The 50 Greatest Swimming Moments in US Olympic History

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIJune 27, 2012

The 50 Greatest Swimming Moments in US Olympic History

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    Run down the list of the greatest Olympic swimming achievements, and you won't find many without the stars and stripes flying next to it.

    Spitz in '72, Phelps in '08, Evans in '88, Schollander in '64, Torres seemingly forever.

    And within those achievements you'll find the moments—those chilling, triumphant, encompassing parcels of time that define Team USA's peerless swimming legacy.

    For your enjoyment and your debate, we've compiled a list of the 50 greatest.


50. Amanda Beard and Her Teddy Bear Take Atlanta by Storm (1996)

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    The 1996 Games were the beginning of a very noisy swimming career for teen sensation Amanda Beard.

    The 14-year-old won three medals (one gold and two silver) and charmed the hometown crowd with her toothy grin and teenage naivete (symbolized best by the teddy bear she toted around the Olympic Village).

    After a disappointing performance four years later in Sydney, Beard would capture her first and only individual gold medal at the 2004 Games.

49. U.S. Back on Top of the World (1948)

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    After dominating the 1920s, America fell into a brief swimming lull during the '30s.

    Team USA finished second to Japan in medal count at both the 1932 and 1936 Games, an acute embarrassment considering that the '32 Games took place in Los Angeles. By 1948—thanks in part to the intercession of World War II—it had been 20 years since America ruled the Olympic pool.

    Uncle Sam reversed that precedent in a big way at that summer's London Games, winning 15 total medals and finishing nine medals ahead of its next closest rival. The balanced effort was led by a men's team that won all six available golds.

    It helped that Japan, Team USA's longtime nemesis, was banned from competition due to its antagonizing role in World War II.

48. Shirley Babashoff Denied by East Germans (1976)

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    One can't help but imagine what could have been for freestyle specialist Shirley Babashoff at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

    Babashoff finished second in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle, each time losing to an East German competitor.

    Later revelations that the East Germany was providing its athletes with anabolic steroids, makes one wonder what Babashoff could have achieved on an even playing field.

    Even with the disappointment, Babashoff's career total of nine medals made her the most decorated female swimmer in U.S. history prior to the 1990s.

47. U.S. Pulls off Dual Sweeps in the 100 Free (1924)

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    Building on its impressive performance in 1920, Team USA took its supremacy to new levels at the 1924 Paris Games.

    The team's 19-medal haul was highlighted by podium sweeps in both the men's and women's 100-meter freestyle and an overpowering swim by the women's 4x100 freestyle relay team, which set a new world record and finished 18 seconds ahead of its next closest rival.*

    Of the 11 swimming events held that year, there was just one, the men's 1,500-meter freestyle, in which the U.S. didn't earn a medal.

    *Gertrude Ederle, who would later achieve greater fame as the first woman to swim the English Channel, was a member of that dominant relay team. She also won bronze medals in the 100 and 400 free.

46. Bill Mulliken Upsets the Field in 200 Breast (1960)

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    Following a forgettable '56 Games in which they won just two gold medals, the Americans were back in top form by 1960.

    Among Team USA's nine gold medals in Rome, the most surprising was Bill Mulliken's victory in the 200-meter breaststroke. In the final, Mulliken swam three seconds under his pre-Olympic personal record to defeat Japan's Yoshihiko Osaki.*

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

45. Doug Russell Shocks Mark Spitz (1968)

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    Uncle Sam dominated the water so thoroughly in 1968, that many of the best pool duels in Mexico City were between American teammates.

    Such was the case in the first-ever 100-meter butterfly final, in which favorite Mark Spitz was upended by perennial bridesmaid, and fellow American, Doug Russell.

    It was the only individual medal in Russell's Olympic career, and a fitting representation of what turned out to be an underwhelming Olympics for the 18-year-old Spitz.

44. Summer Sanders Stars (1992)

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    A few disappointing results didn't stop America from falling in love with 19-year-old Stanford sensation Summer Sanders.

    Although she lost late leads in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley, Sanders would finish the 1992 Games with gold medals in the 200 fly and 4x100 medley relay and, through the force of her personality, become one of America's most beloved Olympic champions.

