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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

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.

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. 

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.

Robert Riger/Getty Images

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. 

Omeo Gacado/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

Steve Powell/Getty Images

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.

David Madison/Getty Images

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. 

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

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. 

Focus On Sport/Getty Images

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. 

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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

Tony Duffy/Allsport

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

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

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.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images; Reinhold Eckert/NBAE via Getty Images

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.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

David Madison/Getty Images

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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