Ranking the 100 Greatest US Olympians in Summer Games History

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJuly 23, 2012

Ranking the 100 Greatest US Olympians in Summer Games History

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    It isn't brash, jingoistic or even really subjective to say that America has the greatest sporting legacy in Summer Olympic history.

    Since the modern Games began in 1896, 3,095 American athletes have won medals in 35 distinct disciplines—dominating everything from BMX to jeu de paume and earning more than twice as many medals as the next most decorated country.

    From that legion we've gathered the 100 very best—those choice athletes who have risen to a plane well above the high standards of Olympic champion.

    Enjoy the resulting pageant of sporting greatness—and of course, comment below.

A Note on the Selections

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    Greatness can be a slippery concept, but we want to give you an idea of the criteria we weighed in constructing this list of the 100 best U.S. summer Olympians:

    — Unique feats (world records, medal counts, etc.) or distinct contributions by way of innovation.

    — Sustained excellence over multiple Olympic cycles.

    — Cultural impact.

    What we didn't take into account:

    —Success outside the Olympics, in World Championships, national championships or other sports.

    — Singular moments of greatness, such as Kerri Strug's vault or Rulon Gardner's Greco-Roman wrestling upset. (If those moments were accompanied by great careers, then fine. But we weren't after one-hit wonders.)

    — Your opinion, which we hope you will add to the comments!

The Just-Missed List

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    A few notable names that finished just outside our top 100:

    Tony Azevedo (Water Polo)

    Lloy Ball (Volleyball)

    Greg Barton (Canoeing)

    Laura Berg (Softball)

    Bryan Clay (Decathlon)

    Alice Coachman (Track)

    Bruce Davidson (Equestrianism)

    Glenn Ashby Davis (Track)

    Julie Foudy (Soccer)

    Bob Garrett (Track and Field)

    Rowdy Gaines (Swimming)

    Archie Hahn (Track)

    "Bullet" Bob Hayes (Track)

    Bud Houser (Track and Field)

    Kristine Lilly (Soccer)

    Ted Meredith (Track)

    Mark Reynolds (Sailing)

    Aileen Riggin (Diving, Swimming)

    Ralph Rose (Track and Field)

    Mel Sheppard (Track)

    Martin Sheridan (Track and Field)

    Frank Shorter (Marathon)

    Eddie Tolan (Track)

    Gwen Torrence (Track)

    Chris von Saltza (Swimming)

    Helen Wills (Tennis)

    Conn Findlay (Rowing, Sailing)

    Charlie Hickox (Swimming)

    Dot Richardson (Softball)

    Paul Gonzales (Boxing)

100. Joan Benoit (Marathon)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Beginning with early claims that an 800-meter run was hazardous to women's health, the IOC has a long history of excluding female endurance events from the Olympic program.*

    Officials began to change their tune over the back half of the 20th century—a slow erosion of prejudices that culminated in the addition of a women's marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

    In this milestone moment for women athletes and the Olympic movement, American Joan Benoit became the first female runner to win marathon gold.

    No American runner has won the women's Olympic marathon over the 28 years since, and only one has even medaled.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

99. Cathy Rigby (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 1968, 1972

    Medals: None

    What Cathy Rigby's résumé lacks in Olympic medals, it more than makes up in pioneering significance.

    America's first female gymnastics star was the top performer on Team USA's earliest competitive squads, and her sprightly demeanor would set the mold for future media sensations like Mary Lou Retton and Dominique Moceanu.

    After retiring from gymnastics, Rigby would go on to a successful theater career that included multiple stints playing Peter Pan on Broadway.

98. Flo Hyman (Volleyball)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 1 (silver)

    Standing 6'5", with hair that made her look taller still, Flo Hyman was the smiling superstar behind America's popular 1984 women's volleyball team—a group that broke ground by taking home Team USA's first women's volleyball medal.

    Less than two years later, Hyman would die unexpectedly from an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome.

97. Connie Carpenter-Phinney (Cycling)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Twelve years after she competed as a long-distance speed skater at the 1972 Winter Olympics, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, then age 27, won the first-ever women's road race—edging fellow American Rebecca Twigg by less than a tire length.

    Carpenter-Phinney's son, Taylor Phinney, is now among America's best young Olympic cyclists and is slated to compete in London.

96. Steve Timmons (Volleyball)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    A mainstay of the most successful era in U.S. men's volleyball history, Steve Timmons had two calling cards: his potent back-line offense and his red-haired high-top fade. The attacking maven earned tournament MVP honors at the 1984 Games, leading Team USA to its first men's volleyball medal.

95. Oscar De La Hoya (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1992

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Oscar De La Hoya first made headlines at the 1992 Barcelona Games, both for his boxing prowess and the vow he made to his dying mother two years earlier that he would win an Olympic gold medal.

    De La Hoya made good on that promise by defeating German foe Marco Rudolph, the first of many noteworthy accomplishments in his legendary boxing career.

94. Charles Barkley (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1992, 1996

    Medals: 2 (both gold)

    Charles Barkley was everything the anti-professional contingent feared: a brash, absurdly talented multi-millionaire with little respect for his overmatched foes.

    And the fans ate it up.

    With his comical musings (“I don't know anything about Angola, but I know they're in trouble”) and stellar play (team highs in points per game and field-goal percentage), Sir Charles thrilled a rapt global audience and became one of the Dream Team's most adored charter members.

