When the USOPC Museum announced its nominees for the 2022 U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class this week, there were 6 athletes, coaches, or teams with swimming ties nominated, plus a water polo player.
- Olympic Athlete – Michael Phelps
- Olympic Athlete – Natalie Coughlin
- Olympic Athlete – Brenda Villa (water polo)
- Paralympic Athlete – Trischa Zorn-Hudson
- Paralympic Athlete – Cortney (Jordan) Truitt
- Olympic team – 1976 Women’s Swimming 4×100 freestyle relay team
- Coach – Doc Counsilman
All above-listed aquatics nominees are swimmers or swim coaches, unless otherwise noted.
To parse each nominee’s chances of qualifying, we first have to understand two things:
- The history of the USOPC hall of Fame
- The nomination and selection criteria
Hall of Fame History
The Hall of Fame was established by the United States Olympic Committee (now Olympic & Paralympic Committee) in 1979, with the first inductees coming in 1983. Between 1992 and 2003, the Hall of Fame stopped inducting new members before a revival in 2004. Classes were inducted sporadically over the next few years, but in 2012, it went quiet again before being revived again in 2019. No classes were inducted in 2020 or 2021, with 2022 being the first class in three years and only the seventh class since 1992.
This time, the USOPC seems to be taking the endeavor more seriously, with a more codified process, and the opening of a physical museum in Colorado Springs.
Why this is important is because this inconsistent history answers a lot of the questions about “why isn’t so-and-so in yet?”
There are lots of star swimmers that we all know in love, who maybe won a couple of medals, even a gold or two. But there is still a backlog of superstars-among-superstars who need to be inducted (including a notable one in this year’s class).
So when evaluating each athlete’s chances, we have to look at who they’re competing against. Was 5-time Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer an unbelievably-good swimmer? Yes. Is she the caliber of this year’s nominees like Cammi Granato or Mia Hamm or Kristin Armstong? Objectively, probably not.
We have to be objective about swimming and the ability to amass huge medal hauls, and we have to understand and recognize that there are incredible athletes who have massive stature in their sports that we can’t just ignore because we all love swimming so much.
The Nomination and Selection Criteria
You can read the full selection criteria here, but there are a few things that are worth highlighting to reveal why there will be a backlog of GOATs waiting to get in to the Hall of Fame for a while:
- There is a maximum of 5 Olympians and 3 Paralympians in each class. Individual athletes from team sports may be considered if they have medaled in more than one Games. Athletes must be formally retired from competition and have competed in their last Olympic Games more than four years ago.
- There is a maximum of 2 teams (1 Olympic % 1 Paralympic in each class) and most have competed in their last Paralympic Games more than four years ago.
- Only 2 legends may be in each class, who must be 24 years after their last Olympic or Paralympic appearance
- Only 1 coach can be in each class, and they must be at least four years after they last coached an Olympic or Paralympic team, and they must have been an official “coach of record.”
- Only 1 Special Contributor can be in each class.
Achievements in an individual’s entire career are considered, including but not limited to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
So, setting aside all of our natural biases and proclivities toward swimming (we already have an entire hall-of-fame specific to swimming), let’s look at all of the aquatic athletes’ credentials and what their chances of getting in are.
Olympic Athletes (Max 5)
- Michael Phelps, Swimming – The man whose name is most synonymous with the Olympic movement, even 6 years after his retirement, is the most obvious inductee ever. A five-time Olympian, Phelps has won the most Olympic medals of any athlete in history (28), the most Olympic gold medals of any athlete in history (23), most Olympic medals in individual events (16), and most Olympic gold medals in individual events (13). He has set more World Records in swimming than any other man in history with 39 (Mark Spitz had the previous record at 33). He has the most Guinness World Records by any athlete. We can hem and haw about medal inflation in swimming, but this is the Hall of Fame, and no Olympian ever has been more famous for their exploits in the Olympics than Michael Phelps.
