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Wednesday, September 27
Thompson, Blair are two of a kind

SYDNEY, Australia -- On top of everything else, including the part about the six Olympic gold medals, give American swimmer Jenny Thompson credit with something significant: A fair dinkum sense of perspective.

Jenny Thompson
Thompson won her eight career gold Saturday.

It was Thompson, after all, who tried to put her achievement in a workable context after someone asked her the other night how it felt to have become the most highly decorated female Olympian in U.S. history, ahead of even the great speed-skater Bonnie Blair.

"They (her gold medals) are all in relays," Thompson replied. "I just have to thank all the people I've swum relays with over the years, because without them I wouldn't be talking about all this."

Two things about that:

1) Thompson is absolutely right; and

2) Who gives a rip?

What, there isn't anyone left in America who understands the difference between team medals and individual medals? There isn't room in the heart of the nation to appreciate the incredible accomplishments of Blair without knocking what Thompson has been a part of?

The Olympic experience is a massive one, one that can accommodate everything from a staggeringly depressing group disqualification (no soup for you, Romanian weightlifting team) to the canonization of a lone ranger (Ian Thorpe, come on down). Surely, in a place as big as the United States, there is enough space to display both Blair's individual golds and Thompson's team ones.

Not that it's difficult to understand Thompson's need to differentiate the two. She has said quite openly that, had she attained an individual gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, she would have retired from the U.S. national team then and there. Only because she didn't is she here in Australia at all, and as such not even her part in the Americans' record-setting 400 freestyle relay victory Saturday night left her completely satisfied.

She wants a medal to call her own, and as of Monday morning in Sydney, she is down to a single last chance. The 100 butterfly came and went on Sunday night without Thompson on the medal stand, with Inge de Bruijn storming to the gold and Dara Torres, Thompson's teammate, nailing down a bronze. Jenny's only remaining event is the 100 freestyle, which she'll swim later in the week, and de Bruijn will be there, too.

There's no doubt that Blair's record of accomplishment needs to be seen for what it was, a fabulous individual triumph. The notion that Thompson's gold-medal haul should invoke comparisons to Blair is a ludicrous one: We're talking about apples and oranges here. Heck, we're talking about apples and snow plows. Is there any other time at which anybody breaks out a meaningful comparison between Winter and Summer Games?

But let's at least take a minute to dissect what Thompson's record indicates. It indicates, first of all, that this is one terrific swimmer, good enough to have lasted long enough to have been a part of six gold medal-winning relay teams.

It also suggests something about Thompson's effect on the team dynamic -- clearly, much for the better. Her sixth gold, the one here the other day, may have been the most improbable, in that the team included three "older" swimmers (Thompson, Amy Van Dyken and Torres). But the U.S. women didn't just win that freestyle relay, they laid waste to the field en route to drastically lowering the world record to 3:36.61.

Thompson swam the anchor leg that day. From here, she was the dead-right choice for the role. And victory or no in the 100 free, it's just impossible to accept that Jenny Thompson will need to do any explaining about -- much less rationalizing for -- the fact that six gold medals will be in her house for the rest of her life. If this is a bad break, we should all be so incredibly unlucky.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, which has a Web site at


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