After publishing Monday’s list of the best female swimmers in history who didn’t win Olympic gold, I began in earnest researching the candidates for the men’s list.
What initially jumped out at me was how much harder this list was to make. There were a whole lot more swimmers who had incredibly-accomplished international careers who hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal.
That made this list a lot more challenging and a lot more fun. I suspect that there will be a lot more disagreement, in part because there were a lot more viable American candidates for this list who didn’t make the cut, and Americans make up 2/3rds of our audience. Certain male swimmers have become folk heroes in the U.S., but when their resumes are stacked up internationally, they fade a little.
This list also had a lot more active swimmers who were candidates, and so we opted to draw a line at 30-years old: if a swimmer is under 30, we still consider them close enough to their prime as to make their inclusion on this list less meaningful. Among the names we came up with for that recognition: Daiya Seto, Radoslaw Kawecki, Vlad Morozov, Chase Kalisz, Evgeny Rylov, and Anton Chupkov.
If you read the women’s intro earlier, you can skip this part.
The history books of swimming are littered with great names that never hit the pinnacle of the sport: the top of an Olympic podium. Some of these names you know, and some of them you may never have heard of.
The best way to ensure immortality in the sport of swimming is via a World Record. In a recent poll, 81% of SwimSwam readers said that they’d rather win an Olympic gold medal than break a World Record. Many of the swimmers on this list, however, have done just the opposite: broken World Records, but never won Olympic golds.
In fact, some swimmers on this list have never won an Olympic medal at all.
There are many explanations for these swimmers’ lack of Olympic gold. For some, the result is from running up against an absolute juggernaut for almost their entire career. Think Laszlo Cseh and his parallel with Michael Phelps.
For others, their best golden opportunities were interrupted by wars, boycotts, or national Olympic banishment for reasons that were no fault of the individual (think South Africa’s long-time Olympic ban due to apartheid). In the early part of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for women to get married and start having children and never really get to chase their full Olympic potential, or for men to join military service.
For others, it was just bad swims at the worst moment, or perhaps an extreme specialty in either short course swimming or non-Olympic events, but enough success in those to warrant mention.
These swimmers, even without Olympic gold medals, are still worth celebrating, however. Below is a list of the 10 best female swimmers to have never won Olympic gold.
This list was collaborated on by the whole SwimSwam staff. We’ll admit that it does have a recency bias – but perhaps that is warranted, given how much deeper the sport has become in more recent years (an Olympic silver medalist in 2012 is probably better, even relative to their own time, than an Olympic silver medalist in 1912 was). We’ve also limited this to the modern Olympic era.
We’ve also included a list of names of other swimmers that would have strong cases for this list, in no particular order.
It’s likely that there’s a name we’ve forgotten that one of our readers will point out as an obvious miss. This is a little bit appropriate, given the topic: it’s fairly easy to identify the best swimmers who have won Olympic gold medals, because that list is much shorter than the one of swimmers who have not. Further, Olympic gold medals are a very easy way to define greatness of a career. Let us know who we missed, and if we agree, we’ll eat crow in the comments.
For the sake of argument, swimmers who have received a suspension for a banned substance or who admitted after their careers that they took banned substances, knowingly or not. We’ve also excluded swimmers who haven’t gotten a serious crack at gold yet – like Daiya Seto and Vlad Morozov and Chase Kalisz – though still active, but later-in-their-career, swimmers were considered. We drew the cutoff as “swimmers over 30.”
Top 10 Male Swimmers Who Have Never Won Olympic Gold
10. Ted Stickles, United States – A top contender for the honor of ‘best swimmer to never race at the Olympics,” Stickels was an early leader in the individual medley events. He suffered from elbow tendinitis that cost him a chance at the 400 IM in 1964. His specialty event, the 200 IM, wasn’t added to the Olympic schedule until 1968, when he was past the peak of his career. At different points, he held World Records in the 400 IM in long course and 200 IM in long course, and across 5 swims in 1960 and 1961, he managed to knock an incredible 6.2 seconds off the World Record in the men’s 200 IM. It took almost another decade for the next 6.2 seconds to come off. In total, he broke 9 World Records in the 1960s. He did get his Olympic journey in 1968 as an assistant coach on the U.S. pentathlon team in Tokyo.
