Home Culture Culture Lists

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.

olympics

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

Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.       

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

KHS Digital Collections

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. 

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

Allsport Hulton/Archive

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

Three Lions/Getty Images

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.

Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

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

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

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.

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

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. 

Keystone/Getty Images

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.

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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.  

Keystone/Getty Images

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.

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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. 

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

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

New York Times Co./Getty Images

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. 

Express Newspapers/Getty Image

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.

OFF/AFP/Getty Images

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

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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.

AFP/Getty Images

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.

TAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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

Tony Duffy /Allsport

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

Ron Kuntz/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

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.