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 Regan Smith and Rikako Ikee – though still active, but later-in-their-career, swimmers were considered.
10 Greatest Female Swimmers who have never won Olympic gold
10. Margaret Hoelzer, United States – Hoelzer represented the United States at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, with her biggest and best performance coming in 2008. There, she took individual silver in the 200 back, individual bronze in the 100 back, and another silver as a prelims swimmer on the American 400 medley relay. In the year prior, she won the World Championship in the 200 back, and at the 2008 Olympic Trials, she broke the World Record in the 200 back.
9. Antje Buschschulte, East Germany – Buschschulte swam just after the closing era of the East German state doping regime, but denied any involvement – saying that as a member of the Madgeburg Sports School, she was subjected to more doping controls than others. In 1996, at 17-years old, Buscschulte moved from Hamburg in the West to Madgeburg in the East (she said at the time that she was drawn there by the sports school, which didn’t exist in the West). While the country was united by then, such a move was still unusual. It worked for her though: Buschschulte won 5 Olympic bronze medals in her career, including an individual bronze at the 2004 Olympic Games. She also won 10 World Championship medals in long course, an additional 5 in short course, and 4 total World titles. She was also a 17-time European Champion and 38-time European Championship medalist in her distinguished career.
8. Kate Ziegler, United States – For a period of time in the first decade of the 2000s, Ziegler was the undisputed best women’s distance swimmer in the world. She won back-to-back World Championships in long course in the 800 and 1500 meter freestyles in 2005 and 2007, and added a silver in the 1500 and bronze in the 800 at the 2011 World Championships. She also broke the 800 free Short Course World Record twice in 3 days in 2007. Earlier that year, she broke a 19-year old World Record in the 1500 free by almost 10 seconds. Despite all of those accomplishments, Ziegler neve swam in an Olympic final – her best performance was 10th place in the 800 free at the 2008 Games.
7. Therese Alshammer, Sweden – The first-ever woman to compete at 6 Olympic Games, the Swede Alshammar was an elite international-caliber swimmer from 1991, when she was 14-years old, through an Olympic semi-final appearance in the 50 free in 2016. She won her first World Championship medal in 1997 and her last in 2011, an individual gold in the 50 free a month shy of her 34th birthday. She won 3 Olympic medals at the 2000 Games, including individual silver in the 50 and 100 free. Over that extended period, she also won 2 long course World Championships (both individual), 10 short course World Championships, and 25 European Championships. Her 93 World Cup event wins remain the 3rd-most ever by a woman, and she won 3 FINA World Cup series titles. She also broke 10 World Records in her career, and remains the World Record holder in the 50 short course meters butterfly, set in 2009. Her World Records lasted for a long time too – she held the 50 fly in long course for all but 3 months from 2007 to 2014, the 50 free in short course for almost 8 years, the 100 free in short course in almost 6 years, and she’s held the 50 short course fly World Record for over 10 years consecutively.
6. Karen Muir, South Africa – In 1965, at 12-years old, Muir became the youngest person to break a sporting World Record in any discipline when she swam a 1:08.7 in the 110 yard backstroke at the ASA National Junior Championships in England. Over the next 5 years, she would break 15 World Records in the backstroke races. That’s in addition to 22 South African Championships, and 3 US National Championships. She was the World Record holder in the 100 meter back at the time of both the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, and the World Record holder in the 200 back during the time of the 1968 Olympic Games. Muir also has the best claim as the best swimmer to never compete at the Olympic Games – during her active career, there was a sporting boycott of South Africa over their apartheid policies, and South Africa didn’t compete at the Summer Olympics held from 1964 through 1988.
5. Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead, United States – One of the all-time great age group swimmers, Sippy Woodhead broke the World Record in the 50 free in 1980 (it was broken the same day) and the 200 free World Record 3 times in 1978 and 1979. She was qualified to race 6 events at the 1980 Summer Olympics, but the American boycott derailed that. Even though she was still only 20 years old at the 1984 Olympics, she had several health problems in the interim, including mononucleosis, a broken leg, and pneumonia, and never quite recaptured her teenage form. She held the American Record in the 200 free from 1978 until 1992.
4. Martina Moravcova, Slovakia – Moravcova won a pair of Olympic silver medals at the 2000 Games, in the 100 fly and the 200 free, and had 5 long course World Championship medals, none of which were gold. She did win 5 long course golds at the World University Games and 3 more at the European Championships. While her long course accomplishments were worthy of a remarkable career, even without Olympic gold, it was short course racing where she left an indelible mark on swimming. She was a two-time winner of the FINA World Cup Series in 2002 and 2004, and prior to the advent of Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (who has since nearly tripled Moravcova’s win total) she was the only swimmer male or female to win over 100 World Cup races. She is also a 7-time individual World Champion in short course meters, in 1998 set the World Record in the 100 IM, and in 2002 set the World Record in the 100 short course meters butterfly. All of the above was accomplished without the benefit of relays, of which Slovakia never had much to speak of.
