An iconic Olympian is one who represents his or her country well. Iconic Olympians are memorable for their athletic accomplishments and for their grace and poise both on and off the podium. Iconic Olympians give fans an ideal to root for and a performance to remember.
For me, the following 10 athletes, listed in alphabetical order, are some of the most iconic American Olympians in history.
Ten Iconic U.S. Summer Olympians
Janet Evans: Janet Evans became America's sweetheart in 1988 when, standing 5-foot-4-inches and weighing less than 100 pounds, she defeated much larger East German opponents. Evans won three gold medals at the 1988 Games, and four years later, she returned for another. Evans also swam at the 1996 Olympic Games, though she didn't earn any medals. That year, she was given the honor of running the Olympic torch into the Olympic stadium.
Michael Johnson: Sprinter Michael Johnson became a national hero on the track in 1996 when he won the 200- and 400-meter races in front of an American crowd. Johnson became the first man to win both events at the same Olympic Games, and he did so in his trademark golden shoes. In the 200, Johnson broke a 17-year-old world record, and Johnson's record would stand for 12 more years until broken by Usain Bolt in 2008. Johnson repeated gold in the 400 at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Florence Griffith-Joyner: Sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races at the 1988 Olympic Games, and she added a relay gold in the 4x100-meter. The same year, Griffith-Joyner set world records in the 100 and 200 events that still stand today.
Duke Kahanamoku: Swimmer and water polo player Duke Kahanamoku's Olympic career spanned 30 years. He first competed at the Olympic Games in 1912, where he won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Eight years later, he added gold in the 100 freestyle and the 4x200-meter relay. He also won silver medals at the 1912 and 1924 Olympic Games. Kahanamoku's last Olympic appearance came in 1932 as a member of the U.S. water polo team. He is credited with devising the over-arm freestyle stroke that is common in swimming competitions today. After his Olympic career Kahanamoku became an actor.
Carl Lewis: Track and field athlete Carl Lewis is among the most decorated American Olympians of all time. Lewis competed in four Olympic Games and earned nine Olympic gold medals along the way. He is the only person to win the long jump in four consecutive Olympic Games (1984-1996), and he's also a two-time 100 winner. In 1984, Lewis became the first track and field athlete to win four gold medals since Jesse Owens did so in 1936.
Jesse Owens: Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Olympic Games was just as much of a social statement as it was an athletic statement. The 1936 Olympic Games were held in Hitler's Berlin, and international media believed that Owens' performance as a black man discredited Hitler's attempted display of Aryan superiority. Owens left the Olympic Games with four track and field gold medals. The feat would not be repeated until Lewis won four golds in 1984.
Michael Phelps: Swimmer Michael Phelps delighted the American public when he won six gold medals at the 2004 Olympic Games. Four years later, he returned and topped his 2004 performance when he won eight gold medals in Beijing. He's the only athlete to ever win eight gold medals in one Olympic Games. He's won 16 total Olympic medals, and in 2012 he's expected to return for more.
Mary Lou Retton: Gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first American to ever win an Olympic all-round title at the 1984 Olympic Games. That year, the 16-year-old also won two silver and two bronze medals. In addition, her bubbly and exuberant personality helped her to win the hearts of Americans everywhere.
Mark Spitz: Decked out in a red, white and blue swimsuit, a full head of hair and a mustache, swimmer Mark Spitz claimed seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games. In doing so, he became the first person to win seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games, and he did so with seven world-record times.
Jim Thorpe: Jim Thorpe is considered to be one of the greatest athletes in U.S. history. As an Olympian, Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games. After his Olympic career, Thorpe went on to play professional football, basketball and baseball. He could do it all, and he proved it in 1912 by competing in two of the most diverse track and field events.
Sandra Johnson is an avid Olympic fan. While working for the United States Olympic Committee and living in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Johnson had the opportunity to immerse herself in the Olympic Movement. Follow her on Twitter: @SandraJohnson46