93. Bobby Morrow (Track)

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    Olympics: 1956

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Known for his easy gait and smooth acceleration, Texan Bobby Morrow turned in one of track's best Olympic performances at the 1956 Melbourne Games. In addition to winning both the 100- and 200-meter sprints, Morrow anchored Team USA's winning effort in the 4x100 relay.

    In 1957, Sports Illustrated named Morrow its "Sportsman of the Year."

92. George Foreman (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1968

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Future heavyweight champ George Foreman dominated his foes in Mexico City, winning three of four fights either by knockout or referee stoppage. His Olympic career is probably better remembered, however, for his decision to wave a pint-sized American flag in each cardinal direction after the gold-medal bout.

    Taken by many as a response to Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black-power salute a few nights earlier, Foreman later said that the gesture was spontaneous and unconnected to the Smith-Carlos saga.

91. Terry Schroeder (Water Polo)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 2008 (coach)

    Medals: 2 as player (both silver), 1 as coach (silver)

    As both star player and coach, Terry Schroeder has had a hand in each of Team USA's last three men's water polo medals.

    Two decades after he captained the 1984 and '88 squads to consecutive silver medals, Schroeder took over as head coach of a U.S. team mired in dysfunction and led it to a surprise second-place finish at the 2008 Olympics.

    As an aside, we should mention that the naked male statue outside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is based on Schroeder's likeness.

90. Gail Devers (Track)

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    Olympics: 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Diagnosed with a severe autoimmune illness known as Graves' disease in 1990, Gail Devers overcame the malady to forge one of the longest and most successful careers in women's sprinting history.

    Devers won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash (just the second woman to do so) and added a third title running the second leg of Team USA's 1996 victory in the 4x100 relay.

89. Dorothy Poynton-Hill (Diving)

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    Olympics: 1928, 1932, 1936

    Medals: 4 (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    Dorothy Poynton won her first Olympic medal less than a month after her 13th birthday and would eventually become the first of just five female divers to medal in three different Summer Games.

    Renowned for her stylish good looks*, the Utah native would go on to appear in several advertising campaigns.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

88. Bob Richards (Pole Vault)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952, 1956

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    Illinois graduate Bob Richards is the only man to win two Olympic pole vault titles. Two years after his retirement, he would become the first athlete to appear on the front of a Wheaties box.

87. Evelyn Ashford (Track)

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    Olympics: 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992

    Medals: 5 (4 gold, 1 silver)

    Evelyn Ashford, the iron woman of American sprinting, competed in four Olympic Games over a span of 16 years. She contributed to three consecutive U.S. victories in the 4x100-meter relay (anchoring all but one) and added an individual title in the 100.

86. Valerie Brisco-Hooks (Track)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988

    Medals: 4 (3 gold, 1 silver)

    Twelve years before Michael Johnson's legendary performance at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Valerie Brisco-Hooks made history by becoming the first woman to win the 200- and 400-meter sprints. Both runs came in Olympic record time.

85. Roy Jones Jr. (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1988

    Medals: 1 (silver)

    At the 1988 Seoul Games, Roy Jones Jr. was on the rotten end of perhaps the most infamous decision in Olympic boxing history. Despite dominating the gold-medal bout, just as he had each of the four fights prior, Jones lost a 3-2 decision to his Korean opponent, Park Si-Heon.

    An embarrassed Park allegedly apologized to Jones after the match, and Jones would later become one of just three boxers to be named the Olympic Games' most outstanding fighter despite not winning gold.

84. Mal Whitfield (Track)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952

    Medals: 5 (3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    "Marvelous" Mal Whitfield is the only American man to win two Olympic titles at 800 meters and one of just six men to medal in both the 400 and 800. In 1954, he became the first African-American to win the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award given to the nation's top amateur athlete.

83. Mary T. Meagher (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988

    Medals: 5 (3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    Though her Olympic career started late because of the 1980 U.S. boycott, Mary T. Meagher still has one of the best Olympic resumes in American swimming history. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Meagher, known to fans as "Madame Butterfly," swept the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events and added a third gold in the 4x100 medley relay.

    It was more coronation than climax, however. Her career peak came three years earlier at U.S. Nationals, where the then-16-year-old set records in the 100 and 200 fly that would stand for 18 and 19 years respectively.

82. Howard Davis Jr. (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1976

    Medals 1 (gold)

    Reeling from the death of his mother less than a week before the Opening Ceremonies, lightweight contender Howard Davis Jr. nearly opted out of the 1976 Montreal Games.

    However, respecting her final wishes that he compete, Davis stayed and was named the Olympic tournament's most outstanding fighter—no small feat given that some consider Team USA's '76 squad to be the best fighting collective ever assembled.

81. Mariel Zagunis (Fencing)

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    Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    After almost failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, Mariel Zagunis stunned the fencing world by taking gold in the women's sabre event. It was Team USA's first fencing medal since 1984 and its first ever by a woman.

    Zagunis proved it was no fluke four years later, earning a second individual gold and leading the U.S. squad to a team bronze in sabre.

    In 2012, she was honored as America's flag bearer for the London Opening Ceremony

80. Dominique Dawes (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 1992, 1996, 2000

    Medals: 4 (1 gold, 3 bronze)

    Along with being the first African-American to make a U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team (a distinction she shares with Betty Okino), Dominique Dawes is one of the few female gymnasts to have competed in three Olympiads.

