Revenge of the Nerds: All-time Women’s Olympic Medal Winners

by Carly Geehr 40

September 30th, 2013 Africa, International, News

Here we go again, folks. This time, though, we’re looking at medals from the Big Dance. That all-too-infrequent event that makes swimming superfans of people who’ve never even seen a pool in real life, much less swum in one. (You know the type. The quadrennial Instant Swimming Experts™.) Yes, it’s time to talk Olympics.

In the World Championships, even though there were steroid-tainted years (a very high percentage, in fact) and an inconsistent schedule, for the most part the events stayed the same and thus it’s much easier to compare athletes across years. This is not at all the case with the Olympics. To illustrate, we have to dive (bad pun intended!) into the history a bit.

  • Women’s swimming? Wasn’t an Olympic sport ’till 1912. Even then, it was only a good deal for you if you were a 100 freestyler. The only events offered for a few years were the 100m freestyle and – for variety – the 4x100m freestyle relay.
  • Swimming “back then” has traveled a tortuous path in becoming the sport we now know and love. 200 meter obstacle event? Underwater swimming? Yep, they happened. (Once. In 1900.) 400 meter breaststroke, anyone? Apparently it was such a rollicking good time in its 1904 debut that it made reappearances in 1912 and 1916. That makes me die a little inside. Swimming generally dropped the crazier events by 1908 when it adopted a 6-event schedule for men, including the 100/400/1500m freestyles, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, and 4x200m freestyle relay. Women had a 5-event slate by 1924 that included the 100/400m freestyles, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, and 4x100m freestyle relay.
  • The Games that would have been held in 1940 and 1944 didn’t happen at all, for obvious reasons.
  • Butterfly didn’t exist (as a formally recognized discipline) until the 1950’s and made its Olympic debut in 1956 with the 100m butterfly for women and the 200m butterfly for men – they skipped right over the 100 and went straight for the jugular.
  • Thusly, the medley relay (where’s the fun in a 3-person relay?) and the I.M. didn’t debut until 1960 and 1964, respectively.
  • The event schedule stayed relatively unchanged for men and women from around 1908 (or, the end of the crazy years) until 1956. Adding butterfly seemed to open the floodgates – by 1968 most present-day events had trickled into the schedule, except for the 50m freestyle, which made its grand reappearance in 1988 after an 84-year hiatus.
  • Bafflingly, the 200m I.M. was dropped in both 1976 and 1980, and the 100m backstroke was dropped for men only in 1964. This seems random to me. Can you imagine now being, say, a 200 freestyler and finding out “Oh, sorry, we’re not having that event this time around?” Better than having your whole sport cancelled, sure, but still not great if those were your events.
  • The USA led a mass boycott of the 1980 Olympics, and the USSR, East Germany, and a handful of others boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Thus, competition wasn’t as steep, and the medals come with a bit of an asterisk.
  • Until 1996, women had fewer events than did the men, when the 4x200m freestyle relay was finally added.
  • With the exception of 1904, an anomaly for many reasons, there were no more than 7 events (including relays) per gender until 1956. There are now 16.

So, what do we make of all of this? For one thing, absolute medal counts are a lousy way to compare athletes across generations. And women are at a ridiculous disadvantage early on in the sport, even to a lesser extent through 1996, so comparing men and women doesn’t make a ton of sense. The unbalanced schedule of events doesn’t help things, either – with events performing disappearing acts (100 back, 200 IM), and with strange (to us) event combinations (why the 200 breast but not the 200 back? And why, in the name of all things holy, introduce the men’s 200 fly before the 100 fly?) a certain type of swimmer was arbitrarily favored over another. Until 1980, prelims swimmers didn’t receive relay medals, and lastly, the men’s and women’s events didn’t stabilize until 1988 and 1996, respectively, so it was harder for a swimmer great in an event to go on a big run.

I’ll give you a few ways to digest the medal data: the absolute medal counts, analyses of individual events only, and counts normalized by Games for number of events available at the time. It would be neat to see someone come up with coefficients for things like boycotts, event bias, or PEDs, but alas, I’m ill-equipped for that sort of thing.

Let’s start with the women’s medalists.

