20 Most Famous Swimmers of All Time

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Most lovers of swimming have a swimming idol – an Olympian or world-renowned swimmer that has done great things in the pool and inspired other swimmers to achieve greatness. Here is my list of the top 20 most famous swimmers of all time and their impressive achievements.

Men

1. Michael Phelps

Born on June 30th in 1985, Michael Fred Phelps is undoubtedly the world’s greatest swimmer of all time. Nicknamed “The Baltimore Bullet” Phelps is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time with a grand total of 28 medals. He holds the records for most Olympic gold medals won in individual events; most Olympic medals won in individual events; and most Olympic medals overall.

He won six gold and two bronze medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, tying the record for eight medals in total at a single Olympic Games. When he won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, he broke American swimmer Mark Spitz’s long-standing record of winning seven events in a single Olympic Games, which he achieved at the Munich Games in 1972.

He won four gold and two silver medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and five gold medals and one silver medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 where he was also the flag bearer of the United States at the Parade of Nations. This win made him the most successful athlete in the Olympic Games for the fourth time in a row.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 400m individual medley (long course) (2002 – present)
  •         Men’s 200m individual medley (long course) (2003 – 2009)
  •         Men’s 100m butterfly (long course) (2003 – 2019)
  •         Men’s 200m butterfly (long course) (2001 – 2019)
  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (2007 – 2009)

Michael Phelps has won 82 medals in major international long course competitions, including the Olympic Games, the Pan Pacific Championships, and the World Championships. These include 65 gold medals, 14 silver medals, and three bronze medals.

His international swimming awards include:

  •         World Swimmer of the Year Award (eight times)
  •         American Swimmer of the Year Award (11 times)
  •         FINA Swimmer of the Year Award (2012 and 2016)
  •         Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year (2008)

Phelps officially retired from swimming in August 2016 having won more medals than 161 countries combined. He now runs the Michael Phelps Foundation, which he started after the 2016 Rio Games, and which focuses on growing the sport of swimming.


Nicknamed “The Baltimore Bullet” Phelps is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time with a grand total of 28 medals. Michael Phelps, Rio 2016 by
Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil / CC BY 3.0 br

2. Mark Spitz

Born on 10th February in 1950, Mark Andrew Spitz is another one of the world’s greatest swimmers. Nicknamed “Mark the Shark,” the American former competitive swimmer was a nine-time Olympic champion and holder of no less than 35 world records during his illustrious swimming career.

He won seven gold medals in world record times at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, making him the most successful athlete at the Games and a record that stood for 36 years until it was taken by fellow American Michael Phelps when he won eight gold medals in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Mark Spitz won a plethora of medals and titles during his time, including nine Olympic golds, a silver, and a bronze; 31 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles; five Pan American gold medals, and eight National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles. He also held 35 world records between 1968 and 1972 and his international swimming awards include World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971, and 1972.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1970 – 1975)
  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (1969 – 1974)
  •         Men’s 100m butterfly (long course) (1967 – 1977)
  •         Men’s 200m butterfly (long course) (1967 – 1976)


Mark Andrew Spitz was a nine-time Olympic champion and holder of no less than 35 world records during his illustrious swimming career. 

3. Ian Thorpe

Born on 13th October in 1982, Ian James Thorpe is a retired Australian swimmer who was the youngest male ever to represent Australia at the Olympics and took home five Olympic gold medals, which is most won by any Australian in its swimming history. He won eleven World Championship gold medals, which is the third-highest number of gold medals won by any swimmer in history.

Nicknamed “Thorpedo,” Ian Thorpe was a freestyle specialist but also competed in backstroke and individual medley events. He represented Australia at the 1998 Perth World Championships at the tender age of 14 and won the 400m freestyle, making him the youngest-ever male World Champion. He went on to dominate the 400m freestyle event for the next six years, winning the race at every Olympic Games, the Commonwealth and Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.

He held 13 individual long-course world records for all the freestyle events, including:

  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (1999 – 2007)
  •         Men’s 400m freestyle (long course) (1999 – 2009)
  •         Men’s 800m freestyle (long course) (2001 – 2005)

He won six gold medals at the 2001 World Aquatics Championships, and he anchored the Australian relay teams, taking them to victory in the 4 × 100m and the 4 × 200m freestyle relays.

