Jenny Thompson | The Big Question
Photo/Art by Carl TremblayFew Olympic athletes achieve the kind of success that swimmer Jenny Thompson did. Born in Danvers, Massachusetts, and raised in Dover, New Hampshire, she became the most decorated female American Olympic athlete to date, with 12 medals, including eight golds, over the course of her long career. Today, Thompson has embarked on a new life away from the pool as an anesthesiologist in southern Maine. Dr. Thompson lives in Kennebunk with her husband, Dan Cumpelik, and this September will become a mother. We caught up with her at Portland’s Maine Medical Center.
“I swam for many, many years: from when I was 8 to when I was 34 and I was ready for the next chapter. I really appreciate everything everyone did for me, and I wanted to give back. I’m just giving back in a different way; it’s a different arena. I turned my energy and passion toward medicine.
“I’m the kind of person … my husband complains about it [laughs] … he says I should relax more. I think I’m inspired by challenge; I seek challenge in my life, and that’s what keeps me going. Medicine is a different kind of challenge from swimming. It’s interpersonal, it’s clinical, and it’s definitely rewarding in a way that swimming wasn’t. It’s more selfless. Taking care of patients is much different from competing in an individual sport, where often people were catering to me in very generous ways to help me succeed.
“Medical school was a very humbling experience. It was probably the hardest thing in the world, going from #1 in the world in my field to the bottom of the bottom. Not only that, but I was in a very physical and athletic role, and the first year of medical school is a lot of studying and sitting. You need to be very focused and study for hours on end, and between that and being very much the scum of the hospital–the nurses talk down to you, everybody is mean to you, you’re given menial chores–it was difficult.
“As an anesthesiologist, when I meet patients, I have about five, ten minutes tops to establish a relationship with them as their doctor. I like that time to be focused on their needs and their anxieties. If they recognize me, or God forbid, a nurse tells them who I am, I find that awkward. But some people can’t help it, and that happens more so in Maine because I’m from very close by. I’ll introduce myself, ‘Hi, my name is Dr. Jenny Thompson, and I’m your anesthesiologist,’ and they’ll say, ‘Jenny Thompson … that sounds familiar. Are you the Olympic swimmer?’ It happens from time to time.
“I never really thrived in the spotlight. I really enjoyed competing, but I don’t enjoy public speaking so much, and I don’t enjoy having everything [be] about me. That’s what you need to do to brand yourself, and that wasn’t so interesting to me. I wanted to go into something completely new and challenging and have a career for a lifetime.
“At some point I had 10 world records. There aren’t many people who can say that in the history of swimming. I’m beginning to realize, Wow, it was pretty profound what I was able to do.
“I’m getting kind of fired up now because I’m going to London to watch the Olympics, and I’ve started to look at the times and say, Are the Americans going to win anything? If I were close to what I used to be, I could be competitive. And then I’m like, Nah, I’m over it. I have been for a very long time. I found watching the Olympics in 2004 to be a blast. I actually enjoyed watching more than I enjoyed competing. The Olympics are very stressful; there’s no way to get around it. It’s a lot more fun when you can sit up in the stands and have a beer.
“I’ll be in London for one week. But I can’t get tickets. Everyone says to me, ‘You? Jenny Thompson, who won 12 Olympic medals, you can’t get tickets?’ No, I can’t. They’re impossible.