    Beloved both for her longevity and groundbreaking contributions, Dawes remains one of the sport's most popular figures.

79. Sugar Ray Leonard (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1976

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Before his esteemed professional career, Sugar Ray Leonard was perhaps the best fighter on one of the best boxing teams ever assembled. The 1976 U.S. men's boxing squad won medals in seven of 11 weight classes, led by Leonard's cakewalk through the light-welterweight field.

78. Magic Johnson (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1992

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Michael Jordan was likely the best talent on America's 1992 "Dream Team," but Magic Johnson—then in a sort of pseudo-retirement—may well have been the most popular.

    Johnson's exuberant personality and passing wizardry came to personify Team USA's likable brand of dominance, and it was he to whom the foreign fans, and players, often flocked.

    From NBA.com:

    Opponents didn't have a chance, but they didn't care. One player, while trying to guard Magic Johnson, was seen frantically waving to a camera-wielding teammate on the bench, signaling to make sure he got a picture of them together.

77. Claudia Kolb (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1964, 1968

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    After winning a surprise silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Claudia Kolb returned to the 1968 Games as the prohibitive favorite in both individual medley distances.

    She didn't disappoint, winning the 200-meter race by four seconds and finishing a remarkable 13 seconds ahead of her closest competition in the 400. It had been 40 years since any female swimmer won an Olympic final by such a large margin.*

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

76. Ethelda Bleibtrey (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1920

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    In a feat that will likely never be matched, Ethelda Bleibtrey won every women's swimming race at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Included in those heroics, she became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in swimming.

    Bleibtrey didn't begin competitive racing until 1918, and only then to keep her good friend and eventual Olympic teammate Charlotte Boyle company.

75. Allyson Felix

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    Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 6 (4 gold, 2 silver)

    An under-the-radar talent until her breakout London Games, Allyson Felix is arguably the most versatile female sprinter of all time. In 2012, Felix captured her first individual Olympic gold and medaled in races at all three sprint distances (100-, 200- and 400-meters).

74. LeBron James (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    LeBron James entered the U.S. basketball at its nadir, a 19-year-old bench player on the 2004 team that earned a pride-bruising bronze.

    With the program looking for answers, USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo and new coach Mike Krzyzewski turned to James—both as a lead talent but also as a pied piper figure capable of luring top American players back to international basketball.

    With LeBron playing ring leader, the Americans re-captured gold in 2008 and defended the title four years later.

73. Al Kraenzlein (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1900

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    At the 1900 Paris Olympics, Milwaukee native Al Kraenzlein became the first American to win four gold medals in one Olympiad. Over the 112 years since, only two other American track and field athletes, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, have won as many gold medals at one Summer Games.

    Of the events Kraenzlein won, two (the 60-meter sprint and the 200-meter hurdles) have since been discontinued.

72. Carly Patterson (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 2004

    Medals: 3 (1 gold, 2 silver)

    In 2004, Carly Patterson became the second American woman to win an individual all-around Olympic title and the first to do so at non-boycotted Summer Games. It would be the 16-year-old's last major gymnastics competition, and in 2006 she officially retired from the sport, citing chronic back ailments.

70-71. Serena and Venus Williams

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    Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 4 (All gold)

    Together, the Williams sisters captured three women's doubles titles between 2000 and 2012. And now with Serena's dominating win in London, each sister as singles title to go with.

69. Dan Gable (Wrestling)

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    Olympics: 1972

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Opponents thought a knee injury might slow Iowa State wrestling maven Dan Gable at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Not so much. Gable wasn't scored upon during a six-match run to the gold medal, ending his famously near-perfect amateur career on a well-deserved high note.

68. Peter Vidmar (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    Performing in the same arena where he'd first shone as a collegian, UCLA grad Peter Vidmar was the standout performer on America's breakthrough 1984 men's gymnastics team.

    Vidmar's silver in the all-around competition was the first medal won by an American gymnast in that event since 1904. He also took home individual gold on pommel horse and was a key contributor to the U.S. squad's first, and thus far only, Olympic title.

    Though Vidmar certainly benefited from the Soviet boycott, it's worth mentioning that the reigning world champions from China were present at the Olympic meet.

67. Gabby Douglas (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 2012

    Medals: 2 (Both gold)

    In one short year, Gabby Douglas went from third-best athlete on her own team to best in the world, capturing the women's individual all-around title. Douglas became the first African-American to win the coveted prize, and the first American ever to pair it with a team gold.

66. Helene Madison (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1932

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Dubbed "Queen Helene" by an adoring public, Helene Madison was one of female swimming's first media darlings. Upon retirement in 1932, Madison owned three gold medals and all 17 official freestyle world records.

65. Norb Schemansky (Weightlifting)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952, 1960, 1964

    Medals: 4 (1 gold,1 silver, 2 bronze)

    In a sport that has produced few American champions, Norb Schemansky's two-decade run as an elite weightlifter defies easy explanation. The Michigan native is one of just four men to have won four Olympic medals in the discipline and the only non-European to earn that distinction.

64. Nastia Liukin (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 2008

    Medals: 5 (1 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze)

    In what is generally considered the best all-around performance by an American gymnast at a fully attended Olympics, Nastia Liukin won five medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. Her most celebrated performance came in the individual all-around, where she outdueled fellow American Shawn Johnson to take gold.

