London 2012 Olympics: The 15 Most Heart-Pounding Moments in US Swimming History

Rick Eymer@rickeymerFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2012

London 2012 Olympics: The 15 Most Heart-Pounding Moments in US Swimming History

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    High drama in the pool. Moments of pure sensation. Rising to the occasion and out-touching your opponent by the slimmest of margins.

    There are so many dramatic moments in U.S. Olympic swimming history that it seemed nearly impossible to slice the list down to 15.

    These selections are obviously open to debate, as the big picture was considered as much as the pure athletic moment.

    How can a simple swimming race produce such adrenaline moments? Millions of eyes are watching you live and on television, your entire country banking on you.

    There's a moment when time seems to stop, a fraction of a second where a race is won or lost. Then it's over, and all that built-up tension and emotion explodes.

No. 15: Football Reject Turns Swimming Hero (1964 Toyko)

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    Don Schollander wanted to play high school football, but his size prevented him from doing so. He took up swimming instead.

    In the early '60s, every kid wanted to be him. He was America's golden boy, the kid you wanted living next door.

    For a long time, whatever he touched turned to gold. His high school won a state swimming title, and after an awe-inspiring Olympic career, he developed Oregon State into a top program.

    In Tokyo, all eyes were upon him. He made America proud, becoming the first Olympic swimmer to win as many as four gold medals in one Olympics.

    He set world records in winning the 400 free and helped both the 4x100 free relay and 4x200 free relay set world records. At 18, he was the youngest swimmer on either relay.

    Larry Schulhof helped the U.S. qualify for the finals of the 4x100 relay, and then Schollander took his spot for the final. Steve Clark, Mike Austin and Gray Ilman gave him a big lead into the final leg.

    All Schollander had to do was make the world record, which he did.

    Then there was the 100 free race. Schollander won that race in 53.4, then an Olympic record, a tenth of a second faster than Great Britain's Bobby McGregor, who never won another Olympic medal.

No. 14: Seven Becomes the Golden Number (1972 Munich)

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    He was brash but brilliant, a little bit arrogant and a great swimmer.

    Spitz had it all. The adoration, the good looks, that mustache.

    Then he captured the world's attention at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, setting a record by winning seven gold medals. He also set or helped set seven world records.

    Yes, he was that good.

    His competition was his teammates, and they helped push him to greatness.

    Spitz edged American Jerry Heidenreich in the 100 free by .43 seconds and then beat Bruce Robertson in the 100 fly by .39 seconds.

    The heart-pounding moment came in the 200 free, a grueling race that combines speed and endurance. Steve Gerber went stroke for stroke with Spitz. Any hesitation and Spitz's dream was over.

    It came down to the final few inches, and Spitz touched the wall about a half-second ahead of his compatriot.

No. 13: High School Sophomore Wasn't Even the Best on Her Team (Munich 1972)

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    Shirley Babashoff was the cover girl for the women's swimming team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Jane Barkman and Jennifer Kemp were also going to lead the team to medals.

    Sandra Neilson was a 16-year-old high school sophomore who wasn't given much of a chance to medal, much less win gold.

    Neilson surprised everybody by winning the 100 free. As a result, she had the opportunity to lead off the 4x100 free relay team.

    These were the days when East German swimmers were becoming dominant. An individual win was considered cool, but the relay team had no chance.

    Neilson, Barkman and Kemp helped give the U.S. the lead. It was Babashoff's turn to hold on. She did, by .36.

No. 12: Enough Was Enough (Montreal 1976)

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    By 1976, the East German women, under heavy suspicion of using steroids, were the dominant country in women's swimming.

    The American men won all but one event in Montreal. East Germany was threatening to sweep the women's events.

    Stanford student Kim Peyton led off the U.S. 4x100 free relay. Three years later, Peyton would reveal she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died two weeks before Christmas in 1986. She was 29.

    Jill Sterkel had the second leg and stayed within sight of the East Germans. Shirley Babashoff jumped in third, and suddenly it was a real race.