Name Country # Total Medals
Jenny Thompson USA 12
Natalie Coughlin USA 12
Dara Torres USA 12
Franziska van Almsick GER 10
Leisel Jones AUS 9
Dawn Fraser AUS 8
Shirley Babashoff USA 8
Petria Thomas AUS 8
Kornelia Ender GDR 8
Inge de Bruijn NED 8
Susie O’Neill AUS 8

 

The absolute medal counts are nothing surprising. Jenny ThompsonDara Torres, and Natalie Coughlin top the charts with 12 medals each, followed by Franziska van Almsick (10) and Leisel Jones (9). The 8-medal club is crowded; among its members are Inge de Bruijn, Dawn Fraser, Kornelia Ender, Petria Thomas, Shirley Babashoff, and Susie O’Neill. Thompson also tops the gold medal count with 8 golds, 2 more than either Amy Van Dyken or Kristin Otto, the next two swimmers on the list. Krisztina Egerszegi also gets a mention here with her 5 gold medals, all of which were individual. (More on the individual medal counts in a moment.)

Note: van Almsick has a pretty noteworthy record of having won the most career Olympic medals without a single gold. She has four silver and 6 bronze.

The aggregate counts favor a particular kind of swimmer. She sticks around for awhile. She’s a great freestyler, maybe with a secondary stroke, and she comes from a country that does well on relays but does her part to make sure it succeeds. The women on this list are remarkable, yes – they’re the first names we think of when we think “greatest of all time.” But this time, let’s slice it up a little differently and see what we get.

An obvious place to start is without the relays. Who have been the most dominant individual Olympic swimmers of all time? Krisztina Egerszegi and Kirsty Coventry share the top slot here with 7 individual medals each. Inge de Bruijn has 6, and she’s followed by a swath of quintuplists: Amanda Beard, Dagmar Hase, Galina Prozumenshchikova (more on her soon), Janet Evans, Leisel Jones, Natalie Coughlin, Shane Gould, Shirley Babashoff, and Yana Klochkova. The thing that jumps out at me first, besides the fact that this is essentially a totally different group of women, is that there are far more countries represented on this list – 8 in total (Zimbabwe, Hungary, Netherlands, USA, Germany, Soviet Union, Australia, and Ukraine). USA (4) and Australia (2) are the only countries with multiple swimmers on the list. The other thing that jumps out, strangely, is that none of these swimmers suffered under any (serious) PED allegations. Given the sport’s history of isolated but concentrated drug scandals, it’s surprising to me that clean athletes have risen to the top without any need for corrective number fudging.

Name Country # Individual Medals
Kirsty Coventry ZIM 7
Krisztina Egerszegi HUN 7
Inge de Bruijn NED 6
Shane Gould AUS 5
Dagmar Hase GER 5
Janet Evans USA 5
Natalie Coughlin USA 5
Shirley Babashoff USA 5
Yana Klochkova UKR 5
Amanda Beard USA 5
Galina Prozumenshchikova USSR 5
Leisel Jones AUS 5

 

Galina Prozumenshchikova. Not exactly a name that rolls off the tip of your tongue, and probably a name that only the most hard core swimming fans have heard before. She was a premiere breaststroker of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, winning medals in each of the 5 Olympic breaststroke events in which she competed, including one gold (200m breaststroke, 1964, soon after appendicitis surgery – which wasn’t quite a non-event in 1960’s Soviet Russia). Were the 100m breaststroke an Olympic event in 1964, one could easily imagine her tacking on not just an additional medal, but an additional gold to her haul.

It’s coincidental that Egerszegi and Coventry sit atop the rankings given that they swam basically the same events (backstroke and I.M.), and that in 2008 Coventry broke Egerszegi’s totally absurd 200m backstroke world record from 1991. The majority of Egerszegi’s medals, though, are gold. She three-peated in the 200m backstroke (’88 at age 14, ’92, and ’96) and also took gold in the 100m backstroke and 400m I.M. in 1992 for a triple-gold performance in Barcelona. Coventry, while obviously tremendously impressive, has but 2 individual golds to her credit, both in the 200m backstroke (’04, ’08).

Name (Country) Year # Individual Medals
Shane Gould (AUS) 1972 5
Ines Diers (GDR) 1980 4
Kristin Otto (GDR) 1988 4
Michelle Smith (IRL) 1996 4
Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) 2008 4

 

If we look just at single-games medal hauls, the picture changes slightly. Shane Gould takes top honors here with her jaw-dropping 5 individual medal performance in 1972. Unbelievable. Kirsty Coventry, with her 4 medals from 2008, shares the second spot with athletes missing from the overall medals picture, all of whom are related to some sort of doping scandal. Smith aroused suspicions with her 1996 performance and was later banned by FINA after testing positive for androstenedione. The other two, while not formally and individually charged with PED usage, were part of the East German machine that we now know with certainty was systematically doping its athletes between 1971 and 1990. Not including the athletes already mentioned, 17 additional women have won 3 individual medals in a single games.

