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Swimming 101: Olympic History

Swimming 101: Olympic History
Posted at 4:33 PM, Mar 13, 2020
and last updated 2021-03-10 14:03:10-05

Rio de Janeiro, 2016 
The stars and stripes flew often above the pool in Rio as the United States won a medal in all but three events, including, for the second-consecutive Olympics, 16 gold medals.  

At his fourth and final Games, Michael Phelps cemented his legacy as the greatest Olympian of all time, amassing another five gold medals at age 31 to bring his career total to 23. Phelps, however, was not the only veteran to triumph at the Rio Games. 35-year-old American Anthony Ervin stunned the swimming world by winning the 50m freestyle sprint, 16 years after tying for gold in the same event as a teenager at Sydney, 2000. 

Katie Ledecky, entering her prime as a 19-year-old, led the American women with four gold medals and a silver. Ledecky successfully defended her 800m title from London in world record fashion and swept the distance freestyle events. Meanwhile, in the freestyle sprints, Simone Manuel claimed gold in the 100m and silver in the 50m, becoming the first African American woman to win an individual swimming medal. 

After a disappointing week in the pool for the host nation, Brazil’s Poliana Okimoto cruised to bronze in the 10k open water race to win her country’s only aquatics medal of the Rio Games. 

London, 2012 
Perhaps inspired by the historic efforts of Michael Phelps four years earlier, the United States applied a stranglehold on the swimming program in London, winning gold in half of the 32 pool events.  

Phelps himself earned six medals during the 2012 Games: four golds and two silvers. If Phelps was an independent country, he'd have ranked 20th overall (just above North Korea) for the overall medal count at the London Olympics. Ryan Lochte took home five medals from London: two gold, two silver and one bronze. 

The U.S. women's team contributed to the American dominance - Olympic rookies Missy Franklin (four golds and a bronze) and Katie Ledecky (who broke an American record older than she was and took home the gold in the 800m freestyle) made the biggest impression. Rebecca Soni became the first women under 2 minutes, 20 seconds in the 200m breaststroke and captured that event's gold, in addition to a silver in the 100m event. Allison Schmitt broke the American and Olympic records winning the 200m freestyle. Elizabeth Beisel and Caitlin Leverenz took home an individual silver and bronze, respectively.

In the 10k, Tunisia's Oussama Mellouli and Hungary's Eva Risztov took the Olympic titles for the men's and women's open water event, respectively. Team USA's Haley Anderson captured the silver medal. 

Beijing, 2008 
Michael Phelps made history by winning eight gold medals during the Beijing Games. The accomplishment topped Mark Spitz's record of seven victories in one Games (Munich, 1972) and made him the most successful athlete in a single Olympics. The feat was not easy, as two races were decided by fractions of a second. Phelps out-touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic by 0.01 seconds in the 100m butterfly, while Jason Lezak brought the 400m freestyle relay team a victory thanks to an incredible comeback over the French team — his performance was one of the best, if not the best, relay swim in history.

Led by Phelps, the American team were the most successful swimming squad in Beijing, winning 12 gold medals, nine silver and 10 bronze for a total of 31. Dara Torres, in her second competitive Olympic comeback was 41 at the time and won three silver medals. Torres was the oldest U.S. woman to swim at the Olympics. Natalie Coughlin became the first American woman to win six medals at a single modern Olympic Games. 

The 10k open water event made its Olympic debut for men and women at the 2008 Beijing Games. On the men's side, the Netherlands' Maarten van der Weijden, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001 and later underwent chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, won gold and captured his country's only individual swimming medal of the 2008 Olympics. The trademark late race speed of Russia's Larisa Ilchenko aided her quest to capture the inaugural Olympic gold in the women's event. 

Athens, 2004 
Michael Phelps didn't tie Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Games, but his haul of six gold (200m IM, 400m IM, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4x200m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay) and two bronze (200m freestyle, 4x100m freestyle relay) medals was one of the most amazing performances in Olympic swimming history. The eight medals at a single Games for Phelps tied Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin's mark set in the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. 