9. John Marshall, Australia – Coming out of World War II, Marshall was the first bandleader of an Australian distance dynasty that would last for 60 years. Training in the US under the famed Bob Kiputh at Yale, he broke 19 World Records, including 15 done in four months in 1950. At the 1949 Australian Championships he won all of the freestyle events from 100 meters through 1500 meters, and at the 1950 AAU Championships (US) he won the 220 yard, 440 yard, 880 yard, 200 metre, 400 metre, and 1-mile titles. By the 1952 Olympics, he claimed burnout and finished 8th in the final of the 1500 meter freestyle, more than 41 seconds behind the 7th-place finisher. in 1954, he moved back to Australia and began work at the tire shop of Frank Beaurepaire – another great Australian distance swimmer who never won Olympic gold. He swam at the 1956 Olympics in the newly-ordained butterfly events, and a few weeks later died in a car crash.
8. Thor Henning, Sweden – A swimmer with a surprisingly-long career for the era, Henning won 4 Olympic medals between the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympic Games, and might have gotten his gold if the 1916 Olympics weren’t cancelled because of World War I. He won silver in 1912 in the 400 breaststroke, silver in 1920 in the 200 and 400 breaststroke, and bronze in 1924 as part of Sweden’s 800 free relay.
7. Tim McKee, United States – McKee won 3 silver medals in the 1970s in the 200 IM (1972) and 400 IM (1972, 1976). McKee is the one swimmer on this list who rightfully probably should have an Olympic gold medal. In an infamous race in 1972, McKee and Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson tied for the top spot in the 400 IM in 4:31.98, but 10 minutes later, Larsson was declared the winner based on a timing system that calculated his finish to be 2-thousandths of a second faster than McKee’s (about the thicknesses of a sheet of paper).
6. Jonty Skinner, South Africa – Much like Karen Muir on the women’s list, Jonty Skinner never got the chance to race at the Olympics because of the South African ban from the Olympic Games over the country’s apartheid policies. In 1976, though, at the US National Championships, he broke Jim Montgomery’s 20-day old World Record in the 100 free by .55 seconds. That record stood until Rowdy Gaines broke it almost 5 years later. No swimmer since has broken that 100 free record by the same margin as Skinner did.
5. Joe Bottom, United States – After winning 2 gold and 1 silver medals at the 1973 World Championships, at 21-years old in 1976 Bottom took silver in the 100 fly as part of a 1-2-3 finish for the Americans – .15 seconds behind Matt Vogel, and ahead of Gary Hall. 2 years later he won gold in the 100 fly at the World Championships, along with a medley relay gold medal. He was primed to enter the 1980 Olympics in his prime, at 25-years old, but as we know, the Americans never got that chance. In 1977, he broke World Records in the 50 free in long course and 100 fly in long course. He re-broke the 50 free record in 1980. It’s worth noting that he was on the American 400 medley relay in prelims in 1976, with the finals group going on to win gold, but that was before prelims-only swimmers were awarded gold medals.
4. Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, Japan – A Japanese swimmer who trained in the U.S. in college, Yamanaka broke the 200 free World Record 3 times in 2 months in 1961. In total, he broke the long course 200 free World Record 5 times in his career, but the 200 free wasn’t added as an Olympic event until 1968, when he was already 29-years old. In spite of that, he still found his way onto 4 Olympic podiums with silver medals: the 400 and 1500 freestyles in 1956 and the 400 free and 800 free relay in 1960. He also set a World Record in the 400 free in 1959. He ran headlong into the juggernaut performances of Australian Murray Rose, and the absence of his best event from the Olympic schedule.
