The United States is arguably the most dominant country in the world in the Olympic Games. And with that, chances are that many of the top, most well-known Olympians will be ones that had worn the Stars and Stripes.
While there are some top competitors from many countries – including some top Olympics success like Germany, China, Canada, Australia, Russia and Great Britain – there are many legendary stories of Olympic success that come under the United States flag. It must be a nice job.
As the 2018 Winter Olympics are just around the corner, this is a good opportunity to look into who are some of the most successful Olympic athletes in U.S. Olympic history. Following are seven of our favorites, based on either the numbers of medals earned or the highest percentage of medals that were gold (minimum five medals).
Ray Ewry (Summer, eight medals – 100% gold)
There are a couple reasons that Ray Ewry is at the top of this list – first of all, the one with the most gold medals without earning any other medals; and second, being one who recovered from polio more than 50 years before the polio vaccine was invented. Not being able to walk when he was younger, Ewry fought through polio, and not only did he walk, but won eight gold medals at three Summer Olympics, winning the standing high and long jumps in 1900, 1904 and 1908 Games. Top of the world, and overcoming what was a debilitating and lethal disease.
Eric Heiden (Winter, five medals – 100% gold)
Eric Heiden could be considered the first U.S. Olympic hero in the “modern” Olympic era – the one that had heavy television coverage. Heiden captivated many and introduced speed skating as a dominant sport for the Americans, as Heiden won gold at all five distances of speed skating – from the 500-meter sprint to 10,000 meters. He is the only one to win five gold medals at a single Winter Olympic games.
Carl Lewis (Summer, 10 medals – 90% gold)
Considered the greatest American track athlete in Olympic history and multiple world-record holders, Carl Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long jumper for the United States in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 – yes, winning a gold in the long jump in 1996 to be the oldest gold-medalist in the Summer Games at age 35. He won the 100-meter dash and long jump at consecutive Olympics (1984 and 1988), which was unheard of at the time.
Bonnie Blair (Winter, six medals – 83% gold)
Bonnie Blair was for women what Eric Heiden was for everyone – she broke the glass ceiling on making speedskating sexy for women. Blair won all her medals over three Olympic games in the 500- and 1,000-meter sprint races, and – until Apolo Anton Ohno – was the American all-time leader for Winter Olympic medals won (Ohno won eight), and tied with Heiden for most gold medals in the Winter Games.
Michael Phelps (Summer, 28 medals – 82% gold)
The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps makes the case as the greatest swimmer of all time not only for the quality but also the longevity, as he won an Olympic-record eight gold medals in 2008 (Beijing), six in 2004 (Athens) and five more in 2012 (London). Phelps has all-time records in total medals and gold medals (23), with a record 16 golds in individual events. The sheer number of medals is one thing, but then to have four of every of those medals be of the precious gold color? Dominant.
Mark Spitz (Summer, 11 medals – 82% gold)
Mark Spitz was Michael Phelps before Michael Phelps, and he did most of his work in a single Olympic Games, as he won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games in Munich, a record that stood as the most golds until Phelps 30 years later. But not only did Spitz get gold in all seven races in those ‘72 Games, he set seven world records. Not even Phelps ever had that success.
Greg Louganis (Summer, five medals – 80% gold)
Perhaps the greatest American diver ever, Greg Louganis was the one American who consistently broke through the Chinese stronghold in the springboard and platform events, winning five medals including four golds – winning both events in the 1984 and 1988 Games. He might be most known, however, for hitting his head on the springboard during competition in 1988, sending blood into the water just months after his HIV diagnosis.