Thompson swims against tide in race for proper recognition

OVERLOOKED OLYMPIAN

July 24, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, SPAIN — At the next table, there were 50, 60 guys surrounding Summer Sanders. They carried minicams and microphones and note pads. They laughed on cue. They asked her about money, stardom and gold medals.

Must be the name.

Jenny Thompson was talking to five reporters. Two from the United States. A couple from China. Another from points unknown carrying a microphone.

Sanders flashed a smile and flashbulbs popped. Thompson spoke softly about learning to swim in a six-lap, 25-yard indoor pool built out of a converted garage, about growing up in a single-parent family, about how being a little too tall and a little too muscular can make men a little too uncomfortable.

"Guy athletes can be ugly as hell, but if they're great athletes,they'll get what they deserve," Thompson said. "It should be the same for women."

Should be. Could be. But . . .

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Jenny Thompson. She isn't some bubbly teen-ager. She doesn't have the name of a season or the physique of a model.

All she does is sprint in a water faster than any other woman on earth. That should be good enough for glory.

But it isn't. When you're 5 feet 10 and weigh 160 pounds, you don't fit the stereotype.

Thompson could be the star of the greatest women's swim team ever assembled. At the 1992 Summer Olympics, she could win five gold medals. She could set a couple of more world records.

Thompson is the first American in 59 years to hold the world record in the women's 100 freestyle. She is a freshman at Stanford. She is a child of New England, born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire.

You don't find a lot of swimmers who spent their teen years training two months outdoors and 10 months indoors chasing after Olympic medals. But Thompson is different. She comes from hardy stock.

She gets the toughness and independence from her mother. Fourteen years ago, Margrid Thompson split from her husband and then raised four kids and worked full-time, rising at 4 a.m. and getting to bed at 10 p.m.

Ask Jenny Thompson about Murphy Brown, family values and Dan Quayle, and her blue eyes glaze over, her voice turns frosty.

One parent can fulfill the roles of two, she said.

"My mom has basically been there every step of the way for me," Thompson said. "She has gone to every meet. She used to drive me 45 minutes each way to practice. She still sends me faxes every day. She is there emotionally for me. She doesn't have much of a social life. Her life is her kids."

Jenny grew tall and strong. She learned to ride high in the water, turning laps every few seconds at the Seacoast Swimming Association in Dover, N.H.

"The indoor pool was a small, gloomy place," she said. "It was hot. They'd pump up the heat for the old women."

But under the care of her coach, Mike Parratto, she became a sprinter, first to the wall. She earned a scholarship to Stanford and got even faster and stronger while training with Richard Quick. Before the U.S. Olympic Trials last March, NBC-TV came to one of Stanford's practices. But the crew wasn't there to see Thompson. It was there to see Sanders.

"Sad, sad," Thompson said, shaking her head in mock disappointment. "Richard said, 'They'll be sorry.' "

Thompson gave the trials a shake. She won the 50. She won the 100 with that record of 54.48. She finished second in the 200. She put herself in the front of the line for two relays.

"It didn't hit me for awhile what I had accomplished," she said. "I didn't even realize what the world record was."

Now she does. She can go faster. She can win more races. Still, she realizes that fame doesn't come just to the swift. Often, it goes to the beautiful.

She recently met Katie Couric of the "Today" show. They sat and talked. About stardom. About Sanders. You have to understand, Thompson really likes Sanders. Adores her competitiveness. Enjoys her as a teammate. But still, this pin-up stuff is going a little too far.

"Katie said, 'It's a shame the media is still male dominated and her [Sanders'] good looks are why she is sought after,' " Thompson said. "I feel bad for the position the photographers have her stand in. It's kind of degrading. She looks beautiful. I wish we could get beyond this."

Get to the platform. Win the golds. Change the standards of fame, a medal at a time.

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