Michael Phelps stands alone on the Olympic mountaintop. He has 19 medals, more than any Olympian—summer or winter—in the history of the modern Games, which date back to 1896.
The list of most-decorated Olympians of all time has plenty of swimmers and gymnasts, as their sports lend themselves to multiple medals. But there are a few surprising sports in the mix.
Other than two honorable mentions, our list of the top medal winners in Olympic history is strictly by the book—whoever won the most medals made the list. No judgment is passed on the merits of those medals.
Regardless, few would argue that Michael Phelps doesn't deserve to be No. 1.
No matter what Michael Phelps does, there are those who will say that Carl Lewis is the greatest Olympic medalist to ever grace a podium.
Lewis won 10 medals, nine of which are gold. In a legendary performance in 1984, Lewis won the 100-meter, 200-meter, long jump and 4x100-meter relay.
Other Olympians have won 10 medals, but only Lewis is going to get a page on this list.
"In my heart, Carl Lewis is still king of the Olympics," U.S. Olympic decathlete Trey Hardee told Philip Hersh of the Los Angeles Times. "He wasn’t just running, he was jumping as well. Michael Phelps, as talented as he is and amazing as his feats are, is just swimming."
Before the phenomenon of Phelps, American Mark Spitz had the title of greatest swimmer of all time, thanks to his historic performance at the 1972 Munich Games. He was the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games, setting world records in all seven events.
Spitz took gold in four individual events in Munich, with the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and 100- and 200-meter butterfly. He also struck gold in three relays. His unprecedented success made him one of the first Olympic athletes to receive millions in endorsements after the games.
There are other Olympians with 11 medals, but we'll stick with Spitz.
Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson on the podium in Sydney.
The longevity of Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson propelled these two women to become the most decorated American female swimmers before Natalie Coughlin caught up to them in London.
Because of Coughlin's individual achievements, she'll get her own place on our list; but Torres and Thompson are worthy of mention, too.
Thompson, who won a total of eight gold medals, was the quintessential relay specialist who medaled in four separate Olympic Games. The 4x100-meter freestyle relay teams that she was a part of took gold in three straight Olympic Games. Individual gold in freestyle eluded Thompson, though she took silver and bronze in the 100 free in Barcelona and Sydney, respectively.
Torres tied Thompson with 12 medals in Beijing where, at 41 years old, she became the oldest Olympic swimming medalist. Additionally, she is the only swimmer to medal in five Olympic Games.
With a medal in the 4x100-meter freestyle in London, Natalie Coughlin became one of the most decorated American female swimmers of all time. She is currently tied with previously mentioned Torres and Thompson, who also have 12 medals.
Coughlin has had more success individually than Torres or Thompson, which is what puts her ahead of them on this list. She became the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter backstroke after beating South Africa’s Kirsty Coventry.
Though she no longer holds the 100-meter backstroke world record, Coughlin once became the first woman to swim it in under 59 seconds at the 2008 Olympic Trials. In an impressive feat, Coughlin broke that record twice at that meet.
Birgit Fischer is honored in 2008.
Birgit Fischer has competed in six different Olympic Games. Correction: not just competed—won.
Fischer won her first Olympic title in Moscow in 1980, competing for East Germany. In total, she has 12 medals and won eight gold medals over six different Olympic Games.
She nearly competed in a seventh. Fischer attempted a comeback at 50 years old for the London Games, but doctors stopped her from doing so just before the Olympic trials. Fischer last competed in Athens.
Sawao Kato is a Japanese sports legend, thanks to impressive individual and team success in the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games.
Of Kato's 12 medals, eight were gold. Kato impressively won back-to-back golds in the individual all-around in 1968 and 1972, the second remarkably coming after a comeback from a career-threatening Achilles injury. He found the podium again in the 1976, taking silver.
Kato also helped Japan take the gold three Olympic Games in a row in the team competition during those years.
Alexei Nemov’s popularity on the gymnastics scene might only be overshadowed by his success.
