Cold War politics denied her a chance to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but since then the 52-year-old rower has represented Canada in seven Games, winning medals of every colour along the way.
And while the silver medal she won Thursday at the London Games as part of the women's eight crew doesn't match the gold she took home from Barcelona in 1992, it put her in a class of her own as the only Canadian athlete to win a medal in five different Olympics.
"Every crew is special but this one, they worked so hard," said Thompson-Willie, who serves as coxswain on the team.
"We went to win and didn't do it, but sure are enjoying the silver. No regrets, great race," she added.
The result gave Canada a medal for the third consecutive day at the Games, and a second rowing silver. The men's eight finished second in its final on Wednesday.
Canada sits 11th in the overall medal standings with seven (two silver, five bronze) but is still waiting for its first gold. That wait could end in the next couple of days when some of Canada's top medal hopefuls — shot putter Dylan Armstrong and the trampoline team — open their competitions. Other top contenders, like cyclists Tara Whitten and Catharine Pendrel, don't compete until next week.
Canadian athletes have been stronger out of the gate in London than they were four years ago in Beijing when nobody won a medal of any colour until Day 8.
The Canadian eight went into Thursday's final knowing gold was a tall order against a mighty American crew that hadn't lost in six years. And they were once again bested by their rivals, with the U.S. winning in six minutes 10.59 seconds.
Canada, which came within 0.03 seconds of the U.S. at a World Cup event earlier this year, didn't put as much of a scare into the Americans this time, finishing in 6:12.06 despite a late charge.
Still, by putting in a gruelling effort into the last 500 metres the Canadian crew ensured they would finish well ahead of the third-place Netherlands (6:13.12) and their beloved coxswain would get her unprecedented fifth medal.
"The bond that we share together is something really special that I'll always cherish," said crew member Andreanne Morin, choking up as she spoke. "I thought going out in this race today I was like 'This is her last one. She's been at this for 35 years. I'm going to do it for her.' And I gave it my all.
"That last 500 was all heart and it was for Lesley."
Now Thompson-Willie returns to her day job, which she loves. She is a high school teacher and a librarian in London, Ont.
"Back to school in September," she said. "I like my school and I like my homework."
The performance put the women's eight team back on the Olympic map after missing the podium in the last two Games. It also made up for a disappointing start to the day for Canada's rowers.
Victoria natives Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee, world silver medallists last year, didn't advance to the women's lightweight double sculls final after a fourth-place finish in the semis.
"A tough one to swallow," said Jennerich. "It takes a little while to set in. ... I said to Obee, this might capture it well, it's like 'There's seven minutes of your life that suddenly take you out of a shot at an Olympic medal.'"
Canadian rowers won a gold, a silver and two bronze in Beijing. With only the men's pair of Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen still in the medal hunt, Canada will not be able to match that overall performance.
In badminton, Alex Bruce and Michelle Li will play for the bronze medal after losing their semifinal 21-12, 19-21, 21-13 to Japan's Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiwa. The Toronto duo will face Russians Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova for third-place Saturday at Wembley Arena.
Bruce and Li found themselves in the semifinals after eight players were expelled from the competition for losing on purpose.
Canada failed to pick up any more medals in the pool, with Toronto's Martha McCabe finishing fifth in the women's 200-metre breaststroke. McCabe finished in 2:23:16 — better than her time when she won the bronze at the world championships last year.
Meanwhile Brent Hayden of Mission, B.C., finished seventh in his men's 50-metre freestyle semifinal and failed to qualify for the final. Hayden has Canada's only swimming hardware so far in London, winning bronze in the 100 on Wednesday for his first Olympic medal.
Sinead Russell of Burlington, Ont., qualified for the women's 200 backstroke final, finishing third in her semifinal and eighth overall. She'll race in the final on Friday.
In other events Thursday:
— Dominique Pegg of Sarnia, Ont., finished 17th overall in the women's all-around gymnastics final.
— Toronto's Alexa Komarnycky and Vancouver's Savannah King both failed to advance to the women's 800 freestyle final. Komarnycky had the 11th best time overall, while King was 15th with eight spots available.
— Joe Bartoch of London, Ont., didn't qualify for the men's 100 butterfly semifinals after finishing sixth in his heat.
— In judo, Amy Cotton of Antigonish, N.S., was eliminated in the round of 32 of the women's under-78 kilogram class by France's Audrey Tcheumeo.
— In women's beach volleyball, Annie Martin of Lachine, Que., and Marie-Andree Lessard of Lasalle, Que., lost to Italy's Marta Menegatti and Greta Cicolari 21-12, 23-25, 15-10 to be knocked out after losing all three round-robin games.