Christmas in August, only much better, for U.S. fencer

By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune  January 31, 2009

Hanna Thompson thought the closest she would get to the Olympics was watching them in Atlanta.

And that was fine with her.

"It was incredibly exciting," she said. "That would have definitely have been enough of an Olympic experience for me.''

Thompson was 12 then, and she already had started fencing at the Rochester, N.Y. club that was home to one of the Olympians she saw in Atlanta, Felicia Zimmermann. Both Felicia and her younger sister, Iris, would fence in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.

"They were a generation ahead of me, but they paved the way for American foil fencers," Thompson said.

It was a way that led Thompson to an NCAA championship for Ohio State and, eventually, to the Bird's Nest for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.

And then, eight days later, to standing on an awards podium with an Olympic silver medal from the team foil event around her neck.

That came about seven hours after the moment Thompson describes as being like, "Christmas morning times a million." It was the semifinal victory over Hungary that meant she and teammates Errin Smart and Emily Cross, were assured of being the first U.S. women to win an Olympic medal in the sport's most venerable discipline.

That feeling did not go away between then and the final, which the United States lost to Russia.

"I remember grinning like a five-year-old with my teammates every five minutes," Thompson said.

The smile and the medal, if not her fencing skills, were evident this weekend at Northwestern's Sports and Athletic Center, where Thompson was a referee for a 12-college competition that ended Sunday.

Thompson, 25, has not picked up a sword since Beijing and is unsure whether she will compete again. Much will depend on the results of her applications to law schools -- including Northwestern.

She has continued working at a Columbus, Ohio, Home Depot in a position created by the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. Home Depot recently announced it is ending its participation in the program.

"It's too bad, but I understand that times are tough," said Thompson, who worked at the Home Depot after graduation from OSU in 2006. "That job was a godsend for me."

It helped her win an Olympic medal no one could have foreseen -- and one overshadowed by the U.S. fencing team's other history-making performance, a sweep of the individual medals in the women's sabre event a week earlier.

"It was totally unexpected for us to do so well,'' Thompson said.

With Thompson scoring seven straight touches to wipe out a 22-15 deficit, the 7th-seeded U.S. women beat No. 2 Poland 31-30 in the quarterfinals. Then they beat No. 3 Hungary 35-33 in the semifinals before a 28-11 loss to top-seeded Russia.

"Just beating Poland was by far the best result we ever have had,'' Thompson said.

As exciting as the competition was, Thompson's most vivid memory is of the Opening Ceremony, especially the warm greeting she got from some of Team USA's more celebrated athletes.

"I met Kobe Bryant, and he remembered and congratulated us after we won the medal,'' she said.

Up close and personal, the Olympics were more than Hanna Thompson ever would have imagined.