- Natalie Coughlin, Swimming – Coughlin has 12 Olympic medals, including three golds – and back-to-back wins individually in the 100 backstroke. She was a generational paradigm-shifting athlete, as the first woman to break the 1:00 barrier in long course (and she kept going after that). Outside of the Olympics, she was a three-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year and won 23 NCAA event titles (11 individuals, 12 relays). Sports Illustrated named her the outstanding college Female Athlete of the Year. In Beijing, while Phelps-mania raged on, she quietly won 6 medals in 6 races, including 1 gold, making her the first American female athlete to win 6 medals in one Olympics. Her 12 Olympic medals in 12 Olympic entries tie her with Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi for having entered the most Olympic events and winning a medal in each of them.
- Brenda Villa, Water Polo – The former Team USA attacker was an unlikely superstar for the American Olympic team from 2000 through 2012. Standing only 5’4″ tall, she became one of the deadliest water polo players in history. She was on U.S. women’s Olympic water polo teams that won silver in 2000, bronze in 2004, silver in 2008, and a crowning gold medal in 2012. She was a captain of the 2008 team. That 2012 win kicked off a decade of dominance for the Americans. At Stanford, she redshirted for two years to train for the Olympics, but in her freshman season in 2001 scored 69 goals and was named the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Player of the Year. In 2002, she scored 60 goals and led Stanford to the NCAA title, and again won a collegiate player of the Year award. She finished her career in 2003 with 43 goals. She also has 7 FINA World League gold medals, a FINA World Cup gold medal, three Pan American Games gold medals, and three World Championships. She is one of only two women to win four Olympic medals in water polo, and at retirement, she ranked tied-for-2nd all-time in Olympic goals scored (she now ranks tied-for-4th).
The trio of swimmers face an unbelievable field of athletes full of GOATs in their respective sports.
GOATs Among GOATs
In my mind, there is a clear top-tier: Michael Phelps (swimming), Mia Hamm (soccer), Cammi Granato (hockey), and Kristin Armstrong (road cycling). For those unfamiliar with the resumes of the other three, very briefly:
- Mia Hamm was the face of women’s soccer in the United States for more than 20 years. She was on the 1991 and 1999 World Cup-winning teams, the 1996 and 2004 Olympic gold medal-winning teams, and also the 2000 Olympic silver medal-winning team. She held the record for international goals in women’s soccer until 2013, nine years after her retirement.
- Cami Granato was the captain of the 1998 US Olympic gold medal-winning women’s hockey team, and was also on the 2002 Olympic team that won silver. She scored America’s first-ever goal in women’s Olympic hockey, and scored 186 goals and 157 assists in 205 career games from the National Team and is the team’s all-time leading scorer. She was already 27 when women’s hockey was added to the Olympics, and still managed to carve out an unbelievable career.
- Kristin Armstrong won three-straight Olympic gold medals in the women’s road time trial event from 2008 through 2016. The latter two of those came after giving birth to her son Lucas in 2010. She became the first cyclist to ever win three gold medals in the same discipline and is the oldest female cyclist to win an Olympic medal.
With four athletes who, in my mind, are such clear front-runners, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the other 11 nominees. In my mind, those other 11 nominees come in two distinct tiers:
- Natalie Coughlin, swimming – see above
- Kayla Harrison, judo – a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, Harrison has now transitioned to mixed martial arts (MMA) and is one of the greatest athletes in that sport
- John Smith, wrestling – Smith was the 1988 and 1992 Olympic gold medalist at the 62kg weight class. Combined with four World Championships in the same, no American wrestler has won more World and Olympic gold medals in history.
- Dawn Staley, basketball – Staley was on three Olympic gold medal-winning women’s basketball teams. In college, she led Virginia to four NCAA tournaments and one NCAA National Championship game, and was named the national player of the year in 1991 and 1992. She finished her NCAA career with the record for steals at 454. She also played on a pair of World Cup teams. Now a coach at the University of South Carolina, the Gamecocks are the defending NCAA Champions. She also coached the United States to the 2000 Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, along with 6 other major international gold medals.
- Shani Davis, speed skating – A barrier-breaking athlete, Davis won back-to-back golds in the 1000 meters, and back-to-back silvers in 1500 meters, at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics. He has the second-most career wins in the Speed Skating World Cup. He is also the first African American athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event at the Olympic Winter Games.
