BY Phillip Whitten
PHOENIX, March 12. LAST Monday, Jenny Thompson, America’s most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, courageously took a public stand after the University of New Hampshire decided to axe its men’s swimming program along with several other sports. The reason cited was a budgetary shortfall, but as is often the case, university administrators were shockingly unimaginative in developing alternative solutions to their problem.
Jenny, who grew up in nearby Dover, N.H., had been selected to receive the Charles Holmes Pette Award, the UNH Alumni Association’s highest honor. But she renounced the honor, pointedly asking: “How can the university honor me for accomplishments in an endeavor which they clearly do not respect?”
We wanted to know more about what motivated Jenny’s principled action. This weekend, she generously took some time out from her studies as a third year medical student at Columbia University to talk with us. This is how the conversation went:
Swimming World: Jenny, when did you decide to refuse the Pette Award from the University of New Hampshire?
Jenny Thompson: I decided to refuse the award as soon as I heard that the men’s swim team and other Olympic teams, such as crew, wrestling, and skiing, were being cut or halved. That was a few weeks ago.
SW: What convinced you to decide to take this action?
Jenny: I decided to do this on my own. Mike and Amy Parratto of Seacoast Swimming Association, the coaches of my club team from New Hampshire, called to tell me the horrible news about the cuts and I just thought about how I could help. I decided that speaking to the media would bring the most attention to the situation.
SW: So you would have spoken out even if you had not received the award?
Jenny: Yes. It was coincidental that UNH had recently informed me that they intended to honor my swimming achievements with the Pette medal. I don’t think it would be right to accept the Pette medal when UNH is ultimately saying they don’t care about swimming.
SW: It’s even more than that. In an age when obesity looms as perhaps modern society’s greatest health challenge, here’s a university saying we’re going to get rid of the single best form of exercise for maintaining lifetime fitness. But you definitely did the right thing and I think you energized a lot of people. We’ve received a number of e-mails supporting your decision after we ran a story last Tuesday on SwimmingWorldMagazine.com About your action. I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback as well, but have you received any reaction from the University?
Jenny: The Alumni Association has said that they respect my right to take that action, but that they were disappointed that I “politicized” the award.
SW: What kind of impact do you think your action will have at
Jenny: I honestly don’t know if it will change the University’s decision, although I hope it does. I do think that it will help raise awareness to a disturbing trend in US collegiate athletics. Men’s Olympic sports teams are being cut, and the officials are saying that they need to save money or comply with Title IX, when in fact they are just protecting more money for the basketball, football, or in UNH’s case, the hockey team.
SW: Jenny, thank you so much for lending your voice and your prestige to this struggle to save intercollegiate swimming and other Olympic sports. And best of luck with your medical studies…