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100 Greatest U.S. Olympians

At every Olympics, America’s top athletes compete for national pride and personal glory. These are the best of the best.

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Ever since their founding in 1896, the modern Olympic Games have brought us countless inspiring stories, making heroes out of underdogs and dominant athletes alike. With even more classic moments set to happen at the Sochi Winter Olympics, we looked back at the best Americans to ever compete, and the amazing stories behind their triumphs. By Dan Reilly

Ray Ewry

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Ray Ewry

1900 Paris Games, 1904 St. Louis Games
Track and field
Medal count: Eight golds

Ewry swept the standing high jump, long jump and triple jump events at the Paris Olympics in 1900, the second modern iteration of the games. He successfully defended his golds in 1904, and probably would have gone three-for-three in 1908 if the IOC hadn't discontinued the standing triple jump that year. In terms of individual gold medals, his total of eight is second all time to Michael Phelps' 11, a fact that's even more impressive considering Ewry suffered from polio as a child and nearly lost the use of his legs. He also won two golds in the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens, but those medals are no longer recognized by the International Olympic Committee.       

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Ralph Rose

1904 St. Louis Games, 1908 London Games, 1912 Stockholm Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, two silvers, one bronze

Standing nearly 6'6", Rose was a back-to-back champion in the shot put in 1904 and 1908, and became the first athlete in the sport to throw a shot more than 50 feet. He won a silver in the event in 1912, and earned a third gold in the two-handed shot put, in which the competitors had to throw the shot both right-handed and left-handed. It was the only time the event would be part of the Olympics.

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George Eyser

1904 St. Louis Games
Gymnastics
Medal count: Three golds, two silvers, one bronze

Fellow American gymnast Anton Heida won five gold medals at the St. Louis games, but Eyser (the gymnast  in the full-length pants at left) won his three – including a springboard-less vault over a pommel horse – while competing with a wooden leg. He had lost most of his left leg after it was run over by a train when he was a kid. He earned his other golds in the parallel bars and 25-foot rope climb.

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Mel Sheppard

1908 London Games, 1912 Stockholm Games
Track and field
Medal count: Four golds, one silver

After winning the 800- and 1500-meter individual races, Sheppard earned his third gold of the 1908 games as the final runner on the men's medley relay squad. That year, the format of the race involved the first two teammates going for 200 meters, the next going 400, and the final athlete running the last half of the race. In 1912, Sheppard won another gold as part of the now-standard 4×400-meter relay team.

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Martin Sheridan

1904 Paris Games, 1908 London Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, one bronze

Sheridan earned his first gold in 1904 in the discus throw then repeated in 1908, also earning another gold for the Greek discus, a similar sport in which athletes threw the disc from a raised platform. He also earned a bronze in the standing long jump that year, and medaled in high jump, long jump, discus, shot put, and stone throw at the 1906 Intercalated Games. When not competing, he served 12 years in the NYPD.

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Jim Thorpe

1912 Stockholm Games
Track and field
Medal count: Two golds

Considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, Thorpe competed in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm games in 1912. The pentathlon consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter run, discus throw, and 1500-meter run. The decathlon featured the same events, minus the 200 meters, and added the 100 meters, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110 meter hurdles, and pole vault. Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events that comprised both contests. The following year, a newspaper revealed that Thorpe was paid to play semi-professional baseball before the games, violating rules that mandated that all Olympic athletes must be amateurs. The IOC stripped him of his medals, and he went on to play pro football and baseball. His medals were reinstated by the IOC in 1983, 30 years after his death at age 41.

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Willis A. Lee

1920 Antwerp Games
Shooting
Medal count: Five golds, one silver, one bronze

A member of the U.S. Navy, Lee racked up five gold medals, and seven total, for his shooting performances, making him the most successful participant of the 1920 games in Antwerp. He later became a Rear Admiral and won the Navy Cross for his actions commanding a fleet during the battle of Guadalcanal. 

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Eddie Eagan

1920 Antwerp Games, 1932 Lake Placid Games
Bobsled and boxing
Medal count: Two golds

Twelve years after winning boxing gold as a light-heavyweight in 1920, Eagan returned to the Olympics and won as part of the four-man bobsled team, making him the first person to medal in the summer and winter games.

