Those who have made the biggest impression on us in the past few decades have made an appearance in a previous article we’ve written about the topic, but we were rightfully reminded of other names that have slipped past us. This is why we figured we should do them all justice with this article.
Alexander Popov is a Russian swimmer, known to some as the greatest sprint swimmer in Olympic history. The 1992 games were the ones that brought Popov gold medals in 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle. Popov did the same in 1996. Still, in 2021, he was still the only male in Olympic history to hold both titles.
He began swimming at the age of eight, and believe it or not, he was afraid of water at the time. As his father insisted he continues to swim, never in a million years did either of them think that one day, Alexander would become one of the greatest swimmers the world has known.
Before Michael Phelps, there was Matt Biondi. He's been called one of the greatest swimmers ever, and his track record is just one reason why: Between 1984 and 1992, he won a total of eleven medals. He collected one bronze, two silver, and a total of eight gold for his work in the 50-meter freestyle, relay, and 100-meter freestyle. A split-second decision to not make another stroke at the end of a race (he was caught between strokes) cost him a gold medal.
Still, Biondi set numerous records, including most Olympic medals by an American (surpassed in 2004 by swimmer Jenny Thompson) and most Olympic medals by an American man (surpassed in 2008 by, you guessed it, Michael Phelps).
For Pyrros Dimas, 1992 went like this: emigrate to Greece from Albania, and then won the gold medal for Greece. As he made the winning lift he shouted: “FOR GREECE!” At his second Olympics, he set two world records and won his second gold. His third came in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. Though no weightlifter had ever won four gold medals in a row, his love for his adoptive country compelled him to try again, even though weightlifting puts a toll on the body.
He achieved bronze – still no small feat – and departed the platform as the Greek crowd cheered for him. He left his shoes on the platform for someone else to fill.
If you want to get strong, do what Aleksandr Karelin did – carry refrigerators up flights of stairs. Too hard? Then you might not go on to win three consecutive gold medals as Karelin did. He competed in Greco Roman wrestling, first for the Soviet Union, then for the Unified Team (the Soviet Union in all but name), and then for Russia.
His three consecutive gold medals were very nearly four – American Rulon Gardner beat him in 2000 in what some have called one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. However, that doesn't diminish Karelin's dominance in his chosen competition.
1952 was a special year for Emil Zatopek, and indeed race fans everywhere. This Czechoslovakian runner did something that has yet to see a repeat: he won the 5,000-meter race, the 10,000-meter race, and the marathon all in the same year. Even more, mind-blowing, it was the first marathon that Zatopek had ever run.
The 10,000-meter race is only about six and a half miles, a marathon is an eye-popping 26.2. How he accomplished this staggering feat is unknown, other than his brutally tough training sessions, but he won the marathon by two and a half minutes. His trademark expression of pain is still known around the world.
Also known as Flo-Jo, Florence Griffith-Joyner achieved greatness during the 1988 Seoul Olympics when she ran the 200-meter competition in 21.34 seconds. No doubt that's fast, but it was so fast that it immediately became the world record. Even better, in 2021 it was STILL the world record! She won a total of four medals (three gold and a solitary silver) in 1988, and also got a silver for the 200 meters in Los Angeles in 1984.
A few world championship medals in 1987 in Rome have cemented her as one of the greatest female sprinters in history. She is related by marriage to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Sadly, she passed away in 1998 due to a severe medical condition.
For twelve years (1952 to 1964) Takashi Ono was a terror to other gymnastics teams at the Olympics. He racked up an impressive thirteen medals that time, including four golds. He's currently tied with the Soviet Union's Boris Shakhlin for second all-time medals in male gymnastics.
He's also the most decorated Japanese Olympic competitor in history, just barely beating fellow gymnast Sawao Kato, who has twelve. His best year was 1960, where he won six medals out of the eight competitions he was a part of.
There aren't a lot of Cuban Olympic champions, but among them, Teofilo Stevenson stands tall. He won three-time consecutive gold medals in the Olympic boxing ring from 1972 to 1980, a feat that is nigh-impossible to achieve in any competition. Yet Stevenson did it all with just what he had in the Fidel Castro regime.
He was offered a million dollars to fight the great Muhammad Ali, but he turned the offer down, stating: “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?” It's a question for the ages. After his competition days ended, Stevenson worked as a trainer and sports functionary.
Under incredible pressure, Jesse Owens pulled off the unthinkable. The 1936 games were held in Berlin, Germany, just before WWII began. There was one thing interfering with Germany's fame and that was Jesse Owens. Owens, from the United States, was a foreshadowing of things to come when he whupped the Aryan boys in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and the 400-meter relay, taking gold in all four.
Even better, the reason he won the long jump was because of a bit of friendly advice from fellow jumper Luz Long, who competed for...Germany. In 2016, the film "Race" was launched, telling the story of Jesse, a human being hero.