    Wendy Boglioli kept churning away, kept staying right beside the East German swimmer. Somehow Boglioli got her hand to the wall a split-second ahead of East Germany, and the United States had its only women's gold medal.

No. 11: Courage and Redemption (Los Angeles 1984)

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    Rowdy Gaines was a popular swimmer in his day. He was at his peak and ready to shine on the international stage when the plug was pulled on the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, which were played without the Americans.

    He got some redemption by returning in 1984 and winning a gold medal in the 100 free. He added another gold when the 4x100 free relay team he anchored also won. He was preceded by Chris Cavanaugh, Michael Heath and Matt Biondi.

    Gaines did not swim in the 4x200 free relay, which pitted the Americans against a great West Germany team that included the world record holder in the 200 free in Michael Grois. He would swim anchor against Lawrence "Bruce" Hayes.

    Heath led off the relay, and West Germany immediately took the lead. David Larson and Jeff Float managed to keep it close.

    Hayes was behind Grois by nearly half a body length. This was desperation time. Hayes bettered his own personal best by more than a second in catching Grois and out-touching him by .04 of a second and helping to set a world record.

    Eight years later, Hayes became the first Olympic gold medalist to come out as gay.

No. 10: US Roommates Swim Like It's Synchro (Los Angeles 1984)

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    Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead shared a room at the Olympic Village in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympic Games.

    They also shared the gold medal.

    It was the first time that two gold medals were awarded in the same swimming event. Sixteen-year-old Steinseifer won a second gold in the 4x100 free relay, becoming the youngest swimming gold medalist at the 1984 Games.

    Hogshead developed asthma and began to lecture around the world about asthma management.

No. 9: US Swimming Kept Hearts Pounding All Week (Athens 2004)

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    His father was an Olympian, so the junior designation comes in handy. Gary Hall, Jr., though, did Gary Hall, Sr. one better.

    Senior swam in three Olympics, beginning with the 1968 Mexico City Games, and he earned a medal in each one. He had three of them, two silver and a bronze.

    The family would have to wait 20 years to add gold.

    Gary Hall, Jr. appeared in four Olympics and collected 11 medals, five gold, four silver and two bronze.

    By 2004, though, he was considered a long shot to win the 50 free. At 29, Hall was the oldest American male Olympic swimmer since 1924.

    He proved sprints weren't just for the young guys, out-touching Croatia's Dye Dragaja by .01 seconds. Hall missed the Olympic record by .02 seconds.

No. 8: This Was Just the Beginning for Michael Phelps (Athens 2004)

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    Michael Phelps has always been good. At age 15, he held a world record, the youngest ever to hold a world record in swimming.

    He appeared in his first Olympic Games in 2000 at Sydney, where he became the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years.

    Then he started his unparalleled Olympic medal collection at the 2004 Athens Games.

    In the 100 fly, he went up against Ian Crocker, who produced the top qualifying mark out of the first round.

    In the final, it was a battle between Phelps and Crocker. Phelps nudged past him to win by .04 seconds.

No. 7: Whatever Men Can Do Women Can Do Too (Athens 2004)

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    The breaststroke may be the most difficult of them all, and quite frankly, it doesn't look as pretty as the other strokes.

    That is, unless you're watching Amanda Beard doing it.

    Quite simply, she turned the stroke into an art form, more like a dance, a jazz ballet.

    In the 2004 Athens Games, Beard was locked in a long struggle with Australia's Leisel Jones in the 200 breast, an event that not only tests speed and endurance but patience too.

    The technique had to be perfect, or you would get out of sync and lose precious tenths of a second.

    Jones blinked first, allowing Beard to finish .23 seconds ahead for the gold.

No. 6: Berkeley Is a Hip Place, and They Know How to Swim There Too (Athens 2004)

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    Natalie Coughlin knows food well enough to act as guest judge on Iron Chef America, which pits two of the best chefs in the world against each other.

