Every four years when the Olympics rolls around, one of the most eagerly anticipated, talked-about disciplines is swimming.
At PledgeSports, we love the thrill of watching events unfold in the pool, and have also helped many swimmers to raise money through sports crowdfunding.
In this blog, we try to answer an age-old question among swimming fans: “Who are the best swimmers in history?”.
Here’s our countdown, Enjoy!
10. Janet Evans
Evans’ strong suit was long distance swimming and had several world records to her name throughout her career.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, she set a record in the 400m freestyle which stood for eighteen years until Laure Manaudou broke it in 2006. In Seoul, Janet captured gold in the 400m medley as well as the 800m freestyle, which she defended successfully four years later in Barcelona, in the process becoming the first female swimmer to win back-to-back Olympic golds in any event.
The winner of five Olympic medals (4 golds and 1 silver), Evans carried the torch in its last stretch and handed it over to Muhammad Ali during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
9. Kristin Otto
A fractured vertebra in 1985 meant Otto would have a tough battle to the top, but the German overcame any challenge in her way to arrive at the 1988 Seoul Olympics as one of the best swimmers in the world.
All six of her Olympic medals were golds from the 1988 Games, and in doing so, she became the first female to win six golds at a single edition of the Olympics.
Otto also set new world records in each of the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m butterfly events, before retiring from swimming in 1989.
8. Ryan Lochte
Despite acting a complete fool at the Rio 2016 games and getting himself into hot water with the American press, there is no disputing Lochte is among the best swimmers in history.
The current holder of world records in each of the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre individual medleys, Lochte gave stiff competition to fellow American Michael Phelps throughout their peak years in the sport.
His seven individual Olympic medals place him second in the history of men’s swimming, ahead of Zoltan Halmay and Mark Spitz’s six.
Now 33, Lochte has a magnificent collection of 12 Olympic medals (6 Golds, 3 silver and 3 bronze).
7. Amy Van Dyken
In Atlanta 1996, Amy took the crown in the 50m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley to become the first American female to take home such a tally from a single Olympics.
Having emerged as the most successful athlete in Atlanta, she returned to defend both of her team titles in Sydney 2000. Tied with German Kristin Otto as the second best female swimmer in Olympic history, Amy’s stats are behind only Jenny Thompson’s eight golds, none of which were won in an individual event.
6. Natalie Coughlin
With 12 Olympic medals, Coughlin is tied with fellow swimmers Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson for the top spot of most-decorated female American Olympians.
In Beijing 2008, Natalie became the first woman to defend the 10 m backstroke title at the Olympic Games after her earlier victory at the same event in Athens 2004. Also in 2008, she equalled the women’s Olympic record of winning the highest number of medals (6) in a single Games.
With a 4×100 m freestyle bronze in London 2012, Natalie finally had 3 golds, 4 silvers and 5 bronze medals to show for her glittering Olympic career.
5. Dara Torres
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the then 41-year-old smashed a century old record held by Britain’s William Robinson to become the oldest swimmer to win a medal at the Games. In each of the three events that she featured in, namely the 50m freestyle, 4×100m medley relay and 4×100m freestyle relay, Dara defied the odds of age to secure a hard-fought silver for her team and herself.
A unique aspect of her outstanding tally of twelve Olympic medals (4 of each colour – gold, silver and bronze) is that she has won at least one medal in every single Games that she’d been a part of, in 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008.
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4. Ian Thorpe
Australia’s most decorated Olympian Ian Thorpe provided the home audience with plenty to cheer for as he became the most successful athlete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Nicknamed ‘The Thorpedo’ for his blinding speed, the specialist in freestyle swimming captured 3 golds and 2 silvers in Sydney and went on to add 4 more medals, 2 of which were freestyle golds, to his cabinet at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The dominance that he exercised in the competitive arena in his favourite discipline for six years till his break after the Athens edition was a rare feat at the Olympic level.
Although his career was cut short due to illness in 2006, Ian Thorpe had, by then, established himself as one of the greatest ever swimmers in the history of Olympics.
3. Matt Biondi
A member of the Swimming Hall of Fame and an Olympic legend, Biondi went to Seoul in 1988 with all guns blazing and steamrolled his competitors to clinch 7 straight medals, 5 of which were golds, creating four new world records in the process.
Known as the California Condor for his huge wing span, it was anticipated that Matt would surpass or equal Mark Spitz’s 7-gold haul in Seoul but that was not the case.
Two more team golds and an individual freestyle silver in Barcelona in 1992, Matt retired shortly after the Games with a spectacular count of 11 Olympic medals from three editions (8 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze).
2. Mark Spitz
The majestic feat of seven straight golds at a single Olympics that Mark Spitz achieved in 1972 in Munich took 36 years to be repeated and bettered, and the man who did it was none other than Michel Phelps at Beijing 2008.
Living up to the immense hype that had surrounded him ahead of the 1972 Games, ‘Mark the Shark’ swept the swimming events in Munich, setting a new world record in all seven of his conquered races – a record that has not been paralleled since.
Although his attempt to resurface in Olympic swimming in 1992 at the age of 41 didn’t yield any medals, Spitz goes down in history as a legend who won 11 medals, nine of them being golds, which makes him one of the only five Olympians to have won 9 or more gold medals at the Games.
1. Michael Phelps
When it comes to recounting the accomplishments of Michael Phelps at the Olympic Games, finding sufficient words is a challenge in itself. In Sydney 2000, being a member of the swimming powerhouse United States team at the age of 15 happened to be the first of a plethora of records that he was about to set.
Chasing Mark Spitz’s 1972 Munich tally of seven straight golds, Phelps contested eight different events in Athens 2004 but fell short by one, largely attributed to his third-place finish behind Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband in what was touted as the Race of the Century in the 200-metre freestyle.
Taking home 6 golds and 2 bronze medals, he became the most successful athlete in Athens – a feat he would then repeat in Beijing 2008 as well as in London 2012.
Phelps didn’t just cruise to his eight golds in 2008 – he did so by creating 7 fresh world records and 1 Olympic record in Beijing. The following Games, in London, the Baltimore native upstaged Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina to emerge as the most decorated Olympian ever.
He initially retired after his 4th Olympics, however, Phelps came out of retirement for the Rio 2016 Olympics and would go on to win five more golds and a silver medal, leaving him to officially bow out of the sport once and for all with an incredible 28 Olympic medals to his name (23 golds, 3 silver, 2 bronze).
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