63. Pete Desjardins (Diving)

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    Olympics: 1924, 1928

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    Born in Quebec but raised in South Florida, Pete Desjardins ranks as one of America's most accomplished Olympic divers. At the 1928 Amsterdam Games he won both the springboard and platform titles, the last man to do so before Greg Louganis in 1984.

    Controversy over his amateur status prevented Desjardins from defending his throne at the 1932 Los Angles Olympics and eventually ended his Olympic career.

62. Darrell Pace (Archery)

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    Olympics: 1976, 1984, 1988

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    With victories at the 1976 and 1984 Games, Darrell Pace is the only Olympic archer of either sex to win the modern individual competition twice and one of the few Americans to maintain a world-class level through the 1980 U.S. boycott. In 2011, the World Archery Federation named Pace its "Athlete of the 20th Century."

61. J. Michael Plumb (Equestrian)

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    Olympics: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992

    Medals: 6 (2 gold, 4 silver)

    With seven Olympic appearances to his name, John Michael Plumb has competed in more Summer Games than any other U.S. athlete. More than just longevity, his expert riding spurred the most successful period in U.S. equestrian history, and he holds the national record for most medals earned in the discipline.

60. Jack Kelly Sr. (Rowing)

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    Olympics: 1920, 1924

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Regarded as the "greatest sculler the United States has ever produced," Jack Kelly was a national celebrity in rowing's early-20th-century heyday. His accomplishments included a 126-match winning streak and gold medals in each of the three Olympic events he entered. In later life he would gain even greater notoriety as a Philadelphia business tycoon and the father of actress Grace Kelly.

59. Sheryl Swoopes (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Sheryl Swoopes was a staple of the U.S. teams that dominated women's international basketball in the late 1990s and helped catalyze the WNBA. Eight years after her last Games, Swoopes is Team USA's second-leading career Olympic scorer, third-leading passer and fourth-leading rebounder.

58. Paul Hamm (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 2000, 2004

    Medals: 3 (1 gold, 2 silver)

    In one of gymnastic's most stirring Olympic comebacks, Paul Hamm recovered from a near-disaster on vault to take home America's first men's all-around Olympic title. The victory later came under scrutiny after Olympic officials discovered a judging error that, if corrected, might have resulted in Hamm earning silver.

    Even then, Hamm's three-medal performance was far and away the best by an American man at a fully attended Olympics.

57. Donna de Varona (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1960, 1964

    Medals: 2 (both gold)

    A star during and after her swimming career, Donna De Varona won two Olympic medals in the 1964 Summer Games and went on to become the first female sports commentator on network television.

    Perhaps her greatest impact was as an advocate for women in athletics, a role that saw her help found the Women's Sports Foundation and advise various politicians on the passage and enforcement of Title IX.

56. Parry O’Brien (Shot Put)

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    Olympics: 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    Sixteen years before Dick Fosbury introduced his famous "flop," another American track and field innovator was busy turning heads and changing perceptions.

    Using a method later dubbed the "O'Brien Glide," former USC football player Parry O'Brien became the first shot-putter of note to incorporate a full 180-degree turn into his launch sequence.

    By harnessing the added rotational force, O'Brien whirred past his competition and joined American Ralph Rose as the only shot-putter to win two gold medals, as well as the only one to medal in three Olympiads.

55. Teresa Edwards (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000

    Medals: 5 (4 gold, 1 bronze)

    Teresa Edwards is the most decorated Olympic basketball player of all time. Though her playing prime preceded the WNBA—which no doubt curtailed her celebrity—Edwards was just as vital to Team USA's international success as superstars like Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie.

    Noted for her superior passing and disruptive defense, Edwards is both the youngest (20) and oldest (36) U.S. player to win a basketball medal.

54. Jenny Thompson (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 12 (8 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze)

    Maligned for her inability to win an individual gold medal, Jenny Thompson is nonetheless one of the most accomplished female swimmers in Olympic history. She holds the mark for most gold medals won by an American female and stands tied with Dara Torres for most total medals won by a U.S. woman athlete.

53. Steven Lopez (Taekwondo)

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    Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    The eldest member of taekwondo's first family—brother Mark and sister Diana are both Olympic medalists—Steven Lopez is one of two athletes to win medals in each of the first three Olympic taekwondo competitions.

52. Duke Kahanamoku (Swimming, Water Polo)

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    Olympics: 1912, 1920, 1924

    Medals: 5 (3 gold, 2 silver)

    The first in a long line of great Hawaiian swimmers, Duke Kahanamoku was the best freestyler of the early 20th century. He finished no worse than second in any of his five Olympic races.

    Those athletic exploits would launch Kahanamoku to an even more distinguished post-swimming career that included numerous movie appearances, a prominent role in a landmark Supreme Court case and widespread recognition as the father of modern surfing.

51. Gary Hall Jr. (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 10 (5 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze)

    Brash? Perhaps. Controversial? Absolutely. But for all his flamboyance and out-of-pool stirrings, Gary Hall Jr. certainly had the big-race bona fides to back it up.

    Fueled by a potent combination of skill and self-assurance, Hall stayed atop the freestyle sprinting world for nearly a decade and racked up 10 career Olympics medals. Among U.S. swimmers, only six athletes have more.