His international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World Swimmer of the Year (four times)
  •         Australian Swimmer of the Year (1999 to 2003)
  •         Young Australian of the Year (2000)

After becoming the only man to win gold medals in the 200m / 400m / 800m combination at the 2004 Summer Olympics, he announced his retirement from competitive swimming in November 2006.


Ian Thorpe won the most gold medals by any Australian in its swimming history. Ian Thorpe by
Morton Lin / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

4. Aleksandr Popov

Born on 16th November in 1971, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Popov is a former Russian swimmer that was widely considered as the greatest sprint swimmer in history. Popov won gold medals for the 50m and 100m freestyle at both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics, becoming the only man in Olympic history to defend both titles.

His greatest claim to fame was that he held the world record in the 50m freestyle for eight years, and the 100m freestyle for six years. His total medal haul includes four Olympic gold and five silver medals, six gold, four silver, and one bronze World Championship medals, and an impressive 21 gold, three silver, and two bronze medals from the European Championships.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 50m freestyle (long course)
  •         Men’s 100m freestyle (long course)

In 2003, aged 31, he won 50 m and 100 m gold at the 2003 World Championships.


Aleksandr Popov is regarded as one of the greatest sprint freestyle swimmers of all time. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Popov by www.volganet.ru / CC BY-SA 3.0

5. Pieter van den Hoogenband

Born on 14th March in 1978, Pieter Cornelis Ruud Martijn van den Hoogenband is a retired Dutch swimmer who is the fourth swimmer in history to win gold in the 100m freestyle event at two Olympic Games. Nicknamed “Hoogie” and “The Flying Dutchman,” Pieter van den Hoogenband first competed at the Olympic Games at the age of 18 and holds three gold, 10 silver, and four bronze Olympic medals.

Pieter van den Hoogenband was the first swimmer to break the 48.00-second barrier in the men’s 100m freestyle, which he did during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 100m freestyle (long course) (2000 – 2008)
  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (2000 – 2001)

His international swimming awards include:

  •         Dutch Sportsman of the Year (twice)
  •         World Swimmer of the Year (2000)
  •         European Swimmer of the Year (three times)


Pieter van den Hoogenband was the first swimmer to break the 48.00-second barrier in the men’s 100m freestyle. Pieter van den Hoogenband at the Olympic welcome in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands by
McSmit / CC BY-SA 3.0

6. Grant Hackett

Born on 9th May in 1980, Grant Hackett is a former Australian swimmer who is regarded as one of the greatest distance swimmers in history. He won the 1500m freestyle events at both the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and the Summer Olympics in Athens in 2004 and held world records for 200m, 800, and 1500m freestyle events.

While extremely versatile and taking medals in three of the six freestyle swimming events, he dominated the 1500 m event for more than 10 years from 1996 to 2007 and holds 10 long-course world championship gold medals. Grant Hackett retired from swimming in 2008.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (1999)
  •         Men’s 800m freestyle (long course) (2005 – 2009)
  •         Men’s 800m freestyle (short course) (2001 – 2009)
  •         Men’s 1500m freestyle (long course) (2001 – 2011)
  •         Men’s 1500m freestyle (long course) (1998 – 2015)

His international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (2005)
  •         Pacific Rim Swimmer of the Year (2005)


Grant Hackett is regarded as one of the greatest distance swimmers in history Grant Hackett in May 2017 by PoolSafelyMichael Phelps and Members of the Chicago Special Olympics Swim Team / CC BY 2.0.

7. Ryan Lochte

Born on 3rd August in 1984, Ryan Steven Lochte is an American swimmer and 12-time Olympic medalist. He is the second-most decorated swimmer in Olympic history with a total of seven Olympic medals, second behind only Michael Phelps.

Specializing in all four strokes, Lochte currently holds the world records in both the short and long course 200m individual medley events and has swum the fastest time in history for the 200m individual medley, finishing in 1 minute 49.63 seconds.

