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.