- Elle Logan, rowing – Logan was on three-straight Olympic women’s eight teams that won gold medals in 2008, 2012, and 2016. She is also a three-time World Champion. She is the first American rower to win a gold medal in three consecutive Olympic games. In 2016, she was named the Pac-12 rower of the century.
- Brenda Villa, water polo – see above
- Bode Miller, alpine skiing – Miller only had 1 Olympic gold medal (plus three silver and 2 bronze), but was a four-time World Champion. He was dominant on skiing’s world cup tour and is one of the most versatile alpine racers ever: nobody else in history has 5 or more World Cup victories in each discipline. Think Katinka Hosszu on snow. He is one of five skiers to have won Olympic medals in four different disciplines.
- Lindsey Vonn, alpine skiing – 1 gold medal and 2 bronze medals, and retired with more women’s World Cup victories than any skier in history. Vonn is one of the most-recognized names (and faces) in Olympic skiing history.
- Julia Mancuso, alpine skiing – Mancuso won four Olympic medals in a decorated career, with 1 gold, 4 silver, and 4 bronzes. Her 2006 gold came in the giant slalom event.
Conclusion: I think the first four are in. The fifth spot, for me, comes down to a group of three athletes: Coughlin, Staley, and Davis, and all for different reasons. Coughlin shifted swimming paradigms. Staley won as much as anybody in history and has now done so as both a coach and an athlete. Davis was a viable candidate on his own, but his history-making medal for black athletes in historically-white winter sports matters when considering criteria for a Hall of Fame.
Of the group, I think I’d give the nod to Staley. While the category is an “athletes” category, coaching the Tokyo 2020 team to a gold medal as well is enough to give her the bump in my mind.
Paralympic Athletes (Max 3)
There are two swimmers nominated in the Paralympic athlete category:
- Trischa Zorn, swimming – Zorn is the Michael Phelps of the Paralympics. Her 55 medals, including 41 gold medals, is the most ever won at the Paralympic Games. She competed in her first Games in 1980 at just 16 years old, and she won her last Olympic medals in Athens in 2004. I don’t know how voters could keep the “most-decorated” out of the Hall of Fame at this point. USA Swimming named its annual outstanding performances by an athlete with a disability or relay team of athletes with disabilities. She competed in the women’s S12 category for athletes with visual impairments.
- Cortney (Jordan) Truitt, swimming – Truitt won medals at the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Paralympic Games, tallying 1 gold, 8 silver, and 3 bronze medals. She is also a 6-time World Champion.
Paralympic rankings can be tricky, because medal inflation is an even bigger issue there than in the Olympics. It is also more common for Paralympians to compete in multiple sports.
Among the highlights: Steve Cash has 3 gold medals and 1 silver medal as a goalie for the US sled hockey team, multi-sport athlete Susan Hagel, multi-sport Paralympian David Kiley (basketball, track & field, skiing), and 5-time gold medalist in athletics Marla Runyan.
Among those with ‘intangibles’ include skier Muffy Davis, who has 4 Paralympic medals and is a member of the Idaho House of Representatives.
Conclusion: In this field, Zorn is a slam-dunk. Truitt has a strong case, but I think there are two with better resumes: Cash only allowed two goals across two Olympic Games in his first two appearances in 2006 and 2010. After 2010, he got a coach and got even better. Across four Olympic tournaments, he allowed a total of 5 goals. That is an incredible record that can’t be ignored.
The other pick, for me, is Marla Runyan. She won 5 Paralympic gold medals across an incredible array of events: the 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, long jump, and pentathlon. Then, in 1996, she added a silver medal in shotput. Imagine the kind of athleticism it takes to go from the best 100-meter runner in your class in the world, to four years later being the second-best shot putter.
In 1996, besides qualifying for the Paralympic Games, she finished 10th in the Heptathlon at the US Olympic Trials. That included a 2:04.60 in the 800 meters, which was a heptathlon-800 meters American Record (for athletes of any ability). Then, in 1999, she won a Pan American Games gold in the 1500 meters, and eventually qualified for the Olympic Games, where she placed 8th in the 1500 meters in Sydney in 2000. She was the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics.
