Perhaps more than anyone, Jenny Thompson understands what an athlete goes through at the Olympics. She has been through the distractions, the disappointments, the delirium.
So when Thompson pumped her fist Wednesday night in the pool at the Long Beach Aquatics Center, mildly celebrating her victory in the 50-meter freestyle on the final night of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, it was clear that she understood her role next month in Athens, when she will appear in the Olympics for the fourth time.
"Jenny just brings so much experience and so much wisdom," said Natalie Coughlin, one of the U.S.'s primary hopes for swimming gold. "Just being there through four times, in four different situations.
"She's had her ups and downs in her career, so she brings a lot of insight."
Thompson, then, will be part den mother, part ferocious competitor, part sage, part medal threat. Her winning time of 25.02 seconds Wednesday likely won't be competitive for the gold in Athens. But at 31, her heart is still unquestioned, her experience a bonus. With first-timers such as Coughlin and Kara Lynn Joyce, runner-up in the 50 free, on the team, there will be things Thompson -- who had already qualified in the 100 butterfly, but disappointingly failed in the 100 freestyle -- can relate that no one else can.
"I think I would be able to help them deal with the kind of roller-coaster of emotions you deal with at the Olympics," she said. "Just everything you have to deal with at the Olympics, whether it's security or buses or standing around a lot. It's different."
She was there in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000. She has won 10 medals overall, eight gold. So her winning performance was, in some ways, the perfect way to cap an extraordinary trials.
Larsen Jensen set a U.S. record of 14 minutes 56.71 seconds in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle, the last event of the meet. Thus, over eight days here, a span in which six world records fell, the U.S. swimming teams took shape.
Eddie Reese, the men's coach, said that with the multi-talented Michael Phelps, breaststroker Brendan Hansen, backstroker Aaron Peirsol and butterfly man Ian Crocker -- all of whom set world records -- the men could have their best team since 1976, when they won all but one gold medal in Montreal.
"Since that time, the other nations in the sport have gotten a lot better, and the level of competition and the speed of the sport has increased," Reese said. "But I think, at least going into the Olympics, put this team second to the '76 team. They're really pretty good."
Crocker, who beat Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly and also made the team in the 100 freestyle, said the performances at the trials have the team wishing the Olympics were, oh, say this weekend.
"It's going to be stunning," Crocker said. "I just want the first gun to go off once we get there, and from that point on, it's just going to be records broken and history books."
The women's team appears to face more significant challenges. Only one woman -- Amanda Beard, in the 200-meter breaststroke -- set a world record at the trials. With versatile star Coughlin competing in a scaled-down program, eschewing some of her strongest events, such as the 200 backstroke, in favor of concentrating on the 100 free and the 100 back, women's coach Mark Schubert will have to coax personal-best performances from several of his swimmers in order to reach the standards to which the United States has become accustomed. American women have won more swimming medals than any other country in each of the last five Olympics.
"We're a team that needs to improve a lot between the trials and the Games," Schubert said, "and that's going to be our focus in the next four weeks." Past her prime or not, Thompson will be a significant part of that effort.
As the U.S. coaching staff and other swimmers expressed their respect and confidence in her on the relays, Thompson said she was honored to hear such praise, and added that she could swim "a hell of a lot" faster in Athens.
Her other goals, though, have little to do with swimming fast. With six teenagers on the women's squad, Thompson, in part, will be entrusted with maintaining the American team's place in the world.
"The U.S. team is traditionally very strong," Thompson said. "We're always number one. I don't see that being any different this time.
"Sometimes, being green is a positive. You just go for it."