Johnny Weissmuller

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Johnny Weissmuller

1924 Paris Games, 1928 Amsterdam Games
Swimming and water polo
Medal count: Five golds, one bronze

Weissmuller swam to gold in the 100 and 400-meter freestyle races, as well as the 4×200-meter freestyle relay in 1924, on top of a bronze medal as part of the water polo team. He repeated the gold finishes in the 100 and 4×200 in 1928, then later had a successful film career, starring as Tarzan 12 times. 

Babe Zaharias

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Babe Didrikson Zaharias

1932 Los Angeles Games
Track and field
Medal count: Two golds, one silver

Didrikson Zaharias won both the 80 meter hurdles and javelin throw in 1932, adding a silver in the high jump. Outside the Olympics, she starred in basketball and on the LPGA tour, winning 41 events and 10 majors. On top of that, she faced off with men in several PGA events, competed in billiards, softball, and baseball, and performed as a singer and harmonica player.

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Jesse Owens

1936 Berlin Games
Track and field
Medal count: Four gold

With Adolf Hitler promoting Nazi Germany and the Aryan race at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Owens stuck it the Fuhrer's eye by wining, in order, the 100 meter sprint, the long jump, the 200 meter sprint, and as a part of the world record-setting 4×100 meter relay team. Oddly enough, Owens received congratulations from Adolf Hitler, yet was never honored by his own President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Bob Mathias

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Bob Mathias

1948 London Games, 1952 Helsinki Games
Decathlon
Medal count: Two golds

Just a year after competing in the pole vault, long jump, javelin, and 1,500-meter run for the first time, the 17-year-old Mathias' superior athleticism won him the decathlon in 1948, making him the youngest track and field medalist in Olympic history. He played in the Rose Bowl for Stanford football and won another decathlon gold in 1952, then later served as a captain the Marines and a four-term Congressman from the Fresno area of California.

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Dick Button

1948 St. Moritz Games, 1952 Oslo Games
Figure skating
Medal count: Two golds

In 1948, Button landed the first double axel in a figure skating competition to become the first American champion in the sport. Nineteen-years-old at the time, he remains the youngest man to ever win the event. He repeated in 1952, in part by landing a triple loop, the first successful triple-jump in competition. 

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Mal Whitfield

1948 London Games, 1952 Helsinki Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three gold, one silver, one bronze

Whitfield, who served in the Air Force as one of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, won two golds in 1948 in the 4×400 relay and 800-meter dash, repeating in the latter event four years later. He also served in the Korean War and became the first African-American to win the AAU's James E. Sullivan Award, which is given to the best amateur athlete in America.

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Parry O’Brien

1952 Helsinki Games, 1956 Melbourne Games, 1960 Rome Games, 1964 Tokyo Games
Track and field
Medal count: Two golds, one silver

A back-to-back gold medalist in 1952 and '56, O'Brien created a new method of throwing the shot, starting with his back to the field and twisting around to add momentum to his toss. This radical change in style led him to 17 shot put world records, including the first throw to break 60 feet. Despite winning 116 contests in a row prior to the 1960 games, he finished that event with a silver.  

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Pat McCormick

1952 Helsinki Games, 1956 Melbourne Games
Diving
Medal count: Four golds

One of the best women divers of all time, McCormick – who once practiced by jumping off a bridge in Long Beach, California – won the springboard and platform events in 1952, then successfully defended her titles four years later.

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Al Oerter

1956 Melbourne Games, 1960 Rome Games, 1964 Tokyo Games, 1968 Mexico City Games
Track and field
Medal count: Four golds

Oerter won gold in the discus at every summer Olympics from 1956 to 1968, becoming the second athlete to win an individual event at four consecutive games. 

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Wilma Rudolph

1956 Melbourne Games, 1960 Rome Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, one bronze

At the 1960 games in Rome, Rudolph won three gold medals in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4×100 meter, earning her the nickname of "the fastest woman on earth." She was the first woman to win three track gold medals in a single Olympiad.

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Muhammad Ali

1960 Rome Games
Boxing
Medal count: One gold

Just before going pro, Ali – then known as Cassius Clay – won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics, which were also the first games to be televised internationally. He later claimed to have thrown his medal into the Ohio River after a white restaurant refused to serve him, though friends later said he simply lost it. In 1996, he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics and received a replacement medal.

Rafer Johnson

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Rafer Johnson

1956 Melbourne Games, 1960 Rome Games
Track and field
Medal count: One gold, one silver

Hampered by an injury, Johnson won silver in the '56 decathlon, then narrowly beat Taiwanese rival Yang Chuan-Kwang four years later. After retiring, he became an actor and sportscaster, worked with the Special Olympics and was one of the men who subdued RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan. 