Competing in gymnastics for the Soviet Union, Andrianov was the most successful male Olympic athlete ever until a certain swimmer from the US came along. His reign of terror began in 1972, during which he won gold for the floor exercise, silver in the team competition, and bronze in the vault. In 1976 he took a step up, earning himself four gold medals along with a silver in the team competition and parallel bars and a bronze on the pommel horse.
1980 saw him win gold in the team and vault, silver in the all-around and floor, and bronze on the horizontal bar. Andrianov passed away in 2011, after suffering from a severe medical condition.
Despite only competing in a single Olympics, Jim Thorpe has been considered one of the best all-around athletes in the history of the modern world. His dominance during the single Olympiad he attended, 1912, is hard to overstate – he not only won the decathlon, but he also won the pentathlon. He would be a household name even a hundred years later if not for a change to the Olympic rules.
In 1913, it was made a rule that the athletes had to be amateurs and not receive money for athletics. Since Jim Thorpe received a small sum to play basketball, he was no longer considered an amateur and was thus ineligible for future games.
Kristin Otto competed as a swimmer for East Germany in only one Olympics – 1988, in Seoul. Yet during that time, she won a total of six gold medals and was the dominant force on her team. She put up big numbers (or small, technically, since it's based on time) in the fifty-meter and 100-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter backstroke, and both the 400-meter freestyle and the 400-meter medley relay competitions.
She's the first woman to win six gold medals in a single Olympic game. She might have gone on to do more, but she retired from competing in 1989. Instead, she works as a sports reporter for German television.
He might have only been in two Olympics, but those two still netted Alexei Nemov, a gymnast for Russia, a total of twelve medals. He racked up an impressive four golds, two each year, as well as two silvers and six bronze medals. He's one of the most celebrated gymnasts of all time, and if you were watching the games during those years, you undoubtedly heard his name.
He retired in 2004 after serving as an anchor for the Russian team. His score in the high bar competition resulted in controversy, eventually forcing the reconstruction of the gymnastics scoring system, which encourages higher difficulty.
The Soviet Union and Russia have a history of gymnastics greatness, but it's clear that history began with Viktor Chukarin. As the first of the Soviet gymnastics greats, he won a total of eleven medals including seven golds. These include four gold medals and two silver medals in the 1952 Olympics. In 1956 he added three more gold medals, as well as silver and bronze.
He was also the all-around Soviet champion for five of the seven years between 1949 and 1955. He, along with Larisa Latynina, was the first athlete to receive the Order of Lenin, coming in 1957. Many other gymnasts learned from him, and he even has a street named after him in Lviv.
As a gymnast for the Soviet Republic, Boris Shakhlin was one of the best. He won gold in the team competition and individual pommel horse in 1956, and in the 1960 Olympics, he won a total of seven gold medals, including the all-around, pommel horse, vault, and parallel bars.
He picked up a silver for the team competition and a bronze medal for the horizontal bar. 1964 saw additional success, with Shakhlin winning gold in the horizontal bar, silver in the team competition and the all-around, and bronze in the rings. Until 1980, he held the record for the most Olympic medals won by a single athlete.
With a total of eleven medals between 1960 and 1968, Čáslavská is one of the most celebrated gymnasts in both Czechoslovakian history and in the Olympics. Her big break was in 1964, when she won the gold in the individual all-around competition, vault, and balance beam, and helped win silver for her overall team event. Her time on the floor is mired in controversy, however.
She was outspoken against Soviet-style communism during the 1968 Olympics, and it almost certainly cost her points from the Russian judges. It's very possible that she could have won both an additional gold medal, and not tied with the Soviet Larisa Petrk during the 1968 Olympics.
Fanny Blankers-Koen was known during her Olympic years as “The Flying Housewife,” and we hope you can figure out why. She won four gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, 80-meter hurdles, and 400-meter relay) in the 1948 Olympics, and when she wasn't training for these competitions she was raising two children. It turns out number three was already on the way, and she had won her medals while pregnant.
Most of us have trouble working out after a slightly big lunch, imagine training with the intensity of an Olympic athlete with a baby on the way.
Mangiarotti is the most successful fencer of all time since his trophy cabinet includes no less than thirteen Olympic medals. In 1936, 1952, 1956, and 1960 he helped Italy to a gold medal in the team epee competition and added to his total with an individual epee gold medal in 1952 and a team foil gold medal in 1956. A couple of silver medals came from team foil competitions in 1948, 1952, and 1960, as well as some individual competitions.
A pair of bronze medals round out the collection. His great success comes in part from his father, also a fencing champion, honing Edoardo into a left-hander, making him an awkward opponent.
Ray Ewry won no less than eight gold medals in the Olympics between the years 1900 and 1908. This count includes all three standing long jump competitions, all three high jump competitions, and the standing triple jump competition for 1900 and 1904. During that time span he also won two gold medals from the Intercalated Games, which used to, but no longer, count towards official Olympic medals.
These facts on their own are pretty impressive, but there's more. Ray Ewry contracted polio as a child – a disease that usually relegates people to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. And those are the lucky ones. Ray beat the odds, and also ended up beating his fellow athletes.