    A long career covering sports and hosting television game shows confirmed Sanders' uncommon hold on public sentiment.

43. Dick Roth Refuses Surgery, Wins 400 IM (1968)

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    I'm getting sympathy pains just thinking about what Dick Roth did at the 1964 Olympics.

    Hounded by a hard-breaking case of appendicitis, the Palo Alto native refused surgery and medication in order to compete in the 400-meter individual medley.*

    Through searing pain, Roth won the event final and broke his own world record in the process.

    No word on what Roth did immediately afterward, but I'm guessing it involved a reversal of the no-pain-killers precedent.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

42. Misty Hyman Stuns the Aussies (2000)

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    Australia's Susie O'Neill was untouchable in 2000.

    She hadn't lost the 200-meter butterfly in six years and had recently broken Mary T. Meagher's 19-year-old event record at the Australian Olympic Trials.

    On home soil in Sydney, the field didn't have a chance.

    But at the 100-meter turn something strange happened—21-year-old American Misty Hyman, a lightly regarded semi-contender, surged into the lead.

    It seemed only a matter of time before O'Neill would run her down, but the counter-surge never came.

    To the silenced shock of the Australian partisans, Hyman hit the wall first and handed Team USA a stunning victory over its chief aquatic rival.

    It would be the only Olympic medal in Hyman's career.

41. Biondi Bests Jager in 50 Free (1988)

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    Pitted against American rival Thomas Jager—whom he hadn't beaten in two years*—Matt Biondi hit his 1988 Olympic high in the 50-meter men's freestyle.

    With a blistering final 20 meters, Biondi set a new world record and won his fourth of five gold medals.

    The upset victory helped atone for Biondi's poor finish in the 100-meter butterfly and would provide a dramatic conclusion to the first 50-meter Olympic race since 1904.

    Biondi would go on to win 11 career medals, at the time tied with Mark Spitz for most all-time by a male swimmer.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

40. Pablo Morales’ Dramatic Comeback (1992)

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    Eight years of heartbreak led Pablo Morales to this: the 1992 100-meter butterfly final and a chance to write one of the great comeback stories in U.S. swimming history.

    Morales had been favored to win the 1984 100 fly and finished second. He then didn't qualify for the '88 Games, a shocking development that led to a three-and-a-half year retirement.

    His mother's death from cancer in 1991 inspired Morales to get back in the pool and the 27-year-old surprised most observers by quickly recovering his old form.

    On a sunny day in Barcelona, with his father watching from the stands, Morales finished .03 seconds ahead of Poland's Rafal Szukala to finally win that elusive gold medal.

    He also become the oldest American to capture an Olympic swimming title since 1920.

    Morales told reporters afterward:

    "When I was up on the victory stand I was thinking that my mother would want to be here to experience this, and I know that she was with me in spirit. This was my time at last."*

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

39. Anthony Ervin Breaks Ground (2000)

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    In 2000, 19-year-old Anthony Ervin was dubbed the first-ever swimmer "of African-American descent" to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team.

    Later that year, when he tied teammate Gary Hall Jr. for first place in the 50-meter freestyle, he became the first swimmer "of African-American descent" to win an Olympic medal.

    Ervin—the son of a Jewish mother and father who is white, black and Native American—was never comfortable with the curiously ambiguous label or its barrier-breaking implications.

    Ervin told the Santa Clarita Valley Signal in 2009: 

    “For some reason, the media really wanted me to be ‘black,’ which was difficult because then the rest of the swimming community then perceived me as ‘other,’ yet the black community, at least in parts, rejected me because I pass as white."

    The mercurial sprinter left swimming shortly after 2000—and right before what should have been his prime.

    After almost a decade off the grid, Ervin re-emerged earlier this year with the stated intention of swimming in London and has posted some startling times considering the length of his hiatus.

38. Martha Norelius Takes Second 400 Free Gold (1928)

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    Perhaps the greatest female swimmer of her era, Martha Norelius' best performance came at the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

    Norelius broke her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle preliminaries and then broke it again in the finals. The gold medal was her second consecutive Olympic title in the 400 free.*

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

37. U.S. Dominance in the 4x100 Medley Relay Lives on (1960-2012)

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    It isn't a single moment or triumph, but Team USA's continued dominance in the men's 4x100-meter medley relay merits recognition.