50. Wyomia Tyus (Track)

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    Olympics: 1964, 1968

    Medals: 4 (3 gold, 1 silver)

    A product of the legendary Tennessee State women's track program, Wyomia Tyus was the most accomplished women's sprinter of the 1960s.

    Following close behind fellow Tennessee State alum Wilma Rudolph, Tyus became the second American female runner to win four career medals. She also set or helped set world records in two of her three Olympic wins and was the first woman to earn consecutive Olympic titles in the 100-meter dash.

    In the four decades since, only Gail Devers has equaled that feat.

49. Michael Jordan (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1992

    Medals: 2 (both gold)

    His Airness fronted two of the most hyped and ultimately successful men's basketball teams in U.S. Olympic history. In 1984, he and Patrick Ewing led a highly touted group of collegiate all-stars to Team USA's last gold-medal win in the amateur era. Then, in 1992, he was the corporate face of America's influential, unstoppable, incomparable Dream Team.

48. Aaron Peirsol (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008

    Medals: 7 (5 gold, 2 silver)

    Overshadowed by some of his more versatile contemporaries, Aaron Peirsol was nonetheless one of the most dominant specialists of his day. He is one of just two men, along with East Germany's Roland Matthes, to earn three consecutive Olympic medals in a backstroke event and one of only four to win back-to-back backstroke golds.

    Of his five career Olympic titles, three came in either world- or Olympic-record time.

47. Dick Fosbury (High Jump)

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    Olympics: 1968

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump at the 1968 Mexico City Games, setting a new Olympic record and doing so with an experimental clearance method henceforth known as the Fosbury Flop.

    Fosbury had actually been working on the technique—which saw him go back-first and swing both legs over the bar at once—since high school, but it wasn't until '68 that most folks realized its golden potential.

    Today it is the predominant clearance method in the high jump.

46. Tracy Caulkins (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Robbed of what likely would have been her best Olympic meet by the 1980 U.S. boycott, Tracy Caulkins stuck around just long enough to get her taste of Olympic glory at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. There Caulkins would win the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and, for many, confirm the long-held belief that she was the best all-around performer in women's swimming history.

45. Tommy Kono (Weightlifting)

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    Olympics: 1952, 1956, 1960

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    No American has dominated the sport of weightlifting like Tommy Kono, or even really come close. Renowned for his ability to change weight classes, seemingly at will, Kono won his three Olympic medals in three different divisions.

44. Harrison Dillard (Track)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    From an auspicious beginning—fellow Clevelander Jesse Owens gave him his first pair of track shoes*—Harrison "Bones" Dillard became the only man in Olympic history to win both the 100-meter dash and the 110-meter hurdles. Remarkably, Dillard won the former in 1948 and the latter four years later in 1952.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

43. Kim Rhode (Shooting)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 5 (3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    Described as the "Tiger Woods of the shooting sports," Kim Rhode is setting new standards for American Olympic excellence. With a gold  in London, she became the first American to medal in five consecutive Olympiads.

42. Amy Van Dyken (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000

    Medals: 6 (all gold)

    Originally prescribed as therapy for a severe case of childhood asthma, swimming would eventually become an unlikely life-calling for Colorado's Amy Van Dyken. At the 1996 Olympics, she became the first American woman to win four gold medals in one Summer Games.

41. Shirley Babashoff (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1972, 1976

    Medals: 8 (2 gold, 6 silver)

    Cast as the perennial bridesmaid alongside a host of dominant, and purportedly juiced, East German women, Shirley Babashoff's illustrious swimming career is often framed by what could have been. Even looking just at what was, though, her legacy is still a powerful one.

    Babashoff never finished worse than fifth in her 10 Olympic finals and won eight career medals, a record for American female athletes that would stand until 2000.

40. Carl Osburn (Shooting)

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    Olympics: 1912, 1920, 1924

    Medals: 11 (5 gold, 4 silver, 2 bronze)

    Among American Olympians, only Michael Phelps has more career medals than shooting ace Carl Osburn. His haul includes a then-record six medals at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

39. Lisa Fernandez (Softball)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Widely regarded as the greatest player in women's softball history, Lisa Fernandez was a dominant force in the pitching circle and at the dish. Her Olympic resume is dotted with Ruthian performances, including a .545 average at the 2004 Games, 9.2 perfect innings in a 1996 loss to Australia and a record-setting 25-strikeout performance against the Aussies in 2000.

38. Karch Kiraly (Volleyball)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1996

    Medals: 3 (all gold)

    Blessed with a rare combination of athletic menace and spatial instincts, Karch Kiraly is almost universally regarded as the greatest volleyball player of all time.

    He led the U.S. men's team to consecutive gold medals in the 1980s before winning the inaugural men's beach volleyball title at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He's the only player to achieve that impressive double, and his three medals are the most by any athlete in the discipline.

37. Mia Hamm (Soccer)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    A brilliant performer and savvy spokeswoman, Mia Hamm was the unquestioned face of women's soccer during its late '90s boom period. Over her Olympic career, she won three medals and scored five goals, including the difference-maker against Brazil in 2000's semifinal match.

36. Dara Torres (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008

    Medals: 12 (4 gold, 4 silver, 4 bronze)

    Twenty-eight years, two retirements and countless surgeries after her Olympic career began, Dara Torres has finally, finally retired.