Coaches (Max 1)
There are three nominees in this category:
- Bob Beattie, alpine skiing – the coach of the U.S. team at the 1964 Winter Olympics, where they won 2 medals: the country’s first-ever in Olympic skiing. He coached the team again in 1968, where they won no medals, and after some criticism for his coaching style, he resigned in 1969.
- Pat Summit, women’s basketball – Summit is the coach most synonymous with women’s basketball ever. In 2009, Sporting News named her the 11th-greatest coach of all time in all sports. She was the only woman in the top 50. She led the Tennessee Volunteers to 8 NCAA titles, 18 NCAA Final Four appearances, 16 SEC tournament championships, and 16 SEC regular season titles. She was the 2011 Sports Illustrated Sports Woman of the Year. She was the Naismith Coach of the 20th Century (before winning two more NCAA titles). She received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She was on an Olympic silver medal winning team in 1976 as an athlete, and coached the 1984 Olympic gold medal winning team.
- Doc Counsilman, men’s swimming – Like Summit, Counsilman is a name that stands out among the rest in his sport. He was the head coach of the 1964 and 1976 U.S. Olympic teams. At those Games, the U.S. men won 9-of-11 events and 12-of-13 events, respectively. He led the team to 6 consecutive NCAA titles from 1968 to 1973 and 20 consecutive Big Ten titles from 1961 to 1980. The swimmers he coached are a who’s-who of the era, including Mark Spitz, Jim Montgomery, Gary Hall, John Kinsella, Mike Troy, Charlie Hicox, and many, many others. He as an innovator in underwater filming, a legacy that still carries on at Indiana today.
Conclusion: Two names on this list stand out above the other: Summit and Counsilman. It’s pretty clear that Beattie was wedged on to this list to give winter sports representation.
Counsilman and Summit should be the next two coaches inducted, in some order. So, whoever doesn’t get in this year, should undoubtedly get in next year.
Thus far, there are only 5 coaches in the Hall of Fame: Herb Brooks, coach of the famous 1980 Olympic hockey team, figure skating coach Carlo Fassi, gymnastics coach Abie Grossfeld, diving coach Ron O’Brien, and track & field coach Ed Temple.
This really is a coin-toss between Summit and Counsilman. I think, on net, Summit is a bigger monolith in her sport of women’s basketball, but I think Counsilman’s direct impact on the Olympics, specifically is a little greater (though Summit put a ton of swimmers on Olympic basketball teams too). Because this is the Olympics Hall of Fame, I put a little more emphasis on Olympic stuff, and for me, that gives a slight lean to Summit. But, I won’t be offended if the USOPC uses this year to induct its first female coach and leaves Counsilman (who frankly should have been inducted in one of the prior iterations of the Hall of Fame) for next year.
Team (Max 1 Olympic, 1 Paralympic)
The USOPC considers a ‘team’ to be two to more athletes qualifying and competing in an Olympic or Paralympic event as a unit. That means that relays are teams.
- 1976 U.S. Olympic Women’s 4×100 freestyle relay team – Many Olympic relays have won gold medals and broken World Records before. In that regard, this relay in particular is not unique. What sets this relay apart is the circumstance. At the 1976 Olympic Games, the East German women won all but two events. While the American men dominated, the American women won a single gold medal, a historic low against an East German team that is widely believed, and sometimes confirmed, to have been heavily doped with anabolic steroids. A group of 20 former East German coaches signed a letter in 1991, after East Germany and West Germany were reunited, that there were various degrees of doping on the East German women’s swim team. The East German women finished 1st and 2nd in the individual 100 free, while the U.S. didn’t win a medal (their best finisher, Kim Peyton, was 1.16 seconds back of Kornelia Ender’s World Record). Germany won the other women’s relay at the time, the 400 medley relay, by six-and-a-half seconds: an unheard-of margin in Olympic swimming. But in the 400 free relay, Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel, Shirley Babashoff, and Wendy Boglioli did the unthinkable, beating the East Germans by seven-tenths of a second to win their only medal of the Games. Of the quartet, Babashoff is already in the USOPC Hall of Fame individually.