Aaron Peirsol endured the wildest 15 minutes of his swimming career when he won gold in the 200m backstroke, had it taken away and given back again, all before the medal ceremony. Peirsol bested his nearest competitor by two seconds, winning in an Olympic record one minute, 54.95 seconds. Moments later, he was disqualified for an illegal third turn. Immediately following the disqualification, the U.S. lodged a protest with FINA, the international governing body of swimming. Then, in yet another turn of events, FINA overturned the disqualification. 

Kosuke Kitajima of Japan captured gold medals in the 100m and 200m breaststroke races, becoming the first Japanese swimmer to win two individual gold medals. Yana Klochkova of Ukraine became the first female swimmer to win consecutive pairs of Olympic gold medals in the same events: the 200m and 400m individual medleys. 

Sydney, 2000 
With so much focus in Sydney on the showdown between the U.S. and Australia for swimming supremacy, the Netherlands was something of an afterthought. But not after Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn disrupted that duel. Van den Hoogenband's upset of Aussie star Ian Thorpe in the 200m freestyle was among the five gold medals he and de Bruijn combined to win. 

Thorpe captured 400m freestyle gold and the 4x100m freestyle relay title on night one of the Games. The relay victory celebration included some mock strumming by Michael Klim, in response to Gary Hall Jr.'s pre-race claim that the U.S. would smash the Aussies "like a guitar." 

American women had an impressive showing. Misty Hyman upset Australian Susie O'Neill for the 200m butterfly victory in Olympic record time. Dara Torres, 33, capped her comeback with five medals in Sydney. Torres, the first U.S swimmer to compete at four Games, increased her career medal total to nine, surpassing the pre-Sydney record for American women (swimmer Shirley Babashoff's eight). Three-time Olympian Jenny Thompson, 27, went one better, reaching the 10-medal mark with a bronze (tying Torres in the 100m freestyle) and three relay golds, though she fell short in pursuit of her first individual victory. 

Atlanta, 1996 
Sprinters Gary Hall Jr. and Alexander Popov gave Atlanta a prize-fight feel, as Russia's Popov downplayed the chances of his American rival in pre-race interviews, while Hall performed a shadow-boxing routine on the deck before the two dueled in the pool. In results akin to a 15th-round knockout, Popov landed the deciding blows, edging Hall in both the 50m and 100m freestyles by a total of .14 of a second. 

Suffering from exercise-induced asthma, Amy Van Dyken had to overcome the handicap of inhaling only 65 percent as much oxygen as her competitors. Nevertheless, Van Dyken upset the favored Chinese in the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly, and added a pair of relay golds, becoming the first American woman to win four gold medals at one Olympics. 

Never had an Irish woman won an Olympic medal, but Michelle Smith emerged to win four in Atlanta, including three golds in both IMs and the 400m freestyle. Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi, 21 years old and nicknamed "Little Mouse," became only the second woman to win the same swimming event at three Olympics, capturing the 200m backstroke titles at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Games. China, which had taken nine medals in Barcelona and 12 of 16 world titles in 1994, only managed one gold and six total medals in Atlanta. 

Barcelona, 1992 
In a 50m freestyle final featuring defending champ Matt Biondi and world record holder Tom Jager, the unexpected winner was Alexander Popov of the Unified Team. The tall, 20-year-old Russian posted an Olympic-record time of 21.91 seconds in completing a sweep of the two sprint events, a feat he duplicated in Atlanta. 

Stanford undergrad Summer Sanders, 19, won four medals, including gold in the 200m butterfly that offset disappointment from both IMs, which she led in the final lap. Also climbing four podiums was Germany's 14-year-old phenom Franziska van Almsick, whose precocity was trumped by 200m breaststroke winner Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan. Six days after turning 14, Iwasaki became swimming's youngest Olympic champion. 

Seoul, 1988 
In what remains the most-dominant, single-Games performance ever by a woman, East Germany's Kristin Otto powered to six gold medals. Led by the versatile Otto, East Germany won 10 of the 15 women's events at what proved to be the country's final Olympics before reunification. The "Star-Spangled Banner" played for only one American woman at the pool in Seoul, but Janet Evans cued it up three times. The 17-year-old Californian, with her textbook-defying windmill stroke, churned to gold in the 400m IM, then asserted her distance dominance by sweeping the 400m and 800m freestyles. After winning silver and gold in Barcelona, Evans concluded her Olympic career in Atlanta, where she handed the torch to Muhammad Ali during the Opening Ceremony. 