    It is the only active event in which the U.S. has never been defeated.

    Some highlights from America's impeccable run:

    1960 — Largest margin of victory (6.6 seconds);

    2008 — Smallest margin of victory (0.7 seconds);

    8 — World records set in event final (out of a possible 9);

    7 — Medals won by Australia, second most in event history;

    3.52 — Seconds separating Australia's gold-medal swim in 1980 from the standing world record set by the American team four years earlier (Team USA missed the event as part of a larger boycott).

36. Curtains Up on Natalie Coughlin (2004)

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    At the 2004 Athens Games, fans got their first glimpse of perhaps the greatest female swimmer ever.

    Do-it-all Californian Natalie Coughlin won five medals (two gold, two silver and one bronze) en route to becoming Athens' top female swimmer. She set an Olympic record in the 100-meter backstroke and helped America's 4x200-meter freestyle relay team set a new world record.

    Two notable asides about the relay victory:

    1.) Coughlin's time in the leadoff leg would have been good enough for gold in the 200 free had she swum the event.

    2.) The U.S. team's world record was a full two seconds faster than the standing mark set by East Germany 17 years earlier.*

    Eight years after Athens, Coughlin is two medals shy of becoming the most decorated female Olympian in U.S. history.

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics

35. Jim Montgomery Breaks the 50-Second Mark in the 100 Free (1976)

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    In what was an all-time great swim, Jim Montgomery won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, broke his own world record and became the first person to swim the event in under 50 seconds.

    His margin of victory was the largest in that Olympic event since Johnny Weissmuller in 1928.

34. Duke Kahanamoku Wins 100 Free, Twice (1920)

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    After a reported foul involving two other competitors nullified Duke Kahanamoku's world-record time in the 1920 100-meter freestyle, Kahanamoku won the re-race over fellow Hawaiian Pua Kela Kealoha.

    It was Kahanamoku's second consecutive gold in the event, his second of four Olympic appearances (one for the U.S. Water Polo team) and the first act of a fascinating life that would lead from Olympic pools to Hollywood movies to a prominent role in a landmark Supreme Court Case.

    Not to mention Kahanamoku's pioneering efforts in the surfing world, for which he would later earn the title "Father of Surfing."

33. Charles Daniels, America’s First Swimming Star (1904)

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    Having been shut out in the first two Olympiads, American swimmers broke through at the 1904 St. Louis Games.

    Among the host country's 14 medals were five (three gold, one silver and one bronze) from Ohio native Charles Daniels.

    Noted for popularizing the modern freestyle stroke—known at the time as the "American Crawl"—Daniels would go on to win eight medals over three Olympic Games.

32. Nation Falls for Donna De Varona (1964)

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    Though she wasn't the most successful American female swimmer at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—that honor belonging to Sharon Stouder—Donna De Varona was arguably the most popular.

    De Varona made her first Olympics in 1960 when she was just 13. Two years later she made the cover of Sports Illustrated and two years after that, in Tokyo, the media darling won American hearts with a two-gold-medal performance.

    That notoriety would serve De Varona well in her second act as a women's sports pioneer.

    In 1965, she became the first female sports broadcaster to appear on a major network (ABC) and would later spearhead efforts to pass and enforce Title IX.

    DeVarona told Sports Illustrated in 2000, "I will always be an activist. That is a lifetime commitment." 

31. Ethelda Bleibtrey Breaks Ground for the Women (1920)

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    Not only was Ethelda Bleibtrey among the first U.S. women to win an Olympic medal in swimming, she's the only female swimmer to win every race at a single Olympiad.

    Bleibtrey won gold medals in all three contested events at the 1920 Antwerp Games (the 100- and 300-meter freestyle as well as the 4x100 freestyle relay), a feat one can safely assume will never be repeated.

    Perhaps more impressive, the U.S. women's team won every medal possible that year, sweeping the podium in both individual events and taking gold in the only relay.

30. Phelps-Lochte, the Rivalry (2012)

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    London 2012 was billed as a showdown between the world's two best swimmers:  Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

    Phelps was the legend, out for one more gold rush before retirement.

