Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Tammy Thomas-Ammons
Sports can act as a binding agent that brings people together over a common passion for the game. This story holds true for former Kansas swimmer Tammy Thomas, whose love for swimming drove her to choose the University of Kansas as her college destination. That decision would later influence a young recruit, Jim Ammons, to choose Kansas as well. The common bond that they shared was a deep admiration for swimming and the beauty that surrounds Jayhawk Boulevard, and now the two share a last name and have been married for more than 30 years.
Tammy took several recruiting trips around the nation to get a feel for where she would best fit. As she strolled the historic campus at KU, she knew her heart was set on being a Jayhawk. The family-like atmosphere, supplemented by the beautiful campus, made Kansas feel like home.
“Former Kansas swim coach Gary Kempf and the current swimmers of that time made it feel right for me,” Tammy said. “I never felt that I was going into a group of people that I was uncomfortable around. I always felt very comfortable.”
She also got comfortable winning races during her career at KU. She was named an All-American in four consecutive years—the first Kansas women’s swimmer to accomplish this feat. She was a double-winner at the NCAA Championships in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle in 1983. Her name still sits atop the Jayhawk record board in Robinson Natatorium in the same events in which she reached collegiate swimming’s highest peak.
However, her greatest accomplishment to date may be the fact that she influenced an incoming freshman swimmer to choose Kansas as his college destination as well.
Jim Ammons was on an official recruiting trip to Kansas as a senior in high school in 1982, the last of several recruiting trips he had scheduled across the nation. On the final day of his visit, he and his family were invited to attend a picnic at Clinton Lake for the recruits who were in town. As the event was wrapping up, Jim remembers a young lady pulling up to the picnic in a white Volkswagen Beetle. It was Tammy, and for Jim it sealed the deal.
“I vividly remember her walking up to where we were at,” Jim recalled. “I only saw her for 20-to-30 minutes, but that did it for me. The next morning, my father asked if I had made my decision as to where I wanted to go and I said, ‘Heck yeah, I’m going to Kansas.'”
Jim arrived as a freshman on campus in the fall as Tammy was entering her final year of college. The two hadn’t been in contact at all until Jim stepped foot on campus, but swimming teams can be defined as a tight-knit family, so naturally, the two would spend plenty of time around one another—in and out of the water. Still, Tammy recalls that she had no idea who Jim was at first.
“I had no idea who he was,” Tammy said. “He was rooming with a good friend of mine at the time, Chuck Newman. Chuck was my age and he is also from Texas, like Jim, so they bonded very well.”
Jim had a very good idea of who Tammy was, though. She was arguably the best swimmer in the world during this stage in her career. She was being featured in Sports Illustrated and other national publications.
It wouldn’t take long for Jim to leave his lasting impression on the world-class swimmer, however.
Jim and Tammy were sprinters for their respective teams so they often shared swim lanes during workouts and practices. Tammy would tend to swim behind Jim to use his drag as an enhancement. When one benefits, the other doesn’t. While Tammy used Jim’s drag to ease her efforts, the freshman standout would consequently be held back more, making him use more energy in his strokes.
“I would swim behind him and usually drag off of him,” a laughing Tammy said.
Ammons recalls a different scenario that took place during the workouts when the two were in the same lane.
“The problem with sharing a lane with Tammy is that she would tickle my feet, believe it or not,” Jim said. “We would swim miles every day so we would come back to the wall and I’d tell her to go first but she never would because she enjoyed tickling my feet.”
Whether the two were competing or flirting in the same lane, one thing remained constant and that was that Jim provided the comical relief that Tammy needed to get through the strenuous workouts.
“He was always singing and telling jokes,” Tammy said. “We were in great pain at the time and he would still make me laugh and he made everything seem okay. I would sit there thinking there was no way I could continue on this workout and he would bust out singing and everyone would laugh. Thirty-something years later and he is still doing the same thing today.”
Jim confirmed the singing and dancing moments that took place during practice.
“I tried to make the most of the pain we endured,” Jim said. “We were always working hard. My attitude was that you can complain about it or you can do something to try and forget about it, so I was always singing and having fun.”