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Peggy Fleming

1964 Innsbruck Games, 1968 Grenoble Games
Figure skating
Medal count: One gold

Fleming's victory in 1968 marked a return to dominance for U.S. Figure Skating, just seven years after the entire team was killed in a plane crash en route to the World Championships. Her gold medal was the only one won by the States during these games, and she became a national hero.

AP Photo

Wyomia Tyus

1964 Tokyo Games, 1968 Mexico City Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, one silver

After winning the 100-meter gold in '64, Tyus ran a world-record time of 11.08 to become the first woman to ever win the event in back-to-back games. She also helped set a world record by running the final leg of the 4×100 meter.

AP Photo

Don Schollander

1964 Tokyo Games, 1968 Mexico City Games
Swimming
Medal count: Five golds, two silver

At 18, freestyle swimmer Schollander won golds in the 100 meter, 400 meter, 4×100 and 4×200. Four years later, he won another gold as part of the 4×200 team, and came in second in the 200 meter in its first year as an Olympic event. Between those Games, he won three NCAA championships at Yale, where he was a member of the Skull and Bones society alongside George W. Bush.

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos

1968 Mexico City Games
Track and field
Medal count: One gold (Smith), one bronze (Carlos)

Teammates at San Jose State, Smith and Carlos faced off in the 200-meter race, with Smith winning gold with a world record time of 19.83 seconds. Carlos finished third, behind Australia's Peter Norman. When the three men – all donning Olympic Project for Human Rights badges – went to the podium to receive their medals, Smith and Carlos removed their shoes and stood in black socks as a tribute to black people in poverty. Then, during "The Star-Spangled Banner," they bowed their heads and gave the traditional "black power" salute of a raised, black-gloved fist. Then-IOC president Avery Brundage suspended Smith and Carlos for making a political statement during the Olympics. The duo was heavily criticized at the time, even receiving death threats, though the moment is now seen as one of the most important of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Dick Fosbury

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Dick Fosbury

1968 Mexico City Games
Track and field
Medal count: One gold

As a high school student, Fosbury had trouble with the conventional high jump "straddle" method and failed to even clear five feet in his attempts. He started tinkering with his approach, and eventually invented the now-dominant style of jumping backwards over the bar, a technique that became known as the "Fosbury Flop." A few years later, he won high jump gold at the 1968 games, setting an Olympic record with a 7-foot, 4.25-inch leap. Nearly all high jump competitors use the flop method now.

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Bob Beamon

1968 Mexico City Games
Track and field
Medal count: One gold

In the long jump finals, Beamon's first jump measured 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches, a leap so far that officials had to bring in additional measuring equipment to get an accurate result. After about 15 minutes, the announcer revealed the distance, but Beamon, unfamiliar with the metric system, still didn't know how far the jump was. Teammate Ralph Boston informed Beamon that he just set the new record by an unprecedented 21 3/4 inches. Beamon collapsed in shock, and his record stood until 1991, when American Mike Powell broke it at the World Championships.

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Mark Spitz

1968 Mexico City Games, 1972 Munich Games
Swimming
Medal count: Nine golds, one silver, one bronze

Spitz won four medals, including two gold, at the 1968 games, but it was his performance four years later that made him one of the most successful Olympians of all time. He won gold in all seven events in which he participated, setting world records with each victory. The seven golds in one Olympiad was a record until Michael Phelps won eight in 2008.

Bruce Jenner

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Bruce Jenner

1972 Munch Games, 1976 Montreal Games
Track and field
Medal count: One gold

After a 10th place finish in the decathlon at the 1972 Olympics, Jenner upped the intensity of his training regimen, all while supporting himself as an insurance salesman. In 1976, he earned gold in the event with a world record point total of 8,634. He's now famous, of course, for marrying Kim Kardashian's mother Kris, and his subsequent appearances on the reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians

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Greg Louganis

1976 Montreal Games, 1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games
Diving
Medal count: Four golds, one silver

Louganis' consecutive victories in both the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform dives made him the only man to ever sweep both events in back-to-back Olympics. The 1988 games were particularly difficult for Louganis: Six months earlier, he was diagnosed with HIV, and during a preliminary round, he hit his head on the diving board and suffered a concussion. He later became an active LGBT rights advocate. 

