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Greatest Swimmers of All Time

In compiling this list of the greatest swimmers, our editors considered a swimmer's competitive record and his or her impact on the sport. Individual achievements are given a higher value than team. The five finalists are Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans and Ryan Lochte.

1. Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps has certainly earned his place in the pantheon of sporting superstars. Even with swimming's rich talent pool, the American star's accomplishments are unlikely to be matched for generations to come. Phelps made his name in the Olympics (the sport's biggest stage), shattering nearly every medal record. Since his Olympic debut in Athens, the Maryland native has won a staggering 18 gold medals including 11 individual golds. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he broke Mark Spitz's seemingly elusive record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics by winning eight. What is even more impressive is the endurance of his dominance. Phelps won gold medals in at least three different Olympics. In a sport where stars often opt to retire early or face a significant decline after one or two Olympic cycles, this accomplishment is remarkable.

Phelps' dominance also extends to the sport's second biggest stage -- the world championships. He won his first gold medal at worlds in 2001 and to date, has earned 26 gold medals. His legacy in the sport is not completely written however. After a brief retirement, Phelps has returned to the pool with his eyes set for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. If he managed to win gold medals at a fourth Olympics, he will be competing not just for the title of the greatest swimmer but also for the accolade of the greatest athlete ever.

2. Mark Spitz

Mark Spitz was swimming's first superstar. The Jewish American's performance at the 1972 Olympics in Munich still stands as one of the greatest performances in the history of sport. Not only Spitz won all seven events he competed in, he also set a world record in each one of them. Considering the primitive fitness regimen and technology at the time, one could argue his performance is still head and shoulders above Phelps' eight-gold-medal performance 36 years later.

Like many swimming stars of his time, Spitz decided to retire from the sport at a young age of 22. His decision might have been influenced by a desire to focus on his other interests as well as by the Munich Massacre, which took the lives of nearly a dozen Israel's team members in the 1972 Games. One is left to wonder what his career would have been like had he opt to continue after Munich.

3. Ian Thorpe

The Australian star is featured in nearly every list of the greatest swimmers and it is for a good reason. When Thorpe was in his top gear, he was as dominant as one has ever seen. There was one stretch in his career where the world was on record-breaking alert, as the Sydney native threatened to break a swimming record every time he stepped in the pool. In all, Thorpe broke 13 world record times and came close to many more. He also helped the Australian relay team slayed the seemingly invincible American team numerous times, and broke new world records in the process. Thorpe's overall competitive record is impressive. He won 5 Olympic gold medals and 11 world titles.

4. Janet Evans

American swimmers usually perform better at the shorter distances, but Janet Evans broke the mold with gold-medal performances in the 400m and 800m freestyle. The queen of middle distance swimming achieved world record times in three distance races -- all of which were not surpassed until at least 12 years later. In the case of the 800m freestyle, the record time stood for 19 years! Considering the evolution in suit technology that followed her time, it was extraordinary for her records to stand for so long. Furthermore, Evans was able to accomplish these feats with a notably slight build. For her to consistently enjoy success against much more powerful swimmers was remarkable by itself. Although there have been female swimmers who accomplished more in terms of medals, many of them such as Kornelia Ender and Kristin Otto were tainted by performance-enhancing scandals. There was never any controversy associated with Evans. Overall, the American star won four Olympic gold medals and three world titles.

5. Ryan Lochte

In the reign of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte has been the only one who could challenge the swimming legend. His 18 world titles (as of this article) place him behind only Phelps. He also has 11 Olympic medals including 5 golds. Similar to Phelps and Thorpe, Lochte has the physical ability to overpower the competition when he is in his top gear. With Lochte giving no indication of a pending retirement, he will likely to have accomplished even more when his career is over. His greatest dominance comes in short-course swimming (which is not included in the Olympics). To date, he has won 21 world short-course gold medals. Lochte is without questions the greatest short-course swimmer of all time.

~Last updated April 13, 2016

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