Swimmer Jenny Thompson is the most decorated American female in Olympic history, with 12 medals: eight gold, three silver and one bronze.
She made her first big splash at the 1987 Pan American Games, when as a 14-year-old she won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle. Thompson narrowly missed qualifying for the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, but she made the American squad in the next four Olympic Games.
At the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, she won two relay gold medals and a silver in the 100-meter freestyle. Four years later, hoping to make a run at multiple individual gold medals, Thompson struggled mightily at the U.S. Olympic Trials, failing to even qualify in individual races. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, she was limited to three gold medals, including the 4×100-meter medley relay when she was in a preliminary heat but not in the final.
Other athletes might have been ready to throw in the towel, Thompson resolved to swim faster. She won three more relay gold medals and an individual bronze in the 100-meter freestyle at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Thompson then enrolled in medical school, but decided to make a run at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. In her fourth Olympic Games, Thompson won two relay silver medals before finally retiring from swimming and embarking on the next step of her career as an anesthesiologist.
While a discussion of her career – which also included five individual world records, 23 national titles and 26 NCAA titles – often focuses on her lack of individual gold medals, Thompson does not mind that her eight gold medals all came in relay races.
“When I show little kids at clinics my gold medals, no one asks if it was relay or individual,” she said. “A gold medal is a gold medal, and I have eight.”