Thompson, Jensen close trials with wins

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2004

LONG BEACH, Calif. Jenny Thompson knows she'll have to swim a lot faster in Athens if she wants to win her own Olympic gold medal.

Larsen Jensen knows he'll have to go a lot faster to catch Grant Hackett and claim a $1 million bounty.

Thompson and Jensen closed a record-breaking U.S. Olympic swimming trials with victories in the final two races Wednesday, putting the final touches on a team that expects to be a major force in Greece next month.

Thompson won the 50-meter freestyle, giving her two individuals events in Athens. She already had qualified in the 100 butterfly.

The 31-year-old Thompson was slowest off the block but caught the field during a furious dash to the opposite wall. She won in 25.02 seconds, while Kara Lynn Joyce finished second (25.11) to also claim a second individual spot on the Olympic team.

Thompson's winning time was only eighth-fastest in the world this year, and she's not considered a strong contender in the 100 fly, either.

''I hope to go a lot faster than I did here,'' she said. ''I do feel like I've got a lot of room to improve between now and Athens. The goal is to get as close as I can to those (fastest) times.''

Thompson will be just the second American swimmer to take part in four Olympics, joining Dara Torres. Thompson has won 10 medals more than any other U.S. woman but her eight golds have all been in relays.

Individually, Thompson has been limited to a silver and a bronze, both in the 100 free. She failed to qualify for that event at these trials, the two spots going to Joyce and Natalie Coughlin.

''I feel like I'll be complete whether I win an individual gold medal or not,'' said Thompson, who is likely to be part of the relay teams again. ''I'm just going to try to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible. The first time I went, it was kind of a whirlwind.''

That was 1992 in Barcelona. Thompson will savor one more Olympics, then retire after the short-course world championships in October.

Jensen closed the record-shattering trials in appropriate fashion: setting a new American mark in the 1,500 freestyle. He became just the third U.S. man to go under 15 minutes at 14:56.71, overcoming the mark of 14:56.81 that earned Chris Thompson a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics.

The 18-year-old Jensen is a rising star of distance swimming, though he'll have his work cut out for him in Athens. The Australians, led by Hackett, have long ruled the longest event in swimming.

Hackett's world record (14:34.56) is more than 22 seconds faster than Jensen's winning swim in Long Beach.

''It shows how far ahead he is in the sport of distance swimming,'' Jensen said. ''We're behind. The whole world is behind.''

Hoping to spur more interest in the long distance events, USA Swimming is offering $1 million to an American swimmer who wins gold and sets a world record in either the women's 800 or men's 1,500.

Jensen downplayed the financial implications, knowing he would have to pull off an almost impossible swim to earn the bonus.

''I'm not going for the money,'' he said. ''Anyone who loves this sport isn't doing it for the money. I just like pushing my body to the limits.''

Erik Vendt claimed the second spot in the 1,500 at 15:11.96. Chris Thompson got into the final because another swimmer scratched but finished far back in seventh at 15:44.57. He didn't have enough time to prepare after fracturing both elbows during a training mishap in May.

Jenny Thompson considered retirement after the 2000 Sydney Games, but decided to come back for one more Olympics. She had to cope with the death of her mother, who succumbed to cancer in February after being a major force in Thompson's swimming career.

Through it all, she insists that she didn't come back to win an Olympic gold.

''It's not what is motivating me,'' she said. ''I just want to end my career on a really positive note.''

Thompson said she would be honored to be the swimming team captain, a role that already has spurred lobbying by three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr.

Coughlin, swimming in the 50 after qualifying in two other events, finished sixth at 25.31. She entered the sprint just for fun, figuring it might help her preparations for the 100 freestyle.

''I'm very happy,'' Coughlin said. ''I had three best times in 1 1/2 days and I learned a lot of good things for my 100 free.''

Six world records were set during the meet, boding well for American hopes of another big haul in Athens. Four years ago, the U.S. team led all nations with 14 golds and 33 medals overall.

At the end of the trials, USA Swimming formally named the staff that will work with head coaches Eddie Reese (men) and Mark Schubert (woman) in Athens. The assistants include Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' personal coach, and Teri McKeever, the first woman coach ever picked for the team.

''If you had told me this five years or even three years ago, I wouldn't have believed it,'' said McKeever, who coaches Coughlin.

Earlier Wednesday, Phelps announced that he would give up one of his individual spots on the Olympic team, the 200 backstroke. He qualified in five other events and, combined with the relays, still hopes to equal or break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

Phelps' decision put Bryce Hunt on the Olympic team. He finished third at the trials behind Aaron Peirsol, who broke his own world record, and Phelps.

''I'm pretty excited,'' said Hunt, who made his first Olympic team. ''People were telling me that he might drop out of the 200 backstroke, but I didn't think it was going to happen. I just hope I can bring back a medal.''

Peirsol said he didn't feel as though his dominating win in the backstroke led to Phelps backing out.

''I'm sure it's just a matter of what he felt was best for his schedule in Athens,'' Peirsol said. ''That guy does not get scared.''

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