By Tito Morales
November 27. SOMETIMES it’s the stories that don’t reach the front pages that inspire the most.
On Tuesday, July 13, 2004, Chris Thompson, the defending Olympic Games bronze medalist in the 1500 meter freestyle, mounted the blocks for the finals of his specialty at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Just a few months earlier, Thompson, the fastest American in history at the distance, was regarded as one of the favorites to make the team. By race day, however, Thompson had virtually become an afterthought.
And, sure enough, when the gun went off, all the attention focused on Erik Vendt and Larsen Jensen as they quickly proved themselves to be the strongest in the field.
Thompson, meanwhile, touched the wall in seventh place. He’d finished over a pool length behind the victor, Jensen, and, to add insult to injury, Jensen had broken Thompson’s American record by a tenth of a second.
That Thompson was even able to compete that day, though, was remarkable in its own right. That he somehow managed to swim his way into the finals was more amazing still. Because just a few months earlier, the distance star was physically unable to even comb his own hair.
A Plan Undone
After an admittedly mediocre 2003, Thompson was more than motivated to make amends in 2004. He swam a Grand Prix meet in January and was thrilled with his early season fitness level.
“I was getting back on track,” Thompson says. “Things were looking good. I was really looking forward to the Olympic Trials.”
Thompson had graduated from the University of Michigan in 2001. His career, stellar to that point, had been punctuated by national titles, NCAA championships, American records, and podium finishes at the highest levels of the sport. But he hungered for more. So he set his sights on Athens, and devoted the next few years of his post-collegiate life to putting himself into his very best shape ever.
In the beginning of May, some ten weeks before the Trials, Thompson traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for some intensive, highly focused training.
Within days of arriving to the camp, Thompson was performing dryland exercises with the rest of the athletes, which included Vendt and Jensen. While doing a box-jumping plyometrics drill, he stumbled.
“I put my arms out behind me to catch myself, and I landed on my hands and forearms,” says Thompson. “I fell backwards and hit my head. Right away my arms tensed up. I thought maybe I’d just strained my forearm muscles. But I couldn’t move my arms at all. They were killing me.”
Initially, the OTC staff feared that Thompson had received a concussion. He was quickly ushered off for a CT scan. Fortunately, though, the test came back negative. The next concern was that he’d somehow received a compression fracture in his back that was affecting the mobility of his arms. After that film was reviewed, however, that, too, was ruled out.
“At first I thought, well, I might be out three or four days. Then I’ll hopefully be fine after that,” says Thompson. “I thought it was just muscle stuff.”
Only then were x-rays taken of Thompson’s elbows. The news was sobering: he’d fractured not just one but both of his elbows.
After reviewing the reports and conferring with the physicians handling the case, Thompson’s father, an orthopedic surgeon who lives and practices in Roseburg, Oregon, informed his son that with any luck the injuries might get better in 5-6 weeks. The worste case scenario, though, was that he’d be out of commission for up to six months or maybe even longer.
Rehabilitation, Reassessment & Refocus
“All of a sudden you go from being one of the top three favorites to wondering whether you’ll ever be able to swim again,” says Thompson.
His first few days after the accident were the worst.
“I couldn’t lift my arms at all,” says Thompson. The pain was excruciating. “It was impossible to even feed myself or change my clothes.”
Elbow injuries such as those Thompson sustained are best left treated without applying casts. The patient needs to quickly try to regain range of motion — not limit it. So within days of the accident, Thompson, his elbows swollen and aching, was in a rehabilitation pool working on arm movement exercises.
Each day he tried to push himself to accomplish just a little more than the day before. He knew the clock was ticking on his Olympic dreams. Once he finally managed to make it back into a swimming pool, he still faced monumental obstacles.
“I spent a lot of time just kicking with my arms at my sides,” he says.
As each week of therapy came and went, and he could feel his fitness level begin to deteriorate, Thompson had to confront reality. He was running out of time.