    Never transcendent in any one event or Olympiad—she never won an individual gold medal—Torres made a career of defying time, somehow getting faster and stronger as the decades passed. If it hasn't been the most high-octane run, it's certainly been among the most captivating.

35. Johnny Weissmuller (Swimming, Water Polo)

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    Olympics: 1924, 1928 

    Medals: 6 (5 gold, 1 bronze)

    Before he played Tarzan in the long-running movie series, Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimming phenom. Born in Romania and raised in Chicago, Weissmuller won both freestyle events at the 1924 Olympics and defended his 100-meter freestyle crown four years later in Amsterdam.

    Upon retirement, Weissmuller held the record for most gold medals won by an Olympic swimmer.

34. John Naber (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1976

    Medals: 5 (4 gold, 1 silver)

    With wins in 12 of the 13 events, America's men's swimming team dominated the 1976 Olympic swim meet. Team USA's most impressive performer was Illinois native John Naber, who set world records in each of his four gold-medal swims (100-meter backstroke, 200 back, 4x100 medley relay and 4x200 freestyle relay) and added a fifth medal in the 200 free.

    Naber's record times in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke would each stand for seven years.

33. Florence Griffith-Joyner (Track)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988

    Medals: 5 (3 gold, 2 silver)

    Oozing star quality—from her ruby red lipstick down to the tips of her cartoonishly long fingernails—Florence Griffith-Joyner was everything a track sensation should be: colorful, charming and most of all dominant.

    In 1988, the woman known as "Flo-Jo" took gold in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and added two more medals in relay events. Her best times in the 100 and 200—the latter set at those '88 Games—still stand as world records.

32. Bruce Jenner (Decathlon)

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    Olympics: 1972, 1976

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    Though his celebrity has been a bit out of proportion with his Olympic resume, there should be no denying Bruce Jenner's greatness as an athlete.

    At the 1976 Montreal Games, Jenner won the decathlon with a world-record mark. He was later named AP Athlete of the Year.

31. Pat McCormick (Diving)

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    Olympics: 1952, 1956

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    California's Pat McCormick is without question the greatest female diver in U.S. history. She was the first athlete to win both the three-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events at consecutive Olympiads, a byproduct of her well-known penchant for difficult dives.

30. Bruce Baumgartner (Wrestling)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996

    Medals: 4 (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    Though he lacked the pre-Games celebrity of a Dan Gable or Cael Sanderson, Bruce Baumgartner managed just fine on the Olympic stage, even surpassing many of his more famous peers. With medals in four consecutive Summer Games, Baumgartner is the most decorated American wrestler ever and served as U.S. Olympic flag-bearer for the 1996 Atlanta Games.

29-28. Tommie Smith and John Carlos (Track)

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    Olympics: 1968

    Medals: 1 each (Smith gold, Carlos bronze)

    Regardless of your political persuasion, there is no denying the cultural iconography of John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Standing on the podium after Smith finished first and Carlos third in the 200-meter dash, the pair of African-American runners bowed their heads and raised their fists skyward.

    It was a landmark moment in the intersection of athletics and race and remains among the most arresting images in sporting history.

    For their actions, Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympic village and sent home before the Closing Ceremony.

27. Rafer Johnson (Decathlon)

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    Olympics: 1956, 1960

    Medals: 2 (1 gold, 1 silver)

    At the 1960 Rome Games, Rafer Johnson nipped friend and rival C.K. Yang in one of history's most dramatic Olympic decathlons. With a gold medal to go along with the silver he earned at the 1956 Melbourne Games, Johnson entered the pantheon of all-time great decathletes.

    Over two decades later, this distinguished sportsman would be selected to light the Olympic cauldron at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

26. Sammy Lee (Diving)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    Leveraging the enormous power in his 5'1" frame, Sammy Lee would become the first Asian-American to win an Olympic medal and the first diver to win consecutive Olympic platform titles.

    After retiring, the California native would go on to coach future Olympic champions Bob Webster and Greg Louganis.

25. Shannon Miller (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 1992, 1996

    Medals: 7 (2 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze)

    Mary Lou Retton may have left a larger cultural footprint, but Shannon Miller is the most accomplished Olympic gymnast in U.S. history. Competing in non-boycotted Olympiads, Miller collected an American-record seven medals and helped steady the famous Magnificent Seven squad that took team gold in Atlanta.

24. Lisa Leslie (Basketball)

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    Olympics: 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    If Team USA's dominance in women's international basketball over the past two decades had a name, it would be Lisa Leslie.

    An unstoppable force on the court and an irrepressible advocate off it, Leslie's rare mix of talent and marketability keyed the growth of women's hoops.

    She holds U.S. women's Olympic records for career points scored, games played, rebounds and blocks—most by wide margins.

23. Muhammad Ali (Boxing)

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    Olympics: 1960

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    He first entered Olympic lore as Cassius Marcellus Clay, 1960's gold-medal winner in the light-heavyweight division. Thirty-six years later he returned, this time as Muhammad Ali, for one of the most poignant and memorable torch-lighting ceremonies in Olympic history.

