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10 American Olympic Heroes Who Became Legends

Olympic Legends
Mike Powell, Getty Images/GeneralMills, Flickr/Clive Rose, Getty Images

With the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games coming up soon, we thought we’d take a glimpse at some of the American superstars who have claimed Olympic glory in the past.

It’s time to feel pride in the achievements of your fellow countrymen and countrywomen. While some of these sports icons are still household names, others haven’t been in the spotlight for a while. Most of the people on this list competed in summer events, but we’ve thrown in a few winter athletes too, just for good measure.

Jesse Owens

Wiki Commons

Jesse Owens was a track and field rock star in the 1930s. He was a wizard at sprints and the long jump. Owens, who was black, showed the Germans and Adolf Hitler how a true athlete does it at the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. Owens blew the competition away, winning gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4 x 100 relay. This upset Hitler so much that he refused to shake Owens’ hand and congratulate him on his wins.

Jim Thorpe

Wiki Commons

Jim Thorpe was a stellar American football player, from Native American and European descent. He showed the world what he could do in 1912 by wining the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm, Sweden. His medals were later taken away when it was discovered that he’d played professional baseball (he wasn’t only limited to football) before competing in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee reinstated his medals posthumously in the early 1980s. Oh, and if that’s not enough, he also played professional basketball for a time, as well.

Mark Spitz

mezcal&tequila, flickr

After a marathon swimming performance, Mark Spitz walked away from the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich with a whopping seven gold medals. He was the star of those troubled games, which are now mostly known for the massacre of Israeli athletes. During his long career, Spitz won a total of nine gold medals, and set numerous swimming records. At the age of 41, he tried out for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, but he was a couple of seconds short of the time needed to make the team.

1980 USA Hockey Team

mahfrot, Wiki Commons

This team performed a feat that is now known as ‘The Miracle on Ice. Team USA was a ragtag bunch of very talented amateur and college level hockey players that competed at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. When the squad came up against the extremely disciplined Soviet team, which had been dominating the Olympics and the World Championships for nearly 30 years, no one expected the Americans to win. But they did. Then they went on to beat the Finnish team and claimed the gold.

Carl Lewis

Mike Powell, Getty Images

Carl Lewis was a true Olympic superstar. He took part in multiple track and field events, and dominated them all. Carl broke numerous sprint and long jump records in the 1980s, was named ‘Sportsman of the Century’ by the International Olympic Committee, and competed all the way up until 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This was one athlete the others were always trying to catch, but never quite made it.

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps has won 16 Olympic medals overall for swimming, and there’s a good chance he may win a few more in London. He won eight medals in Athens in 2004, and eight medals in Beijing in 2008. Phelps holds the record for the most gold medals won in a single Games, when he took six of those bad boys home with him from Athens. We’re pretty sure he’ll be one of the main stars in London this year, even though he has stated that he won’t try for eight medals again.

Mary Lou Retton

Steve Powell, Getty Images

Mary Lou Retton is a diminutive, but very bubbly and energetic gymnast who took home plenty of medals from the 1984 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles. The Soviets boycotted those games for political reasons, and Retton, already a star athlete, cleaned up and won the Olympic all-around title.

Bode Miller

Clive Rose, Getty Images

Bode Miller is an American downhill skier, raised in a very bohemian family. Miller grew up in a log cabin in New Hampshire without indoor plumbing or electricity. In addition to his usual upbringing, he’s known for his unbridled skiing style. His races either end in a spectacular crash, or medal glory. He can now claim five Olympic medals, as well a few World Cup Championship medals to his name, plus some spectacular wrecks along the way.

Bruce Jenner

GeneralMills, flickr

You might know Mr. Jenner as the stepfather of the Kardashian kids, or as a big fan of plastic surgery. Before he became a reality TV star, Bruce was an Olympic celebrity. He won gold in the 1976 Olympics for the decathlon (10 track and field events), and set the world record at the time. That feat landed him the sought-after cover of the Wheaties brand cereal box.

Muhammad Ali

Let’s not forget one of the greatest athletes of all time. Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior, who later became Muhammad Ali, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the summer Olympic games in Rome in 1960. From that point in history, his career only soared, and he became a boxing icon, as well as an American sports legend.

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