He's been called the greatest swordsman ever, and it isn't like we're going to argue. Aladar Gerevich hails from Hungary and competed in fencing, and he won gold medals in the six-straight Olympics – which is even more amazing when you think about the era. During the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, he won the gold as part of the Sabre team and took gold in 1936 for his individual Sabre work. No Olympics were held in 1940 or 1944, but Gerevich was back to his old tricks in 1948, winning gold in the individual and team Sabre competitions.
1952 netted him gold for the team and silver for individuals. He also picked up gold in the team in 1956, and then in 1960, the Hungarian Olympic committee told him he was too old. Risky. Gerevich defeated the entire Sabre team to prove he still had the spark and helped them win team gold.
The Olympics have changed over time, with competitions coming and going, phenoms like Michael Phelps leaving indelible marks on the history of sports, and social issues coming into play. As the years have rolled on, competition has become stiffer, training more intense, and medals have been won on the smallest margins.
Bob Mathias, who competed in track and field for the United States, wasn't content with small margins. He won gold medals in both the 1948 and the 1952 Olympics, at the ages of eighteen and twenty-two respectively. For the 1952 decathlon, he won by 912 points, which, at the time, was the largest margin of victory ever achieved.
From Great Britain, Daley Thompson was a decathlete. The decathlon combines ten different track and field events (deca=ten). There are 100-meter sprints, long jumps, shot puts, javelin throws, hurdles, and long-distance runs as well. In both the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games, Daley Thompson won gold medals for this trial of a competition. This meant that he was the best all-around athlete at both of these worldwide competitions. No mean feat!
In 1988, he ended up finishing fourth, which is still a big accomplishment. There are a few footnotes to know about Thompson's amazing achievements, though: in 1980 the United States sat out, and in 1984 the Russian competitors sat out since both took place during the Cold War.
At only sixteen years old, William Rudolph from the United States did something amazing: She won the bronze medal for the 400-meter relay. Young athletes are more common now, but in the 1950s, it was much more noteworthy – especially for a black woman. She didn't stop there. At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, she won three gold medals: the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 400-meter relay.
The English press gave her the nickname “The Tornado,” but that wasn't the only one. The Italian press gave her the nickname La Gazzella Negra (The Black Gazelle) and the French papers called her La Perle Noire, or “The Black Pearl.” Keep an eye out for Jack Sparrow, Rudolph.
Finnish distance runner, Paavo Nurmi, left his home due to life hardships. He was only 12 when he had to provide for his family, and later he enrolled in the military where he started to flourish as a runner. He is credited for his unique training style- the “even pace” strategy.
He was so fast and successful that he got the nickname “Flying Finn.” But he was also an elusive personality, and was later on referred to as the “Phantom Finn.” All in all, he set 22 world records, won nine gold medals, and three silvers in the Olympics, starting from his debut in the 1920 Summer Olympics. He was one of the richest people in Finland.
It may seem a world away when Caitlyn Jenner used to be known as Bruce Jenner; a period where he was hailed unofficially as the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” In the world of the decathlon, a sport played mainly by male athletes, Jenner won his first Olympic gold medal in the 1976 Summer Olympics.
He set a world record three times, which made him wildly popular, and this would lead to a wide array of offers and career opportunities including TV, film, business, and as a cover model for Playgirl. However, in 2017, he took a course no one had ever expected by undergoing a series of transformation procedures. Now Caitlyn Jenner is one of the most famous transgender women in the world.
There are Olympians, and there are those who even raise themselves farther up the echelon as among the very few elites. Only ten athletes in the world have ever won eight or more gold medals in the Olympics, and Sawao Kato is one of them, as a retired Japanese gymnast. From his Olympic debut in 1968 to 1976, he has won 12 medals, making him one of the best, most successful Olympic athletes of all time.
Kato retired while still on top of his game, defending his title in the parallel bars. He aimed to win an unprecedented third gold medal in the all-around event during the 1976 Summer Olympics but failed, as he was defeated by Nikolai Andrianov. No Japanese Olympian up to this day has more Olympic golds than this legendary gymnast. Sawao Kato worked as a professor at the University of Tsukuba.
Larisa Latynina has devoted most of her strength and vigor to whittling her skills in gymnastics. Most of her life has been about keeping composure, balancing, and keeping equilibrium while tumbling up in the air. She has won 14 gold medals in the individual all-around, plus four team medals, a medal tally that made her the record holder for most Olympic gold medals for decades until Michael Phelps superseded her.
Even after she retired as a competitor, she dedicated her time coaching young gymnasts of the Soviet Union, guiding them through 1968, 1972, and the 1976 Olympic Games. She retired shortly after her last Olympics in 1977 and retired in Semenovskoye, Russia.
It wasn’t enough for Dick Fosbury to learn the basics and a few tricks like a high jumper at the age of 16. The traditional method was too hard for him to master, where a jumper had to cross the bar facing down, called the straddle method. So he experimented with his own, and this would be commonly practiced today, called the Fosbury Flop- running in a curve, rotating the body once over the bar, leaping backward, and landing on one’s shoulders and neck.