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Dorothy Hamill

1976 Innsbruck Games
Figure skating
Medal count: One gold

The 19-year-old Hamill won gold thanks in part to a free skate that earned her unanimous first place votes from all nine judges. She quickly became one of America's sweethearts thanks to her trademark bob haircut.

The Denver Post

Darrell Pace

1976 Montreal Games, 1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games
Archery
Medal count: Two golds, one silver

Pace won the individual archery gold in 1976 but couldn’t defend his title four years later when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow games as protest of the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Pace then won gold again in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, one of only two men to win events in the games surrounding the boycott. He earned a silver in the men's 1988 team event and was named athlete of the century by the World Archery Federation in 2011. 

David Cannon/Allsport

Edwin Moses

1976 Montreal Games, 1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games
Track and field
Medal count: Two golds, one bronze

In addition to his 122 consecutive wins in the 400-meter hurdles, Moses set four world records and won Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1984. He couldn't make it a three-peat in 1988, settling for bronze instead.

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Evelyn Ashford

1976 Montreal Games, 1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games, 1992 Barcelona Games
Track
Medal count: Four golds, one silver

In 1976, Ashford's first appearance at the Olympics resulted in a fifth place finish in the 100-meter when she was 19-years-old. She returned in 1984 and won the event with an Olympic record time of 10.97 seconds. She also took part in the 4×100 relay, winning gold in '84, '88, and '92, making her one of only four women track athletes to have four gold medals.

Denver Post

John Naber

1976 Montreal Games
Swimming
Medal count: Four golds, one silver

Of the five events he participated in at the 1976 games, Naber won four in world record time. He also became the first man to swim the 200-meter backstroke in under two minutes.

The Denver Post

Tim Shaw

1976 Montreal Games, 1984 Los Angeles Games
Swimming and water polo
Medal count: Two silver

Shaw swam for a silver in the 400-meter freestyle in 1976, and returned to the Olympics as a member of the water polo team in 1984. Despite being undefeated, the team placed second, thanks to Yugoslavia scoring more goals over the course of the tournament. 

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Men’s 4x400m relay team

1976 Montreal Games through 2012 London Games
Track and field
Medal count: 16 golds, three silvers

The U.S. men have dominated the 4×400 relay, winning 16 contests in 22 Olympics. Aside from the boycotted Moscow games, they won every year from 1976 to 1996, then returned to victory in 2004 and 2008. In 1993, the team of Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds, and Michael Johnson set the outdoor world record with a time of 2:54.29. 1996 and 2000 Olympian Alvin Harrison is pictured here. 

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1980 Men’s Hockey Team

1980 Lake Placid Games
Ice hockey
Medal count: One gold

Led by coach Herb Brooks and captain Mike Eruzione, the U.S.A. hockey team was made up of amateur and college players, many from the rival schools of Minnesota and Boston University. With the games taking place during the Cold War, the team was seen as rivals to the heavily favored Russians, who'd won six of the last seven Olympic golds. The Americans shocked Russia in the semi-final game, winning 4-3 after scoring two goals in the final period, with broadcaster Al Michaels famously counting down the final seconds and saying "Do you believe in miracles?" The team then beat Finland for the gold, but it's the "Miracle on Ice" game that people remember.

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Scott Hamilton

1980 Lake Placid Games, 1984 Sarajevo Games
Figure skating
Medal count: One gold

After winning three World Championships, Hamilton – who often included a highly difficult backflip into his routine, despite it not earning him any points – won gold at the 1984 Olympics. After another World Championship that same year, he retired from competition and occasionally serves as a broadcaster. 

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Eric Heiden

1980 Lake Placid Games
Speed skating
Medal count: Five golds

Competing in both the sprint and long-distance events, Heiden won gold in all five in which he entered and set a world record in the 10,000-meter race. No other speed skater has ever won all five events in a single Olympics, and he remains the most successful athlete from a single Winter games.

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Bonnie Blair

1984 Sarajevo Games, 1988 Calgary Games, 1992 Albertville Games, 1994 Lillehammer Games
Speed skating
Medal count: Five golds, one bronze

Following her medal-less Olympics appearance in 1984, Blair won gold in the 500 meter and bronze in the 1000-meter races at the Calgary games in 1988. She then went on to sweep both events in 1992 and 1994, becoming the first woman to win five Winter gold medals. 

