USA! USA! The 20 Greatest Moments in U.S. Summer Olympics History


The Olympic Games bring together the highest caliber of athletes on Earth every four years. The Olympic Spirit has been growing since Beijing and here we are, one day away from the best show on Earth. With opening ceremonies to the 2012 London Olympics on Friday, here are my top 20, Team USA Summer Olympics moments. Get pumped.

20. A True American Athlete

In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the part-Irish, part-French, part-Native American, Jim Thorpe won both the decathlon and pentathlon. An amazing, versatile athlete, Thorpe is deemed by many as the first, “greatest athlete in the world,” as he won eight of the fifteen events including the pentathlon and decathlon. His decathlon Olympic record set at the 1912 Games (8,413 points) stood for nearly two decades.


19. The First 'Dream Team'

The most notable name from the celebrated 1976 U.S. Boxing team was “Sugar” Ray Leonard, who led a stacked team to five gold medals, a silver, and a bronze. Gold medals came from Leonard, Leo Randolph, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks, and Howard Davis, Jr. (just days after his mother died of a heart attack). The U.S. went against all odds by beating powerhouses Cuba and the Soviet Union for four of their five gold medals.


18. Patterson Becomes 2nd Woman to Win All-Around

The 16-year-old from Baton Rouge, beat out superstar Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina in the 2004 Athens Olympics to become the first American woman since Mary Lou Retton to be named the Olympic gymnastics all-around champion. Closing with a dazzling floor routine, Patterson scored a 9.712 to finish with 38.387 points, defeating Khorkina by 0.176 points.


17. Louganis Perseveres

The reverse 3 ½ somersault in the tuck position is deemed the “Dive of Death”– the most difficult platform dive. Louganis witnessed Soviet diver Sergei Chalibashvili die attempting the dive just five years before he attempted it at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. That didn’t stop him. During the preliminary round of the 3-meter springboard competition, Louganis lived his own nightmare, smashing his head on the board, but luckily surviving. Four temporary stitches later, he completed the dive and made it to the finals, eventually taking the gold with a total of 730.80 points.


16. 'Joanie' Takes L.A. by Storm

From a small, Maine coastal town to America’s most prolific women’s marathoner, Joan-Benoit Samuelson was (and still is) an inspiration for female athletes all across the country. After undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery 17 days before the U.S. Olympic Women’s Marathon Trails were scheduled, Joanie recovered much more quickly than expected, beating runner-up Julie Brown by 30 seconds in 2:31:04. Three months later, she became the first Olympic Women’s Marathon winner in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in 2:24:52, never once giving up the lead.


15. The Leap of the Century

Beamon entered the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games as the favorite in the long jump, but no one expected this. On October 18, Beamon demolished the long jump world record by nearly two feet. In one of the most enduring images of the games, his competitors helped him to his feet after he discovered he was the new world record holder. Prior to Beamon’s jump, the world record had been broken thirteen times since 1901. Beamon’s jump of 8.90m would stand for an amazing 23 years until Mike Powell broke it in 1991.


14. Fosbury Revolutionizes the High Jump

Growing up in Oregon, Dick Fosbury had difficulty competing in high school track meets using dominant high jumping techniques such as the "straddle method" and the "upright scissors" method. Gradually shifting his position during the jump, Fosbury began to improve immensely, eventually going to the Olympics and winning the gold medal with his signature “Fosbury flop.”


13. Owens Shocks Nazi Germany

To outdo the 1932 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, Adolf Hitler funded a new 100,000-seat track and field stadium to house an Aryan tour de force in the 1936 Berlin Games…or so he thought. American sprinter/jumper Jesse Owens became the first athlete ever to win four gold medals, embarrassing Hitler, giving African-Americans inspiration, and transforming the sport of track and field forever.

12. The 'Man with the Golden Shoes' Defines Atlanta Games

Michael Johnson’s gold track spikes weren’t the only things shining in the 1996 Atlanta Games. After a disappointing performance in 1992, Johnson became the first man ever to accomplish the 200m/400m gold medal double in the 1996 Atlanta Games. Johnson won the 400m Olympic title in Olympic Record time of 43.49 and his world record performance of 19.32 in the 200m stood as the record for 12 years.


11. An American Goes the Distance

Known as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, Billy Mills was virtually unknown at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He had finished second in the 10,000m at the U.S. Olympic Trials, and his time in the preliminaries was a full minute slower than favorite Ron Clarke of Australia, the world record holder in the event. Coming down to the final lap, Mills had the kick of his life, outkicking Clarke and running 50 seconds faster than he had ever run before. His winning time of 28:24.4 set a new Olympic record and he is still the only American ever to win gold in 10K.


10. 'Black Power' Wins in Mexico City

In the medal ceremony for the men’s 200m race, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) raised black-gloved fists and wore black socks in lieu of their shoes to bring attention to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia saluted the American’s valiant stance by wearing an American civil rights badge as well. Both Smith and Carlos were banned from the Games for life while Norman was left off Australia’s Olympic team in 1972.