He set the high jump record and won the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics with his revolutionized style. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 and became the Blaine County commissioner.
Janet Beth Evans
Janet Evans didn’t seem at first like she had a promising future as a distance freestyle swimmer. She is shorter than most of her competitors, and her build wasn’t typical; slight, seemingly less powerful. But even as a teenager she was known to have set age-group records, beating older, taller opponents.
She was known for her unconventional swimming style. Her windmill stroke allowed her to win four Olympic gold medals. Two at the 1988 Olympics, and another pair in 1992. After retiring from her athletic career, she’s become a motivational speaker. She’s married to Bill Wilson, and they have two children together.
At the age of 18, Birgit Fischer became the youngest Olympic champion kayaker. She competed for twenty years, and throughout this span, she has won eight Olympic gold medals. She participated in eight Olympic games and represented East Germany in several World Championships.
Fischer initially retired after the 1988 and 2000 Olympic Games, but her love for the sport and competition would overcome her decisions on both occasions. She became the oldest Olympian canoeing champion at the age of 42. She displays her works of photography through the Art of the Olympians organization.
If rhythm plays a vital role in becoming a world-class athlete, Shaun White should be a source of his own material as a musician, and it should push him to always be at his best as a professional snowboarder and skateboarder. As an Olympian, Shaun White has won three gold medals; holding the most number by a snowboarder.
He’s won ten Espy Awards and has earned more gold medals in the X-Games than any competitor. Shaun White plays the guitar for Bad Things, an electronic rock band. He also makes appearances in television and films such as Friends with Benefits.
Ian Thorpe is arguably Australia’s most popular athlete of all time. He grew up in a sporting family and has naturally inherited his parents’ competitiveness. When his sister broke a wrist, Ian Thorpe would go along with her to the pool where she was advised to swim to recuperate from her injury.
At 14, Thorpe was the youngest male to ever represent his country in the world championships. He is nicknamed “Thorpedo” for his speed, and that would catapult him to the world stage- winning five Olympic gold medals in the 2000 Summer Olympics, and a total of 11 world championship golds throughout his career. He is now an active philanthropist and was awarded for his efforts in promoting indigenous people's rights.
Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the “Magnificent Seven” US gymnastics team. She injured herself during the trials but was petitioned on the team on account of her strong scores during the Nationals. She was awarded a gold medal for the team event.
Most of us remember her for substituting for Kerri Strug who had to vacant her slot and compete in the final round of the team event. Moceanu’s career had been riddled with various injuries, but she would compete one more time in the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney. She retired thereafter and is now a coach and author.
Sir Chris Hoy
It’s funny how movies can seem so trifling to us at times without knowing how it subconsciously nestles in our minds and grows. Sir Chris Hoy, the most decorated Olympic cyclist of all time with six golds, actually decided to be a cyclist after he watched the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He was only six years old, and as a teenager, he was ranked as high as ninth in the world in BMX cycling.
He moved up to track cycling, where he rose to prominence in the Olympics as a six-time champion and an eleven-time world champion. He retired after the 2012 London Olympics and is now involved in motorsports.
As a competitive swimmer, Summer Sanders specialized in the Butterfly and the Individual Medley. She only competed once in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona, where she won four gold medals.
Her popularity after the games helped her land a job as a commentator for CBS Sports, NBC, and MSNBC where she covered various sports events. This would serve as a kickstart to a more prosperous career in television, as she would also make various appearances on many networks such as being the first female host of Nickelodeon. She is married to Olympian skier Erik Schlopy, and they have two children.
Bjørn Dæhlie isn’t about willing to let go of a career as a cross-country skier, which has made him arguably the most famous Norwegian athlete. During his prime, he has accumulated 29 medals from the Olympic competitions and the World Championships, eight of which are Olympic golds.
At the age of 51, he was still competing, much to the annoyance of his doctors and family, as he has to deal with his many injuries acquired over time. But perhaps this is where he finds his value in his life, and he braves the pain each time he performs. When he’s not competing he works as a fashion designer.
For more than a decade, Michelle Kwan has won numerous medals in international events that would make her not just the most popular figure skater in America, but also the most decorated, and one of the most prominent female athletes regardless of sport.
Her consistency and expressive artistry helped her garner two Olympic medals in 1998 and 2002, as well as become a five-time world champion. She is often regarded as one of the best figure skaters of all time, and one of the highest-paid Winter Olympic athletes in terms of endorsements. She last worked as an outreach coordinator during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Bart Conner became the youngest member of the US Olympic team in the 1976 Summer Olympics at the age of 14. He had been competing since high school, and he probably would have won a medal after he qualified for the 1980 Olympics. But his dreams were aborted due to the boycott.
He finally won two gold medals during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles following his unique performance on the parallel bars. He found his true love, too, in competition; marrying Nadia Comăneci, a Romanian gymnast he’d met in 1976 at the Montreal Games. Both are active in the Special Olympics.