“Being a distance swimmer, 90 percent of it is training and the work,” he says. “Looking back, there was no way I was going to be able to get the work done in time.”
Tht's not to say that Thompson didn’t try. In addition to an inordinate amount of kicking sets, he cross-trained on a stationary bike. But for competitive swimmers, and especially distance specialists, there’s simply no substitute for 2-4 daily hours of quality pool time. The first thing to go is one’s feel for the water; the next is the conditioning.
By essentially being forced out of the water for five to six weeks, Thompson was left with just four weeks to prepare for Trials. Even when he did resume his training, the freestyle motion was painful on either one or both of his elbows.
“I was just getting in and trying to finish workouts,” he admits.
He’d spent years patiently building a training foundation which he hoped would catapult him to another Olympic Games. It all came undone, however, because of a training mishap.
Rather than throw in the towel, however, Thompson had the maturity to step back and look at the big picture.
“At that point you just have to reevaluate the goals for the season,” says Thompson. “I went from wanting to make the Olympic team to wanting to swim at Trials. I just wanted to make it to Long Beach.”
Competing for the Sake of Competing
That Thompson showed up in Long Beach pretty much says it all about his focus throughout a very trying rehabilitation during which he struggled to make himself into a semblance of the swimmer he was before his accident.
“After college I’d put off a couple of more years of my life to train for the 2004 Trials,” he says matter-of-factly, without a hint of remorse in his voice. “I wasn’t about to let a setback ten weeks out ruin those plans. I was going to go to Trials to do the best that I could.”
It wasn’t as if Thompson had never swum in a Trials before. It wasn’t as if he had to somehow save face in the eyes of the swimming community. Countless others, given his situation, would simply have chosen to stay home. To Thompson, though, not competing was really never an option.
“There was no other choice for me to take,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to just quit. That’s not how I operate. I stick with things and focus and try to stay going strong the whole way through.”
Somehow Thompson was able to hold each 50 meters in the mid- to high-31’s in the preliminaries of the 1500 meters. His ability to do so sheds light on what his fitness level must have been like before his accident. Despite all he’d been through, Thompson touched the wall 11th and he just missed making the finals by a little over two seconds.
“It’s weird not having things work properly for you,” Thompson says.
“You’re used to having a certain turnover, and being able to pull water, and all of a sudden it all feels funny. Things were just not working right.”
On the morning of the last day of competition — some five or six hours before the finals of the 1500 — Thompson learned that one swimmer after another seeded ahead of him had scratched until he had suddenly moved from 11th position to 8th. He was offered the opportunity to compete in the finals. And, true to his nature, he jumped at the chance.
“I wanted to do the experience and show people that I might not be 100 percent, but at least I’m here at Trials and at least I’m there pushing.”
Thompson, or course, realized even before he peeled off his sweats that the chances of him advancing to Athens were remote. But that didn’t stop him from trying.
“One of the things that disappointed me the most was that this was Jon’s last hurrah,” says Thompson, referring to long-time University of Michigan and Club Wolverine coach Jon Urbanchek’s recent retirement. “After spending years of swimming under him, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go out better for him. Unfortunately, I wasn’t healthy enough to do it for him.”
Truth be told, however, Thompson’s efforts in Long Beach — and the simple fact that he twice willingly stepped into the ring even when he knew deep in his heart that he wasn’t competing at his best — is precisely the type of courageous performance that Urbanchek probably would be most proud of.
It’s one thing to swim hard when all the conditions are in your favor. It’s another thing altogether, though, to do so when circumstances are less than ideal.
Goals for the Future
Thompson is currently in Dubai representing the United States in the Third FINA Open Water World Championships.
Though he admits his strength and fitness levels are still only about 80% of where he’d like them to be, he’s encouraged by the progress he’s made since his earliest days of rehabilitation and he’s looking forward to 2005.
He turns 26 at the end of November and he’s eager to put 2004 behind him.
“I still have some goals that I hope I can accomplish,” Thompson says. “I have such a good time swimming. I still want to give myself some opportunities to swim fast.”