Photos: Your Favorite Summer Olympian

Recall the athletes who capture our imaginations every four years and let us know who is your favorite

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Cheryl Carlin

Mark Spitz, Swimming

Mark Spitz, Swimming
(© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Mark Spitz, or “Mark the Shark,” as he came to be known, broke all records when he won an astonishing seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and he pulled it off while donning a fashion-forward, thick mustache. Add this feat (which went unbeaten for 36 years) to his 33 prior world records in swimming, all attained in a seven-year span from 1965 to 1972. After retiring from swimming at 22, Spitz appeared in a number of commercials, narrated a critically acclaimed Hungarian documentary produced by Quentin Tarantino and currently lends his talents as a motivational speaker. --AV

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Johnny Weissmuller, Swimming

Johnny Weissmuller, Swimming
(© Bettmann/CORBIS)
The dominant swimmer of the 1920s, Johnny Weissmuller set 67 world records and won five Olympic gold medals in a sport he first took up as a way of combating polio when he was 9 years old. He attained Olympic glory for freestyle swimming, using the distinctive six-beat crawl stroke, thought to be first-developed by him and his Olympian rival, Duke Kahanamoku. Weissmuller’s athleticism and movie-star good looks led to his becoming one, and he played a bare-chested, yodeling Tarzan in 12 films—a role that arguably became his most enduring legacy. Even cooler perhaps is that he is one of the many faces on the cover of The Beatles’ iconic album, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. --AV

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Steve Prefontaine, Track and Field

Steve Prefontaine, Track and Field
(© Colorsport/Corbis)
One can only speculate the heights Steve Prefontaine could have achieved if it weren’t for the car crash that caused his untimely death at the age of 24. Prefontaine attended the University of Oregon, where he won seven NCAA titles and every collegiate race from 2000 through 10,000 miles, claiming 14 American records. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Pre’ by his fans, he was often uproariously encouraged by them during his races, and became one of the most beloved athletes in Oregon. He competed in the 1972 Munich games, but did not medal, and was preparing for the 1976 Games at the time of the accident. To this day, he continues to be remembered with the Prefontaine Memorial Run, a grueling 10K race occurring every September. --AV

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Bob Beamon, Track and Field

Bob Beamon, Track and Field
(© International Olympic Committee)
Bob Beamon shattered all previous records and secured a place in Olympic history for the long jump, landing at an astonishing 29 feet 2.5 inches during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. In an iconic moment, his legs gave way under him when he realized the magnitude of his victory, having beaten the existing record by almost two feet. This record endured for almost 23 years, and Beamon was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. He was never able to replicate that jump, which Sports Illustrated called the fifth-greatest sports moment in the 20th century. --AV

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Mia Hamm, Soccer

Mia Hamm, Soccer
(© International Olympic Committee)
“Anything you can do, I can do better.” The line from the musical Annie Get Your Gun was made famous anew by the Gatorade commercial that pitted America’s soccer sweetheart Mia Hamm against Michael Jordan. Hamm, known for her ferocity on the field and her graciousness off it, still holds the world record for most international goals scored—male or female. The three-time Olympic medalist helped lead the U.S. women’s soccer team to the podium at three consecutive Olympic Summer Games, earning gold in 1996, silver in 2000 and another gold in 2004. Now retired, she is an FC Barcelona global ambassador for the sport. --KJM

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Dara Torres, Swimming

Dara Torres, Swimming
(© Christian Liewig/For Picture/Corbis)
Dara Torres missed her sixth Olympic appearance by just nine-hundredths of a second during the July 2012 time trials. The 45-year-old U.S. freestyle swimmer competed in the 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008 Olympic Games and brought home four gold, three silver and four bronze medals over the course of her career. Had she been heading to London with the 2012 U.S. team, she would have been the oldest female Olympic swimmer ever. Torres now plans to retire and spend more time with her young daughter. --KJM

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Charles Frederick "Karch" Kiraly, Volleyball

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(AP Photo/Bob Galbraith)
Recognized as the most decorated volleyball player ever, Kiraly holds 148 titles and three Olympic gold medals. Not only did he win back-to-back golds with the U.S. indoor volleyball team in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, but he also won gold for beach volleyball (with Kent Steffes) in 1996. The feat makes him the only volleyball player to win medals in both indoor and beach volleyball. Kiraly’s Olympic aspirations for the 2012 games are to guide the U.S. women’s indoor team to their first gold medal as their program’s assistant coach. --KJM

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Jesse Owens, Track and Field