Thanks to one of Gabrielle Douglas’s older sisters, her mother was convinced to enroll her in gymnastics lessons when she was only six years old. She took formal lessons and even lived away from her family to pursue her training. She is the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around event, and also the first American gymnast to win the gold in the individual all-around and the team competitions as well in the same Olympic Games.
Douglas attributes all her success to God. She says He is the secret to her success. She won the gold medal during the 2012 London Olympics and repeated her performance in the Rio Olympics in 2016. She has written a book, sharing her experiences, and what it takes to be an Olympic gold medalist.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen
Ole Einar Bjørndalen left home at the age of 16 to pursue his career in biathlon, and cross-country skiing, but later on focused on the former. He was the most successful competitor during the 1994 Winter Olympic Games where he went home with an astounding eight gold medals along with four silvers and a bronze.
He has become known as the “King of the Biathlon.” Now at the age of 45 years old, Ole Einar Bjørndalen still continues to compete. In the grand picture of things, no other biathlete in history has won as much as half of his 44 total medals. Has he said his final word?
You would think the original basketball “Dream Team” sent to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were a bunch of nice guys up until Charles Barkley showed up. He is as tough as they get; a rough defender, loudmouth, and top rebounder. The US won the gold medal in 1992, and again in the 1996 Olympics, of which Barkley was part.
He was the NBA MVP in 1993. In spite of only being 6 ft 6 in tall, he led the league in rebounds for 3 straight seasons. He retired back in 2000 and works as a game analyst for the NBA TV program.
Edwin Moses thrives in a competitive environment, so much so, that even after his retirement as a track and field athlete, he would go on to excel in bobsledding, winning the bronze in the 1990 World Cup.
Moses won gold medals at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics in the 400 m hurdles event. Along the way, he has set world records four times. Being such a consistent performer, Edwin Moses won 107 consecutive finals competitions. He is a strong advocate for random illegal substance testing and has helped significantly in reforming Olympic eligibility rules.
Dominique Dawes dazzled the world audience when she became the first black person to clinch a gold medal in the Olympics in gymnastics. She had been a member of the US national team for a decade, and she eventually became the first black woman to have won an individual Olympic medal (artistic gymnastics).
Known as “Awesome Dawesome,” she was a member of the extremely talented group “Magnificent Seven,” which had brought home the first-ever gold medal in the team event at the 1996 Summer Olympics. She is employed by the US government as a sports adviser.
Sir Steve Redgrave
Sir Steve Redgrave was a master of the sweep rowing discipline, and as an athlete, he was as consistent and hard-working as he could possibly be. His record is a testament to his efforts, which makes it doubly impressive considering he had suffered from a medical condition for most of his career.
Regardless of the sport, he is considered the fourth most decorated among British Olympians. He's competed in five Olympics and won gold medals every time. He is the greatest rower in Olympic history, and in 2011 he was given the “Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award” by BBC.
Andre Agassi first drew attention to the sport of tennis for his “image is everything” style. He quickly rose to the ranks as a young athlete, but his skills had tremendously improved in 1995 under the tutelage of his new coach Brad Gilbert. This is the year he would first become ranked no.1 in the world.
Many regard him as the best serve returner in the history of tennis. His best performances have been fueled by his rivalry with Pete Sampras, as they were considered the best players of their generation- Sampras being the greatest server, in contrast to Agassi’s superb returner skills. He retired in 2003 and has been married to Steffi Graf since 2001.
Kristi Yamaguchi started to figure skate at a very young age. She earned her first international gold medal at the 1990 Goodwill Games when she was only nineteen. She moved to Edmonton to train while taking up Psychology at the University of Alberta.
Yamaguchi’s first Olympic gold medal came during the 1992 Winter Olympics. By that time she was already a world champion, and she won another gold in 1992 in Oakland. She’s now an author of children’s books, and occasionally she appears on NBC as a skating analyst.
Peggy Fleming’s love for figure skating began when her father took her and her sisters out to skate. She mastered basic skating skills by the age of nine. After the US figure skating team tragically passed in 1961 while on their way to compete at the World Figure Skating Championships, she changed coaches.
Having her own skating style, Fleming easily caught people’s attention. This helped her capture 3 world titles, and with more training, she was able to grab a gold medal during the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. This was the only gold medal won by the US, however, it manifested their gradual return to dominance in figure skating. She’s been a sports commentator for more than two decades, covering the Winter Olympic Games, and the sport she has dedicated most of her life to.
Chad Le Clos
Chad Le Clos is a South African competitive swimming champion. He won titles in the Olympics, World Championships, and the Commonwealth Games. Unfortunately, his glitzy record is often undermined by his public rivalry with American champion swimmer Michael Phelps.
The American decided to revoke his retirement to compete against Chad in the 2016 Rio Olympics, who beat him in 2012 in London in the 200m butterfly event. Both of them, however, lost to Tamas Kenderesi from Hungary. He is still actively competing in swimming and is considered the most decorated Olympian from South Africa.