3. Jesse Vassallo, United States – Another victim of the 1980 Olympic boycott, Vassallo won gold in the 200 back and 400 IM, and silver in the 200 IM, at the 1978 World Championships heading into the 1980 Olympic Games, which the Americans boycotted. After attempting (unsuccessfully) to represent Puerto Rico in the 1976 Olympics, he qualified for the American team that was due for the 1980 Games. While he didn’t wind up racing there, his times in the 200 IM and 400 IM at the alternative American competition, held at the same time as the Olympics, were faster than the times to win Olympic gold medals. In 1984, after undergoing knee surgery and 2 years of recovery, and enduring the death of his father in a car crash, he finally made his Olympic debut and finished 4th in the 400 IM. He retired after those Olympics.
2. Paul Biedermann, Germany – Has any swimmer ever held a World Record as long as Biedermann has held his (200 free – 10 years, 267 days; 400 free – 10 years, 269 days) and still given so little respect by the swimming community at large? Biedermann, who hit the peak of his career during the supersuit era, is the current World Record holder in both the 200 and 400 freestyles in long course. He won World Championships in both races in 2009, among 7 career World Championship medals in long course (and along with 4 in short course). He also has 13 European Championship medals. But Biedermann was never able to come through for even a medal at the Olympics. His best individual finish at the Olympics was 5th in the 200 free at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, which he followed with a 6th-place finish in 2016. In 2012, Yannick Agnel swam out-of-his-mind good, and the other 3 ahead of Biedermann all have doping rules violations on their records (Sun Yang, Park Tae-hwan, Ryan Lochte). We can’t separate Biedermann’s peak from the suits, but what we know is this: in 2009, with everyone in the same suit, he beat Michael Phelps in the 200 free head-to-head in a meet where Phelps won every other event he entered and broke 4 World Records. That has to count for something.
1. Laszlo Cseh, Hungary – Cseh might have a claim to ‘greatest swimmer in history’ if it weren’t for the fact that his career ran headlong into the career of the ‘greatest swimmer in history’ Michael Phelps. He has won 6 individual Olympic medals in his career between 2008 and 2016. The first 5 of those races saw him finish behind Michael Phelps, and his 2016 silver saw him tie with Phelps (and Chad le Clos) behind Joseph Schooling’s upset gold. Cseh won his first World Championship in 2005 in the 400 IM after Phelps backed out, and his second in the 200 fly at the 2015 World Championships where Phelps didn’t race. At 34-years old, Cseh’s career is still going beyond Phelps’, but the extra year before Tokyo probably doesn’t help his cause. He was 32nd in the 50 fly, 10th in the 100 fly, and 10th in the 200 IM at the 2019 World Championships.
Other Swimmers we considered
Non-exhaustive, and in no particular order.
Gary Hall, Sr., United States – This one was suggested by the readers, and probably could’ve been a top 10. He had Olympic silver medals in the 400 IM in 1968 and 200 fly in 1972, plus a 100 fly bronze in 1976. In his career, he broke world records in the 200 back, 200 fly, 200 IM, 400 IM, and 800 free relay. He was another swimmer who was a prelims swimmer on a relay that won gold, before gold medals were awarded to prelims-only swimmers.
Camille Lacourt, France – The Frenchman won 5 World Championships in his career, including 3 consecutive wins in 2013, 2015, and 2017 in the 50 meter backstroke. He was also a 5-time European Champion in long course. While Lacourt is the 3rd-fastest in history in the 50 backstroke in LCM and 6th- fastest in history in the 100 backstroke in LCM, he never held a World Record in either race.
James Hickman, Great Britain – A short course specialist who never finished better than 7th at the Olympic Games (7th in 1996), James Hickman won 14 World Short Course Championship medals in his career. That included an astounding 5-straight titles in the 200 fly from 1997 through 2004.