    Lochte was the challenger, coming off an undressing of Phelps at 2011 Worlds.

    The results in London? Well, they were something of a draw.

    Lochte won the first head-to-head battle between the two with ease, taking gold in the men's 400-meter individual medley while Phelps finished fourth.

    Phelps won the rematch, beating Lochte in the 200 IM.

    So, who won?

    Swimming did, with a rivalry drew record levels of interest in the sport and turned the London Aquatics Centre into 2012's premier venue.

29. U.S. Men Hold off Germans in 4x200 Free Relay (1984)

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    Rarely does an 800-meter race come down to the final stroke, which is perhaps why swimming heads still wax on about the epic 1984 4x200-meter men's freestyle relay showdown between the U.S. and West Germany.

    Thanks to a stellar anchor leg by Bruce Hayes, the Americans held off German maestro Michael Gross (known as "The Albatross) and set a new world record.

    The final margin of victory was just .04 seconds.

28. Gary Hall Jr. Finishes on a High Note (2004)

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    Eight years after he won his first medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Gary Hall Jr. capped his brilliant, tumultuous sprinting career with an unlikely victory in the 50-meter freestyle.

    It was Hall's second consecutive gold medal in the event and, along with a relay bronze, brought his career total to 10. He is one of just eight swimmers all-time to win double-digit medals.

27. Amy Van Dyken Rules Atlanta (1996)

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    Amy Van Dyken was without peer at the 1996 Atlanta Games, becoming the first American female to win four gold medals and the first swimmer to earn the AP's prestigious Athlete of the Year award since Mark Spitz in 1972.

    Van Dyken's achievements were made more remarkable by the fact the she suffered from acute asthma as a child and, according to Sports Illustrated, wasn't able to swim a pool length until she turned 13.

    Van Dyken would return in 2000 to win two more gold medals, giving her the rare distinction of having won exclusively gold medals over her Olympic career.

26. “Queen Helene” Makes Her Mark (1932)

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    Before Missy Franklin, Amanda Beard and Janet Evans, there was Seattle's Helene Madison—among the first female teen sensations in American swimming history.

    Nicknamed "Queen Helene" by an adoring press, Madison's meteoric three-year career saw her go undefeated at U.S. Nationals three years in a row, earn the AP's first ever Female Athlete of the Year award and capture three gold medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

    Upon retirement in 1932, the 19-year-old Madison held every official freestyle world record.

    After a failed attempt at Hollywood stardom, the one-time poster girl faded into near anonymity.

    In 1992, twenty-two years after her death from throat cancer, Madison was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

25. Sharon Stouder Shines in Tokyo (1964)

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    While Don Schollander dominated on the men's side at the 1964 Tokyo Games, 15-year-old Sharon Stouder cleaned up on the women's end.

    Stouder won the 100-meter butterfly, participated on first-place relay teams in the 4x100 freestyle and the 4x100 medley and took silver in the 100 free.

    Stouder would have been a heavy favorite in the 200-meter butterfly, as well, having set world records in the event twice during 1964. Unfortunately for her, the women's 200 fly didn't enter the Olympic program until 1968.

24. Meet Missy (2012)

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    Soon-to-be high school senior Missy Franklin entered London 2012 as the most hyped female swimmer in decades.

    She left as a star.

    The 17-year-old Colorado native contested seven events in her Olympic debut, medaling in five and winning four. The latter tied her with Amy Van Dyken for the most gold medals won by an American female swimmer at a single Olympiad.

    Then there was her personality, a sparkling blend of teenage charm and competitive drive that had audiences back home buzzing.

    With Michael Phelps' waving goodbye, Franklin's emergence couldn't have been better timed. USA swimming needed a new face, and Missy seemed built for the part.

23. Rowdy Gaines Beats the Boycott (1984)

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    The 1984 U.S. team was one of deferred dreams and long-awaited debuts—stories of athletes shut out by the 1980 Olympic boycott and eager for a shot at their deserved glory.

    Among that set, few spun a more compelling tale than freestyler Rowdy Gaines.

    The Florida native was favored to win four gold medals in Moscow, but by '84 critics were unsure if the 25-year-old had enough juice left to win a medal of any color.