Jesse Owens, Track and Field
(© International Olympic Committee)
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (1913-80) was the first person in track history to win four gold medals at one Olympics, which he famously achieved during the 1936 Games in Berlin. His wins were made even more noteworthy because they were achieved on the home turf of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi regime’s declaration of the superiority of the Aryan race was repeatedly disabused by Owens’ many trips to the Olympic podium. --KJM

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track and Field

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track and Field
(© International Olympic Committee)
Lauded as one of the greatest female athletes of all time, Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s Olympic record in the 1988 heptathlon still remains unmatched. In all, she holds three Olympic gold medals, one silver and two bronze, which she won over the course of the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. She was the 1986 and 1987 recipient of the Jesse Owens Award, the highest honor given out by U.S.A. Track and Field, and was named by Sports Illustrated as the 20th century’s greatest female athlete. --KJM

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Hamm Brothers, Gymnastics

Hamm Brothers, Gymnastics
(© Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/Corbis)
Paul Hamm, alongside his twin brother Morgan, helped the American men’s Olympic team win a silver medal in Athens in 2004. This incredible pair also represented the nation at the 2000 Games in Sydney (aside from being total hunks), and were selected again in 2008. Paul became the first American to win the all-around title at the World Championships in 2003, and a year later took home the gold for the individual all-round competition at the Olympics. Sadly, the brothers were unable to compete in 2008 due to injuries, but both remain secure in our hearts. --AV

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Michael Johnson, Track and Field

Michael Johnson, Track and Field
(© Frederic Haslin/TempSport/Corbis)
Small steps and low knees: These are not generally instructions for successful sprinting. But Michael Johnson defied all conventions of what is “proper” with the unique running style that earned him four Olympic gold medals and the title “Fastest Man in the World.” He is the only male athlete to win both the 200-meter and 400-meter dash at the same Olympics, and the record he set at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a 200-meter dash time of 19.32, stood unbroken for 12 years. His long years as a runner inspired him to open a training facility for young athletes. --JR

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Tommie Smith, Track and Field

Tommie Smith, Track and Field
(© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Best remembered for his Black Power pose after winning the gold medal in 1968, Tommie Smith pushed the limits politically as well as physically, earning himself a place in history as a major symbol of the civil rights movement. Before this momentous and highly controversial gesture, the track–and-field sprinter broke the record for the 200-meter dash, running the race in 19.83 and becoming the first runner to break the 20-second barrier. After his Olympic career, Smith continued both his athletic and activist careers. He played wide receiver for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, and taught sports sociology and other courses at Oberlin College in Ohio. --JR

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"Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, Track and Field

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Track and Field
(© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Babe Zaharias was named the tenth-greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN, but perhaps “Most multi-faceted woman of the 20th century” might have been a better title. A champion of basketball, track and field, golf and even sewing, Zaharias was hardly a dilettante. While still in high school, she was recruited by Employers Casualty Company of Dallas to play for its basketball team. To maintain her amateur status, the company paid her to work as a secretary, though she did her real work on the court, earning All-American status and gaining national fame. Zaharias won two gold medals and one silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and then went on to win 17 straight women’s amateur golf tournaments, a feat never equaled. If you worried she gave up a previous hobby to pursue a golf career, fear not: She sewed all of her own golfing outfits. Nicknamed for Babe Ruth after hitting five home runs in a row in a children’s baseball game, Zaharias paved the way for the women’s rights movement and helped to redefine the female athlete. --JR

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Kerri Strug, Gymnastics

Kerri Strug, Gymnastics
(© PCN/Corbis)
Gymnast Kerri Strug proved herself to the world before she was even 15 years old, taking home a bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as the youngest U.S. team member. Four years later, she went back for the gold. As the world watched, Strug fell on her ankle, severely injuring it and dissolving hopes for a U.S. win. Then, miraculously, Strug returned to the floor, only to complete a clean landing and to secure the gold for her team and country. As she limped away, Strug became a symbol of national and athletic resilience. Strug went on to great heights in a host of professional careers. After teaching, she moved to Washington, D.C. and worked as an assistant with the U.S. Office of Presidential Student Correspondence. Later, she joined the staff of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as a presidential appointee. --JR

