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Oct 21, 2017

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Jenny Thompson
by Diane Anderson-Minshall
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.3

Off the Deep End

What's not to love about swimmer Jenny Thompson? Besides the fact that she's won more Olympic gold than any other American woman, she's also posed for ballsy babe photos (and defended them as feminist statements), thumbed her nose at convention (unabashedly swapping urine-in-the-pool stories with reporters), and stayed in the water years after most athletes were washed up. Thompson, who began swimming at the age of six months, recently traded her swimming togs for a stint at Columbia's medical school.

During her years with Stanford's swim team, Thompson won nine gold medals (from the last three Olympic games) and 19 NCAA titles (the most in women's collegiate swimming history). Over a good glass of Australian shiraz, Thompson dishes on libidinous libations, role models, dumb blondes and water pollution.

Wine X: Feminists have talked a lot about women athletes being sexualized by the media. Since you've kind of cultivated a sexy image -- by posing for Sports Illustrated wearing red boots with hands across your topless chest -- how do you feel about those concerns? Are female athletes being sexualized?

Thompson: I've always considered myself a feminist. I do believe there's sexualization of female athletes, which sucks. Anna Kournikova wouldn't have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated ranked tenth in the world -- or whatever it was -- if millions of guys everywhere didn't drool over her. There are so many examples like that. However, I believe that my controversial picture in SI was a feministic picture. It was a representation of pride for representing the US and strength in my athletic body. There was no "come hither" look on my face; it was more "look out, here I come!" I think that women have made great strides in the world of athletics and showing bodies -- the essential element in athletics -- is part of that. It's not about sex, it's about strength. Both physical and mental.

Wine X: I loved that one pundit said your SI photo was a societal Rorschach test -- some people see exploitation, some see empowerment. Do you agree? Do you think that's pretty common nowadays among feminists?

Thompson: I think female athletes should be proud of their physical strength, and that's all I was trying to portray -- pride and strength. I believe those ideals came through, not sexuality or exploitation. Besides, you couldn't see anything. My facial expression and body language in that picture said it all.

Wine X: I heard your mom wanted a six-foot poster of that picture for her wall. Did she get it?

Thompson: No, my mom never got that poster. She has enough pictures of me hanging around the house as it is. It's pretty embarrassing.

Wine X: Some swimmers these days have tattooed-on makeup now. Do you even wear makeup when you work out and compete? Is the makeup mostly because so much of these competitions are televised now?

Thompson: I know a woman [swimmer] who has tattooed eyeliner. That's cool, but I would never do it because I'd be afraid that the artist would mess up and blind me. I get my eyelashes dyed black from time to time, just so they show up. I do think increased visibility and TV time may encourage swimmers to care more about their looks, but at a swim meet there are more important things to think about than makeup. Athletes shouldn't be judged by their looks anyway. But I guess that's human nature.

Wine X: Did you see Legally Blonde? Did you identify with her plight of having people not treat her like an intelligent person because she's blonde and sexy? Have you experienced that?

Thompson: Didn't see it, but I can empathize. Poor soul. I saw Planet of the Apes though, and I can really identify with those guys. But seriously, I've had people treat me like I'm dumb because I'm a woman, but not because I'm blonde. I don't really give them a chance though, because I'm kind of a no-nonsense kind of person. I've always wondered about women who are brilliant but who act dumb because they think that's what guys like.

Wine X: Do you think men really do like that? Or is that sort of a throwback to the fifties?

Thompson: Sometimes I think men don't really like women to act dumb, but women think men do. It's the same with body types. Women think that men like supermodel skinny chicks, but most really like some meat on the bones, you know? I know from personal experience that men can be intimidated by women who're better at something than they are.

Wine X: As the most gilded U.S. female Olympian in history, do you ever worry people spend too much time talking about how you look instead of how much you've accomplished?

Thompson: I don't worry about it, but I'm glad I can't hear what people say about me, because I'm sure it isn't always good. Like "Look at Jenny's butt in that picture -- looks like she's been hitting up that new Krispy Kreme in town." [laughing] I can't stand when people bad-mouth amazing athletes -- women in particular -- for their looks. I mean, is this Wimbledon or the Miss America Pageant? It's not appropriate.

Wine X: Speaking of your Olympic gold medals, I know you tried for but didn't win an individual gold medal at three Olympics. Did you have trouble letting go of that dream?

Thompson: I did as it was happening, actually having just swum the race and knowing the dream wasn't realized. I'm fine with it now and have grown up a lot because of it. There's so much in my life to be thankful for, there's no way I could ever consider myself a failure. I went for the challenge and did everything I could to achieve my goals. That in itself is what life's all about -- and I'm not just saying that because I didn't get the gold.

Wine X: I noticed that on one of your fan sites, many of your fans are young women and teenage girls. How's that feel to inspire younger women so much?

Thompson: Giving inspiration and motivation to young women, and even men for that matter, means more to me than winning gold medals and what not. It's been unintentional, but I've received so many letters from kids saying how I've inspired them to join a sports team or study harder in school -- to try to reach their potential. That makes me feel absolutely tremendous. I'm not much of a motivational speaker, but more of a leader by example. People see that I'm a normal, caring person doing great things and they know that they could do it too if they tried. I love that.

Wine X: Also on the sites, one of the young girls posited what she'd ask you if she could: "Have you ever not gotten something you wanted?" I thought I'd ask you the question myself since I love that these girls have the image of you as sort of invincible.

