Men's swimming made its debut at the first modern Summer Olympics in 1896 and has been an integral part of the Summer Games ever since. In 1912, women's swimming was included in the Olympic program for the first time. Over the years, additional events for both men and women have been added to the roster. The 2012 London Summer Olympic Games feature a total of 36 swimming contests.
The United States has produced a large number of excellent Olympic swimmers over the years. These athletes' efforts have allowed the U.S. to win 489 Olympic swimming medals, which is by far the most of any country. Australia is a distant second with 177 total medals in swimming.
Here are ten of the best American swimmers of all time.
Michael Phelps (Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Michael Phelps is one of the greatest Olympians of all time. He has won 22 total medals over the course of his swimming career, which is an Olympic record. What is more, 18 of those medals are gold. That is an amazing figure, given that no other male swimmer in history besides Phelps has managed to win more than nine gold medals. Phelps is only 27 years old and could conceivably add to his medal count if he were to participate in the 2016 Olympics; however, the swimming star has decided to retire at the conclusion of the London Summer Games.
Jenny Thompson (Olympics: 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004)
Jenny Thompson is tied with two other American swimmers for the title of most decorated U.S. female Olympian (all three swimmers have 12 medals). More impressive, eight of her 12 medals are gold. Neither of the other two 12-time medal winners has won more than four gold medals.
Mark Spitz (Olympics: 1968, 1972)
Mark Spitz competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games. Spitz is one of the best Olympians ever. He won a total of 11 medals (nine golds, one silver, one bronze). Until Michael Phelps came along, Spitz's nine gold medals were the most by any male swimmer. What is perhaps most impressive is that he accomplished all of this before he turned 23. He retired from swimming after the 1972 Munich Games when he was only 22 years old.
Dara Torres (Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008)
Dara Torres won 12 Olympic medals (four golds, four silvers, and four bronze medals) over the course of her Olympic career. No other American female swimmer has topped that figure (though two swimmers, Natalie Coughlin and Jenny Thompson have tied it). Torres should receive the most accolades for her ability to win medals in three different decades. She nabbed her first medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and won her last three medals, all silver, at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She was 41 when she accomplished this feat.
Matthew Biondi (Olympics: 1984, 1988, 1992)
Matthew Biondi is one of only three swimmers to capture at least seven gold medals. The other two athletes on this list are Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz. Biondi ended up winning a total of 11 medals over three Olympics. His most impressive outing came during the Seoul Summer Olympics where he won five gold medals and set four world records.
Natalie Coughlin (Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012)
Natalie Coughlin holds the record (with Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson) for the most medals won by an American female swimmer. She earned her most recent medal, a bronze, on July 28, as part of the U.S. women's 400 meter relay team. While Coughlin's stats are impressive, only three of her medals are gold (four silver and five bronze).
Johnny Weismuller (Olympics: 1924, 1928)
Johnny Weismuller was swimming's first superstar. He competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics and in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. He netted a total of six medals, with five of them being gold. He might not have won as many medals as athletes like Spitz and Phelps, but that was due in large part to the limited number of swimming events on the Olympic programs in the 1920s.
Deborah Meyer (Olympics: 1968)
Deborah Meyer only won three medals; however, they were all gold. More impressively, she earned all of her Olympic medals at the 1968 Summer Games. She was the first woman to garner three individual gold medals at one Olympics. She was only 16 when she accomplished this feat.
Ryan Lochte (Olympics: 2004, 2008, 2012)
Ryan Lochte went into the London Olympics having already won six medals at previous Summer Games. He collected another five medals in London. His total count now stands at five golds, three silvers, and three bronze medals.
Mary Meagher (Olympics: 1984, 1988)
Mary Meagher won three golds, one silver, and one bronze medal over the course of her Olympic career. She likely would have won additional medals if she had been allowed to compete at the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. However, the United States boycotted that Olympics to protest Russia's attack on Afghanistan.
SourcesThe Olympic Movement's official website
The author has followed Olympic swimming since 1988 and watched on television as Michael Phelps set the record for total medal won