The 5 Mentally Toughest American Elite Swimmers in History

by SwimSwam Partner Content 141

November 27th, 2018 Opinion

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder. Originally published 5/18.

This is a tough list to compose. There are probably 50 or more good candidates for the top 5 spots, but this is my list. My recollection and knowledge of elite swimmers dates back to 1966, so any swimmers from before that era were not considered and may well deserve a spot on this list. I can think of a few that might, like Jeff Farrell, who made the Olympic Team in 1960 just 6 days after having an acute appendicitis…and one day after leaving the hospital.

Eddie Reese, men’s Head Coach at University of Texas, and the most successful Division 1 coach in history, used to grade (from 1-10) all of his swimmers on mental toughness, using what he called The Killer Instinct Scale. It would take Eddie until the conference or NCAA Championship meet of their freshman year to determine each swimmer’s first grade (I don’t think he actually gave it to them, but he then had an idea of what it was). It didn’t matter how fast they swam in workouts or dual meets. The real sign of mental toughness was how fast they would swim at the Championship meets. In that freshman year, with all of the changes and transitions going on in the swimmer’s life, only the mentally toughest swimmers will perform really well.

At The Race Club, we always tell our campers that their swimming career should not be evaluated on the basis of how many Olympic medals they won, or world records they set, but by how well they performed in their Championship meets year in and year out. No matter what level a swimmer reaches, if they consistently do their best when it counts, then they are mentally tough and champions.

As far as the elite swimmers go, here is my top five list, which includes nine swimmers:

  1. Michael Phelps. I don’t think I will get too much argument here. To swim 17 races and win 8 gold medals out of 8 quite varied races in 2008 (who else wins the 400 IM and 100 fly in the same Olympic Games?), his mental toughness has to be off the charts. Perhaps his mentally toughest race of all time was winning the 200 fly in Beijing with his goggles filled with water. What composure! His comeback swims in Rio, in his final Olympic Games, and his performances in the London Olympics of 2012, after a poor first swim, are yet more reasons why he is ranked #1.
  2. Mike Burton. Some of you may not even remember who he was, but you should. In all of his years as the world’s greatest distance freestyler, Mike never had a bad championship meet. In Bradenton, Florida, at the Spring National Championships of 1966, the last time that meet was ever held outdoors, the temperature was in the 30’s. It was wet and rainy all weekend. Everyone swam poorly, except Mike. He broke American records in winning the 500 and 1650 freestyle.
    In the Mexico City Olympic Games of 1968, held at 7,000 feet, which adversely affects the distance athletes, Mike demolished the field in the 400 and 1500 meter freestyles to win 2 Gold medals.
    In the Munich Olympic Games of 1972, where Mike was not expected to make the Team nor medal, he won a come-from-behind gold medal in the 1500 meter freestyle.
    If these rankings were based purely on swimming above physical talent level, Mike Burton, who was only 5 feet 9 inches tall, might be #1 on the list.
  3. Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky and Lilly King. I couldn’t decide among these three, so I made it a tie. They are all 10/10 on the Killer Instinct Scale and have proven it at the NCAA, World Championships and Olympic Games. Each won an NCAA championship as a freshman, a rare accomplishment. All three won Olympic gold medals in their very first Olympic Games, which is only achieved by the mentally toughest athletes. They all have the Eye of the Tiger when standing on the blocks at any Championship meet and you wouldn’t want to be racing against them.
  4. Gary Hall Jr., Tom Dolan. Ok, so I am little biased here. These two overcame incredible adversities to become Olympic champions. There has probably never been a swimmer that swam so slow in meets leading up to championship meets, yet never failed to swim fast in a championship meet, ever, as Gary Jr did. In three Olympic Games, he swam in 10 Olympic races and earned 10 Olympic medals and his best swims were always on relays. Six of those Olympic medals were earned after he was diagnosed with type I diabetes, and two diabetes specialists told him he would never swim in an Olympic Games again. Gary Jr was a Gamer and was as tough as they come at Game time. The bigger the meet, the faster he swam.
    Tom Dolan was another Gamer that was at the top of the Killer Instinct Scale. Stricken with severe asthma, Tom would never know when an attack was coming. Yet he performed at his very best at the Olympic Games, winning two consecutive gold medals in arguably the most difficult event on the schedule, the 400 IM.
  5. Shirley Babashoff and Janet Evans. Both of these women deserve to be on this list, perhaps higher than 5th. While Janet did not swim as well as she would have liked in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, her absolute dominance in the distance freestyle for so many years, setting records that would last for decades, earns her a spot as one of the mentally toughest swimmers of all time. Shirley was one of those swimmers who always seemed to get her hand on the wall first. She was a fierce competitor and you wouldn’t want to be battling her in the final 10 meters of any race. The only important time she didn’t win, her three individual silver medals in the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976 would have been gold, were it not for the steroid-boosted swimmers from East Germany. Even so, Shirley and her teammates swam in what I consider the mentally toughest race of all time by winning the final 4 x 100 free relay in those Games. If you haven’t seen the movie The Last Gold, you should.

