7 Favorite Moments From Past Olympic Games (Videos)


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7 Favorite Moments From Past Olympic Games (Videos)

By Gigi Picard Swimming World College Intern

Six world records and 24 Olympic records in swimming later, the 2020 Tokyo Games have ended – albeit in August 2021! Despite the lingering pandemic, and the disturbing “sounds of silence” in the empty stands, it was a fascinating Olympics for the swim world. New events like the women’s 1500-meter freestyle, emerging stars like Bobby Finke and Regan Smith, the amazing performance of the Australian women, and a few “What were you thinking?” moments – it was all there for our at-home viewing pleasure. 

We were moved to the edge of our seats by the performance of USA’s Lydia Jacoby in the 100-meter breaststroke. She was Alaska’s first Olympic swimmer who, we learned during the broadcast, had never trained in a 50-meter pool! In the race for the medals, Lilly King pushed the first 50, while South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker’s superior wall made it seem like as if she were a lock for gold. But Jacoby’s back half and “low rise” breaststroke technique helped her surge to gold. It was her race that inspired me to click into YouTube to locate other Olympic heart-pounding races from these and other Olympics. Here’s a few t I thought I’d share.

 Spread Your Wings and Fly: Caeleb Dressel

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher

If you own a TikTok account and are in any way attached to the swimming world, then you surely are familiar with the remarkable Caeleb Dressel and his colorful tattoos. In Tokyo, Dressel smashed his world record in the final of the 100 butterfly, posting a time of 49.45 seconds. Rowdy Gaines gushed over Dressel’s superman start, as his reaction time was .60 seconds. No surprise, in both the semifinal and final, Dressel had the lead from the beep to the final touch. As his tattoos promised us, he literally flew over the water to victory. For all of us who sometimes struggle with fly, it was a miraculous display. Hard to believe that butterfly was actually derived from breaststroke and that it started as a combined stroke (breaststroke kick and butterfly arms). To watch a swimmer like Dressel perfect this potentially ungainly stroke – turning it from grasping and splashing to gliding and flying – was inspiring to say the least. 

Let’s Get Rowdy: The Speedy Mr. Gaines 


Rowdy Gaines

Most of you know Rowdy Gaines as an Olympian turned the most enthusiastic sports broadcaster of all-time. But, his 100-meter Olympic freestyle race back in 1984 is what we’re here to talk about. Gaines won gold and became the ninth American to win in the event since the first Olympic Games. One of the main reasons why was his astonishingly fast start. Captured on film from 1984, Gaines’ hands visibly trembled on the blocks. But he burst into the water before any of the other swimmers and held onto his lead for the entire 49.80 seconds of the race. Australian Mark Stockwell was one of multiple competitors in the field who thought the race was not fair. They felt Gaines’ start off the blocks was too fast and that it should have been declared a false start. “I don’t want to take anything away from Rowdy. I mean, he’s great. He’s been around for a long time and he knows what to look out for. It just wasn’t a fair start,” Stockwell complained. But film review showed the Gaines had just gotten into gear before the others, and the gold medal remained his – an emotional win for the U.S.

The Emergence of Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky made waves in the 2012 London Games as a 15-year-old when she beat Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington in the 800-meter freestyle. Off the blocks, Ledecky went out with a fast 200 and held a two beat kick and kept under Adlington’s world record for almost the entire race. The British crowd started chanting “Becky! Becky!” at the 450-meter mark for Adlington, but their cheers did not help. Ledecky finished first in a time of 8:14.63. An analyst called Ledecky’s performance “remarkable” and compared her to former United States swimmer Janet Evans. Adlington touched third behind Spain’s Mireia Belmonte. This made Ledecky the youngest swimmer to win the event and stunned the nation. To her credit, Adlington herself called Ledecky “amazing” and said “That time is unbelievable. She has got a bright career ahead of her.” It was an exciting and surprising milestone swim – one to remember.

The Greatest Race: Jason Lezak

Entering the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Jason Lezak had a history of strong performances for the United States. But nothing could have prepared the swim world for his dramatic performance as anchor of the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay versus Alain Bernard and the favored French team. After legs by Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones, Lezak found himself about half a body length behind France’s anchor and 100-meter freestyle world record holder, Bernard, as he dove into the pool. The French swimmer had done some trash talking before the race that added to the drama: “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.” Winning gold would keep alive Phelps’ dream of topping Mark Spitz by winning eight gold medals at the Games. So, there was a lot on the line as Lezak chased Bernard. Amazingly, Lezak caught Bernard in the final meters of the race, edging him at the touch with a 46.06 split. In an unforgettable moment captured forever on film, Phelps, Weber-Gale and Jones can be seen celebrating wildly behind the blocks. Pure racing magic.

Just Keep Sprinting: Simone Manuel


Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The women’s 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics offered another breathtaking and groundbreaking comeback race by an American sprinter – this time by Simone Manuel. In this Olympic final, Australia’s Cate Campbell led the pack all the way up until the last 15 meters. Manuel was third at the first wall, almost a half second behind Campbell. When reflecting back on the race, Manuel said she couldn’t see anyone in the last 15 meters. As soon as she touched the wall, she looked up to find that the side of her block was lit up, which meant she won a medal. But Manuel didn’t know which color medal until she turned around. Manuel tied for gold with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. Manuel became the first African-American swimmer to win gold in an individual swim event at the Olympics. With characteristic modesty, Manuel said about her triumph: “This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans that have come before me and have been inspirations and mentors to me.” Just wow.

Beating the Machine: 1976 USA Women’s 400 Freestyle Relay


Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

The greatest upset in women’s swimming occurred at the 1976 Olympics in the 400 freestyle relay The United States team, consisting of Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel, Shirley Babashoff and Wendy Boglioli, shockingly defeated the heavily favored East German women. Prior to the race, the East Germans had won gold in 10 individual events and the 400 medley relay. The world would later learn that the East Germans had been using performance-enhancing drugs in their training. But at the time, based on their clear superiority in the Games, the East Germans were the overwhelming favorite to win the sprint relay. As it turns out, the American team had other ideas. As expected, the East Germans had a strong lead through the first half of the race, but in the second half of the third leg, Sterkel’s tight turn at the wall pushed her into the lead. Babashoff closed for team USA, holding onto the lead against East Germany’s Claudia Hempel. When Babashoff touched the wall in world record time, her teammates went absolutely crazy. It was a triumph of will and skill over drugs – so inspiring, then and now!

The Goat: Michael Phelps


Photo Courtesy:

I know I mentioned him in the 400 freestyle relay with Jason Lezak, but Michael Phelps is one of the GOATs in all of sports and performed one of the most thrilling individual comeback races in history. I’m referring to Phelps’ 100-meter butterfly in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After his breakout, he was at the back of the pack and almost dead last throughout the first 50 of the race. But because of his “great turn” as Gaines called it, Phelps caught up to leader, Serbian Milorad Cavic. Phelps kept fighting and flying to defeat Cavic by .01 of a second, an Olympic record time of 50.58 doing the job. I’ve put this race in slow motion so many times to see the finish and Phelps won just by his fingernail. But what also made this race so monumental was that it tied Mark Spitz’s record for most gold medals in an Olympic Games. As much as any of his performances, this race showed the indomitable spirit of Phelps. He is, without doubt, the GOAT.

So these are some of my top-of-mind favorites. I am sure there could be more. What are your favorite Olympic races? Please share your reflections!

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.