KENNEBUNK, Maine — A week of activities held in honor of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics ended with a truly Olympic surprise at Sea Road School Friday.
The students filled the school’s gymnasium for their Olympic Week’s “Closing Ceremony,” entering by groups proudly carrying their handmade flags of varying countries. Then, as the students settled, Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson ran in, hands up in the air, just as if she were back at an opening ceremony.
“I just love when the Olympics come around,” said Thompson, who said the Olympic spirit is about “coming together, everybody from around the world, and doing the best you can for your country.”
Thompson, who grew up in New Hampshire and now lives in Kennebunk, is the most decorated female Olympic swimmer, having won 12 medals in Olympic competition. She competed in four Olympic Games — Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000, and Athens in 2004 — and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012.
When students heard how many medals Thompson earned during her time in the Olympics, a collective “whoa” came from the otherwise quiet gymnasium.
With her on Friday, Thompson brought along some of her swimsuits — made out of what she said is a high-tech material modeled after shark skin, a banner signed by members of the 1996 swim team, and a USA banner made by her mom and brought to the Olympics so Thompson could find her family in the stands.
Thompson, who now works as an anesthesiologist in Portland, began competitive swimming at the age of 7, competing in her first international meet at the age of 14, and her first Olympic Games at the age of 18. Thompson said she was driven by a desire to do her best.
“I always wanted to see if I could be the best I could be,” she said. “You have to work really, really hard. The key for me was working really hard and keeping balance in my life. Following my passion was the thing that I was most excited to do.”
All of Thompson’s gold medals are in relay events and she told students that being a part of a team was what she enjoyed the most. In relay events, Thompson said she loved being the anchor, the swimmer to go last, who could get her team to the win if they were behind.
“I loved being part of a relay team,” she said. “You get to share in the glory of a win or in disappointment if you lose.”
Competing in the Olympics also gave Thompson the opportunity to meet other athletes from around the world, some of whom she keeps in contact with, and the ability to see different parts of the world.
“They are all different kinds of people all coming together to do the best they can for their country and to celebrate peace and love in the world,” she said.
There’s no doubt competing in the Olympic Games was “nerve-wracking,” Thompson said, but she overcame her nerves by focusing on positive energy.
“That’s one of the difficult things about the Olympics. You work so hard your whole life to get to this moment, and then it’s so stressful and all the attention is on you,” she said. “I focused on positive energy.”
As for the piece of advice Thompson gave the young students, it would be to follow their passion.
“Whether or not you like sports, I want you to always follow your passion,” she said. “You will be really pleased with what happens.”