Anders Holmertz, Sweden – From 1988 through 1996, Holmertz won 5 minor medals at the Olympic Games, including back-to-back individual silvers in the 200 free in 1988 and 1992. He also held the World Record in the 400 short course meter freestyle for 5 years from 1990 through 1995.
Francis Gailey, Australia/United States – Officially representing the U.S., but by some accounts actually an Australian, Frank Gailey won 4 medals at the 1904 Olympic Games. Of course, in 3 of those races (the 220 yard free, 440 yard free, and 1 mile swim) there were only 4 competitors who finished the event, so he gets docked some style points there.
Peter Mankoc, Slovenia – Mankoc built a career off swimming’s most peculiar event, the 100 IM. The race is the only event that can be held only in short course, and Mankoc was as good as anyone ever was. He was a 2-time World Champion in the 100 IM in SCM, and from 2000 through 2009 won 9 consecutive 100 IM European Championships. His strength and explosiveness made him a perfect fit for that race. While he had some success in other events (he was the 2008 World SC Champion in the 100 fly as well), for a decade he was synonymous with the 100 IM. He twice broke the World Record in the 100 IM for about 4 years in total.
Ryosuke Irie, Japan – A 3-time Olympic medalist, the 30-year old Irie (still active), the prime of his career ran into the American backstroke machine, including names like Aaron Piersol and Matt Grevers. He is a 6-time Asian Games champion, 1-time Pan Pac Champion, and 6-time World University Games champion, but he has only silver and bronze medals from the long course World Championships, short course World Championships, and Olympics. He did break a World Record once, in the 200 back by over a second in May 2009, but the time was not ratified by FINA. The governing body deemed his suit too good in an era where good suits were making all the difference.
Ludy Langer, United States – The 1920 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 free missed his peak Olympics when they were cancelled in 1916 due to World War I. In 1916, he held World Records in the 400-yard, 880-yard, and one-mile races. He beat Johnny Weissmuller in the 400 free at the AAU Championships in 1921, which is the one major contradiction to the legend that Weismuller never lost an official race in his career.
Frank Wiegand, Germany/East Germany – Wiegand won a trio of silver medals at the 1964 Olympics representing Germany and a 4th in 1968 representing East Germany. He was also a 4-time European Champion. In 1966, he set the World Record in the 400 meter free, breaking the record of Don Schollander by half-a-second.
Liam Tancock, Great Britain – A specialist in a non-Olympic event, Tancock was the 2009 and 2011 World Champion in the 50 back. He also was the 2008 World Champion in short course in the 100 back and 2007 World Championship bronze medalist in the 100 back in long course. He held the World Record in the 50 backstroke in long course for over 9 years consecutively from August 2009 until August 2018.
Randall Bal, United States – With a career that very-closely mirrored Tancocks, only about a decade earlier, Bal won 3 World Championship gold medals in his career, including an individual victory in the 50 back in 2001. Like Tancock, he also very-nearly broke the 100 back World Record, and like Tancock he held the 50 back World Record – until Tancock broke it.
Zhang Lin, China – Zhang won an Olympic silver medal in the 400 free in 2008, but is best-known for his soul-crushing World Record in the 800 free at the 2009 World Championships. He took 6-and-a-half seconds of Grant Hackett’s World Record in the 800 free, and nobody has been within 3 seconds of his swim. He probably has the single most impressive swim in history done by a swimmer without an Olympic gold medal.
Andy Coan, United States – Coan was a three-time World Champion in 1975, including in the 100 free individually, but missed the 1976 Olympic Team and in 1980 was another boycott victim.
Milorad Cavic, Serbia – A star lifted as the arch-rival of Michael Phelps, he came closest to upseting the 8 golds in 2008 for the GOAT. Cavic touched the wall first in the 100 fly, but was not the first to trigger the timing pad (by Omega’s own admission), and so had to settle for silver in one of the most controversial Olympic finishes ever.