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Carl Lewis

1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games, 1992 Barcelona Games, 1996 Atlanta Games
Track and field
Medal count: Nine golds, one silver

Already one of the fastest men in the world, Lewis set out to match Jesse Owens' four-medal performance at the Los Angeles games in 1984. He easily won the 100 meter, long jump, and 200 meter, then anchored the 4×100 team to a world record finish of 37.83 seconds. In 1988, Lewis initially lost the 100-meter gold to Ben Johnson, but won after the Canadian sprinter tested positive for steroids. Lewis failed to qualify in the individual races in 1992, but anchored another record-setting team in the 4×100. In 1996, he won the long jump for the fourth consecutive time, one of only three men in Olympic history to win an event four times in a row. 

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Mary Lou Retton

1984 Los Angeles Games
Gymnastics
Medal count: One gold, two silvers, two bronzes

Despite undergoing knee surgery five weeks earlier, Retton became the first American to win gold in the all-around gymnastics event, beating Romania's Ecaterina Szabo by 0.05 points. She also added two silvers for the team and vault events, and bronze medals in the uneven bars and floor exercise.

Joan Benoit

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Joan Benoit

1984 Los Angeles Games
Marathon
Medal count: One gold

The first-ever women's gold medalist in her event, Benoit still owns the American women's records for the Olympic and Chicago marathons.

Chris Cole/ALLSPORT

Dan Jansen

1984 Sarajevo Games, 1988 Calgary Games, 1992 Albertville Games, 1994 Lillehammer Games
Speed skating
Medal count: One gold

In 1988, during his second appearance at the Olympics, Jansen was set to compete in the 500-meter sprint when he learned that his sister had died of leukemia. He fell in the first turn, and also crashed a few days later in the 1000-meter, earning no medals in the Calgary games. He failed to medal again four years later in Albertville, with his best finish being fourth in the 500-meter. After losing the 500 again in 1994, Jansen surprisingly won the 1000, setting a world record. He took his victory lap while holding his infant daughter Jane, who was named after his late sister.

Karch Kiraly

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Karch Kiraly

1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games, 1996 Atlanta Games
Volleyball
Medal count: Three golds

In the '80s, Kiraly was an important member of the indoor volleyball team, winning gold over Brazil in '84 then serving as captain in the victory against the Soviet Union in '88. After retiring from the sport, he returned to beach volleyball and finished first with partner Kent Steffes in the '96 Olympics, the first year the event was held at the games. He retired from professional beach volleyball in 2007, with 148 career tournament wins.

Dara Torres

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Dara Torres

1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games, 1992 Barcelona Games, 2000 Sydney Games, 2008 Beijing Games
Swimming
Medal count: Four golds, four silvers, four bronzes

From 1984 to 2008, Torres competed in five Olympiads, winning golds as part of relay teams in '84, '92 and 2000. After sitting out 2004, she earned a spot on the 2008 team at age 41, the oldest American to ever do so. She won two relay silvers that year, as well as another in the 50-meter freestyle, losing out on gold by 0.01 seconds.

Tony Duffy/Allsport

Valerie Brisco-Hooks

1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, one silver, two bronzes

Brisco-Hooks won three golds in Los Angeles, becoming the first American to win the 200-meter and 400-meter sprints at a single Olympics. She added another gold in the 4×400 relay, and earned a silver with that team in 1988.

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Women’s Basketball Team

1984 Los Angeles Games through 2012 London Games
Women's basketball
Medal count: Eight golds, one bronze 

From 1984 on, the U.S.A. women's basketball team has won gold at every Olympics except for 1992. Two of the most consistent players during that reign are Teresa Edwards (at left) and Lisa Leslie (at right), who were both part of four gold-medal winning teams.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee

1984 Los Angeles Games, 1988 Seoul Games, 1992 Barcelona Games
Track and field
Medal count: Three golds, one silver, two bronzes

In 1984, Joyner-Kersee finished second in the first-ever Olympic heptathlon, which consists of the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter race, long jump, javelin, and 800-meter run. In 1988, she won gold in the event, setting a world record of 7,291 points that still stands. On top of a long jump win in '88, she successfully defended her heptathlon gold in 1992. 

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Brian Boitano

1984 Sarajevo Games, 1988 Calgary Games, 1994 Lillehammer Games
Figure skating
Medal count: One gold

Boitano had a big rivalry with Canadian Brian Orser that would eventually come down to the free-skating portion of the event. Boitano barely edged out the win in the so-called Battle of the Brians with a 5-4 judge split in his favor. He recently came out as gay and will represent the U.S. delegation at the Sochi games. 

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