3. Ragnhild Hveger, Denmark – Hveger’s best years were robbed of her due to geopolitics related to World War 2. Hveger won an Olympic silver in the 400 free in Berlin in 1936. After the next 2 Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War 2, Hveger was barred from the Danish team in 1948 as the daughter of a Nazi, sister of an east front volunteer, and wife of a German officer. She did compete at the 1952 Olympics, where she was part of Denmark’s 4th-place 400 free relay team and finished 5th in the 400 free. At 32 years old, she was at the time one of the oldest women to ever swim at the Olympics. She broke over 40 World Records in her career, including in 1941 where she simultaneously held World Records in 19 front crawl events. She was also a 3-time European Champion. In 1996, she was named Sportswoman of the Century by Danmarks Idræts-Forbund.
2. Katie Hoff, United States – At the 2008 Olympic Games, with the world’s focus on her North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Michael Phelps, 19-year old Katie Hoff had considerable pressure on her shoulders as well. Opting to skip college swimming to turn pro, Hoff in 2006 signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Speedo – longer than any deal Speedo had ever signed at the time, including Phelps. After winning a combined 6 gold medals at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships, Hoff seemed destined for a history-making meet at the 2008 Olympics. Everything felt right. She broke the World Record in the 400 IM at the U.S. Olympic Trials, plus the American Record in the 200 IM. Hoff wound up winning a silver and 2 bronze medals at those Olympics, which is a good tally by most standards, but not up to the weighty expectations that were placed upon her. After taking bronze to a red-hot Australian Stephanie Rice in her first race of the meet, the 400 IM, Hoff nearly ran-down Rebecca Adlington for gold in the 400 free. From there on, her times degraded as a huge schedule rolled on, culminating with missing the final in the 800 free. That was Hoff’s last-ever Olympic Team, though she continued to race until 2015, where health issues forced her to retire for good.
1. Franziska van Almsick, Germany – At the 1992 Olympic Games, the first after the reunification of swimming, a 14-year old Franziska van Almsick emerged as the country’s first great swimmer after the passage of the East German cloud, where every top female swimmer was under an understandable cloud of suspicion. There were rumors that a pre-teen van Almsick was doped without her knowledge, but those rumors were not substantiated with nearly the same fervor as her predecessors in the 1980s. Van Almsick holds the distinction of having won more Olympic medals, 10, than any other athlete without gold, in any sport. 4 silver and 6 bronze medals and back-to-back individual silvers in the 200 free in 1992 and 1996. She also won an individual World Championship in 1994 in the 200 free, and a whopping 22 European Championships (including 18 in long course).
Other Names We Considered
In no particular order, and not exhaustive.
Elizabeth Beisel, United States – 1 individual Olympic silver (400 IM, 2012) and 1 individual Olympic bronze (200 back, 2012). Beisel swam on 3 U.S. Olympic Teams in her career and was the 2011 World Champion in the 400 IM.
Hannah Stockbauer, Germany – Stockbauer won 5 World Championships from 2001 through 2003 in distance freestyle races. At the 2004 Olympics, though, her highest individual finish was 12th, in the 400 free. She also got a bronze medal as part of Germany’s 800 free relay.
Tracey Wickham, Australia – The 1978 World Champion in the 400 and 800 freestyles, Wickham withdrew from the 1980 Olympic Team with an illness (denying that it was out of protest, like other individual members of the Australian team did). She retired in 1979 because Australia forced its swimmers to remain amateurs and that forced her into financial problems. She returned to the pool and won 2 events at the 1982 Commonwealth Games before promptly retiring again. She never swam at the Olympics in her prime – only once, in Montreal, at age 13.
Samantha Riley, Australia – After sweeping the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the 1994 World Championships in long course, and again the next year at the World Championships in short course, Riley took matching bronze medals at the 1996 Olympic Games. She has a minor doping ding, but her coach Scott Volkers copped to giving her a headache pill, freeing her from more than a ‘strong warning.’
Kara Lynn Joyce, United States – Joyce was on the US 400 free and 400 medley relay teams at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. It’s rare that the American women go two-straight Olympics without winning gold in the same relay, but that’s just what happened to Joyce. In fact, at the 2008 Games, the U.S. didn’t win any relay gold medals.
Jopie Waalberg, Netherlands – Walberg was the first woman in history to swim the 200 breaststroke in under 3 minutes, and finished 5th in the 200 breaststroke at the 1936 Games when she was only 16-years old. The 200 breaststroke didn’t return to the Olympic schedule until 1968 – which probably didn’t matter, since the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, which would have been Waalberg’s prime, didn’t happen.
Satoko Tanaka, Japan – the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist in the 100 back, she set 10 World Records in the 200 backstroke in his career, but they came before the 200 backstroke was added as an Olympic event in 1968.
Olga Dorfner, United States – Dorfner was the first American woman to break a swimming world record when she did so in the 200 meter free and 100 yard free events. She never got a chance at the Olympics because of the cancellation in 1916 and childbirth in 1920.
Ilsa Konrads, Australia – Her only Olympic medal came in the 400 free relay at the 1960 Summer Olympics, but she set 12 individual World Records in her active swimming career.
Ariana Kukors, United States – Kukors never won an Olympic medal, but en route to the 2009 World Championship in the 200 IM broke the World Record in that event twice – lowering it by a whopping 2.30 seconds in total. That’s an almost-unheard-of pace in a 200 meter race in the modern era of swimming.