As the season unfolded, the two swimmers began to spend more time together, getting to know one another as the squad spent evenings and weekends trying to get their minds off of the pool. Jim recalled a memory from when the upperclassmen held a swim party at a house on campus. Both Jim and Tammy were in attendance and this was the opportunity for the freshman to really get to know the senior on a personal level in more of a social context.
The relationship developed from there with no concern over the three-year age difference between them. Tammy remembered Jim being mature beyond his years. The young man radiated with confidence in all he did and he was very self-assured. The icing on the cake was that he was constantly making Tammy laugh.
“At that time, with being who I was, it was not easy to date somebody,” Tammy said. “It took a while before we dated because Gary (Kempf) didn’t want intra-team relationships because they can pose a problem. He was not very thrilled about us dating, but it worked out.”
Jim added, “The age difference was never a problem for me. We met in 1982 and she was and still is the most beautiful woman. I didn’t even notice the age gap.”
After Tammy graduated in the spring of 1983, she stuck around Lawrence to pursue nursing school. Jim was entering his sophomore campaign on the swim team where he had been elected to a team captain position, something that was virtually unheard of for underclassman. It was during that year that Jim decided to bring Tammy home to meet his family.
“I was really nervous about that because he is the youngest of four children and I figured his mom was going to cut my head off,” Tammy said with a laugh. “It turned out to be completely the opposite. She comes walking out of her front door and gives me a huge hug and makes me feel right at home. She cooked me an awesome meal. She loved the fact that after her three boys left the table, I was still sitting there eating.”
Introductions weren’t necessary as Jim recalls.
“Before we went to Texas to visit my parents, my mother called me,” Jim said. “I had told her I was dating a girl named Tammy Thomas. I get a phone call from my mom and she said, ‘Jim, what is the name of the girl you’re dating?’ and I said, ‘Tammy Thomas.’ She asked, ‘Is she a swimmer?’ and I replied, ‘Yeah.’ She asked, ‘Is she a really good swimmer?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘I’m reading the USA Today and she is on the cover!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah she is.'”
Since that moment, Tammy has been a part of the Ammons’ family. She remembers the Texas hospitality that Jim’s family gave her, something she cherishes to this day.
Jim left the University of Kansas after his sophomore year to pursue working in his family’s business back in Houston. He grew up in a family-owned business and he received a life’s worth of business education from his family while growing up. Tammy ultimately decided that nursing school was not where her heart was at so she abruptly stopped everything in Lawrence and moved to Houston to be with Jim.
The couple started their first business venture together and they continue to operate it together today with the help of their son.
The Ammons own a landscape installation company and materials yard in the Houston area. They enjoy the nature of the work and the variability that each day brings them.
Tammy’s accolades while at Kansas helped provide a transition into her professional career. The successes that she enjoyed in college allowed her to build up to bigger things ahead in life. The hard work, sacrifices and dedication that she put into her swimming work at KU translated after college.
“All the training taught me that I can do anything I want,” Tammy said. “I just have to be willing to put in the work and make the sacrifices. There is no doubt in my mind that I learned that from being at KU. Coming into college as a high school swimmer; I had no idea what I was capable of. Through the practices, the meets, and growing over the four years, that is what taught me that I can do anything.”
Jim credits his success to his years spent at Kansas as well.
“I had a great experience there,” Jim said. “I can’t say enough good things about KU. The sports program taught me so much.”
The Ammons continue to visit their alma mater for special events and always represent the Jayhawks in any fashion they can. Tammy was most recently a presenter at KU’s annual Rock Chalk Choice Awards earlier this fall.
“I’m so proud to be a Jayhawk and be a product of that university,” Tammy said. “I’m always proud to tell people that I’m a Jayhawk, it never goes away. I was proud of it 30 years ago and I’ve been proud of it ever since. I think that is part of what the school does for you. It has so much history and so many great people have come out of that university. To be a product of KU is just an awesome feeling and I am proud that I can say that.”
One thing remains constant in the Ammons’ marriage today and that is the love they hold for Kansas. Without a college junior’s influence on a high school senior’s decision to attend KU, the love they share today would never have happened.
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.