The Russian gymnast won six medals in two different Olympic Games, Atlanta and Sydney. Four of those medals were gold. After finishing runner-up in Atlanta, Nemov won the individual all-around in Sydney. He also took individual gold in the vault in 1996 and the horizontal bar in 2000.
Nemov competed in Athens, where he just missed a bronze on the high bar, much to the chagrin of his loyal fans, who booed the score.
Nemov had an illustrious career. It’s no wonder his nickname was Sexy Alexei.
The cross-country ski legend is also the only winter athlete ever to have won eight gold medals. He won four of those golds in his home country in the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
To put Daehlie’s dominance into perspective, here’s an impressive stat for you: He won over one-third of all international cross-country races that took place in the 1990s.
Paavo Nurmi is one of the most successful distance runners ever in Olympic history and one of only four athletes to win nine Olympic gold medals.
As a part of a group of Finnish athletes who were nicknamed “The Flying Finns,” Nurmi had his best Olympic performance at the 1924 Paris Games. In four days, Nurmi won the 1,500-meter, the 5,000-meter, the 3,000-meter team event and the two cross-country events.
He also wanted to defend his 10,000-meter title from the 1920 Antwerp Games, but Finnish officials, who were worried about Nurmi’s physical health, did not allow him to enter the event.
Nurmi responded by setting a new 10,000-meter world record shortly after that in Finland.
It shouldn't be surprising to find lots of gymnasts and swimmers on this list. They have more individual events and chances to medal.
There are two gymnasts tied with 13 medals—Takashi Ono and Boris Shakhlin.
Ono won two gold medals when the Japanese won the team competition in 1960, and then again in 1964 in front of a home crowd in Tokyo. He also had three other golds during his Olympic career—twice in horizontal bar and once in vault.
Shakhlin won six individual golds in the 1950s and '60s. The "Man of Iron," as he was known, was the only athlete to win four gold medals in the 1960 Rome Games. Shakhlin was also known for his steadiness and consistency.
"Nobody recalls ever having seen Shakhlin fall from an apparatus," the International Gymnastics Federation said in Shakhlin's 2008 New York Times obituary.
There have been many great fencers, but none as decorated as Italy's Edoardo Mangiarotti.
Mangiarotti's career was long as well as successful. During his 24-year career, Mangiarotti won six gold medals, five silver medals and two bronze medals. The most successful Olympic Games for the epee-and-foil master was in Helsinki in 1952, where he won two golds and two silvers.
Mangiarotti's medal count made him one of Italy's most famous athletes.
Gymnastics may be a sport of grace and artistry, but it is also a sport that appreciated the manly toughness of Nikolai Andrianov.
In an interview with The New York Times, former American gymnast Bart Conner called Andrianov "one of the toughest gymnasts I’ve ever seen […]. We were most in awe of a guy who would cut for a triple back flip off the rings when nobody else would go for it."
Seven of the Russian legend’s medals were gold. At his best, Andrianov won seven medals in the 1976 Montreal Games. Four of those were gold medals, which he won in the all-around competition, floor exercise, rings and vault.
Until Michael Phelps won No. 19, Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina owned the record for most Olympic medals.
It’s a record that stood for nearly half a century, with Latynina winning her 18th medal in 1964. She won six medals at each of the three Olympic Games in which she participated. Nine of those medals were gold. Latynina won four golds in Melbourne in 1956, three in Rome in 1960 and two in Tokyo in 1964.
Additionally, Latynina accomplished one feat Phelps would find impossible. According to a story by Mike Lopresti of USA Today, she won the four golds in Melbourne while four months pregnant.
What a journey it has been for Michael Phelps.
He was spectacular in Athens, becoming only the second person to win eight medals in one Olympic Games.
But then 2008 came, and the world realized it hadn't seen anything yet.
In Beijing, Phelps won gold in every event he was a part of. He won an Olympic-record eight gold medals in eight events, eclipsing Mark Spitz’s record of seven for a single Olympic Games. But Phelps didn’t just win gold—he also set seven world records in the process.
It’s hard to get much better than perfection.
At the London Games, Phelps' wanted to end his career as the most decorated Olympian ever, and he did.