    Gaines proved the doubters wrong, notching an upset victory in the 100-meter freestyle and tacking on two more gold medals in the 4x100 freestyle relay and the 4x100 medley relay.

22. Charles Hickcox Wows Mexico City (1968)

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    Lost a bit between Don Schollander's historic performance in 1964 and Mark Spitz's iconic '72 Games, Charles Hickcox put on quite a show at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

    The fantastically versatile performer won gold in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley, captured a third gold in the 4x100 medley relay and won silver in the 100 back.

    Few remember it now, but there was a time after the '68 Games when some considered Hickcox the best swimmer ever.

    Take a hint from the following paragraph buried in a 1969 Sports Illustrated article:

    There were mixed emotions on the IU campus when Mark Spitz, the second-greatest swimmer in the world, enrolled. Spitz is accustomed to being the center of attention. How would he react to playing second fiddle to Charlie Hickcox? 

21. The World Meets Michael Phelps (2004)

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    Technically first contact came four years earlier at the 2000 Sydney Games, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps became the youngest male swimmer in 68 years to make a U.S. Olympic team.

    But it wasn't until 2004 that folks outside the swimming community got a real sense of Phelps' all-time greatness.

    That year in Athens, the 19-year-old turned in one of the most outstanding individual performances ever: six gold medals, two bronze and a pulse-pounding victory over teammate Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly that truly marked his arrival.

20. Jenny Thompson Wins Record 12th Medal (2004)

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    Don't lose Jenny Thompson's greatness in those discussions of what she wasn't or what she didn't do.

    No, she didn't swim in as many Olympic Games as Dara Torres, but she did swim in four over 18 years.

    No, she never won an individual gold medal, but she did win eight total—one shy of the record for female Olympians.

    And although the mark has since been tied and will likely soon be surpassed, at the 2004 Athens Games Thompson took two final silver medals to become the most decorated female swimmer ever.

19. Mark Spitz Nearly Pulls out Before Claiming Victory in 100 Freestyle (1972)

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    Fearing a loss to American rival Jerry Heidenreich, Mark Spitz nearly opted out of the 1972 100-meter freestyle.

    He explained his rationale to ABC reporter Donna De Varona poolside before the race:

    "I know I say I don't want to swim before every event but this time I'm serious. If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure."

    Spitz swam and Spitz won, but only by a half-stroke.

    It would turn out to be his smallest margin of victory that year en route to a record seven gold medals.

18. Phelps Nips Cavic (2008)

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    Four years after he nipped Ian Crocker to take gold, Michael Phelps was up against the impossible once again in the 100-meter butterfly.

    This time his foil was Serbia's Milorad Cavic, the California-based fly specialist who seemed to have him beat down the back stretch.

    It's hard to explain what happened over the race's final five meters, except to say that the hands of history seemed hard at work—turning illusion into reality into legend.

    With a ferocious lunge to the wall, Phelps finished, slowly removed his goggles and read the scoreboard in a moment of seeming disbelief:

    Phelps - 50.58

    Cavic - 50.59

    No number of camera replays could provide clarity, with certain angles even giving the appearance of a Cavic victory.

    But the digital touch pad had its time, and Michael Phelps had his seventh gold medal of the 2008 Olympic Games.

17. Johnny Weismuller’s Double-Gold Day (1924)

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    It was the peak of Johnny Weismuller's illustrious Olympic career: Sunday July 20, 1924.

    And what a dizzying peak it was.

    In less than 24 hours, Weismuller beat defending Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku to win the 100-meter freestyle, took gold with his U.S. teammates in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and helped lead the Americans to a win over Sweden in the Bronze Medal Game of the men's water polo tournament.

    Weismuller would add another gold in the 400-meter freestyle that same year and then win two more gold medals at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, bringing his career total to six medals won (five of them gold).

    Upon retirement, Weismuller would go on to achieve even greater fame playing Tarzan in the renowned movie serial.

16. U.S. Men Dominate Montreal (1976)

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    The 1976 Montreal Olympics were a one-sided affair in the pool, with East Germany dominating the women's side and Team USA making putty out of the men's field.