By year:
1936: Rie Mastenbroek
1968: Jan Henne, Debbie Meyer
1972: Novella Calligaris
1976: Shirley Babshoff, Kornelia Ender
1988: Janet Evans (all gold)
1992: Krisztina Egerszegi (all gold), Lin Li, Summer Sanders
1996: Dagmar Hase
2000: Yana Klochkova, Dara Torres, Inge de Bruijn (all gold)
2004: Laure Manaudou, Otylia Jedrzejczak, Inge de Bruijn
2008: Natalie Coughlin

Of these athletes, 6 have won 3 or more individual gold medals in a single games: Inge de Bruijn, Krisztina Egerszegi, Janet Evans, Michelle Smith, Shane Gould, and Kristin Otto. Interestingly, none of these performances occurred during a boycott year, when you’d imagine it would be easier to do.

It should go without saying that any woman on any of these lists is superlatively phenomenal, but I feel bad short-changing anyone to whom I’m not dedicating more inches. Every story is unique and fascinating, and I highly recommend poking around the interwebs for more information on any athlete with whom you’re less familiar. In running these numbers, it became clear that any absolute counts heavily favor post-1964 athletes, as the 1968 games were the first to include a full-ish schedule of events. Just for kicks, I normalized each swimmer’s medal count per games based on the number of events offered in order to get a medal percentage. Say, if there were 10 events offered and a swimmer earned 4 medals, her “score” for the games would be 40% – with the idea that each medal at a reduced-event competition is that much more rare and thus should be given more weight. We reach some practical limits fairly quickly, however. It would be impossible for a modern athlete to compete in every event offered. This analysis is “just for fun” in that it brings out some new names, and numbers are fun for nerds like me.

This broke down in the earliest games, where the two-event schedule (1 individual, 1 relay) guaranteed medal-winners at least 50% of the pie. Not as interesting. Between 1924 and 1964, there weren’t a ton of events offered, but there were more than 2-3, so percentages become slightly more meaningful.

Let’s dive in. The only woman from ancient times I’ll mention is Jennie Fletcher of Great Britain, as she won medals in 100% of the events offered in 1912. (This meant that she swam twice.) This is the only time in women’s swimming history this has happened.

Between 1924 and 1964, here’s the way it breaks down, by max medal haul %:

1924-1964, All Events

Rie Mastenbroek (NED) 1936 80% (4/5)
Gertrude Ederle (USA) 1924 60% (3/5)
Helene Madison (USA) 1932 60% (3/5)
Ann Curtis (USA) 1948 60% (3/5)
Éva Novák (HUN) 1952 60% (3/5)
Karen Harup (DEN) 1948 60% (3/5)
Joyce Cooper (GBR) 1928 60% (3/5)
Chris von Saltza (USA) 1960 57% (4/7)
Sharon Stouder (USA) 1964 50% (4/8)
Kathy Ellis (USA) 1964 50% (4/8)

 

1924-1964, Individual Events Only

Rie Mastenbroek (NED) 1936 75.00% (3/4)
Ann Curtis (USA) 1948 50.00% (2/4)
Éva Novák (HUN) 1952 50.00% (2/4)
Gertrude Ederle (USA) 1924 50.00% (2/4)
Helene Madison (USA) 1932 50.00% (2/4)
Joyce Cooper (GBR) 1928 50.00% (2/4)
Karen Harup (DEN) 1948 50.00% (2/4)
Maria Johanna Braun (NED) 1928 50.00% (2/4)

 

Clearly, Rie Mastenbroek deserves a mention here. She featured in the single-games medal haul discussion earlier, but here… Wow. Of the 5 events offered (100/400m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, 4x100m freestyle relay), she medaled in 4. Yes, it can be said that this spread didn’t require the versatility it might have in later years, but these were indeed different times. Most of these women were freestylers, and it’s a shame they never had the chance to swim a fuller schedule on the Olympic stage. Helene Madison, for example, was the world record holder in the 1500m freestyle at the time of the 1932 games, but her only opportunities for gold were in the 100m and 400m events (both of which she won, along with the 4x100m freestyle relay).

