The United States won the first gold medal when the modern Olympic era began in 1896, and Team USA has been the gold standard ever since. Midway through the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, Team USA leads the world in all-time summer Olympic gold medals — and it’s not even close.
Team USA won its 1,000th gold medal on Saturday when the U.S. women’s 4x100-meter medley team of Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel struck gold.
To put America’s dominance into perspective, the next closest is 473 by the Soviet Union, which no longer exists as a nation. The United States has more gold medals than the next three nations combined with Germany at 296, Great Britain 256 and Italy 242. France has 239.
Using metrics based on current rates of winning gold medals since the 2000 Sydney Games, the next country projected to hit 1,000 gold medals would be China in the year 2100 — or 21 Games from now. Germany would be next to hit 1,000 in the year 2204 — 47 more Olympic cycles. The United States would be projected to have 1,850 gold medals by the year 2100.
American gold-medal winners range in age from 13 to 64. They come from every state and some have peculiar stories, like gymnast George Eyser, who won gold with a wooden leg at the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games.
The first gold-medal winner by any nation was American triple jumper James B. Connolly. He disregarded advice from his dean at Harvard to pursue his Olympic aspirations in Athens in 1896. The dean advised Connolly to not make the trip because the jumper’s low academic standing might prevent readmission on his return. Connolly walked away from the campus and never went back until 50 years later, when he was invited to speak on literature before the Harvard Union.
From James Connolly to Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz to Michael Phelps and others like gymnasts, divers, shooters, archers and even those tug of war athletes — yes, they won gold, too — here’s a breakdown of the young and old, the states and sports with the most gold and key milestones along the path to 1,000.
Gold Medal No. 1
James B. Connolly, triple jump (track and field)
April 6, 1896; Athens, Greece
Connolly was the first winner at the first modern Olympic Games. This meant the American became the first Olympic champion in 1,500 years, or since the Ancient Olympics. In addition, he won medals in the high jump and long jump. Connolly left Harvard to become an Olympian and later served with the 9th Massachusetts Infantry during the Siege of Santiago in 1898. He made the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris and won silver medal in the triple jump despite bettering his golden leap in 1896. He’ll be forever known as the first Olympic champion of the modern era, but also the first on the way to 1,000 and beyond for Team USA.
Gold Medal No. 10
Bill Hoyt, pole vault (track and field)
April 10, 1896; Athens, Greece
The first Olympic pole vault competition had two Ivy Leaguers and three Greek contestants. The Greeks eliminated early, leaving Harvard’s Bill Hoyt and Princeton’s Albert Tyler. Hoyt missed twice at the 10-foot mark, which Tyler cleared. When the bar was set at 10-10, only Hoyt cleared, making him gold-medal winner No. 10 on a height of 10-10. Hoyt graduated from Harvard and eventually became a doctor.
Gold Medal No. 50
Tom Hicks, marathon (track and field)
Aug. 30, 1904; St. Louis, Missouri
Hicks was a clown by trade and toughed 90-degree temperature on a hilly course that had no water stations other than a well at the halfway point. Hicks made it through the back half of the race with doses of brandy, egg white and strychnine to get him to the finish line ahead of fellow American Albert Coray. Hicks just knew he’d won the marathon until he arrived and saw Fred Lorz getting photographed as the winner with Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of then-president Teddy Roosevelt. But officials later found out Lorz had gone off course and caught a ride in an automobile to cover most of the racecourse and then crossed the finish line to pose as the winner. The AAU banned Lorz, and Hicks garnered his attention before retiring on the spot.
Gold Medal No. 100
Anton Heida, Ed Hennig or George Eyser, gymnastics
Oct. 28, 1904; St. Louis, Missouri
Just as strange as the 1904 Games that lasted nearly half a year to coincide with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, no one knows for sure who notched the 100th gold medal in Team USA’s history. Since the times weren’t recorded on when they won medals, one of these three gymnasts won Team USA’s century gold. The circumstances of Eyser’s leg aren’t well documented, but he competed with a wooden leg.
Gold Medal No. 250
Ray Barbuti, 400-meter (track and field)
Aug. 3, 1928; Amsterdam, Netherlands
Barbuti ran the 400-meter in 47.8 to win Team USA’s 250th all-time gold medal, the only individual track title for an American at the 1928 Games. He also led the 4x400 team to a gold medal with a time of 3:14.2, which set a new world record at the time. Barbuti was captain of the football and track teams at Syracuse. He was awarded the Air Medal and Bronze Star in the Army Air Corps and later became the deputy director of the Civil Defense Commission for New York State and he officiated more than 500 intercollegiate football games.
Gold Medal No. 500
Hayes Jones, 110-meter hurdles (track and field)
Oct. 18, 1964; Tokyo, Japan
Jones defeated fellow American Blaine Lindgren for gold to claim Team USA’s 500th all-time Olympic title. He lacked height for the high hurdles at just 5-11, but he made up for it with an explosive start and flashing speed on the flat.
Gold Medal No. 1,000
Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer, Simone Manuel; 4x100-meter medley (swimming)
Aug. 13, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Baker, King, Vollmer and Manuel spent the first week of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games racking up individual medals. Manuel won the women’s 100-meter freestyle (also taking silver in the 50 free) and King the 100-meter breaststroke; meanwhile, Baker took silver in the 100 backstroke and Vollmer earned bronze in the 100 butterfly. It was no surprise that when they teamed up, the foursome ended the women’s swimming competition at the Rio Games with relay gold.
Youngest Women’s Gold Medalist
Marjorie Gestring, individual women’s springboard diving
13 years, 268 days
1936 Berlin Games
Youngest Men’s Gold Medalist
Michael Schoettle, sailing
15 years, 324 days
1952 Helsinki Games
Oldest Women’s Gold Medalist
Eliza Pollock, archery
63 years, 332 days
1904 St. Louis Games
Oldest Men’s Gold Medalist
Charles Jacobus, croquet
64 years, 99 days
1904 St. Louis Games
Most Gold Medals By A Man
22 (and counting)
Michael Phelps, swimming
Most Gold Medals By A Woman
Jenny Thompson, Swimming
Gold Medals By Sport
|Track and Field||323|
|Jeu de Paume||1|
Gold Medalists By State (Birthplace)
|District of Columbia||39|
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.