Perhaps more in the summer games rather than the winter games, the United States has a rich tradition of Olympic success. Though the 2020 Olympics has been pushed to Tokyo 2021, we wanted to honor that success by highlighting the top American Olympians of all time.
Trying to narrow the list down to just five is very difficult. There are athletes like Michelle Kwan, Shawn White, Bruce Jenner, Greg Louganis, Mohammed Ali, Serena Williams, Lindsay Vonn, The Dream Team, The 1980 Olympic Hockey Team, the Women’s Soccer and Gymnastics teams, Apolo Ohno and the list goes on. All of whom contributed to a sterling Olympic history. If these athletes don’t make the top 5, you know Team USA has had some absolute legends.
Johnson appeared in three Olympics — 1992, 1996 and 2000, and competed in five events. If it wasn’t for his teammates’ illegal drug use in 2000, after they won the 4×400 relay, Johnson would’ve gone 5-for-5 in gold medal wins. Known for his unorthodox running style and bright gold shoes, Johnson set the world record in the 200 meter and the 400 meter in 1996. He’s the only man in the history to win both events in the same Olympic Games.
Until some guy named Phelps came along to dominate the pool like few before him, Mark Spitz was the king of the aquatic events in the Olympics. His legendary 7-for-7 first place finishes and world records at the 1972 Munich Games set the standard for most medals won at an Olympics until it was broken by Michael Phelps in 2008. Across the the combined Olympics of 1968 and 1972, Spitz won nine gold medals, a silver and a bronze medal. He also dared to sport a mustache in a sport where body hair is taboo.
No list of Olympians is complete without an appearance by Jim Thorpe, the quintessential athlete. He did it all and played it all. Perhaps the greatest athlete who ever lived, Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963; the first year of its existence. Thorpe also played for four different Major League Baseball teams over a six-year span from 1913-1919 and that was after he won two gold medals, one in the decathlon and the other in the pentathlon, in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
The impact of Jesse Owens’ 4-for-4 showing in the 1936 Olympics is more than just gold medals. Owens did it in front of Adolf Hitler, the quintessential racist, as a young African-American man from Oakville, Alabama. He won gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter, the 4×100 relay and the long jump. USA Track and Field named their most prestigious award after Jesse Owens.
Owens’ impact goes much deeper than the medals. He was a Black athlete in a time and a country where Black men weren’t seen as equals to white men. He was also an underdog because many refused to see how good Owens was. No person, until Carl Lewis in 1984, could replicate what Owens did in Berlin.
Having won 23 gold medals (overall 28) in four Olympics, US swimmer Michael Phelps is the Golden Man. His greatest performance was in Beijing in 2008 when he won 8 medals, the most by any Olympian ever in a single Games. He is also third on that list with 6 in Athens in 2004. No other athlete is even close to topping his achievements. Therefore, he goes down in history books as the greatest Olympian ever, not just the best American in history.