Passages: 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist Thompson Mann, 76

thompson-mann-ishof-1984
Thompson Mann signing autographs at his induction in 1984; Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Thompson Mann passed away on April 4, 2019 after suffering from failing health for several years.  He was 76 years old.

Dr. Harold Thompson Mann was born on Dec. 1, 1942, in Norfolk, Virginia. He moved with his family to Richmond at the age of 4, started swimming and subsequently swam for the Country Club of Virginia. He attended high school at Great Bridge and went on to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he swam for Coach Pat Eary. He was a two-time All-American on the swim team and held three Atlantic Coast Conference records.

Thompson Mann was the main rival of Princeton’s “Backstroke King,” Jed Graef. Graef swam for renowned “Mr. A” – Hall of Fame coach Bob Alexander in Wayne, New Jersey. One of Mr. A’s philosophies was that the stronger the competition in practice, the faster you would swim in competition.  So in 1963, after Graef had beaten Thompson in both the 100 and 200 yard backstroke at the Eastern Championships, Jed invited his Carolina rival to live with his family and train with him in New Jersey under Alexander. Although rivals in the pool, they quickly became fast friends out of it.

At the time, the USA had five or six of the best backstrokers in the world and Jed believed that by training together both could make the Olympic Team. Although there was no 100m race in the Tokyo Games, two backstroke swimmers would make the team for the 400m Medley Relay.  Three swimmers would qualify in the individual 200 meter event.

The first backstroke event at 1964 Swimming Olympic Trials in Flushing Meadows, NY was the 200.  As reported in the NY Times: “Both Mann and Graef qualified for the final.  In the final, Mann set such a suicidal pace that he missed the world record for the 100 by only a second and he still had half the race ahead.  He paid the price for his apparent indiscretion by tiring badly and finishing fifth. Graef, who had stayed close to the pace, finished second and made the team.”

Two days later, Mann won the 100 meter final in a new world record time of 1:00.00 flat and also made the team.

At the Olympic Games in Tokyo Graef out-touched American Gary Dilly to win the gold medal in the 200 in a world record time.  American Bob Bennett finished third. In the medley relay, Thompson Mann led off and became the first man in swimming history to go under a minute on his back.  His time was 59.6.  Along with his teammates Bill Craig (breaststroke) of Glendale, California, Fred Schmidt (butterfly) of Northbrook, Illinois, and Steve Clark of Los Altos, California, the team also set a world record and won the gold medal.

After the Games, a reporter approached Alexander with a question.  “Why had Mann, an excellent judge of pace, swum what appeared to be a stupid race in the U.S. 200 meter Trials?”

“It really was,” says teammate Dick McDonough, “Mr. A emphasized two things: stroke technique and pace control. Our workouts, which were minimalist by today’s standards, involved telling him our times to the split second after we did sprints. Eventually we developed mental clocks that generally were accurate to within .5 of  second. That made Thompson’s first 100 at the Trials seem way out of whack with how we had been trained.”

“You know,” said Alexander, “Thompson knew if Jed made the team, Jed could win the Olympic title, and he knew he would make the team himself in the 100 meters. For three weeks before the trials, Thompson kept saying to me, ‘We’ve got to get Jed on the team.’ Now why should he be so concerned about someone else when he was trying to make the team himself? After the Olympics, I asked Thompson about it. He just walked away.”

Recently, Mann confided to McDonough, that a few weeks before the trials Mr. A told him  he was virtually a lock to make the Olympic team in the 100. “I think Thompson thrived on that assurance and it was a major confidence builder.”

His New Jersey teammates had no doubts. “That was Thompson,” said Jack Geoghegan. “One thing Bob Alexander constantly preached was that we were Family.”

“The Olympics were so much fun,” said Mann years later, “that I decided to keep swimming and prove my Olympic gold medal was not a fluke!”  He went on in 1965 to win U.S. Indoor and Outdoor titles in both the 100 and 200 Back, setting a world’s best time and American record of 52.5 for the 100yd backstroke.

thompson-mann-unc

Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

After graduating from UNC Mann attended and graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. He did his residency at the University of California in San Francisco. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor (internal medicine).

But that’s not the end of the story.  After retiring from his medical practice due to premature failing health, Dr. Mann was living alone.  About two years ago, one of the his summer teammates, Rick Girdler, heard about Thompson’s condition.  Rick had swum collegiately for Villanova and he drove up to visit him in Massachusetts.  He was so shocked by Mann’s physical condition that he decided to do what he could to help his old friend. He never left him.  Girdler, who was retired and also living alone decided to move in with Thompson and care for him.

“T was the most caring, innocent, sweet man I’ve ever known,” says Girdler.

Thompson’s condition dramatically improved and Girdler describes the past two years as among the best of his life. Together, they had a lot of fun and gave a series of speeches entitled “The Joy of Friendship” and “The Power of Belief” to local community groups.

“I think we are all amazed an astounded that T was able to hang on this long, always maintaining a positive outlook and attitude, regardless of the physical suffering he was enduring,” said summer teammate Dick McDonough.

“Rick was a life saver,” says Geoghegan. “A true FRIEND!”

Mann was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984.

Thompson Mann will forever be remembered as a champion in life, both in and out of the pool and he will be missed by all who knew him.