22. Babe Didrikson (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1932

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 silver)

    Sporting superwoman Babe Didrikson (later Zaharias) ruled the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, setting a world record in the 80-meter hurdles and an Olympic record in the javelin throw and finishing a close second in the long jump. The tally likely would have been greater had Olympic regulations not limited her to three events (she qualified for five).*

    Zaharias would later take up golf and, in her typically Bunyan-esque way, quickly become one of the best female players in the world.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

21. Bob Beamon (Long Jump)

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    Olympics: 1968

    Medals: 1 (gold)

    The track world has a word for performances so remarkable they defy reason: Beamon-esque.

    As in, resembling Bob Beamon.

    As in, resembling the sheer lunacy of what Bob Beamon accomplished at the 1968 Olympics.

    In Mexico City's mountain air, the lanky Queens native broke the world long-jump record by an astonishing 0.55 meters (nearly two feet). His 8.9-meter leap was so unfathomable that the anchored distance markers did not extend far enough to measure it.

    His record stood for 23 years.

20. Don Schollander (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1964, 1968

    Medals: 8 (7 gold, 1 silver)

    Though it seems rather quaint by the Phelpsian standards of today, Don Schollander's four-gold performance at the Tokyo Olympics fronted many a newsreel in 1964 (see above). Schollander was the first swimmer to earn four gold medals at one Games and could well have made it five had his best event, the 200-meter freestyle, been on the Olympic program.

    For his record-setting efforts, Schollander was named the AP Athlete of the Year.

19. Janet Evans (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1988, 1992, 1996

    Medals: 5 (4 gold, 1 silver)

    Janet Evans' career is a cautionary tale in judging Olympic athletes solely by their medal counts.

    Though her five medals might not seem like a lot by swimming standards, one should note that Evans, because she specialized in distance events, never had the benefit of competing in an Olympic relay.

    But what she did swim, she dominated. Evans won the 400- and 800-meter freestyle events at the 1988 Olympics, wowing crowds with her trademark windmill style. She defended the latter title four years later and in between those two Games set an 800 record that would stand for 19 years.

18. Matt Biondi (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992

    Medals: 11 (8 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze)

    At the 1988 Seoul Games, Matt Biondi became just the second swimmer to win seven medals at one Olympiad.

    Though less versatile than Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps (just two of his 12 Olympic events were in a stroke other than freestyle), the 6'7" Biondi rode his single-stroke supremacy to one of the most accomplished careers in swimming history.

17. Bob Mathias (Decathlon)

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    Olympics: 1948, 1952

    Medals: 2 (both gold)

    At the 1948 London Games, 17-year-old Bob Mathias won decathlon gold and became the youngest man to win an Olympic track and field event. More amazing still, Mathias had taken up decathlon just four months before the Games began.

    Mathias would defend his title in 1952 and is one of just two men to win consecutive decathlon gold medals.

16. Edwin Moses (Track)

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    Olympics: 1976, 1984, 1988

    Medals: 3 (2 gold, 1 bronze)

    With victories in 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987, Edwin Moses dominated the 400-meter hurdles unlike any runner in any event over any era.

    His crowning triumph came at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Moses won his second gold medal and became the only American track and field athlete to win an Olympic title on both ends of the 1980 U.S. boycott.

15. Ray Ewry (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1900, 1904, 1906, 1908

    Medals: 8 (all gold)*

    Before the introduction of the running start, Indiana's Ray Ewry was the undisputed king of track and field's jumping events.

    He won gold medals in all eight of the Olympic events he entered, including three consecutive gold medals in the long jump and high jump. His eight individual gold medals are second only to Michael Phelps all-time among Olympic athletes.

    *Though the IOC does not recognize them as official Olympic medals, Ewry also won the long jump and high jump at the 1906 "Intercalated Games."

14. Michael Johnson (Track)

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    Olympics: 1992, 1996, 2000

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    With a conspicuously upright running style that made him one of track's most identifiable stars, Texas native Michael Johnson electrified the running world through the 1990s.

    Johnson's peak came at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he became the first man to win both the 200- and 400-meter events. The former came in a world-record time that would stand for the next 12 years. The latter came in an Olympic record of 43.49 that still stands.

13. Mary Lou Retton (Gymnastics)

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    Olympics: 1984

    Medals: 5 (1 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze)

    There have been more talented American gymnasts. There have been more accomplished American gymnasts. But if you're looking for the most influential U.S. gymnast in history, the conversation begins and ends with Mary Lou Retton.

    Her famous perfect-10 vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Games (see above) secured America's first individual all-around title and sparked unprecedented interest in the sport.

    For the generations of young women that followed in her footsteps, Mary Lou was the seminal Olympic athlete.

12. Natalie Coughlin (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 12 (3 gold, 4 silver, 5 bronze)

    A casualty perhaps of the Michael Phelps era, it seems precious little attention has been paid to Natalie Coughlin over the last eight years. The former Cal Bear was the most decorated female swimmer at the 2004 and 2008 Olympiads, swimming diverse programs at both meets and quietly building her case as the best American female Olympian of all time.

    Coughlin medaled in each of her 12 Olympic races and in 2008, she became the first American woman to win six medals at one Summer Games.

10-11. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh (Beach Volleyball)

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    Olympics: 2000 (Walsh volleyball, May-Treanor beach volleyball), 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 3 each (all gold)

    By virtue of their athletic dominance and billboard-ready looks, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh almost single-handedly elevated beach volleyball from sandy sideshow to prime-time event. In London, the duo sealed their legend with a third-consecutive gold medal, this one amid rampant speculation that their best days had passed.