His medal haul includes 90 medals from major international competitions, including 54 gold, 22 silver, and 14 bronze medals from the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Pan American, and Pan Pacific Championships. He also holds 39 world championship titles.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 200m individual medley (long course) (2011 -2012)
  •         Men’s 100m backstroke (short course) (2006)
  •         Men’s 100m individual medley (short course) (2012)
  •         Men’s 400m individual medley (short course) (2010)

His international swimming awards include:

  •         SwimSwam‘s Swammy Award for U.S. Male Swimmer of the Year (2013)


Ryan Lochte is a 12-time Olympic medalist and the second-most decorated swimmer in Olympic history.  Ryan Lochte swimming in 2009 meet by JD Lasica from Pleasanton, CA, US / CC BY 2.0

8. Matt Biondi

Born on 8th October in 1965, Matthew Nicholas Biondi is a former American swimmer and eleven-time Olympic medalist. Biondi competed in three Olympic Games (1984, 1988, and 1992) and won a total of 11 medals, including eight gold, two silver, and one bronze medals.

Matt Biondi was a world record-holder in five events and set three individual world records in the 50-meter freestyle and four in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 50m freestyle (long course) (1986 – 1989)
  •         Men’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1985 – 1994)

His international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (1986, 1988)
  •         United Press International Athlete of the Year (1988)

9. Vladimir Valeryevich Salnikov

Born on 21st May 1960, Vladimir Valeryevich Salnikov is a former Russian swimmer who specialized in freestyle and set 12 world records in the 400m, 800m, and 1,500m events. Nicknamed the “Tsar of the Pool,” Vladimir Valeryevich Salnikov was the first person to swim under eight minutes in the 800 m freestyle and fifteen minutes in the 1500 m freestyle.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 400m freestyle (long course) (1979 – 1985)
  •         Men’s 800m freestyle (long course) (1979 – 1991)
  •         Men’s 1500m freestyle (long course) (1980 – 1991)

His international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (1982)
  •         European Swimmer of the Year (1980)


Vladimir Valeryevich Salnikov set 12 world records in the freestyle events. Salnikov (1981) by Anefo / Antonisse, Marcel / CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

10. Johnny Weissmuller

Janos (Johann) Peter Weissmuller (June 2, 1904 – January 20, 1984) was an Austro-Hungarian-born American competitive swimmer and Olympian that is renowned for his impressive swimming career, which includes five gold and one bronze Olympic medal, 52 US National Championship titles, and 67 world records.

He competed at the Paris Games in 1924 and the Amsterdam Games in 1928 and won gold medals in the 100m freestyle and the 4 x 200m relay team events at both games. He also brought home gold in the 400m freestyle and a bronze medal in the water polo competition at the Paris Games.

His world records include:

  •         Men’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1922 – 1934)
  •         Men’s 200m freestyle (long course) (1922 – 1935)
  •         Men’s 400m freestyle (short course) (1922 – 1924)
  •         Men’s 800m freestyle (long course) (1927 – 1930)

 


Johnny Peter Weissmuller was renowned for his impressive swimming career. Johnny Weissmuller at a swim meet on July 23, 1922, in Brighton Beach, New York by George Grantham Bain derivative work / Flickr / Public Domain

Women

1. Katinka Hosszú

Born on 3rd May in 1989, Katinka Hosszú is a Hungarian swimmer, three-time Olympic champion, and nine-time long-course world champion. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” Hosszú specializes in individual medley events and is the current world record holder in the 100m individual medley, 200m individual medley (long course and short course), 400m individual medley (long course), and the 200m backstroke (short course).

Katinka Hosszú has competed at four Olympic Games (2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016) and is the first swimmer in history to hold world records in all five individual medley events at the same time. She also holds two-thirds of the Hungarian national records and has been considered the most valuable Hungarian athlete for the past five years.

Hosszú owns Iron Swim Budapest, a swim school and club based in Budapest, as well as owns and captains Team Iron.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 200m individual medley (long course) (2015 – present)
  •         Women’s 400m individual medley (long course) (2016 – present)
  •         Women’s 100m individual medley (short course) (2013 – present)
  •         Women’s 200m individual medley (short course) (2013 – present)
  •         Women’s 400m individual medley (short course) (2013 – 2017)
  •         Women’s 100m backstroke (short course) (2014 – 2019)
  •         Women’s 200m backstroke (short course) (2014 – present)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         FINA Swimmer of the Year (2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018)
  •         Female World Cup Overall Winner (2012 – 2016)
  •         SwimSwam’s Swammy Award for Female Swimmer of the Year (2013)

 


Katinka Hosszú with a bronze medal for 200m backstroke on 2015 World Aquatics Championships, Kazan by Oleg Bkhambri (Voltmetro) / CC BY-SA 4.0

2. Katie Ledecky

Born on 17th March in 1997, Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky is an American swimmer who holds the most gold medals for a female swimmer in history, including five Olympic gold medals.  She has also won 15 gold medals from various major championships.

