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For Olympic swimmer, attacks helped motivate a comeback
By Tim Reynolds, Associated Press
From her upper Manhattan apartment, Jenny Thompson had an unobstructed view of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Thompson had moved to the city a month earlier and had just started medical school at Columbia University. She was beginning to acclimate herself to a life beyond competitive swimming, the sport in which she won eight Olympic gold medals from 1992 to 2000.
As she watched smoke rise above a horrified city that morning, Thompson's priorities began to change. She decided to give something back to swimming, to stay involved to inspire others. Now, that direction is steering her toward Athens and the 2004 Olympics.
"After 9-11, a lot of people took stock in their lives and what they should mean. I definitely did that," said Thompson, 29. "I think maybe that had something to do with me wanting to swim again, because it is a platform I can use to help other people."
So, after a hiatus of nearly two years, Thompson has returned to competitive swimming -- and it's as if she never left.
On Aug. 27 at the Pan Pacific swimming championships in Yokohama, Japan, Thompson won the women's 50-meter freestyle. She clocked 25.13 seconds, edging Australia's Jodie Henry and teammate Tammie Stone. It was her fifth Pan Pacs title in the 50 freestyle.
"That was my best time ever in this event, so obviously I'm very pleased," Thompson said.
Earlier in August, Thompson was the oldest female swimmer at the U.S. national summer championships in Fort Lauderdale -- her first major competition since the Sydney Olympics.
She gave a strong performance there, too, with a second-place in the 50 freestyle. Three of Thompson's opponents had not been born when she competed in her first national meet at age 12.
"It's really an honor to be swimming against someone like her," said Natalie Coughlin, a 19-year-old who won five titles at the meet. "I don't know how she got back into shape so quickly. She's amazing."
Thompson also is in position to make the U.S. team headed to the 2003 world championships. She would then be vying for a berth on the American roster headed to Athens and the 2004 Olympics.
"There are a lot of people who might be surprised by this," said Mike Parratto, Thompson's coach since she was 12. "There are also a lot of people who probably aren't that surprised."
Thompson won three gold medals at Sydney, giving her 10 overall trips to the Olympic medals stand. Her eight Olympic gold medals are the most by any American female athlete.
Sydney was expected to be Thompson's swan song, but she had absolutely no idea what her competitive future might be.
"After Sydney, I felt done for the moment," Thompson said. "I was ready to take a break, but I didn't know what the future held. And I didn't close that door. I never said, 'I'm retired, I'm done."'
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Thompson left her apartment and was in a computer lab when she learned the first hijacked plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She ran back to her apartment, then saw the second hijacked plane strike.
"It definitely had a huge impact on me and what I'm doing," Thompson said. "I just felt very helpless, but at the same time I felt very compassionate and wanted to do something about it. So I decided it's time to do something for the sport ... and the people who helped me get to where I am."
After classes at Columbia ended for the summer, Thompson returned to Dover, N.H., and began training with Parratto and his Seacoast Swimming Association again.
After eight weeks of weight training, yoga and two-a-day swim workouts, she was ready for nationals and the challenge of facing younger opponents, some of whom had not even been born when Thompson began competing in national meets.
"There was certainly a level of intensity to the training," Parratto said. "She just got better and better as each week went by, which is amazing since we're talking about someone who was two years removed from training. ... And she'll just keep getting better and stronger."
There is nothing tangible that Thompson is hoping to gain from her return to competition. A ninth Olympic gold medal, which would tie her with four other athletes including Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, is not on her checklist, she said.
Nor is removing the only significant omission from her resume: An individual Olympic gold medal. All eight of Thompson's golds were won as part of relay teams.
"I'm very comfortable with what I've done," Thompson said. "To me, it's not like that nagging thing, like I absolutely have to have it. ...
"Accomplishments aren't so much the thing that lights my fire anymore. I don't want to say it's old, but I'm looking for what else is out there."
Medals stopped being Thompson's primary motivator long ago. Those who know her say her mother Margrid's ongoing battle with cancer was the first thing that forced Thompson to begin reevaluating her focus.
"Life is about family, friends and taking time to help other people," Thompson said. "I think that's one of the big things 9-11 taught me. After seeing that, I knew had I had to give back."