- 1996 Olympic Women’s Basketball Team – This team was an incredible collection of talent, with names like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley (see nomination above), Sheryl Swoops, and Rebecca Lobo. The U.S. cruised through pool play, winning by an average point differential of 33.6 points. In the quarterfinals, they beat Japan by 15. In the semifinals, they beat Australia by 22. In the gold medal game, they beat Brazil by 24. That’s a Brazil team that had not lost yet in the tournament, and by its own accord was winning by an average of 16 points per game. 8 of the 12 players on the team are in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (and many are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as well).
- 2010 US men’s Olympic bobsled fours – Steven Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler, and Curtis Tomasevicz broke a 62-year drought in bobsled for the U.S., winning the Americans’ first gold medal since 1948. Combined with storylines that included pusher Steven Holcomb going legally-blind, attempting suicide in 2007, and then undergoing a new procedure to save his vision from a degenerative disease, the win was a watershed moment in American bobsledding.
There are currently only 8 teams in the USOPC Hall of Fame. The men’s basketball teams from 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1992 (the original ‘Dream Team’) are all in, as are the 1960 and 1980 men’s ice hockey teams. The 1984 U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team and 1996 women’s gymnastics team are both in, as is the 1996 women’s soccer team. The 1998 women’s ice hockey and 2004 women’s softball teams are also in the Hall of Fame.
There are probably a few too many men’s basketball teams in, but otherwise, that’s a very good list.
So far, there are no relays in the Hall of Fame. Aside from the rocky history of the Hall of Fame, it will be hard to get any relays in. Because there are relatively-many of them compared to big team sports like basketball, and because the U.S. has had so much success in them, it will be hard for voters to discern one relay from another.
This 1976 women’s relay, along with maybe the ‘Lezak’ relay at the 2008 Olympics, will be swimming’s best shot at induction in this category.
This is another case where all three teams are unquestionably-worthy of induction, but the matter to be debated is ‘in what order?’
The circumstance of the 1976 relay against the East German doping regime, the context against the Cold War, and being one of the three greatest upsets in U.S. Olympic history (along with the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team and wrestler Rulon Gardner, both of which are already in), give this relay a strong case.
That 1996 women’s U.S. basketball team was unreal. They were not quite as dominant as the 1992 men’s dream team, but they made the Olympic field look inept. That’s difficult to do in any sport.
The bobsled moment was a watershed moment for a sport in the U.S. that is now seeing a revival of success. I just don’t think its story is as good as the other two, and for teams, the ‘story’ is really what differentiates.
This is another coin-toss between swimming and women’s basketball. Which ranks higher in a Hall of Fame: dominance, or upset? It’s a matter of pure opinion. I’m incredibly-confident that 98% of our readers are going to have a very strong opinion on this one in one specific direction.
Want to know what I think? I think the 1996 basketball team was a better team, and I think the 1976 women’s 400 free relay was a better story. I work in stories, so I’ll give my tie-breaker to the relay. But I really like that ’96 women’s basketball team.
List of Aquatic AthletesCurrently in the Hall of Fame
- Don Shollander – 1983
- Mark Spitz – 1983
- Johnny Weissmuller – 1983
- Duke Kahanamoku – 1984
- John Naber – 1984
- Debbie Meyer – 1986
- Shirley Babshoff – 1987
- Donna de Varona – 1987
- Charles Daniels – 1988
- Tracy Caulkins – 1990
- Helene Madison – 1992
- Janet Evans – 2004
- Matt Biondi – 2004
- Rowdy Gaines – 2006
- Amy Van Dyken – 2008
- Mary T. Meagher – 2009
- Gary Hall, Jr. – 2012
- Jenny Thompson – 2012
- Dara Torres – 2019
- Pat McCormick – 1985
- Greg Louganis – 1985
- Sammy Lee – 1990
- Micki King – 1992
- Ron O’Brien – 2019 (coach)
- Johnny Weissmuller – 1983
- Duke Kahanamoku – 1984