Watching George Foreman pound the punching bag with his large fists gave you the impression he could cut a tree with his bare hands. “Big George” won a gold medal in boxing during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He became more popular for his “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match with Muhammad Ali in 1974.
He is now a successful entrepreneur and spokesperson for the George Foreman Grill, which has sold more than a million units. He was paid $138 million for the grill’s naming rights in 1999.
Tonya Harding devoted most of her time growing up training to become a professional figure skater. She even quit high school to gain more time to develop her skills, and this would soon redound to positive results. The two-time Olympian has a total of five gold medals, and she’s only the second woman in history to perform the extremely difficult triple Axel.
She was banned for life after her ex-husband hired somebody to attack Nancy Kerrigan, her skating rival, and after she had pleaded guilty to hindering the case of the prosecution. She has since turned to pro boxing and has a record of 3-3.
At a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were at the peak of their rivalry as superpowers, competing for world supremacy in practically everything, sports competitions were a grand platform to show off their talents to the world. And in the midst of such ethos, Mike Eruzione came out as an ice hockey hero.
He was the captain of the 1980 Winter Olympics, where the US team was regarded as huge underdogs versus the Soviets who were deemed unbeatable. The game was called the “Miracle on Ice,” where Mike Eruzione upped his game to score the winning goal in favor of the US.
Kerri Strug held the key to the United States’ winning its first gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team competition during the Olympics. Her sacrifices epitomized what it means to be an ideal Olympian; sacrificing her personal goals for her team’s glory in Atlanta in 1996.
To finally achieve their common dream, Strug gave up the golden opportunity to compete in the Individual All-Around category. She had to be assisted by the “Magnificent Seven” coach, Béla Károlyi from the podium after she landed from the vault routine with an ankle injury. It was an extremely thrilling performance right down to the final rounds where she gracefully braved the pressure. After her sports career, she has since worked as a teacher, a staff assistant in the White House, and a presidential appointee in the office of the Department of Justice.
Usain Bolt is a nine-time Olympic gold medalist from Jamaica. He specializes in the 100 m, 200 m, and 4x100 m relay events where he has dominated in three consecutive Olympic games. As if his popularity needed a jolt, he became more famous after setting two world records in double sprint events (100 m, 200 m) in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Usain Bolt is regarded to be the greatest sprinter of all time. Nicknamed the “Lightning Bolt,” he retired after the 2017 World Championships, and now plays football for the Central Coast Mariners in Australia.
Mia Hamm is regarded by many as perhaps one of — or the most important — athlete in the last 15 years for her achievements in soccer. Ironically, she was born with a club foot and had to wear corrective shoes as a toddler. Her father was her first soccer coach, and she would excel on the boys’ soccer team in school.
She grew up to become a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a ground-breaking athlete. She became an icon of the sport and the face of WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association). She is an author, a co-owner of Los Angeles FC, and a world ambassador for FC Barcelona.
Rulon Gardner is an American retired Greco-Roman wrestler who has won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. He competed again in 2004 and won the bronze medal, but outside competition, he has had to endure more difficult trials, including falling into a freezing river with his snowmobile. This was in 2002, and he lost the middle toe in his right foot due to severe frostbite, but he bounced back as an athlete.
He suffered from a learning disability as a kid, and he shares his stories with people as a motivational speaker. He survived a plane crash in 2007 unharmed. He joined the reality TV show Biggest Loser in 2011, after which he lost over 170 lbs, but quit the contest for personal reasons.
Jean-Claude Killy’s family was forced to relocate to the Alps during the Second World War. They kept a simple life up in the ranges, where his father opened a ski shop. Jean-Claude dropped out of school to help his father and started to learn how to ski rather easily and quickly, with all the time in the world as a teen.
He became a dominant alpine ski racer, winning three golds at the 1968 Winter Olympics. He followed that up with two world championships, making him a force in the sport in the 1960s. Retired, he is famous for his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mary Lou Retton
Mary Lou Retton had become such a popular gymnast that her image was used in a 1988 Paraguay stamp. Her prominence was mainly due to her performance during the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, where she became the first American woman ever to win a gold in the individual all-around.
Having achieved such a historical feat, Mary Lou Retton remains one of the most beloved Olympians. Added to her medal tally are two silvers and two bronzes. She was married to the University of Texas quarterback Shannon Kelly, but the couple divorced in Feb. 2018.
Sergey Bubka was in a league of his own when he represented the Soviet Union as a pole vaulter, up until its dissolution in 1991. He was named Athlete of the Year twice, winning a gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and he was the IAAF World Champion for six years in a row.
Sergey Bubka was so dominant as a pole vaulter that he mainly trained to practically beat himself each time, crashing his own world records; and he would break pole vault records 35 times. He retired in 2001 and is actively involved in IOC as an honorary member.