    The American men won 12 out of a possible 13 gold medals (27 out of 35 overall), notched three podium sweeps and set world records in every gold medal win except one.

    John Naber and Brian Goodell each had two individual gold medals while the two relay teams won their races by more than three seconds apiece.

15. Debbie Meyer Sets Record with Three Individual Gold (1968)

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    Greatness is equal parts talent and timing, and Debbie Meyer had plenty of both at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

    Meyer, then just 16, won the first ever women's Olympic titles in the 200 and 800-meter freestyle to go along with a gold-medal triumph in the 400 free.

    The well-timed addition of two events in Meyer's competitive profile helped make her the first female swimmer to win three individual gold medals at a single Olympiad.

14. Janet Evans, Teen Sensation Obliterates the Competition (1988)

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    En route to becoming perhaps the greatest female distance swimmer of all time, seventeen-year-old Janet Evans wowed the crowd at the 1988 Seoul Games.

    Not only did she win gold easily in the 400-meter freestyle, 800 free and 400 individual medley, Evans thrilled fans with a furious windmill stroke she used to compensate for her lack of length.

    A year after the '88 Games, Evans set a new world record in the 800 free that stood for the next 19 years.

13. Mary Meagher Finally Gets Her Moment (1984)

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    Swimming buffs best remember Mary Meagher for her legendary feats at a 1981 meet in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. There Meagher set world records in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly that would stand for 18 and 19 years respectively—absurd time lapses by swimming's fast-mutating standards.

    And yet this untouchable figure entered Los Angeles as an Olympic novice, the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott having barred her from a Summer Games she likely would have dominated.

    Finally given her introduction to the sporting world at large in 1984, Meagher wasted no time cementing her legend.

    She won easy gold medals in the 100 and 200 fly, and added a third gold in 4x100 medley relay.

12. Tracy Caulkins' Long-Awaited Debut

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    Considered by many the most versatile female swimmer ever, Tracy Caulkins' Olympic career was one of many curtailed by the 1980 U.S. boycott.

    After six years of dominating the sport, Caulkins finally got her Olympic moment at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. There she won the 200- and 400-meter individual medley and earned a third gold as a member of the 4x100 medley relay team.

    Though this wasn't Caulkins at her competitive peak, it was still a fitting capstone for one of the all-time great swimming careers.

    Following the '84 Games, Caulkins retired from competitive swimming.

11. Dara Torres Just Keeps Swimming, Ties Jenny Thompson (2008)

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    One of the great marvels in competitive athletic history, 41-year-old Dara Torres entered her fifth Olympic Games in 2008 and won three silver medals.

    Even more remarkable, those five Games came over the course of 24 years, two missed Olympics and two separate retirements.

    Upon winning her final silver in the 4x100-meter medley relay, Torres tied Jenny Thompson as the decorated female athlete in U.S. Olympic history.

10. U.S. Reigns Supreme, Wins 52 Swimming Medals (1968)

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    Team USA has had many a dominant performance in the pool, but 1968 belongs on a higher plane.

    The U.S. won an astounding 52 swimming medals, 44 more than second-place Australia and still the most ever by one country at an Olympic meet.

    The record haul included three podium sweeps and gold medals in each of five relay events.

    One of the most impressive performers was 18-year-old Claudia Kolb, who won both the 200- and 400-meter individual medley in Olympic record time.

    In the 400 IM, her closest competitor finished more than 13 seconds behind. Typical of 1968, the second-place swimmer was also an American.

9. Phelps Stands Alone (2012)

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    In his fourth and final Olympic Games, Michael Phelps set standards for greatness that may never be surpassed.

    With six medals in seven events, including gold medals in his final four, Phelps finished his career as the most decorated Olympian of all-time.

    His 18 gold medals are nine more than the next-closest Olympic athlete, and his 22 overall medals give him ten more than the second-most-decorated swimmer.

    So, is he the greatest Olympian ever? The greatest athlete?

    We'll leave that argument for another day and agree that Phelps is the greatest swimmer we've ever seen.

8. Don Schollander Wins Four Gold Medals (1964)

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    Until Mark Spitz went seven-for-seven in 1972, Yale's Don Schollander was the standard bearer for individual swimming excellence.

