I have followed the Olympics for a number of years, and so decided that I would present a list of the ten greatest United States Olympians of all time. Let me say that this is my list, based on my opinion, so feel free to offer up your snubs.
10) Bob Mathias – He won the Olympic decathlon title a couple of months after graduating from high school. He would become the first athlete in Olympic history to repeat as decathlon champion in 1952. Only Daley Thompson of England has equaled that feat. He would lead the Stanford football team to the Rose Bowl in 1952 and later serve four terms in Congress.
9) Florence Griffith –Joyner – "Flo-Jo" won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and it turned out that she was just warming up for 1988. At the Seoul Olympics, Joyner would win three gold and one silver medal. Her performances in the 100 meters and 200 meters would be dominating and her world record of 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters set in 1988 still stands.
8) Mary Lou Retton – Mary Lou was the first American to win the all-around gymnastics title, doing so at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She would also win two silver medals and two bronze as well. She became an enduring poster girl for American gymnastics and the Olympic movement in this country. Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin have since won the Olympic all-around title, but Mary Lou was first.
7) Lisa Leslie – Lisa has been a member of four Olympic basketball teams. She has won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and she and her American mates will play for another gold medal tomorrow. Whether she wins gold or a silver medal, she will still be recognized as the greatest female Olympic basketball player of all time.
6) Al Oerter – One of only a few athletes to win gold medals at four different Olympic Games. He is considered the greatest discus thrower in history and took home the gold in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968.
5) Shirley Babashoff – This may seem like an odd choice for a list of the greatest Olympians of all time. At the 1972 Olympics she won one gold and two silver medals, but it was at the 1976 Montreal Olympics that she would leave her mark, winning one gold and four silver medals. Her second place finishes in the 200, 400, and 800 meter freestyles were extraordinary given the later evidence that East German swimmers had been engaged in heavy drug use. She anchored the 4 x 100 relay team to a gold medal with one of the finest swims in Olympic history.
4) Mark Spitz – He has been back in the limelight given Michael Phelps Olympic exploits last week. People forget that Spitz won two gold and a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics. It would be at the 1972 Munich Olympics where he would set the standard of seven gold medals won in swimming. It was a record that would last for 34 years.
3) Carl Lewis – Carl won ten medals, including nine gold, in track and field over the course of five Olympic games. While best remembered as a sprinter, he won the long jump in four consecutive Olympic Games. In 1984 he would win the 100 and 200 meters, the last Olymian to win both until Jamaica's Usain Bolt did it this week. He also took home gold in the long jump and the 4 x 100 relay.
2) Michael Phelps – The man just won 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. He set an impossible goal and through astounding talent, grit and probably a little luck broke Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals in one Olympic Games. Phelps now has broken or is about to break numerous records, with 16 career medals (2nd), 14 gold (1st), 9 individual golds (1st), and of course the eight medals in one Olympics.
1) Jesse Owens – Jesse won the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 x 100 relay at the 1936 Berlin Games, a feat unequalled until Carl Lewis in 1984. Owens won his medals not only against other athletes but against a whole nation. He represented his race and country in an atmosphere of hate that we can not imagine today. His four gold medal wins were probably won in the midst of more pressure than just about any athlete has faced in history and his victories transcended sport.