It takes someone special. It takes someone selfless, and it takes the determination of a champion.
The most accomplished swimmer on the Michigan team, senior Chris Thompson is only partially tapering for this weekend”s Big Ten Tournament. Putting the team first, he will double up on races to help compensate for points lost due to injured teammates. In turn, he jeopardizes his own Big Ten title quest.
Thompson is a quiet leader, dependable in his selflessness.
But to do so also takes a solid focus, a trait Thompson has possessed throughout his swimming career.
“All the kids look up to him even though they tease him a lot,” said Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek, who is also the assistant coach for the American Olympic swimming team. “They tease him because they like him it”s just because he is so quiet and so pleasant. His shyness and nice manners are unusual for college kids.”
This past summer at the Sydney Olympics, Thompson accomplished a lifelong goal by winning an Olympic medal the bronze in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
He didn”t take months off to celebrate. He didn”t forget about his education just because a new ornament was hanging from his neck.
Instead, he returned to Ann Arbor, enrolled in classes and jumped in the pool to continue his duty for the Michigan team. The dedicated athlete had goals to accomplish and no desire to waste time.
“I tend to really push myself a lot, so sometimes Jon and some of the guys will be just like, “wait, you need to calm down a little bit,”” Thompson said. “I want to do whatever it takes to do well, and occasionally they just tell me to back off a little bit.”
Thompson”s work ethic has paid off, but his successful swimming career has not come without sacrifice.
Coming out of high school, Thompson knew that he wanted to make the 2000 Olympic team. Storing that goal in the back of his mind, he left his close-knit family in Roseburg, Ore. and traveled across the country to attend Michigan, a decision that only allows him a trip home once or twice a year.
Still, the family principles he was raised with affects him even today, as Thompson”s personal values are just as high as his racing standards.
“He doesn”t drink, and he does it on his own,” Urbanchek said. “He chose to be that way. He wants to make sure he doesn”t abuse his body, so he can get 100 percent out of it or more if it is possible.”
Even when offered wine by his parents this past Thanksgiving, Thompson”s commitment to his team”s “no drinking” policy took precedent.
“I”m kind of a stickler for the rules like that, and my roommates are always making fun of me because I am always worried about following the rules and keeping things right. I guess I”m kind of a “goodie-goodie” like that. But I”ve been successful, so I can”t complain.”
A long 13 years of training had passed, and it was time for the Olympic trials. This was the race that would determine whether Thompson would race for the American team or watch the games from his living room couch.
He should have been healthy, tapered and well-prepared, but Thompson”s health situation was far from ideal.
“I was coughing up stuff, but I was fortunate that I”m good enough that I was able to work off not even being 100 percent, Thompson said. “I was able to just hold on and make it.”
In the water, he watched the leaders pass him and realized that he had to hang on in order to earn a spot on the team. Survival mode kicked in, and he earned a place by just a couple seconds.
By the time the real thing came around, Thompson was healthy and ready.
The gun fired, and the most exciting 15 minutes of his life was underway.
“I”d see people when they”d come up, I”d see people when they”d fall off, and, no matter what, I just had to hold on,” Thompson said.
He edged into third place early on, but coming from far behind, Alexei Filipets caught Thompson and was ahead of him at the 1,400 mark.
“At that last stretch, we turned and he was ahead of me,” Thompson said. “I thought we were going to tie.”
Even during the final strokes, Filipets” body position was in front of Thompson”s. The American hero just happened to reach the wall first and beat Filipets by .07 second.
He finished with a bronze-medal time of 14:56.81, accomplishing all three of his goals to break the 15-minute mark, earn an Olympic medal and set the American record.
Thompson knew that he was representing his family, his friends, his coaches and the University as well as his country.
“I might have been the person getting the award, but there were a bunch of people that helped out over the years, and it”s nice to be able to say thanks,” Thompson said.
“I was tired, I was happy, I was excited and I had 50 different emotions running through me all at the same time,” Thompson said.
After seeing the number three next to his name, Thompson received a brief congratulations from Urbanchek and then rushed to the awards ceremony.
He stood proudly on the stand, admiring the American flag raised in his honor and listened to the unfamiliar music.
“I thought that this was for my country, so while they were playing the Australian National Anthem, I was trying to sing the U.S. anthem,” Thompson said. “But I had such a hard time trying to sing the words. I felt so bad who forgets the words to the National Anthem?”
“And then, all of a sudden, I was done with the 2000 Olympic Games and it was like, wait a second what”s next?” Thompson said.
He took nine days off to tour Australia with his family. Returning to Michigan, determination took hold, and Thompson got right back in the pool.
“People were like “Aren”t you going to take a break?”” he said. “And I was like “No, I can”t.” This is my senior year, I”ve got stuff to do and I”ve got other goals to accomplish I can”t slack off anymore.”
Thompson wants to help the Wolverines win another Big Ten Championship. He wants to move out of that second-place slump that has plagued him for three years in a row at the national level and win an NCAA title.
“That was motivation enough to keep me going at a time when a lot of athletes come out of the Olympics and go into a low period off of a big high,” Thompson said. “I had plans and I had goals that I set up, so I wanted to get right back into it. I can rest later on when I retire or when I am old.”
The role model
“What amazed me about him at the Olympics was that he took the time with little kids to sit down with them and sign cards,” Urbanchek said. “He interacts with people when he signs cards, he doesn”t just sign the card and never look up he connected with everybody.”
Because swimming is such an important sport in Australia, many children would treat Thompson like a celebrity. What he didn”t realize right away is that the men who had taken the gold and silver medals just above him were Australian heroes.
“It would be like me competing against Michael Jordan,” Thompson said. “I didn”t think it was a big deal, but, for them, it was so huge. I just approached it slowly because it was awesome that people gave you that kind of respect.”
And Thompson responded graciously.
“When I was little, I always loved meeting the faster swimmers and getting to know them a little bit,” Thompson said. “I figured that it helped me so much in my career, being able to do that, maybe I can help kids out teach them and help them achieve a goal they have set for themselves.”
Thompson enjoys his time during the summers, helping run the Wolverine Swim Camps. This May, he will be running a Western zone distance camp sponsored by USA swimming. After his eligibility has expires, Thompson hopes to land contract opportunities, allowing him to run clinics and continue helping children.
“There are other aspects of life, not just excelling in a sport or doing well in school,” Thompson said. “If I assist little kids and kind of get them excited about the sport, then I can help the sport out and help them out. I figure that, maybe if I can do that, I will be successful.”