20 comments

  1. avatar
    Ed Brown

    Great tribute and story. Swimming friends are forever.

  2. avatar

    I knew Thompson later in life and was involved in medical practice with him as a colleague. He spent so much time with each patient and really cared for them, he was considerate, and compassionate yet professional. We spoke sometimes about his swimming career, since I swam competitively in college, and I was always in awe of his career, but he was always so humble.

  3. avatar
    Isaac Pourati MD

    Thompson was a true gentleman who I was proud to know. Amazingly caring physician to his often challenging patients he seemed to attract to his practice. Rick is an angel who appeared from heaven and made Thompson’s final years dignified and meaningful. What a magnificent story of true friendship.

  4. avatar
    Domenic Martinello

    I had the joy of knowing Dr Mann for the entirety of my medical career. When I started at Anna-Jaques hospital 10 years ago he was one of the first physicians I had the pleasure of interacting with. He was brilliant, kind, and humble. When I found out about his swimming achievements and asked him about them he would blush a little and say “yeah, I did a little swimming in my time”.
    He was a joy to interact with, a true gentleman, and he will he truly missed.

    • avatar
      Jessica Callahan

      Dear Dr. Mann,
      You were like the Mr. Rogers of AJH. Your heart and soul shined through your eyes and your kind words. You were a true healer and my hope is that more future medical professionals will follow in your light.

  5. avatar
    Shane Murray

    Had the pleasure of learning from and working with Dr Mann as a colleague and a partner. I hope that part of his legacy is the people like me that he trained and worked with in the hospital and private practice; he reminds of of how medicine should be practiced.

  6. avatar
    Nancy DiPirro RN

    I have been fortunate to have had the pleasure to have worked with Thompson over many years as a nurse. I was gifted to have his friendship and learn about his family and life. He was one of the most compassionate patient physicians to listen to his patients and give his full attention. He will be missed by so very many.

  7. avatar
    Carrie Jackman

    He was one of the most kind people I have ever met. A true gentleman who loved his patients.

  8. avatar
    Maureen Cullen NP

    He was a wonderful friend and colleague, I used to call him Marcus Welby MD. He was one of the kindest, most dedicated and most compassionate MD I have ever met❤️

  9. avatar
    Beth Koopman RN

    I worked with Thompson first at Holy Family in Methuen and then at Anna Jaques for many years. I enjoyed knowing him as a person and seeing his creative side as well as his extraordinary skill as a physician. I’m heartbroken to know he has passed.

  10. avatar

    He was a true gentleman. No matter his troubles, he always had a smile and a kind word. It was a real pleasure to know and work with him.

  11. avatar
    Al Corpening

    Tom was a senior when I was a freshman high jumper on the track team. My friends and I nicknamed him “Fish”. I remember his broad shoulders and small waist. I watched swim practice a couple of times because of the buzz on campus. I would see him at the “Y” court, Lenoir Hall, and elsewhere on campus. I wish I had spoken to him then.
    I had no idea he had attended the Medical College of Virginia where my grandfather and his sister, Aunt Cora studied.
    My sincere condolences to the family and friends of a man who I well remembered from my freshman year at Chapel Hill.

  12. avatar

    One of the kindest, most special people I have ever met.

  13. avatar
    Reba Eaton-Aguiar

    Dr. Mann will always be remembered by those fortunate enough to have known him. I worked with him many years ago but feel a loss knowing that he has moved on. What a tremendous person. A tireless and dedicated physician and a gentleman.

  14. avatar
    Monica Berridge

    I had the honor of knowing Thompson during his years at aj hospital. He was one of the kindest and compassionate people I’ve known, and he will be missed by many. a true gentleman and a good friend.

  15. avatar
    Kathleen Nackley

    I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to know Thompson. He was a kind and thoughtful man. No matter how busy he was, he took the time to listen. He genuinely cared about his patients, his family and the band Phish!
    He was humble and would shy away from talking about his Olympic years. Thompson was a kind soul and it was certainly a pleasure to know him.

  16. avatar
    Philip Ewing

    Dr Mann swam with my father growing up and then he later treated me before my own turn at MCV. He was every bit as humble and gracious as others have described above.

    While it is sad to read of his passing, I enjoyed reading about his swimming exploits and have two great stories about the value of friendship. Thanks to Mr. Girdler for nursing him back to health.

  17. avatar
    Ike Koziol

    Thompson was a great classmate in med school. He was a true gentleman and always considerate and kind. In medical practice, he was loved by his patients and practiced great medical care. We missed him at the 50th medical school class reunion.

  18. avatar
    Kim Hackett

    Dr. Mann was a friend of mine. I had the pleasure of working with him at AJH where we became friends as well as coworkers. My life has been blessed by his kind, compassionate nature and I miss him. RIP my friend.

  19. avatar
    Jonathan March, DO

    I too had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Thompson during our morning hospital rounds. He had that rare blend of intelligence, humility, and patience that is unusual in any person, and which is a particularly great asset in a physician. I too stood in awe of his Olympic achievements (having attended two summer games as a mere spectator), yet he talked about those accomplishments with uncanny understatement.

    A true gentleman, a true gem of a human being, has left us. We who met him are the better for it.