    A stat to drive it all home:  In three Olympiads as a tandem, May-Treanor and Walsh never lost a match and only dropped one set.

9. Greg Louganis (Diving)

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    Olympics: 1976, 1984, 1988

    Medals: 5 (4 gold, 1 silver)

    Greg Louganis' Olympic career had all the markings of greatness: from the trauma of his 1988 head injury and subsequent recovery to his decade-long reign as the world's greatest diver to the unparalleled grace with which he performed.

    In both dramatics and achievement he proved himself superior to the competition, becoming the first and only man to sweep the springboard and platform events at consecutive Olympiads.

8. Wilma Rudolph (Track)

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    Olympics: 1956, 1960

    Medals: 4 (3 gold, 1 bronze)

    At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win both the 100- and 200-meter sprints.

    It was the athletic peak of a remarkable life journey that began when Rudolph contracted polio as an infant. Relying on a left leg brace through much of her youth and unable to walk without corrective footwear until she was 12, Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a 16-year-old at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

    By the time of her 1960 triumph, Rudolph—the world's fastest female sprinter—had been walking unassisted for just nine years.

7. Al Oerter (Discus)

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    Olympics: 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    Al Oerter was the quintessence of Olympic clutch, winning four consecutive discus gold medals despite not once holding the world record entering an Olympic meet. His most dramatic performance came at the 1964 Tokyo Games, where he overcame severe rib and neck injuries to take his third of four Olympic titles.

    Though it has since been tied by long-jump king Carl Lewis, Oerter still holds the record for most consecutive Olympic gold medals in one event.

6. Jim Thorpe (Pentathlon/Decathlon)

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    Olympics: 1912

    Medals: 2 (both gold)

    Even though his career wasn't long or especially medal-laden, the standards Jim Thorpe set at the 1912 Stockholm Games are so far beyond reason that they place him firmly in the upper echelon of American Olympians.

    Pundits and historians have devised countless ways to quantify the ridiculousness of Thorpe's performance that year, but here's my personal favorite.

    Thorpe's time in the 1,500-meter portion of the decathlon, besides being superior to that of his contemporaries, was just one second slower than the career-best mark of 2008 decathlon Olympic champion Bryan Clay.

    This despite the fact that Thorpe had never competed in a decathlon before 1912 and was wearing borrowed shoes.*

    *Information via "A Grave Concern" by Neely Tucker, published in The Washington Post Magazine, March 18, 2012

5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996

    Medals: 6 (3 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze)

    Voted the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, Jackie Joyner-Kersee made her name at the Olympiads of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    After suffering a narrow defeat in the 1984 heptathlon, she would win consecutive heptathlon gold medals in 1988 and 1992 and add three more medals in the long jump.

    As a women's sporting icon, Joyner-Kersee's legacy was even greater.

    Set against the pixie types that populated women's gymnastics and skating, Joyner-Kersee would redefine the woman athlete in her graceful, powerful, dignified likeness.

    In the words of soccer superstar Mia Hamm (via Sports Illustrated), "You saw her and you got the idea of what a woman athlete should be. At the time it seemed almost like she wasn't responsible for just her sport, but for all of women's sport."

4. Mark Spitz (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 1968, 1972

    Medals: 11 (9 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

    At the end of the 20th century, there was little debate over who was the best swimmer ever.

    Mark Spitz's Olympic resume spoke for itself: 11 medals, nine of them gold and seven of those nine earned at the 1972 Munich Games.

    It was the greatest single Games performance in Olympic history, a stunning display of versatility and excellence that also saw the Californian set world records in each of the seven events he entered.

3. Jesse Owens (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1936

    Medals: 4 (all gold)

    German dictator Adolf Hitler intended the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a showcase for his notions of Aryan superiority.

    Much to the Fuhrer's dismay, it was Jesse Owens, an African-American sharecropper's son from Alabama, that proved to be the Games' most dynamic performer.

    Owens won the long jump, 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash before adding a fourth gold in the 4x100 relay.

    In becoming just the second American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at one Olympiad, Owens had put forth one of the most courageous and meaningful performances in sporting history.

2. Carl Lewis (Track and Field)

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    Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996

    Medals: 10 (9 gold, 1 silver)

    Across two decades, and in some of the most widely contested events on the planet, Carl Lewis was a cut above.

    In addition to winning four consecutive long-jump titles (tied for the longest streak in any Olympic event), Lewis also won consecutive gold medals in the 100-meter sprint and never finished worse than second in an Olympic competition.

    Overshadowed somewhat by his post-career buffoonery—national anthem travesties, first-pitch follies and the like—let us not forget that Lewis was also one of the top clutch athletes in sports history.

    When it came to performing best in the big time, there were few better than Lewis.

1. Michael Phelps (Swimming)

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    Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012

    Medals: 22 (18 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze)

    History will probably remember Michael Phelps for his unprecedented eight-gold performance at the 2008 Beijing Games, but the long view of his career is almost as impressive.

    Phelps entered 24 Olympic races and won gold in all but six of them, setting or helping to set eight world records in the process.

    It is a record of achievement unlike any other in U.S. Olympic history—a derivative of his medal-happy discipline, for sure, but also a fitting measure of Phelps' singular ability to produce superior results in the biggest moments.