The United States has produced some of the most dominant women’s teams in the history of the Olympic Games, some that have held commanding dynasties throughout their existence and some that stand above the rest for their unique greatness.
Among the women who have won Olympic gold medals playing team sports for the United States are legends of the game, including Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie and Cammi Granato. They’ve inspired generations of young girls, especially those growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, to dream of their own Olympic glory while helping to grow their sports in other nations and raise the level of international competition.
Here is a look at some of the United States’ most dominant women’s Olympic teams:
When the best of the best women’s players who have excelled first in college and then in the WNBA join forces, the result is a U.S. basketball team that stands above the competition time and again. After winning a silver medal in 1976, when women’s basketball made its Olympic debut, the U.S. women have won a gold medal in every Games since except 1992, when they won bronze. Since losing to Russia in the semifinals that year, Team USA has not lost a game in Olympic competition. In beating France 86-50 at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Americans clinched their 41st consecutive Olympic win and fifth straight gold medal.
Players who have contributed to the dominance since the 1996 Games in Atlanta read like a who’s who of women’s basketball, including Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, Chamique Holdsclaw, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and Maya Moore, to name just a few. As the Americans prepare their title defense in Rio and aim for their sixth gold medal in a row, 10 players return from the 2012 team, including three-time Olympic champions Taurasi, Bird and Catchings.
The sport made its Olympic debut in 1996, and since 2004 Team USA has won five of a possible nine medals. Leading the way were Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won their unprecedented third consecutive gold medal together in 2012. May-Treanor retired after that, but in the ultimate all-star team, Walsh Jennings has partnered with 2012 silver medalist April Ross in hopes of winning another medal this summer in Rio.
Men have been bobsledding in the Olympic Winter Games since 1924. Ever since women joined the party in 2002, Team USA has been a leader in the sport. Starting with Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers winning gold medals in 2002, U.S. women have claimed an Olympic medal at every Winter Games since. Elana Meyers Taylor is the most decorated U.S. woman, having pushed Erin Pac to a bronze medal in 2010 and then driven Lauryn Williams to silver in 2014.
One of the greatest rivalries in women’s team sports is between the United States and Canada in women’s ice hockey. The sport was first included in the Games in 1998, and the U.S. women, led by such standouts as Cammi Granato, Karyn Bye-Dietz, Katie King-Crowley and Angela Ruggiero upset Canada for the gold medal. The bordering countries have met each other in the gold-medal game three other times. Although Team USA hasn’t won a gold medal since the first one, star players such as Jessie Vetter, Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan keep the team among the world’s elite. The U.S. has medaled at every Games, taking one gold, three silvers and a bronze.
The U.S. women’s eight is simply great, having topped the podium at Olympic or world championship competition for 10 straight years. Team USA won the past two Olympic gold medals in this marquee event, and the Americans won silver four years earlier in 2004. Caryn Davies and coxswain Mary Whipple have been around for all three. Should the boat win gold again this summer, it’d match Romania (1996-2004) as the only country to three-peat in the event.
Although soccer was one of the first sports included in the Olympic Games, women didn’t get the chance to compete until 1996. The United States has won gold in every Olympic Games since except in 2000, when they lost to Norway in the gold-medal match and brought home the silver. This year’s team is attempting to become the first FIFA Women’s World Cup champion to win a gold medal the following year.
Most casual fans remember the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup as the sport’s breakout event, but the foundation for that was set at the 1996 Games. Huge crowds came out to see players who would later become household names, such as Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy. That generation of players mostly moved on by the 2008 Games, but Team USA roared on with new stars such as Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
Riding the 1990s wave of popularity for women’s team sports, softball joined soccer in making its Olympic debut in 1996. Team USA dominated the sport, winning gold medals in 1996, 2000 and ’04 before finishing second in 2008. In part because of that U.S. dominance, the sport was taken off the Olympic program after that (though it’s seeking reinstatement). For all of the great U.S. performances, the 2004 Olympic run stands out. Led by stars such as Crystl Bustos, Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch, Team USA gave up only one run over nine games en route to winning the gold medal.
Since the sport made its Olympic debut in 1964, the U.S. women have won three silver medals (1984, 2008 and 2012) and a bronze (1992) but are still looking for their first Olympic gold. This year the team will have to unseat two-time champions Brazil, going for gold on their home turf.
Since women’s water polo was first contested at the Olympic Games in 2000, the United States has established itself as a dominant force in the sport, medaling at ever Games. Until 2012, however, the gold medal had eluded them. They won two silvers and a bronze in the first three trips to the Games, but it wasn’t until 2012 in London that they were victorious in the final match. Maggie Steffens scored five goals against Spain in an eventual 8-5 win, and veterans such as Brenda Villa and Heather Petri experienced the ultimate in Olympic glory while competing on their fourth Olympic team.
The United States is the only country to medal at all four Olympic Games in which water polo was included. This year, four returners from the team that won gold in 2012 — Steffens, who is now the captain, Courtney Mathewson, Melissa Seidemann, and two-time Olympian Kami Craig — anchor the team that will attempt to qualify for Rio this week in Gouda, Netherlands.