Gold Medals Over 30: Historically Rare, But Expected in Rio

On the eve of Olympic competition, and minutes away from opening ceremonies, we have another nugget for swim fans to keep an eye on.  Coming into Rio, just eight swimmers (five men and three women) have won gold medals after the age of 30, none of which were earned at the same Olympic games.  That figure could easily increase by 50% in the next week, as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Laszlo Cseh, David Plummer, and Anthony Ervin are all over 30 years of age.

Swimmers who have won Olympic gold medals over the age of 30

Swimmer Country Year # of golds
Brendan Hansen USA 2012 1
Jason Lezak USA 2008 2
Inge de Bruijn Netherlands 2004 1
Dara Torres USA 2000 2
Ursula Happe Germany 1956 1
Duke Kahanamoku USA 1920 1
Cecil Healy Australasia 1912 1
Lou Handley USA 1904 1

Remarkably, Ursula Happe of Germany was the only swimmer over 30 in an eighty year period from 1920 to 2000 to win gold.  The seemingly-ageless Dara Torres won a pair of golds in 2000, with an over-30 athlete coming up golden at each subsequent Olympics.  That’s in stark contrast to what we expect in Rio.

At the very least, the odds suggest we’ll see at least three of these athletes win gold.   Chad le Clos could potentially sweep the fly events, but Phelps and Cseh are considered favorites by many.  Even if the two elder statesmen come up empty against le Clos, Phelps and Lochte are the two best 200 IMers in history.  Phelps (400 medley relay, potentially both freestyle relays) and Lochte (800 freestyle relay) also have opportunities on relays.

With the world’s second fastest 100 backstroke time this Olympiad (and just 0.01 behind the leader), David Plummer is both an individual contender, as well as a member of Team USA’s 400 medley relay team.  Considering the Americans are undefeated in Olympic competition in the event and boast the world’s best relay on-paper combo, Plummer’s odds are looking good.  Ervin’s individual event (50 free) and relay (400 free relay) odds are lower than Plummer’s, but given the speed he showed at Trials, both are still within reason.

While the results of next week may just be a matter of coincidence (three of the greatest swimmers in history all just hit the 30 mark this Olympiad, and are still competing), it’s more than likely this will  be more common in the future.  Just check out the average ages on Team USA’s roster from every Olympics since 1984:

Team USA average age, by Olympics

Year Men Women
1984 21.1 18.9
1988 20.9 20.0
1992 22.9 20.2
1996 22.8 20.0
2000 21.2 21.6
2004 23.2 21.1
2008 23.5 22.3
2012 25.8 21.6
2016 24.0 22.6

Many of these numbers are courtesy of a 2013 article from Matt Barbini on usaswimming.org

It’s no surprise the rise over the past 8-12 years came during the rise of Michael Phelps and the internet era.  With continuously expanding financial opportunities, more and more swimmers worldwide are able to support themselves to compete later in their careers.  Looking ahead to Tokyo in 2020, Team USA stalwarts Nathan Adrian and Conor Dwyer will be over 30 (along with Lochte and Phelps, who haven’t completely closed the door).

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Kordez
4 years ago

Who is on our (USA) 4x100m free relay?

tea rex
4 years ago

Relevant: this is the first time EVER (as far as I can tell) in which there are no high schoolers on the USA Olympic team. No males, no females.

Danjohnrob
4 years ago

I don’t know about the athletes before 1960, but of the 4 listed above from 2000 onward, only Inge de Bruijn has won gold in an individual race (50 free). Hopefully one or more of the 30+ yr old swimmers above will win gold in an individual event in Rio. I also want to add that anything can happen in the 50 free, so don’t count Anthony Ervin out in that event (not to mention that the US could win the 4×100 free relay)!

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  Danjohnrob
4 years ago

Well, the 1960′ saw the teenage swimmers since their was a little more yardage and girls didn’t get college scholarships for swimming. The 1970’s still had young ages because of the very high yardage starting in 1973 and girls were just getting into college swimming. This is why the 1984 women’s team was 18 years old.

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Morgan Priestley

A Stanford University and Birmingham, Michigan native, Morgan Priestley started writing for SwimSwam in February 2013 on a whim, and is loving that his tendency to follow and over-analyze swim results can finally be put to good use. Morgan swam competitively for 15+ years, primarily excelling in the mid-distance freestyles. While …

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