Swimming has been an integral part of the Summer Olympics since the inception of the modern Games in 1896. The first three Olympic swimming competitions were conducted in open water, with the construction of the first swimming pool for the 1908 London Olympics.
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics saw the first women compete in swimming, although only in three events, while the men had seven. The Olympic swimming schedule often provided more medal opportunities for men until an equal number was reached and maintained starting with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Swimming now accounts for more medals than any other Olympic sport. At present, Olympic swimming comprises 16 medal events each for men and women. (There is also an open water marathon swim for both, which started in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.) The only difference between the men's and women's events is that women swim an 800-meter freestyle for their longest distance, while men compete at 1,500 meters.
With the completion of the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. has accumulated 489 medals in swimming, easily surpassing the tally of second-place Australia with 168 medal-podium finishes.
The lists below provide profiles of some of the top Olympic swimmers from more than a century of competition:
EARLY OLYMPIC SWIMMING GREATS
Henry Taylor: Taylor was a British swimming star in the early 20th century and remains the country's greatest Olympic swimming champion. He won five Olympic medals over his lengthy career, with three golds.
Norman Ross: Ross was an American swimming standout during the years surrounding World War I. Specializing in long-distance freestyle events, Ross earned three gold medals at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Duke Kahanamoku: Kahanamoku was the best of the many great Hawaiian swimmers of the first half of the 20th century. He captured five Olympic medals--three of them gold--during his illustrious career.
Johnny Weismuller: Weismuller was an American celebrity in the 1920s for his feats in the swimming pool and later as an actor on the silver screen. His appearances in Olympic swimming races in 1924 and 1928 all turned out golden, with five titles.
Rie Mastenbroek: Mastenbroek was a Dutch swimming star at the 1936 Olympics. She won three golds in freestyle events and a silver in the backstroke. Her medal tally in Berlin was only surpassed by American track star Jesse Owens.
POST WORLD WAR II SWIMMING STARS
Murray Rose: Rose was an Australian swimming star in the 1950s and '60s. He won six Olympic medals in freestyle events, with four of them gold.
Dawn Fraser: Competing at the same time as compatriot Murray Rose, Fraser was Australia's best on the women's side. She earned eight Olympic medals--four of them gold--and led the way in drastically improving freestyle times for women.
Mark Spitz: Spitz was an American swimming superstar with 11 Olympic medals between the 1968 and 1972 Summer Games. A nine-time gold medalist, Spitz remains one of the greatest Olympians in any sport.
Kosuke Kitajima: Japan's best-ever Olympic swimmer, Kitajima swept the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke races at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. He will undoubtedly be expected to fulfill a three-peat performance in the same events at this summer's London Games.
Michael Phelps: Phelps' Olympic accomplishments are the stuff of legend. He has accumulated 16 medals so far, including 14 golds. He will look for several more to add to his awesome legacy at the London Games.
For more information regarding Olympic swimmers, please see the Sports Reference site.
Patrick Hattman is a former competitive swimmer and looks forward to covering swimming at the 2012 London Olympics for the Yahoo! Contributor Network.