The Most Memorable U.S. Olympic Athletes

You don’t have to a sports fan to appreciate the talent and determination that drives many Olympic athletes to succeed. Ever since the games were revived in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympics have been a source of national pride and unity throughout the world. Of course, it’s really the sprinters, jumpers, hurdlers, swimmers, skaters, and other athletes who make these annual gatherings something special. Despite the number of extraordinary competitors, there are a few U.S. athletes who are unforgettable.

Jesse Owens


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In 1936, German Nazi leader Adolph Hitler intended to demonstrate “Aryan supremacy” to the world at the Berlin games. Instead, American Jesse Owens ruined the fuehrer’s day by winning four gold medals. Hitler was surprisingly gracious and can be seen on film waving at Owens as he passed, which in turn Owens greatly appreciated. Owens has stated that Hitler’s gesture was more than he received from America’s leadership. In the years prior to World War II, Owens was an inspiration for many future generations of black athletes. He is consistently ranked as one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century. Carl Lewis would eventually tie Owens’ record at the 1984 Los Angeles games.

Michael Phelps


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You can’t be the most decorated athlete in Olympic history and not be considered memorable. While Phelps first competed in the 2000 and 2004 games, it wasn’t until 2008 that the swimming sensation completely captivated the nation. In Beijing, he earned eight gold medals, breaking the previous record held by Mark Spitz, who set his own unforgettable record at the 1972 Munich games. Phelps capped his remarkable Olympic swimming career in Rio in 2016 by winning a silver and five gold medals.

Apolo Ohno


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Any guy who can put short track speed skating on the map belongs on this list. Ohno dominated the 2002 and 2006 games, winning a total of five medals, including two gold. Ohno remains America’s most-decorated Winter Olympian of all time. He also won the hearts of TV viewers by earning the mirror ball trophy during his stint on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007. Not surprisingly, Ohno returned to the 2010 games in Vancouver to scoop up three more medals for a career total of eight.

Mary Lou Retton


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Retton became America’s sweetheart after winning five medals (one gold) at the 1984 Los Angeles games. She was the first non-European to dominate women’s gymnastics, and as such was an immense source of national pride at a time when tensions were high between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Kerri Strug would become an American sensation in 1996 after being carried to the podium in Atlanta following a win the women’s gymnastics team.

1980 Men’s Ice Hockey Team


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One of the most memorable sports moments in television history, the victory of the U.S. men’s hockey team, sent chills down American spines from coast to coast. The “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York was the ultimate non-nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The unexpected defeat of the Soviets (on ice) brought grown men to tears. It was truly an iconic victory!

We can’t all be Olympic athletes; but we can all share in the joy of impressive displays of skill, coordination, and natural abilities. You never know who will ine during a gathering of world-class athletes when the torch is lit. This is what makes the Olympics an appealing and enduring celebration of human abilities and accomplishments.

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