Thompson: There are hundreds of things that I've wanted and haven't gotten, like that Snoopy Ice Cream Maker and the Barbie Corvette. I think that wanting something makes you hungry to innovate, be creative and work hard. No one should ever get everything they want. It spoils desire.

Wine X: Speaking of desire, let's talk about wine for a bit. What do you prefer to drink and why?

Thompson: I've really been into Australian shiraz, maybe because I've spent so much time in the land down under. I also like pinot noir from Oregon, like Duck Pond. I'm not into spending big bucks for the bottle, so gimme anything recommended that ranges from $10 to $20. I have a small wine collection from places I've traveled around the world. The only thing I've shied away from so far are Greek wines.

Wine X: You said you don't have a sophisticated palate. Do you find it intimidating to be around wine drinkers who have, or think they have, extensive knowledge of all things wine?

Thompson: I don't tend to hang around people who'd think less of me for my lack of vinous knowledge or tastes. I'd like to learn more, of course, so I'd love to talk with anyone who could teach me.

Wine X: Could you drink wine while you were training for competition? Most people don't think of athletes, or even college students for that matter, as wine drinkers.

Thompson: Hmm. Athletes have to relax sometimes too, and some even have sophisticated palates. I enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner, not every night or anything. And when it's ladies' night out, wine's the beverage of choice. I'm a normal person, as well as an athlete.

Wine X: You're attending Columbia. What's the biggest difference between Stanford and Columbia?

Thompson: Stanford is in the 'burbs and Columbia is in the biggest city in the country. Both take care of their people, which is what really matters to me.

Wine X: What medical specialty are you going into?

Thompson: Not sure about a specialty yet. I'm just excited about my anatomy cadaver at this point. I think it'll come to me once I'm there and working in the different fields. Everyone asks if I'll be an orthopedic surgeon because of the sports connection, but I'm not attached to that idea at all. I'm really interested in integrating eastern and western medicine, so something where I can incorporate complimentary medicine. I'm also interested in preventative medicine, not just damage control.

Wine X: Was the cadaver disconcerting at first, or were you the very first kid in junior high to carve up the frog?

Thompson: I've always been "into" things that other people find gross. I remember loving the frog dissection, watching my cat devour small animals organ by organ and other slightly strange activities. Anatomy's a bit different. I have such enormous respect for the human body and the person who donated their most sacred instrument to science. It's such a privilege just to have the opportunity to be in that smelly room. I love it.

Wine X: I'm amazed that after you broke your forearm you were back winning titles two weeks later. Where did you get that kind of resolve?

Thompson: I can be a very motivated person at times. I think I thought of my broken arm as more of a challenge then a setback. It was like a race against time to see if I could heal in time for the World Championships. It was an adventure for me.

Wine X: Now that you're becoming a doctor, do you worry about people like you who disobey doctors' orders?

Thompson: Yeah, I was a bad patient. I was in the water and in the gym sweating before my stitches healed. I wouldn't recommend it. But I've always been in tune with my body, so I knew I wasn't doing any damage. I think people disobey doctors' orders a lot. People love to disobey; it makes them feel racy.

Wine X: Are there any particular health threats facing female athletes?

Thompson: Yes, but the benefits far outweigh them. Most threats have to do with excessive training or nutrition. I'd say eating disorders are a problem, and I've known a number of athletes with anorexia or bulimia. Many times this has to do with a coach who's a little too aggro. Injuries like torn rotator cuffs, sprains and strains are common. I did a lot of preventative work, like pilates, stretching and icing my shoulders to stay injury-free.

Wine X: They closed the beaches in Sydney right after you were there because of pollution. I know Olympic swimmers compete and train in pools but that led me to wonder if there was a heightened concern among pro swimmers about water pollution?

Thompson: Well, as you may know, pee pollution can be a problem in pools. I like the saying, "Welcome to our OOL, notice there's no P in it. Let's keep it that way." I'm scared of open waters, not because of pollution, but because of the animals living in them that are bigger than I am.

Wine X: Speaking of water quality, I loved your q & a with Joel Stein in Time. Were you pulling his leg, or do pro swimmers really urinate in the pool? You'd think since you spend so much time in the water that you'd be even more concerned about it.

Thompson: Yeah, I guess you'll have to scratch my previous answer. I can't tell a lie -- I do pee in the pool. However, I'm not too worried about the health effects. Urine is sterile, right? Anyway, there's so much water and chlorine in the pool that I don't think anyone notices.

Wine X: Was it difficult swimming at an age when most swimmers were considered washed up?

Thompson: I trained with Stanford -- my college team -- for five years after my graduation and the first few years of that were tough. I was 25 and still hanging out with the college kids. They'd even invite me to frat parties and stuff. After about 23 I branched out and started going up to San Francisco on the weekends. I kind of liked the dating situation at Stanford during that time. It was like 'Dazed and Confused' where Matthew McConaughey says, "I keep getting older and they keep stayin' the same age!" As for swimming, I was a bit older than the girls on my team, but when I traveled to meets there were lots of people my age -- especially overseas. So no biggie.

Wine X: Do you feel now like you're on your second career in a way? How's that feel at your age?

Thompson: Swimming has been my life for so long that it's weird to be a land animal again with totally different goals and priorities. I've just realized recently that when you're an elite athlete, you expect everyone to dote on you without much thanks. I can't believe all the people who helped me along the way so selflessly. I want to give back to people that same way now. My life's currently in the midst of a huge transition, and that's been both scary and exciting. I've learned so much and met so many amazing people through swimming, and I kno w I'm about to have that experience again in a totally different context. Twenty-nine and on my second career -- I guess I like the sound of that.

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