Alicia Sacramone’s gymnastics career spanned over a decade. Her learning stage started when she was eight, and in just seven years she would enter an elite-level competition. Winning 12 medals from 2004 to 2008 in the US National Championships, as well as winning four golds, four silvers, and one bronze in the World Championships adds considerably to her being one of the most decorated gymnasts in the world.
She won the silver medal in the 2008 Olympics and proceeded to qualify for the Visa national championships. Failing to make it to the Olympic team, she left the sport in 2012 with “no regrets.”
Greg Louganis remains the only Olympic diver in history to have swept the diving events in two consecutive Olympic Games. He competed dominantly both in the springboard and the platform in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics, and his excellent performances have prompted him to be called the “greatest American diver,” and arguably the “greatest diver” ever.
Even today, he is still remembered for his head injury in the pool during the Seoul Olympics. Greg Louganis is now an LGBTQ+ activist and serves as a mentor to the US Diving team.
Dorothy Hamill’s father was very supportive of her ambition as a figure skater. She started taking weekly lessons at the age of eight, and would gradually increase her interest in the sport, so much so that her father would spend about $20,000 annually for its concomitant expenses.
Dorothy Hamill became an Olympic gold medal champion in the 1976 Olympics. That same year she also became a world champion, both in the ladies' singles category. Surprisingly, Hamill would retire the same year she had been performing really well. In 2008 she announced that she was being treated for a severe medical condition.
Jan Zelezny is a retired Czech track and field athlete, widely considered the best javelin thrower of modern times. As an Olympian, he won gold medals in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics, and he held the world record for throwing 98.48 meters for several years.
It is remarkable how he has kept himself above the competition by also being credited for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best performances. Now retired, he coaches in Prague and works for the IOC.
Born to gymnast parents, Nastia Liukin didn’t have any problem growing into the sport her family loves. The Russian-American was born in Moscow but moved to America with her family when she was two years old. The following year she would start her first lessons since she was always in the gym with her parents anyway, and she first competed at the junior level in 2002.
She eventually tied with Shannon Miller for third place with the most world championship medals among US gymnasts. She was the all-around champion in the 2008 Olympics, where she also garnered three silver medals and a bronze. She attempted to make a comeback in 2010 but failed to make the cut after several falls.
At the age of 16, Cathy Freeman became the first Australian Indigenous person to receive a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games. She was trained by her stepfather when she was only five years old, competing in various events like the 100 m, 200 m, and the long jump. But her main forte was in the 400-meter event.
She won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games and a silver in Atlanta in 1996. Her 400 m record of 48.63 makes her one of the fastest women in the world. She decided to retire in 2003 to spend quality time with her family and founded the Cathy Freeman Foundation in 2007.
The US discovered its youngest champion in short-track speed skating when Apolo Ohno clinched the US National Championship at the age of 14. He held the title from 2001 to 2009 and became an eight-time medalist in the Winter Olympics. In his prime, he became the face of the US short track, the most decorated American Olympian, too, at the Winter Olympic Games.
After he retired in 2013, Apolo Ohno became a motivational speaker, and he started his own nutritional supplement business. He joined the 'Dancing with the Stars', competition in 2007 and won.
While other Olympians would make single, short appearances in the Olympic Games, Dara Torres would be the first competitive swimmer to represent the US in five Olympics (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008). Throughout her career, she’s become a 12-time Olympic medalist and the oldest member of the US Olympic team.
Dara Torres was forced to retire after she suffered knee problems. She would’ve wanted to be part of the Olympic team in 2012, but announced her retirement after the trials. She started a career in modeling and has worked for various networks as a reporter.
Shannon Lee Miller
Shannon Miller began her gymnastics lessons when she was five years old. During those times she would travel to Moscow to expand her learnings and experience. She was unofficially the leader of the Magnificent Seven that brought home the first-ever gold medal to the US. With a total of seven gold medals, she is the most decorated gymnast to ever come from the US.
Before Simone Biles broke her record, she was the most decorated gymnast in US history with a total of 16 medals from the Olympics and World Championships; five of them, from the 1992 Olympics alone. She was diagnosed with a severe medical condition in 2011 but was cleared by her doctors after seven months of treatment.
Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Jacqueline Kersee “The Greatest Female Athlete of All-Time” following her achievements in track and field. She specializes in the heptathlon, where her world record still stands, and in the long jump.
Despite her severe asthma, she has persevered as an elite athlete. In four Olympic Games (Seoul, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Atlanta) she has earned three golds, one silver, and two bronze medals. She is now an active philanthropist and the founder of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Aly Raisman is a legacy of the Magnificent Seven, for having inspired her to seriously take on gymnastics, although she had started learning the sport when she was only two years old. Her mother used to be a gymnast, too, in high school, but Aly Raisman would become the captain of both the “Fierce Five” and the “Final Five” US gymnastics team in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics respectively.
She won two gold medals and a bronze in London, making her the most decorated athlete at the time. Aly Raisman appeared in a music video featuring Maroon 5, and she finished fourth in the Season 16 of 'Dancing with the Stars', with her partner Mark Ballas.