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Greg Louganis, Diving

Greg Louganis, Diving
(© International Olympic Committee)
The first diver in a major international competition to receive all tens from the judges, Greg Louganis is no stranger to perfection. He began his Olympic career at the Montreal Summer Games in 1976, where he placed second, and won two gold medals in Los Angeles in 1984. At the Seoul Games in 1988, Louganis leapt from the board only to hit and cut his head and experience a severe concussion. Despite the injury, he continued to compete, winning not only the gold, but also ABC’s Athlete of the Year. In 1994, Louganis revealed that he had been diagnosed HIV-positive only six months before the Seoul games, making his win and his resilience even more awe-inspiring. Forced to conceal his homosexuality and his infection with HIV during his most competitive days, Louganis struggled with the political and social atmosphere of the 1980s. He has since written about his sexuality and his illness, redefining stereotypes of the American athlete and serving as a powerful voice against prejudice. --JR

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Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics

Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics
(© Leo Mason/Corbis)
When 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton catapulted over the vault in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, “sticking” the landing, her gold medal-winning performance became one of the most indelible moments in sports history. She needed a perfect 10 to win gold—a 9.95 would’ve only tied Retton with her Romanian opponent, Ecaterina Szabo. She scored 10’s not once, but twice in a row, becoming the first American woman to win a gold medal in gymnastics and the first American to earn the Olympic All Around title. Her success at the 1984 Games, combined with her enthusiastic smile and charm, garnered her a Wheaties box cover, among other commercial endorsements. Retton was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997, and now lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and four daughters. --KS

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Michael Phelps, Swimming

Michael Phelps, Swimming
(© Paul J Sutton/PCN/Corbis)
Michael Phelps made history Tuesday when he took home his 19th Olympic medal for the 4x200 freestyle relay, making him the most decorated Olympian of all time. With his mind-bogglingly long torso, six-foot arm span and size 14 feet, Phelps paddles through the water more like an over-sized fish than a 27-year-old man and Baltimore native. Since his Olympic debut in the 2000 Games at the ripe age of 15, he has become the face of the American swim team. But post-Beijing, after the hype from his eight-gold-medal-swoop dissipated, Phelps remained in the spotlight. When several interviews presented a disenchanted and unmotivated Phelps in early 2009, America wondered whether the “Baltimore Bullet” would come back for another go in the 2012 Games. Only a superstar like Phelps could get people to watch the Olympic trials that occurred earlier this summer; his friendly competition with U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte will only get more intense as the Games continue. Though this year’s Olympics in London are reportedly his last, Phelps is making it count. --KS

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Rulon Gardner, Wrestling

Rulon Gardner, Wrestling
(© Reuters/CORBIS)
Maybe it was the David-and-Goliath story arc of his final wrestling match that put Rulon Gardner on the map during the 2000 Olympic Games. Or perhaps it was the rising tension as each minute passed during the gold medal bout between Gardner and reigning Greco-Roman wrestling champ, Alexsandr Karelin. Famous for the "Karelin Lift," a move in which he hoisted his opponent into the air and crashed him to the ground in one fell swoop, Karelin hadn’t had a single point scored against him in six years. But then Gardner, a 29-year-old Wyoming native who grew up working on a dairy farm, entered the picture. In the final five seconds of the overtime period, Karelin conceded the match. America watched as Gardner, a goofy grin across his face, triumphantly hopped into a cartwheel and then somersaulted across the mat. --KS

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Florence Griffith-Joyner "Flo-Jo", Track and Field

Florence Griffith-Joyner Flo-Jo, Track and Field
(© International Olympic Committee)
There are few Olympians that can compete with the style or the speed of track-star Florence Griffith-Joyner. Flo-Jo, as she came to be known during the 1988 Seoul Games, rocked self-designed, one-legged bodysuits and strikingly long fingernails—her hair flowing behind her in a blur on the racetrack. During the 1988 Games, she broke world records in both the 100-meter and 200-meter events and took home three golds. But she hadn’t even been considered a contender before the trials that year: She failed to make the U.S. team in 1980. But during the trials, her doubters were stunned when she set a new world record in the 100-meter dash of 10.49 seconds, beating the existing record by a whopping .27 seconds. Her amazing feat raised accusations that she used performance-enhancing drugs in the trials, but Flo-Jo took and passed 11 drug tests at the Seoul Games. Although she retired unexpectedly in February 1989, at the age of 29, she is still considered the “fastest woman of all time,” as athletes are still trying to break records she set over two decades ago. --KS