    She also likes to cook,dance, farm, garden and take pictures, giving her one of the more ubiquitous lifestyles among Olympic athletes.

    Coughlin can swim too. Her specialty? Well, everything really. At age 15 she became the first swimmer to qualify for all 14 events for the summer nationals.

    She's the first woman to swim the 100 back in less than a minute.

    At the 2004 Athens Games, though, she was pumping hard against Zimbabwe's Kristy Coventry in the 100 back.

    Coventry, like Coughlin, has earned multiple Olympic medals, including gold. In this race, however, Coventry lost to Coughlin by .13 seconds.

No. 5: Americans Get Their Revenge over Australia (Athens 2004)

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    Australia and the United States had a particular rivalry in certain events that led to a lot of talking and gestures.

    The Aussies beat the U.S. in the 4x100 free relay in Sydney, the first time the Americans ever lost the event.

    In 2004, Australia was on a seven-year unbeaten streak in the 4x200 free relay. It was time for the U.S. to settle the account.

    The U.S. had a star-studded relay team with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay taking the lead. It was up to Klete Keller to make it stand against one of the world's best in Ian Thorpe.

    Keller swam well enough to hold off Thorpe and win by .13 seconds.

No. 4: Misty Hyman Delievers a Performance out of Nowhere (Sydney 2000)

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    Misty Hyman nearly gave up until a voice in the back of her head warned against it. Good thing she listened.

    Hyman set national high school records in the 100 meter backstroke and 100 meter butterfly and was twice named high school Swimmer of the Year.

    As a junior at Stanford University, she was struggling with her butterfly all season and thought about not participating in the 2000 Olympic Trials.

    The unexpected happened. She not only made the team but went on to win the gold medal, surprising even herself.

    World record holder Susie O'Neil dominated the event and was known as Madame Butterfly in her native Australia.

No. 3: Van Dyken's Rollercoaster Ride Included Two Thrills in Atlanta (1996)

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    A childhood battle with asthma helped Amy Van Dyken become an Olympic gold medalist, six times over.

    She became the first American female swimmer to win four gold medals at one Olympic Games, which she accomplished in Atlanta in 1996.

    Her journey started when a doctor advised swimming as a way to strengthen her lungs.

    She had two heart-pounding moments in 1996, out sprinting China's Le Yingyi, 24.87 to 24.90, in the 50 free.

    Van Dyken came back in the 100 fly to beat China's Liu Limin, 59.13 to 59.14.

    She lost some of her goodwill after a couple of incidents during the 2000 Olympics, but no one can take the thrill of 1996 away.

No. 2: Eight Was Just Enough for Michael Phelps (Beijing 2008)

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    Michael Phelps knew it wasn't going to be easy, winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. That was his goal, though, and he needed some luck.

    Phelps had always done well in the 100 fly, but maybe he wasn't feeling just right. He had to dig a little deeper.

    It doesn't get much closer than .01, the margin by which he beat Milorad Cavic of Serbia in the 100 fly, keeping his Olympic dream alive.

No. 1: He Got by with a Little Help from His Friends (Beijing 2008)

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    It was time for some magic, and Jason Lezak somehow found it within himself.

    Every time Michael Phelps took his mark, he was going for a record. When it came time for the 4x100 free relay team, he could only watch the final 300 meters in excited anticipation.

    If there was ever a time his heart was pounding, this was it. Everything was on the line, including his eighth gold medal.

    Phelps was the leadoff swimmer and gave the Americans an early lead. By the time Lezak took his mark, France had moved ahead and had the world record holder in the 100 free swimming anchor in Alain Bernard.

    It didn't seem possible that Lezak, the oldest swimmer on the team, would have enough to overtake Bernard.

    Lezak (did he believe in miracles?) accomplished the impossible, swimming the fastest split (46.06) in recorded history, overtaking Bernard and clinching Phelps' eighth gold medal.

    What are friends for?