Ledecky dominates the long-distance freestyle events, holding the world records for the 400m, 800m, and 1,500m events, as well as the fastest times for the 500-yard, 1000-yard, and 1650-yard freestyle events.

Ledecky competed in her first Olympic Games in London 2012 at the age of 15, winning the gold medal in the women’s 800m freestyle and went onto win four gold medals and one silver medal at the next Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, as well as break two world records.

Her total medal count in her career thus far is 34, including 28 golds, five silvers, and one bronze from a range of major international meets such as the Summer Olympic Games, the World Championships, and the Pan Pacific Championships. She has broken 14 world records in her career so far.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 400m freestyle (long course) (2014 – current)
  •         Women’s 800m freestyle (long course) (2013 – current)
  •         Women’s 1500m freestyle (long course) (2013 – current)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year Award (2013 – 2016 / 2018)
  •         Swimming World American Swimmer of the Year Award (2013 – 2018)
  •         FINA Swimmer of the Year (2013)
  •         FINA Best Swimming Performance of the Year (2015, 2016)
  •         Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year (2017)
  •         USOC Sports Woman of the Year (2012–13, 2016, 2017)
  •         USA Swimming Athlete of the Year (2013 – 2016 / 2018)
  •         USA Swimming Performance of the Year Award (2012 – 2016)
  •         Golden Goggle Female Athlete of the Year (2013 – 2018)
  •         Golden Goggle Female Race of the Year (2012 – 2015)
  •         Golden Goggle Breakout Performer of the Year (2012)


Katie Ledecky holds the most gold medals for a female swimmer in history. Katie Ledecky at the 2018 USA Swimming Golden Goggle Awards by Michael Ledecky / CC BY-SA 4.0

3. Krisztina Egerszegi

Born on 16th August in 1974, Krisztina Egerszegi is a former Hungarian swimmer, five-time Olympic champion, and one of the greatest Hungarian Olympic swimmers in history. She competed in three Olympic Games (1988, 1992, and 1996) and is one of only three swimmers in history to have ever won the same swimming event (200m backstroke) at three consecutive Summer Olympics.

Krisztina Egerszegi was the holder of the long course 200m backstroke for almost 17 years and is currently the only female swimmer in history who has won five individual Olympic gold medals.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 100m backstroke (long course) (1991 – 1994)
  •         Women’s 200m backstroke (long course) (1991 – 2008)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Best Female Athlete of Europe (1992)
  •         The Hungarian Sportswoman of the Year (1988 – 1993 / 1996)
  •         World Swimmer of the Year (1991 – 1992 / 1995)
  •         European Swimmer of the Year (1990 – 1992 / 1995)
  •         The Hungarian Female Athlete of the Century (2001)


Krisztina Egerszegi was the holder of the long course 200m backstroke for almost 17 years. Krisztina Egerszegi by Fortepan adományozó URBÁN TAMÁS / CC BY-SA 3.0

4. Dara Torres

Born on 15th April 1967, Dara Grace Torres is a former American swimmer, 12-time Olympic medalist, and world record-holder in three events. Torres represented the United States in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008) and won at least one medal at every Olympiad. She has a medal haul of four gold, four silver, and four bronze Olympic medals.

At the age of 41, she took home silver medals for three events at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, becoming the oldest swimmer to win a medal at the Olympic Games, breaking a century-old record held by Britain’s William Robinson.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 50m freestyle (long course) (1983 – 1984)


Dara Torres is a 12-time Olympic medalist and world record-holder in three events. American swimmer Dara Torres waves to the crowd after taking silver in the women’s 50m freestyle event by Bryan Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0

5. Natalie Coughlin

Born on 23rd August 1982, Natalie Anne Coughlin Hall is an American swimmer, 12-time Olympic medalist, and the first woman ever to swim the 100-meter backstroke (long course) in less than one minute.

She became the first female American athlete in Olympic history to win six medals in one Olympiad when she won six medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, one of which was for the 100m backstroke title which she also won in Athens 2004.

Coughlin has a total haul of 60 medals, including 25 gold, 22 silver, and 13 bronze medals from major international competitions such as the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Pan American, and the Pan Pacific Championships.