9. Gardner Takes Down Goliath

Born in small-town Afton, Wyoming, Rulon Gardner was the last of nine children and grew up on a family dairy farm. He knew what adversity felt like. Gardner was once stranded for 18 hours after a snowmobile accident in the Salt River, Wyoming and, in another instance, was forced to swim an hour in 44-degree water after a light aircraft he was traveling in crashed into Lake Powell, Utah. As a standout athlete in high school and college, Gardner managed to make it to the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the 130 kg Greco-Roman wrestling competition. Someway, somehow, Gardner defeated Russian Aleksandr Karelin, who was previously undefeated in 13 years of international competition, and hadn’t given up a point in six years.


8. Al Oertor Four-peats

American discus thrower Al Oerter began his Olympic career at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games with an unexpected gold on a career best throw. It appeared his career would be over in 1957 when he was nearly killed in an automobile accident, but he managed to compete in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, setting an Olympic record and winning his second gold. Bothered by a neck injury and torn cartilage in his ribs, Oerter broke his own Olympic record in the 1964 Tokyo Games, winning a third Olympic gold medal.

Oerter returned to the Olympics in 1968 at Mexico City, and at the age of 32, somehow defeated his teammate and favorite Jay Silvester with yet another Olympic record throw, becoming the first track and field athlete to ever win four consecutive gold medals in the Olympic Games.


7. Retton Ends Eastern European Gymnastics Dominance

Mary Lou Retton revolutionized American gymnastics by becoming the first American woman to ever win a gold medal after she took the all-around gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Thanks to the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Games in the U.S., Retton was the first female gymnast from outside Eastern Europe to win the Olympic all-around title. She also won silver medals for Team and Vault, and bronze medals in Uneven Bars and Floor Exercise. Her five medals were the most won by any athlete in the 1984 Games


6. The Quest to Equal Owens

By the start of 1984, Carl Lewis was one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the world, but due to track and field’s low profile in America, he was not nearly as well known in the U.S. That being said, the 1984 Los Angeles Games made Lewis a household name in America. Competing in every event carefully to avoid an injury and still win, Lewis took gold in the 100m, 200m, Long Jump, and 4x100m relay, matching Jesse Owen’s historic feat in 1936 (although surpassing him in every performance).


5. Spitz - 7 Gold Medals, 7 World Records

Nicknamed “Mark the Shark” by his teammates in college, Mark Spitz became the iconic Olympic aspiration in the summer of 1972 by winning seven gold medals and breaking seven world records at the Munich Games. Spitz was reluctant to swim 100m freestyle fearing a less than gold medal finish. He would end up winning by half a stroke in a world record, 51.22. His record of seven gold medals at a single Olympics wouldn’t be surpassed until Michael Phelps in 2008.


4. Phelps Matches Spitz, Wins by a Hair

Michael Phelps tied Mark Spitz’s record seven Olympic Gold Medals, beating Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by one one-hundredth of a second in the 100m butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Australian Andrew Lauterstein won the bronze medal, finishing one one-hundredth of a second ahead of American world record holder Ian Crocker.


3. 'The Greatest' Lights the Olympic Torch

The most unforgettable Olympic Opening Ceremonies moment is, without a doubt, Muhammad Ali’s lighting of the Olympic Torch at Centennial Olympic Stadium, opening the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. After receiving the torch, Ali trembled with excitement, Parkinson’s disease ravaging his body, but The Greatest still managed to show the true Olympic Spirit; a true American hero, inside and out.


2. Strug Sticks the Vault

Kerri Strug was an unheralded member of the U.S. gymnastics team, but she exemplified pure grit in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. After star American gymnast Dominque Moceanu fell on two straight vaults, it was up to Strug to save the U.S. women’s hopes of securing a gold medal and ending the Russian’s forty year dominance. Strug failed on her first attempt, but with a busted ankle, she stuck the second landing…and the rest is history.


1. Lezak Saves Phelps Medal Run

32-year-old Jason Lezak saved Michael Phelps’ bid for eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Games by swimming the anchor leg of the United States’ 4x100m freestyle relay. Hitting the water a half-second after Alain Bernard of France, Lezak somehow overtook the current world-record holder of the 100m freestyle with just 25 meters left in the race. Phelps would go on to win 8 gold medals, breaking 7 world records and 1 Olympic record at the same time.

Extra: Eaton Sets the Mark

Ashton Eaton has already made sure the 2012 London Olympics will be a great one for Team USA after sending a message to the world during the U.S. Olympic Trials. The fresh-out-of-college decathlete did the unthinkable, breaking the World Record by scoring 9039 points and becoming the world's greatest athlete of all-time. After witnessing this live on TV, there's no doubt I've got some Olympic Spirit flowing already. (Watch Eaton's performance here).

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