American Matt Biondi attempted to equal Mark Spitz's single-Games record of seven gold medals. Biondi dominated, but not quite at the Spitz standard, claiming five golds, a silver (just 1/100th of a second behind Suriname's Anthony Nesty in the 100m butterfly) and a bronze. Biondi ultimately matched Spitz with a career total of 11 Olympic medals. 

Los Angeles, 1984 
With the Soviets and East Germans absent, the United States won 21 of the 29 events. Mary T. Meagher swept the butterflies, Tracy Caulkins took both IMs, and Rowdy Gaines won triple gold. West Germany's Michael Gross, dubbed "The Albatross" because of his monstrous wingspan, captured the 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly. In a stunning upset, Aussie Jon Sieben beat Gross and American Pablo Morales in the 200m butterfly. 

Moscow, 1980 
With the United States at home boycotting, Soviet Vladimir Salnikov set the only world record in men's swimming at the Moscow Games. He took the 1500m freestyle in 14 minutes, 58.27 seconds, becoming the first person to dip below 15 minutes in the event. Although he didn't get to swim four years later in Los Angeles because of the USSR's retaliatory boycott, Salnikov cemented his legacy in 1988, winning swimming's metric mile again — at the relatively ancient age of 28. 

Montreal, 1976 
Led by four-time gold medalist Kornelia Ender, East Germany won 11 of the 13 women's races in Montreal. Suspicions of substance abuse by the East Germans were eventually confirmed in the 1990s by documentation and numerous confessions. Even more prolific than the East German women in 1976 were the U.S. men, who won 12 of 13 events. John Naber took both backstroke titles and added two more relay golds plus a silver in the 200m freestyle. 

Munich, 1972 
Mark Spitz, who won only two relay golds at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and had been considered a disappointment, rebounded and astounded four years later in Munich, winning seven gold medals — four individually and three in relays — to set a single-Games record (for any sport). 

On the women's side, at any other Olympics, 15-year-old Shane Gould's performance would have been the big story. But with Mark Spitz piling up seven victories, Gould's remarkable effort — three world records, three gold medals, five total medals — was a relative ripple. The precocious Australian, who from July 1971 to January 1972 set world records in five women's freestyle distances, quickly tired of competitive swimming's demands and quit the sport at age 16. 

Mexico City, 1968 
After setting world records in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles during the U.S. Olympic Trials, Debbie Meyer failed to match that kind of speed in mile-high-plus Mexico City. Still, she swept those events at the Games, becoming the first swimmer to win three individual gold medals at one Olympics. 

Tokyo, 1964 
History was made in Tokyo when American Don Schollander became the first swimmer to win four golds at a single Games and Australian Dawn Fraser gave her sport its first three-time Olympic champion in the same event. Fraser, seven months removed from injuries sustained in a car accident that killed her mother, repeated in the 100m freestyle. 

Rome, 1960 
With victory in the 100m free, Australia's Dawn Fraser became the first woman to successfully defend an Olympic swimming title. But the Fraser legacy was marked by more than just triumph. In Rome, she was ostracized by teammates for refusing to swim in the medley relay. 

Melbourne, 1956 
For the first time, the Games headed to the Southern Hemisphere with Australia playing host. The home team didn't disappoint. At the sparkling new Olympic Park swimming stadium, Murray Rose captured three gold medals and Dawn Fraser led an Aussie sweep of the women's 100m freestyle. 

Helsinki, 1952 
The U.S. suffered its first Olympic defeat in men's swimming since 1936 (Americans won every race in 1948) when France's Jean Boiteux won the 400m freestyle. In doing so, Boiteux gave France its first gold medal of the 1952 Games and moved his overjoyed father to join him in the pool, fully clothed. 

London, 1948 
Forty years after introducing a standard pool to the Games, London brought Olympic swimming inside. The U.S. men raised the roof with the first — and still only — gender sweep, taking all six events. Ann Curtis added two golds and a silver to the American tally. 