    At the 1964 Tokyo Games, the 18-year-old won four gold medals (an Olympic first) and set three world records.

    For his efforts, Schollander was the first male swimmer named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

    Schollander would return to the Games in 1968, winning three gold, one silver and raising his overall medal count to eight.

7. John Naber: 4 Gold, 4 World Records (1976)

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    John Naber was the face of American dominance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics: four gold medals, four world records and all of them by overwhelming margins.

    His record swims in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke were so far superior to the competition that both would stand until 1983.

    Naber's only silver came in the 200-meter freestyle, where he lost a close race to fellow American Brian Furniss.

6. Matt Biondi Wins Seven Medals (1988)

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    At the time, Matt Biondi's brilliance in Seoul was the closest thing anyone had seen to Mark Spitz.

    Biondi won seven medals overall that year—five of them gold—and set a world record in the 50-meter freestyle.

    In a cruel turn of fate, Biondi is perhaps best remember, however, for one of the races he didn't win.

    In the 100 fly final Biondi underestimated his distance from the wall and coasted the final few meters, allowing Suriname's Anthony Nesty to nip him by 1/100th of a second.

5. Natalie Coughlin Wins 6 Medals, Most by U.S. Female Athlete (2008)

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    With the media's singular focus on Michael Phelps, you might have missed one of the best female swimmers ever at her resplendent peak.

    At the 2008 Beijing Games, Natalie Coughlin became the first American female Olympian to win six gold medals at one Olympiad. Her haul included a second consecutive title in the 100-meter backstroke and silver medals in the 4x100 medley relay and the 4x100 freestyle relay.

    For her career, Coughlin has medaled in all eleven Olympic events she has entered.

4. U.S. Women Shock East Germans, Win Dramatic 4x100 Relay

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    Entering the final day of competition at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, observers expected an easy victory for the East German women in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

    The team had been an absolute juggernaut over the prior week, winning every individual gold medal except for one and setting eight world records. Simply put, this was one of the greatest swimming collectives the world had ever seen.

    But relays are curious beasts, and in a sport ruled by the strict hierarchy of numbers—where an individual's capabilities are so well-measured that even the most surprising results are rarely without precedent—the introduction of a team element allows for rare doses of instability.

    That's perhaps the only way to explain how a U.S. women's team that was inferior by every metric somehow beat an unbeatable East German team, won gold and set a new world record.

    Later evidence revealing that the East German team used anabolic steroids during that period, made Team USA's victory all the more remarkable.

3. Lezak Chases Down Bernard (2008)

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    Even without the Phelpsian historical implications, Jason Lezak's anchor leg swim in the 2008 4x100-meter freestyle relay would belong in the pantheon of great relay performances.

    Trailing by about a body length at the 50-meter turn, Lezak overtook former world record holder Alain Bernard in the final 10 meters and did so with the fastest relay split in event history.

    NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines would convey the stunning beauty of it all to American viewers:

    "That might be the most incredible relay swim I've ever seen in my entire life."

    The victory was Team USA's first in the event since 1996 and the second in Michael Phelps' historic march to a record eight gold medals.

2. Mark Spitz Clinches Record Seventh Gold (1972)

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    The race itself was unremarkable.

    Team USA dominated the 4x100-meter medley relay at the 1972 Munich Games—a race it had never lost—winning by almost four seconds and setting a new world record in the process.

    And yet this thorough trouncing will forever be remembered in swimming lore for what it meant to Mark Spitz: a seventh gold medal, making him the most successful athlete at a single Olympiad.

    In a sport rarely given to mythic numbers, where world records fall by the hour and are distinguished by inaccessibly small margins, Spitz's seven was one of the few iconic and static benchmarks.

    Until someone made it eight, of course.

1. Phelps Wins Eight (2008)

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    Michael Phelps entered eight events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won all eight.

    What more can I say?

    There is no hyperbole to add that hasn't already been added—or that could do the feat justice.

    The eighth victory was never in serious doubt.

    Swimming the third leg of the 4x100 medley relay, Phelps staked Team USA to a lead it would never relinquish and helped establish a new world record in the event.

    Among many other milestones, the victory gave Phelps more gold medals than any other athlete in Olympic history.