Swimming has been an Olympic event since the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1894. It has spawned some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968). A native Hawaiian he moved to the mainland in 1912. He astonished those who watched him by using the American crawl stroke which had recently been invented. It was nothing new to him, this was a way of swimming that had been used in Hawaii for centuries and he had been using it since he was very young.
In 1912 he won a gold medal in the 100 meter at the Olympics and competed in the four by 200 meter relay team. There was no Olympics in 1916 because of World War I but in 1920 he won two gold medals again in the 100 meter freestyle and this time also in the 4 by 200 relay. He set a world record of 1:00.4 in the 100-meter finals. In 1924 he won the silver medal in the 100 meters at the age of 34. He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) is perhaps the most famous of all the Olympic swimmers though it is for his role at Tarzan that he is best remembered. In his life time he set 28 world records and he was such a superlative swimmer that many authorities still rate him as the best swimmer of all time, even ahead of Mark Spitz.
In the 1924 Olympics Johnny won the gold medal when Duke took the silver and Dukes brother Sam took the bronze, it was a clean sweep for the US. Johnny also won gold in the 100 freestyle in 1928 and also won gold in the freestyle four by 200 relay at both Olympics. He also won a bronze medal in 1924 in the water polo competition. The world record that he set in 1927 for the 100 yard freestyle went unbroken for 17 years . He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Charles Daniels (1885-1973) is one of the most important of the early American Olympic swimmers. He is credited with being the inventor of the American crawl what we today refer to as the freestyle.
He won 5 Olympic gold medals, three in 1904 in the 220 and 440 freestyles, a gold in the 4 by 5 freestyle relay and a bronze in the 50 yard freestyle. In 1906 and 1908 he was the gold medalist in the 100 meter freestyle. He won the silver medal in 1908 in the 100 meter and a bronze as a members of the four by 200 meter relay.
In 1905 he set 14 world records in a four day period. At one time he held the world record at every distance from 25 meters to one mile. He was an amazing athlete. He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Mark Spitz (1950-) had won the most Olympic gold medals of any American athlete ever up until the 2012 London Olympics He has won an astounding 9 Olympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze . Before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics he predicted he would win six gold medals, he won two as part of relay teams and one silver and one bronze. At the 1972 Munich Olympics he redeemed himself by winning seven gold medals and setting seven world records, he won in 100 meter freestyle, 200 meter freestyle, 100 meter butterfly, 200 meter butterfly, four by 100 freestyle, four by 200 freestyle and four by 100 medley. His win was however overshadowed by the tragic deaths of the Israeli team at the hand of Palestinian gunmen.
In spite of his winning record what he has never won however was the affection of the American people. He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Matt Biondi (1965-) Won his first Olympic gold medal as an unknown 18 year old at the 1984 Olympics in the four by 100 relay. Before his career ended he would win a total of 11 Olympic medals to tie Mark Spitz for the most medals won by an American athlete.
He set the world record for the 100 meter freestyle in 1988 and that record still stands today after 20 years, an amazing feat. At the 1988 Seoul games he won seven medals, five of them gold. He won the gold in 50 and 100 meter freestyle, 400 and 800 meter freestyle relay and 400 meter medley relay. He received a silver in the 100 meter butterfly and bronze in the 200 meter freestyle. He won three medals at the 1992 Olympics , two gold in the four by 100 freestyle and four by 100 medley relays and a silver in the 50 meter freestyle. He has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Michael Phelps (1985-) The 2008 Olympics have made the name Michael Phelps a household word. He won 8 old medals and broke Mark Spitz previous record of seven. He added significantly to his numbers at the 2012 Olympics in London. He has a career total of 22 Olympic metals. He has been called by some the greatest swimmer of all time and by others the greatest athlete of all time. With a career that has spanned three Olympics, he has set a mark that will be hard to beat.
Not all the great swimmers however are men. It would be remiss if some of the great woman swimmers were not mentioned.
Donna de Varona (1947-) was a member of the 1964 US Olympic Swim Team and won two gold medals in the 400 meter individual medley and the four by 100 freestyle relay. She is the world record-holder in the 400 Individual Medley and the 100 backstroke and relays to this day. She has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Amy Van Dyken (1973-) won four gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics . She is the only American woman ever to win four gold medals at a single Olympiad . She won her medals in the 50 meter freestyle, 100 meter butterfly, four by 100 freestyle relay and four by 100 medley relay. She then won two more at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Dara Torres (1967-) has won a total of 9 Olympic medals four of them gold. She competed in 4 Olympics 1984, 88, 92 and 2000. As a 41 year old she won two silver medals at the 2008 Olympics.
Tracy Caulkins (1963-) is perhaps the most versatile swimmer the US has ever produced. She set world records in every stroke She was affected by the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and was still able to come back in 1984 and win three gold medals, two individual in the 200 meter medley and 400 meter medley and on in the 400 meter butterfly relay. She has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
These are just a handful of the amazing athletes that the sport of Olympic swimming has spawned and continues to spawn. With the Summer Olympics scheduled for 2012 there are no doubt great swimmers who are unknown as of yet and will be making their mark in 2011.