. She would be swimming against Australian Petria Thomas, who had earlier won the 100-meter butterfly.
Sure enough, Thomas began to surge ahead of Thompson, leaving the American nearly a second behind by the time the 100 meters were over. Australia went on to win the relay, beating the Americans by more than two seconds.
I understand how it feels to retire knowing that you have once swum faster, knowing that your best times could have won gold after gold after gold.
I couldn’t help but notice the look of disappointment on Thompson’s face when she took the medal podium.
But she has so much to be proud of. She added yet another medal to her Olympic collection here in Athens. And she has inspired countless athletes to continue swimming, even when other duties in life begin to call.
Heck, Thompson’s amazing swimming at 31 even made me think about a comeback!
Thompson will now go back to Columbia and finish medical school. I know that she will be disappointed for some time. But I also know that she will go down as one of the greatest Olympians the world has ever produced.
Athens was Thompson’s curtain call, but she has left her mark. She might not have that individual gold to prove it, but there will be women chasing Jenny Thompson’s legacy for years to come. And that’s the mark of a true Olympic champion.
One of the things that I appreciate about the Olympics is the chance to watch world class athletes go at it with all they have got. Thanks to the 4 year delay there is at least a modicum of hope that they will strive to give it that extra effort every time. And that sadly is something that we see professional athletes fall short on.
In baseball, basketball, football, it doesn’t matter. We see players take “time off” during the season. The Olympics doesn’t allow that luxury, so it is rare that we see it.