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Cassius Clay, Boxing

Cassius Clay, Boxing
(AP Photo)
Before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay first rose to fame at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome where he won the light-heavyweight gold medal over Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. For Clay, the Olympics served as a mere stepping stone for what became the beginning of a prolific boxing career. In his autobiography, Ali claimed that he tossed his Olympic medal in the Ohio River after a waitress in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, refused to serve him in a “whites-only” restaurant. The story has since been largely debunked, but the legend remains as emblematic of the racism he faced during his career. Ali returned to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, bestowed the high honor of lighting the Olympic torch. At the same Olympics, he received a replacement gold Olympic medal. --CH

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Carl Lewis, Track and Field

Carl Lewis, Track and Field
(© International Olympic Committee)
Carl Lewis’ swiftness on the track and his ability to leap far beyond his competitors landed him a number of accolades including “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee. Lewis dominated track and field at the Olympics for more than a decade, winning golds in the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 G ames. Over the course of his career, he earned ten Olympic gold medals, nine gold and one silver, and ten World Champion medals. Since his retirement from track and field in 1997 Lewis dedicated his time to a handful of charitable organizations: He started the The Carl Lewis Foundation in 2001, which helps underprivileged youth; he supports the Ronald McDonald House Charities; and in 2009, he was nominated a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

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Bruce Jenner, Track and Field

Bruce Jenner, Track and Field
(© Colorsport/Corbis)
If you’ve been keeping up, you might know Bruce Jenner as the stepfather of reality-TV star siblings, the Kardashian sisters. But Jenner first entered the world scene during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal when he won gold in the decathlon, earning 8,618 points—quite a comeback from his tenth- place finish in the 1972 Games in Munich. He’s racked up accolades since, including the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year in 1976 and induction in the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986. His post-Olympic career has been filled mostly with product endorsements and celebrity television appearances, most notably in Keeping Up With the Kardashians. OnJuly 9, Jenner became a step-granddad when Kortney Kardashian gave birth to a baby girl. --CH

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Jim Thorpe, Track and Field

Jim Thorpe, Track and Field
(Olympic Museum/National Museum of the American Indian)
Jim Thorpe is often regarded as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. A former track and football athlete, Thorpe dominated the competition during the 1912 Summer Olympics in Sweden in the pentathlon and decathlon, setting records that wouldn’t be broken for decades. As Sally Jenkins wrote in the latest issue of Smithsonian:

A week later the three-day decathlon competition began in a pouring rain. Thorpe opened the event by splashing down the track in the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds—a time not equaled at the Olympics until 1948.

On the second day, Thorpe’s shoes were missing. Warner hastily put together a mismatched pair in time for the high jump, which Thorpe won. Later that afternoon came one of his favorite events, the 110-meter hurdles. Thorpe blistered the track in 15.6 seconds, again quicker than Bob Mathias would run it in ’48.

On the final day of competition, Thorpe placed third and fourth in the events in which he was most inexperienced, the pole vault and javelin. Then came the very last event, the 1,500-meter run. The metric mile was a leg-burning monster that came after nine other events over two days. And he was still in mismatched shoes.

Thorpe left cinders in the faces of his competitors. He ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds. Faster than anyone in 1948. Faster than anyone in 1952. Faster than anyone in 1960—when he would have beaten Rafer Johnson by nine seconds. No Olympic decathlete, in fact, could beat Thorpe’s time until 1972. As Neely Tucker of the Washington Post pointed out, even today’s reigning gold medalist in the decathlon, Bryan Clay, would beat Thorpe by only a second.

Thorpe’s overall winning total of 8,412.95 points (of a possible 10,000) was better than the second-place finisher, Swede Hugo Wieslander, by 688. No one would beat his score for another four Olympics.



King Gustav V declared Thorpe to be the “greatest athlete in the world.” But the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his medals and records because his short-lived minor-league baseball career violated the amateur rules on the books at the time. Although his family was given replica medals in 1982, Thorpe’s records have yet to be restored. --CH

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The Dream Team

The Dream Team
(© Gregg Newton/Corbis)
The Olympics have always struggled to balance its original goals of being a platform for amateur athletes while also highlighting the best in the world. Basketball, which became an Olympic sport in 1936, was no exception. It wasn’t until the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona that players from the NBA would be allowed to participate in the competition. In 1988, eight months after the U.S. men’s team lost to the Soviet Union in the Seoul Olympics, Boris Stankovic, the head of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), led the movement to include NBA athletes on an international level. Enter the “Dream Team,” an all-star cast of players composed of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, to name a few, which annihilated the competition, racking up wins at an average of 40 points per game. U.S. victory aside, the Dream Team’s participation in the Games raised the rim, skill-wise, for basketball worldwide. --CH

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