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Sports Illustrated Female Athlete of the Year (2014)
  •         World Swimmer of the Year Award
  •         American Swimmer of the Year Award

 


Natalie Coughlin was the first woman ever to swim the 100-meter backstroke (long course) in less than one minute. Natalie Coughlin at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2018 in Dubai by Fuzheado / CC BY-SA 4.0

6. Jenny Thompson

Born on 26th February in 1973, Jennifer Beth Thompson is a former American swimmer and one of the most decorated Olympians in history. She competed in four Olympic Games (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004) and has 12 medals, including eight gold. At the age of 14, she won gold in the 50m freestyle at the Pan American Games in 1987 and held the world record in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1992 – 1994)
  •         Women’s 100m butterfly (long course) (1999 – 2000)
  •         Women’s 100m butterfly (short course) (1997 – 2002)
  •         Women’s 50m butterfly (short course) (1997 – 1999)
  •         Women’s 100m individual medley (short course) (1999 – 2002)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (1998)
  •         Swimming World American Swimmer of the Year (1993, 1998, 1999)


Jenny Thompson is one of three of the most decorated American female Olympians in history. Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson by Jim Ellwanger / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

7. Janet Evans

Born on 28th August 1971, Janet Beth Evans is a former American swimmer, world champion, and world record-holder in distance freestyle events. She won four gold medals at the 1988 and the 1992 Olympics and some of her world records stood for over 20 years.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 400m freestyle (long course) (1987 – 2006)
  •         Women’s 800m freestyle (long course) (1987 – 2008)
  •         Women’s 1500m freestyle (long course) (1987 – 2007)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (1987, 1989, 1990)
  •         Swimming World American Swimmer of the Year (1987 – 1991)


Janet Evans won four gold medals at the 1988 and the 1992 Olympics. Olympic medalist Janet Evans takes the Pool Safely Pledge by PoolSafely / CC BY 2.0

8. Kristin Otto

Born on 7th February in 1966, Kristin Otto is a former German Olympic swimmer and world record holder who was the first woman to win six gold medals at a single Olympic Games (1988 Seoul Olympic Games). She was the first woman to swim the short course 100m backstroke in under a minute and held the world records in the long course 100m and 200m freestyle events.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1986 – 1992)
  •         Women’s 200m freestyle (long course) (1984 – 1986)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         World Swimmer of the Year (1984, 1986, 1988)
  •         European Swimmer of the Year (1984, 1986, 1988)
  •         East German Sportswoman of the Year (1988 – 1989)


Kristin Otto was the first woman to win six gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Kristin Otto by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1982-0804-030 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

9. Dawn Fraser

Born on 4th September in 1937, Dawn Fraser is a former Australian swimmer and freestyle champion who is one of three swimmers to have won the same Olympic individual event three times (100m freestyle in 1956, 1960, and 1964).

Fraser’s medal haul includes eight Olympic medals, four of which are gold, and six gold medals from the Commonwealth Games. She was also a 39-time record-holder, including the record for the 100m freestyle, which was held for 15 years. Fraser was also the first woman to swim 100m freestyle in less than one minute.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 100m freestyle (long course) (1956 – 1964)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Swimming World World Swimmer of the Year (1978)
  •         Swimming World American Swimmer of the Year (1980 – 1982, 1984)
  •         United Press International Athlete of the Year (1978)


Dawn Fraser was also the first woman to swim 100m freestyle in less than one minute. Dawn Fraser at Madame Tussauds Sydney by Eva Rinaldi / CC BY-SA 2.0

10. Tracy Caulkins

Born on 11th January in 1963, Tracy Anne Caulkins (now Tracy Anne Stockwell) is a former American swimmer and three-time Olympic gold medalist. She is also a five-time world champion and former world record-holder in three events.

Caulkins was famous for ability and versatility and set 63 American records in all four swimming strokes over a range of distances, as well as in the individual medley events. She competed in 48 national championships, set five world records.

Her world records include:

  •         Women’s 200m individual medley (long course) (1978 – 1980)
  •         Women’s 400m individual medley (long course) (1978 – 1980)

Her international swimming awards include:

  •         Australian of the Year (1964)
  •         Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) (1967)
  •         Australian Female Athlete of the Century (1985)
  •         World’s Greatest Living Female Water Sports Champion (1999)

Tracy Caulkins set 63 American records in all four swimming strokes. Tracy Caulkins by Anefo / Antonisse, Marcel / CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

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