Top 10 greatest U.S. Summer Olympic gold medalists of all time

ByJIM CAPLE via <a href="" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
August 14, 2016, 12:00 PM

&#151; -- The United States earned its 1,000th gold medal at the Summer Olympics when Jeff Henderson won the long jump at Olympic Stadium. That's over 600 more golds than any other country has won. (And no, Michael Phelps hasn't won them all.)

Of the athletes who contributed to that grand total, who are the 10 greatest U.S. gold medalists? It's a matter of opinion, but such a narrow list means a lot of superb athletes won't make the podium. Cassius Clay, for instance, won gold in 1960, but he is known more for his pro boxing career as Muhammad Ali than his Olympic feat (plus, legend has it he might have tossed his medal in the Ohio River). As renowned as Bruce Jenner was for winning the decathlon and waving the U.S. flag in 1976, that was only a single victory. And the 1992 Dream Team isn't on this list because our pro players were so much better than those of the other countries that it was hardly even a competition.

So with apologies to the above (along with Edwin Moses, Matt Biondi, Al Oerter and others), here are the top 10 American gold medalists in the Summer Olympics, based on performance and lasting influence:

10. Bob Beamon

Sure, he won only a single gold medal, the only athlete on this list to do so. But he did so by breaking the world record in the long jump by nearly 2 feet at the 1968 Olympics. That would be like Usain Bolt suddenly running the 100 in under nine seconds. Beamon's record stood for 23 years, inspiring many jumpers, such as Mike Powell and Carl Lewis.

9. Mark Spitz

Prior to Phelps, Spitz was the legend of swimming, winning seven gold medals (and breaking the world record in each event) at the 1972 Olympics. No swimmer was able to attain that gold total until Phelps won eight in 2008. Spitz famously posed for a poster with the seven golds draped around his neck while sporting his famous mustache and wearing his swimsuit -- and it was so popular the poster sold more than a million copies. Perhaps only Farrah Fawcett's sold more, but she never medaled in her swimsuit.

8. Florence Griffith-Joyner

Flo-Jo set the world record in the women's 100 meters at the 1988 Olympic trials with a time of 10.49. While the record in the men's 100 has been steadily declining in the 28 years since then, Griffith-Joyner's mark still stands. In fact, no other woman has come closer than Carmelita Jeter's 10.64 in 2009. Griffith-Joyner's world record in the 200, set during the 1988 Seoul Games, also still stands. In addition to the 200 gold in Seoul, she set the Olympic record in the 100, winning by 0.3 seconds, and added a third gold in 4x100 relay. She might rank higher, but there were rumors of steroid use, though she never tested positive. Maybe it was just her ultralong fingernails that got her across the line so fast.

7. Simone Biles

Mary Lou Retton's all-around gold medal in 1984 dazzled the country and got her on a Wheaties box, but she says Biles might be the best American gymnast ever. So do others. Biles has won two gold and a chance for more golds in Rio -- and she hasn't lost a world or national all-around in three years. Watching her leap, twist and fly through her routines is like watching Spider-Man swing through the city, only Biles is real, not a CGI creation. Expect to see her image on more than just a cereal box.

6. Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Joyner-Kersee won two gold medals (1988, 1992) and a silver (1984) in the heptathlon, plus a gold (1988) and two bronzes (1992, 1996) in the long jump. To compete -- and win -- in the heptathlon and the long jump? That is simply stupendous, and a reason she continues to inspire athletes. "She's a mentor to me,'' 2012 long jump gold medalist Brittney Reese said.

5. Bob Mathias

The U.S. has dominated the Olympic decathlon, where the winner is hailed as the world's greatest athlete. That's quite an honor, but it's even more so if you hold that title for not just four years, but eight years. Mathias did the latter, becoming the first athlete to win the decathlon in two Olympics (1948 and 1952). Only Great Britain's Daley Thompson has matched that feat, but 2012 champ Adam?Eaton of the U.S. is a good bet to make it a trio in Rio. If he does, this list may need to change.

4. Wilma Rudolph

Rudolph is the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Games. Rudolph was, and remains, an inspiration. Born prematurely, she was the 20th of 22 children in her family. She had double pneumonia, scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles as a child. She also had polio, which forced her to wear a brace on her left leg from ages 6 to 9. Rudolph overcame all that to race in the 1956 Olympics at age 16, where she won a bronze. At Rome in 1960, she won gold in the 100 and 200 meters as well as the 4x100 relay, running the anchor leg. When Rudolph died in 1994, Ollan Cassell, then the executive director of USA Track & Field, said, "She's a legend in track and field, like Jesse Owens. After Jesse died, she became the icon, a symbol of what the Olympics mean to this country and this sport.'' Speaking of Owens ...

3. Jesse Owens

With Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany spouting white supremacy and hatred, Owens threw their racism back in their face at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He won the 100 meters. He won the 200. He won the long jump. And he also ran the opening leg of the 4x100 for his fourth gold medal. Owens was so amazing that even the German crowd cheered him (though not Hitler). Unfortunately, there still was enough racial prejudice in the United States at the time that when Owens returned to America and was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York, he had to take a freight elevator to a reception for him at the Waldorf-Astoria. He also was reduced to running against horses to earn money. Even so, he remains an icon of sport. He was the inspiration for the 2016 movie "Race," and the street outside the Olympic Stadium in Berlin is named for him.

2. Michael Phelps

He has been so great for so long -- Rio is his fifth Olympics -- he is essentially the Dream Team of swimming. No Olympian has ever won as many gold medals in a single Olympics as Phelps did when he took home eight in 2008 (after winning six in 2004). No Olympian has ever won nearly as many combined medals as Phelps (28 overall, including 23 gold). For that matter, he's won more gold medals than at least 110 countries! And who's to say that he won't come back and win even more at Tokyo in 2020? "I honestly don't think this is going to be his last Olympics," fellow U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte said. "I'm saying he's going to come back again."

1. Carl Lewis

The International Olympic Committee named him the athlete of the 20th century, and Sports Illustrated named him the Olympian of the century. For good reason. At the 1984 Olympics, Lewis duplicated Owens' feat of winning four gold medals (100, 200, long jump and 4x100). Lewis won the long jump in four consecutive Olympics, something no one else has done. He won nine gold medals, and 10 medals overall. So how does he end up ahead of Phelps with 16 fewer medals and 13 fewer golds? Well, he competes in a sport where you can't win that many medals, because track doesn't have additional events where you run backward or with your arms maneuvering in bizarre ways. You just run and jump as fast and far as you can. And that's what King Carl did.

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