Retired Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci overcame many hardships but eventually became the first-ever gymnast to be awarded a perfect score in the Olympics. She was credited for making gymnastics a more popular sport in the international scene, and she went on to become a five-time Olympic gold medalist and a four-time world champion.
Nadia has lived in the US since 1989 and is married to Bart Conner, who was also an Olympic gold medalist gymnast. They own the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, several sports shops, and a production company.
Nancy Kerrigan is a famous former figure skater who won a bronze medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics, and a silver medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics. She also placed third in the World Championships in 1991. But perhaps Nancy Kerrigan will always be mentioned alongside her US rival Tonya Harding, whose ex-husband had orchestrated an attack against her.
The incident became highly publicized as a man hit her with a baton and hurt her knee. This was intentionally sabotaged and missed her chances of winning the figure skating competition. But Kerrigan would recover just in time to participate and earn a medal in 1994. In 2017, she took part in 'Dancing with the Stars', in Season 24. She also appears as a guest on various TV shows.
American retired competitive swimmer Mark Spitz would not only become an outstanding Olympian and gold medalist, but he would forge on to set world records in seven of his events. He was a nine-time Olympic champion. Only Michael Phelps would break his record of winning seven gold medals during the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Perhaps Mark Spitz could have achieved more before he decided to retire after the Munich Olympics. He was only 22 years old at the time. He tried his hand at show business, worked as a commentator, and focused on his real estate business, and other entrepreneurial projects. He continues to travel around the world to give lectures based on his Olympic experiences.
Kerri Walsh Jennings
During her college years at Stanford University, Kerri Walsh Jennings was considered to be among the best all-around players ever in collegiate volleyball. Her skills improved as she transitioned into beach volleyball, where she became a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
Along with her partner, Misty-May Treanor, the duo is considered to be the “Greatest Beach Volleyball Team” in history. Kerri Walsh continues to compete, and she also makes appearances on film and television. She holds a record for women’s career earnings — $2,561,635.
American competitive swimmer Natalie Coughlin must have a huge room to stow all her medals and certificates. While studying at the University of California, Berkeley, she set a record in the 100 m backstrokes by being the first woman to complete it in less than a minute. Six years after that, she won six Olympic gold medals during the 2008 Summer Olympics, the first American female to do so in a single Olympiad.
Coughlin has won a grand total of 60 medals, all from international events. Thanks to her glitzy sports career, she’s become a brand ambassador. Her name is practically synonymous with victory. She’s also a business investor in a food corporation.
As a track and field sprinter, Allyson Felix seems to be making a statement each time she competes. She specializes in the 100 m, 200 m, and 400m categories, but she’s also an advocate for an all-natural body enhancement approach. Having competed as an Olympian since the 2008 Olympics, she’s come to actually walk the talk by still competing up to this day. She plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics as well.
No woman has ever won six gold medals in her sport, a feat she proudly holds at the age of 30. She often speaks about the necessity to keep the sport clean and promotes regular, random illegal substance testing.
While many athletes would be content to make it to the Olympics or win a medal at the highest level of competition, Michael Phelps aspired for so much more. He was regarded as the most successful Olympian in history, and definitely, the most decorated of all time, winning a total of 28 medals, with 23 of them being gold.
He first retired from the sport in 2012, after the London Olympics. But sensing he still had so much more left in him, plus being constantly challenged by a rival, re-ignited his passion to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where he won his last five gold medals and a silver. He is widely regarded as the best swimmer in history.
McKayla Maroney is a retired artistic gymnast who was the first world champion (2011) to ever defend a vault title (2013). She also competed in the 2012 Olympics as a member of the Fierce Five, where she won a silver medal in the individual vault competition. She earned gold as well, for the team event.
Perhaps more popular than her record as an artistic gymnast is a photograph of her making a “not impressed” facial expression while awaiting her silver medal award at the Olympics. This image circulated the Internet- converted into memes, photoshopped for fun- but Maroney took it all with good humor. She was forced to retire due to a chronic injury and has transitioned into a career in entertainment.
Carl Lewis was not only dominant as a track and field athlete, but he was untiringly consistent too. He competed in 100 m, 200 m, 400 x 100 m relay, and the long jump, and has set a number of world records in his career that almost spanned two decades. This dominance produced a total of nine Olympic gold medals, a silver, and astonishing ten world titles.
Carl Lewis was such an exceptional athlete in his prime that he was voted the “World Athlete of the Century.” He now owns C.L.E.G., a marketing and branding company that also promotes his own products.
Little did Shawn Johnson’s parents didn't know that enrolling her in gymnastics at the age of three would lead their daughter to international competitions. Like most parents, they just wanted their daughter to learn interesting skills while having fun, and it could have been in any sport. With her trainer’s encouragement and patience, Johnson developed her skills to reach a competitive level.
In 2008, she competed in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. She won the gold medal for the Balance Beam category and earned 3 silvers for the women’s gymnastics team. She hurt her knee while skiing in 2010, prompting her to retire from the sport.