So go ahead. Let me know who should have been on the list. There are many deserving candidates.

This week in The Race Club’s Lanes 2, 3 and 4, you can join us in our classroom discussion about reducing frontal drag with proper head position. We hope you will.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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Phelps belongs at #1 agree


What about Jason Lezak?

gary hall sr

One of the greatest relay swimmers of all time and arguably the best relay performance of all time.

Mike Burton

Thanks Gary,I am honored.

gary hall sr

Mike, I share stories of your mental toughness in every Race Club camp. I will never forget that night in the Hofbrau Haus in Munich in 1972 after your win…. how you told me you had never given up in a race…and you weren’t about to start that day!

He said what?

Two LEGENDS on SwimSwam’s reader’s board. It does not get any better than this. Mike, back in the day, you were THE MAN. Gary, your 400 yard I.M. was so far ahead of everyone else, it was magic. And now I get the chance to tell you both! It does NOT get better than this. (Yes, I am fawning.)

Steve Friederang

I agree. Gary Senior was tougher than Gary Jr. day in and day out and across a full spectrum of events. If it weren’t for a guy named Mark, Gary might be the most decorated swimmer. But he has also shown us all how to do similar spectacular things outside the pool that reflect on what we learn in the pool. I’d love to see a ranking of that. Steve Friederang,

Stephen "Sid" Cassidy

Agree completely – Phelps off the charts and I must have missed this last May but when I saw the headline my first image was of “The Pocket Battleship”!…. Glued to ABC’s coverage of the Games in ‘68 as an age grouper, Mike you became the embodiment of “toughness” for me and so many … Four years later I remember being thrilled you shocked all to just make that team …then when Rick was pulled from the 1500 at the last minute (don’t get us started on the incredible injustice there / another vote getter here could easily be Rick DeMont!) it was like you were swimming that Munich Mile for him and for all of us! The way you… Read more »

Dartmouth swimmer

What about Steve genter?


Make a case for him….


I’ll make a case; he got his hand on the wall in what basically was an impossible win. Going up against a faster swimmer with a significant head start on you; an individual with a weaker mindset would have said there was no chance and would have lost before the race started.

I’ve got no issue with the list really, but some of the swimmers (Katie Ledecky for instance) don’t really have anyone even in their same sphere of talent to make it a close race. Sometimes mental toughness is just as great for those who don’t win all the golds.

Double Arm Freestyle

I’d make the argument that Katie Ledecky’s dominance comes from her mental toughness. Don’t forget, this is the girl who at 15 wasn’t supposed to make the Olympic team and dropped 5 seconds to win the 800 at trials and 5 more to win Olympic gold(by 5 seconds) and rattle the world record (while swimming next to the world record holder). If you saw her at trials before her swim, you’d have said her winning Olympic gold was impossible, even after that swim most would probably still say impossible. She broke the 400 Free world record at pan pacs when it was raining, but it didn’t affect her because, “it doesn’t rain underwater”. Her strength comes from her mentality, look… Read more »


Nice case. Counter example: She had nothing to loose, and therefor was able to perform at that level at that time. Lots of people swim great when they have nothing to loose. Hell, lots of people do amazing things when they having nothing to loose. It’s SO OFTEN that those whom have EVERYTHING to loose step up and perform when ALL STAKES are on the line that SEEM to ME to separate themselves from the rest.
Perhaps I’m wrong. This is just a thought on the fly… but I am not also sure that being ’15’ and having ‘nothing to loose’ (which you could perhaps argue against) tokens an event of “top 5 all time mental toughness”.

Steve Friederang

Nothing to lose is a mindset only the mentally tough choose. To choose it at 15 is even more amazing. There is always something to lose when you stand up on the blocks, nearly naked being rated to a hundredth of a second in front of everyone you care about and cares about you.

Coach John

I would of made the case of him training OYO on the lead-up to that race. while the race was historic, his journey getting there was even more so. he was kicked off his college team, swam masters and OYO for years.


Lol top five list composed of nine people

gary hall sr

I know…but since they give away 2 golds for winners tying in the Olympics, why not here? Some of these are just too close to call.

Caeleb Dressel Will Win 9 Gold Medals in Tokyo

Because then it’s top 9. Like they didn’t give the guy who got 5th in the 100 fly at Rio a Gold medal.
If the first 5 people tie, then 6th place is 6th, not 2nd.


True, but then they skip silver

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