In the post-1964 world, we see some familiar faces:

Post-1964, All Events

*Kristin Otto (GDR) 1988 40% (6/15)
b*Ines Diers (GDR) 1980 38% (5/13)
Natalie Coughlin (USA) 2004 38% (6/16)
Shirley Babashoff (USA) 1972 36% (5/14)
*Kornelia Ender (GDR) 1972 36% (5/14)
Shane Gould (AUS) 1972 36% (5/14)
Alicia Coutts (AUS) 2012 31% (5/16)
Missy Franklin (USA) 2012 31% (5/16)
Allison Schmitt (USA) 2012 31% (5/16)
Dara Torres (USA) 2000 31% (5/16)
b*Caren Metschuck (GDR) 1980 31% (4/13)
*Andrea Pollack (GDR) 1976 31% (4/13)
Susan Pedersen (USA) 1968 29% (4/14)
Jan Henne (USA) 1968 29% (4/14)
bNancy Hogshead (USA) 1984 29% (4/14)

 

Post-1964, Individual Events Only

Shane Gould (AUS) 1972 41.67% (5/12)
b*Ines Diers (GDR) 1980 36.36% (4/11)
*Kristin Otto (GDR) 1988 30.77% (4/13)
*Michelle Smith (IRL) 1996 30.77% (4/13)
Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) 2008 30.77% (4/13)
Shirley Babashoff (USA) 1976 27.27% (3/11)
*Kornelia Ender (GDR) 1976 27.27% (3/11)
Debbie Meyer (USA) 1968 25.00% (3/12)
Jan Henne (USA) 1968 25.00% (3/12)
Novella Calligaris (ITA) 1972 25.00% (3/12)
Inge de Bruijn (NED) 2000, 2004 23.08% (3/13)
Laure Manaudou (FRA) 2004 23.08% (3/13)
Otylia Jędrzejczak (POL) 2004 23.08% (3/13)
Summer Sanders (USA) 1992 23.08% (3/13)
Dagmar Hase (GER) 1992 23.08% (3/13)
Janet Evans (USA) 1988 23.08% (3/13)
Natalie Coughlin (USA) 2004 23.08% (3/13)
Yana Klochkova (UKR) 2000 23.08% (3/13)
Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN) 1992 23.08% (3/13)
Dara Torres (USA) 2000 23.08% (3/13)
*Lin Li (CHN) 1992 23.08% (3/13)

b = at a Games affected by boycott
* = part of a delegation that was systematically doping its athletes at the time

The list isn’t too different, but we definitely see a certain type of swimmer favored in the plus-relays count; if you’re, say, American and are on all three relays, you’ve got a bit of a head start. This isn’t to denigrate in any way the accomplishment of qualifying for and leading all three relays to Olympic success – far from it – it’s just that plenty of the all-time greats were never in that position. Again, the biggest difference for me between the relays and no-relays lists is the relative absence of boycott or PED-colored individuals on the individual list.

If you’ve read down this far, congratulations! Next up, an analysis of the men’s medalists…

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40 Comments on "Revenge of the Nerds: All-time Women’s Olympic Medal Winners"

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It really saddens me not to see Tracy Caulkins listed due to the 1980 boycott. One of the best (if not THE best) ever!

clive rushton

Another nail in the coffin of stupid, meaningless, ineffective, self-serving political posturing.

Must give credit for her 3 medals in 68 Debbie Meyer with Gold in 200-400-800 and had World Record in all Three plus 1500 record. Won the Sullivan award and AAU swim award the same as the top US Swimming award. One of the greats off all time.

Many numbers but interesting article.
Missy Franklin will break all these records.

mcgillrocks

no. Franklin will not win 100% of the medals at one Olympics, or win 5 individual medals at one Games

Sorry. Forget the “all these”!
I talked especially about the biggest number of medals won at the end of her career and the biggest number of individual medals won at the end of her career.

mcgillrocks is correct.

Franklin showed in Barcelona that she’s already hit a plateau after swimming slower in most of her races than she did in London. Short course yardage training for the next few years won’t help either. Let’s not forget that she will no longer enjoy the advantages of high attitude training on a year round basis either.

If any up and comers these days stand a chance of getting on those Olympic medals records down the road, that person’s surname would be Ledecky, not Franklin.

I disagree.
Missy Franklin will improve a lot the technical parts of her races, especially on backstroke.
And at the end of her career, perhaps around 2024, she will be, BY FAR, the girl with the biggest number of medals.

mcgillrocks

ok that will be correct. i would be surprised if missy retires with anything less than 10 golds and 15 medals total

that being said, she’s by no means a lock for the individual tally. she still has 5 to go. at the pace she’s at, she would retire with 8, but that’s assuming she makes 4 olympic teams in both backstrokes each time and doesn’t miss a single medal. anything can happen in 11 years

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About Carly Geehr

Carly burst onto the swimming scene in 1997 when she qualified for the Pan Pacific championships at the ripe old age of 12. She later earned a silver medal at the 1999 Pan American Games in the 800 free relay and competed on the World Cup circuit. A few shoulder and …

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