Berlin, 1936 
Eleanor Holm, favored to defend her 100m backstroke title, was kicked off the U.S. team before reaching Berlin. Her crime: excessive carousing aboard the SS Manhattan on its nine-day voyage to Europe. Holm had a brief career in Hollywood, playing Jane in "Tarzan's Revenge," opposite 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris. 

Los Angeles, 1932 
Japan dominated the pool in Southern California, finishing 1-2 in every men's individual event except the 400m freestyle. There, with a dramatic late surge, Buster Crabbe earned gold and attention from local movie producers. He later stared in movies as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and — like fellow swimmer Johnny Weissmuller - Tarzan. 

Amsterdam, 1928 
With 50 meters to go in the men’s 100m freestyle, Johnny Weissmuller appeared destined to successfully defend his Olympic victory in Paris. But as he turned for the finish, he inadvertently swallowed a mouthful of water and nearly blacked out. However, he was able to regain his composure with a few yards remaining and still touch the wall in Olympic record time, retaining the gold medal. 

Paris, 1924 
Before the silver screen, it was Olympic gold that made Johnny Weissmuller famous. In Paris, Weissmuller won the 400m freestyle before leading a U.S. sweep in the 100m freestyle (the Kahanamoku brothers, Duke and Sam, finished 2-3). Weissmuller later portrayed Tarzan in 12 films. He is among four Olympians-turned-Lords of the Jungle. 

Arne Borg, a.k.a. "The Swedish Sturgeon," set 32 world records in the '20s. But in 1924, 16-year-old Australian Andrew "Boy" Charlton upstaged him. First, Charlton defeated Borg in a 400m race in Sydney that attracted 10,000 fans. Later that year, in Paris, they both entered the 1500m freestyle. After Borg set an Olympic record in the preliminaries, Charlton prevailed in the final, improving Borg's record by more than a minute to become Australia's third-ever Olympic champion in swimming. In defeat, Borg described Charlton as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. 

Antwerp, 1920 
In Antwerp, Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku successfully defended the 100m freestyle title he won in 1912 (the 1916 Games were cancelled because of World War I) and also played for the fourth-place U.S. water polo team. An eventual four-time Olympian, Kahanamoku amassed three gold medals and two silvers. He also acted in several Hollywood films, popularized surfing around the world and is credited with swimming innovations such as the flutter kick and crawl. 

Stockholm, 1912 
Sarah "Fanny" Durack, who once simultaneously held every world record in women's swimming, became the sport's first female Olympic champion. The Sydney native, though, almost didn't get her shot at history: Australian officials, for reasons fiscal and philosophical, initially denied Durack a place in the Games, then granted one only when local funds were raised to cover her expenses. 

London, 1908 
The 1908 London Games were the first to feature swim races over regulated distances in a man-made facility: a 100-meter long "bath," with clearly marked lanes, built inside the track infield at the main Olympic stadium. Britain's Henry Taylor won three golds. Taylor is said to have fought for the British Navy in World War I, in the famous Battle of Jutland. 

St. Louis, 1904 
In St. Louis, William Dickey gave the U.S. its first medal in Olympic swimming. In the "Plunge for Distance" event, contested only at the 1904 Games, athletes made a standing dive and plummeted motionless through the water. The depth each competitor reached was then measured. Capitalizing on the absence of the strong British plunging contingent, Dickey and two fellow members of the New York Athletic Club swept the medals. Dickey's golden effort measured 62 feet, 6 inches. 

Paris, 1900 
After the harsh conditions of 1896, the 1900 swimming scene was the picturesque River Seine, where competitors stroked with the current and posted unusually quick times. Fast water wasn't the only Parisian peculiarity: swimmers also competed in an underwater event and an obstacle race. 

Athens, 1896 
The Hungarian Alfred Hajos, who at age 13 learned to swim after his father drowned in the Danube River, endured the Bay of Zea's choppy, 55-degree waters to prevail in two of the first four Olympic swimming events. "My will to live completely overcame my desire to win," recalled the aspiring architect, who later took silver in the 1924 Olympic art competition for his design of a stadium. 

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