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Swimming's grande dame

Jenny Thompson of the U.S. smiles during practice at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Friday, Aug. 13, 2004.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Jenny Thompson of the U.S. smiles during practice at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Friday, Aug. 13, 2004. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)Mark J. Terrill / AP

By 2006, this dream of Jenny Thompson's will be realized — she'll be a doctor.

For anyone, that alone is an Olympic-sized achievement. But for Jenny Thompson it is only half her life. Thompson is the most decorated female swimmer in American history — with a record ten medals, eight of them gold.

After succeeding in the last three summer games, she retired from the sport of swimming. Nearing 30 in a sport of teenagers, she turned her attention to Columbia University's medical school. I sat down with her on the eve of her fourth Olympics in Athens.

Tom Brokaw: Does it help to be a world-class, a lead athlete, to be a physician, in terms of focus and stamina?

Jenny Thompson: Yeah, definitely the work ethic, the commitment, the consistency it takes to be an elite level athlete, I think that those things translate into whatever you do with your life.

That work ethic has led Thompson back to the water. A year into her medical studies, she started swimming again. And she has some unfinished business in Athens.

Brokaw: All of your Gold Medals are in team events. 

Thompson: That's right.

Brokaw: So you'd like to get one just for Jenny?

Thompson: At this point I'm not swimming for the medals. But when I go and do clinics with kids no one's asking: oh, is that a relay or an individual? They want to see my medal. Oh, a Gold Medal! They don't care what it is.

She excels at two pursuits, one complementing the other.

Thompson: Part of being an elite athlete is also being able to roll with the punches, being able to deal with adversity and if a different situation comes up, being able to mentally deal with that.

Adversity arrived two years ago, breaking Thompson's champion-sized heart. Her mom had cancer.

Brokaw: Did that affect your decision to swim again?

Thompson: I think that did play a role. I think that she gets so much joy out of my swimming, and I wanted to try and bring joy to her life when she was having such a hard time.

On February 10, 2004, Jenny's mom lost her battle with cancer. So now in Athens, Jenny is not just swimming for medals -- or for her country.

Thompson: I do want to honor my mom and all that she's done for me. I'll be definitely thinking of her and doing my best in her honor.

Jenny Thompson — living proof of the Olympic creed — in life, the most important thing is not the triumph, but the struggle.