While “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the Olympic motto, “Fastest, Highest, Strongest” applies to a very small subset of athletes. They are the world record holders.
For Women of Team USA Week, we look at the American female athletes who are No. 1 in history for Olympic events that measure such statistics.
Track and Field
Florence Griffith Joyner, 100-meter, 10.49 seconds, July 16, 1988, Indianapolis
So fast her name was shortened, “FloJo” shattered the world record in the 100-meter quarterfinals at the U.S. Olympic trials by .27 seconds. Evelyn Ashford held the previous mark of 10.76 seconds. The wind reading in the race, however, was suspicious. While gusts swept the track, the wind gauge read exactly 0.0 meters. Track and Field News magazine, on its world record page, said it believes the “real” fastest time is Griffith Joyner’s 10.61 in the 100 final a day later. Griffith Joyner went on to win the gold medal in the 100 at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 in wind-aided 10.54 seconds. She also had a legal 10.62 in the quarterfinals.
Florence Griffith Joyner, 200-meter, 21.34 seconds, Sept. 29, 1988, Seoul, South Korea
Griffith Joyner had two world-record-breaking performances at the 1988 Games. The first came in the 200-meter semifinals, where she clocked a time of 21.56 seconds, breaking the mark jointly held by East Germany’s Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler by .15 seconds. In the final, Griffith Joyner lowered it yet again. Also known for her stylish outfits and fingernails, Griffith Joyner died in her sleep at age 38.
Kendra “Keni” Harrison, 100-meter hurdles, 12.20 seconds, July 22, 2016, London
After the heartbreak of not making the U.S. Olympic team for the Rio 2016 Games – placing sixth at the trials – Harrison redeemed her season. She won the IAAF Diamond League race and shaved one-hundredth of a second off Yordanka Donkova’s world record from 1988. The Bulgarian’s mark was one of the oldest on the books. “Only the record will make up for missing out on Rio,” Harrison said the day before. She dipped so low at the line that the timing beam initially missed her. “It shows that even if you don't go out there and make the team, you have to keep going and be strong,” Harrison said. “I just ran my best and look what happened… I wanted to come out here with a vengeance to show these girls what I have.”
U.S. women’s 4x100-meter team (Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter), 40.82 seconds, Aug. 10, 2012, London
Team USA brought home its first gold medal in this event since 1996 – and in convincing fashion. The quartet knocked .55 off the previous mark of 41.37, set by East Germany in 1985, which was then the third-oldest standing world record for women. That was the largest improvement on the world record in the history of the event.
"It's a relief," Felix said about bringing the gold medal back to the U.S. "When we went into this, we were the most comfortable I have seen this team. We were laughing and smiling and I have never seen the team like that.”
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, heptathlon, 7,291 points, Sept. 23-24, 1988, Seoul, South Korea
JJK, whose nickname was even shorter than sister-in-law FloJo’s, became the first woman to surpass 7,000 points when she set her first world record in 1986 of 7,148 points. She surpassed that point total twice more, including at the U.S. Olympic trials. Joyner-Kersee was so dominant in heptathlon that her husband, Bob Kersee, made up an opponent for her called Wilhemina World Record. Among the top eight finishers in the Seoul Games, JJK had the best marks in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, 200 meters and long jump, as well as the second-best marks in the shot put and javelin throw. Five days later, she won another gold medal in the long jump.
Katie Ledecky, 400-meter freestyle, 3:56.46, Aug. 7, 2016, Rio de Janeiro
Obliterating her own world record (3:58.37) by nearly 2 seconds, Ledecky captured her first Olympic gold medal in the event. The world record gave her the six fastest times in history and seven of the top 10 times. Ledecky also became the first U.S. Olympic champion in the 400 free since Brooke Bennett in 2000. Ledecky led wire-to-wire, with Jazz Carlin of Great Britain finishing nearly 5 seconds behind in 4:01.23.
Katie Ledecky, 800-meter freestyle, 8:04.79, Aug. 12, 2016, Rio de Janeiro
For her last swim at the Rio Games, Ledecky made sure it was memorable. She set her 13th world record in the 800 free, finishing 11.38 seconds ahead of the field which was simply trying to stay in the same lap with her. Ledecky was also 1.89 under her own world record set in January. “It felt good the whole way through,” she said. “I could feel that it was faster than any other swim I’ve had in that event.” Ledecky also holds the world record in the 1,500-meter, which is contested in the world championships and makes its Olympic debut in 2020.
Missy Franklin, 200-meter backstroke, 2:04.06, Aug. 3, 2012, London
Growing up, Franklin had the Olympic rings on her bedroom wall. The favorite in the 200 back, she had a lead of nearly a second and a half at 100 meters, then extended that to nearly 2 seconds at the finish, with Anastasia Zueva of Russia coming in at 2:05.92. Franklin eclipsed the three-year-old mark of 2:04.81 set by Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry.
“I think every young swimmer and athlete dreams of getting a world record,” said Franklin, who left London with five Olympic medals, four of them gold. “And for that to actually happen is unbelievable. I remember when I broke my first one in the 200-meter short course, Michael (Phelps), he was there with me, and he said, ‘You know, your first one is your best.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, don’t tell me that!’ But I think this one gave it a run for its money.”
Lilly King, 100-meter breaststroke, 1:04.13, July 25, 2017, Budapest, Hungary
King’s world record was even sweeter because it came against her archrival, Yuliya Efimova of Russia, who appeared primed for an upset after the semifinals at the FINA World Championships. But King was unbeatable. She took .22 off the mark held by Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania, who was also in the race and finished fourth. Katie Meili of Team USA was second in 1:05.03 to hold off Efimova in 1:05.05.
“That race is always going to be a showdown,” King said, “always an exciting one, especially after the time Yuliya was able to put up yesterday, which was very, very impressive.
“It was going to be a dogfight and I was just hoping I was going to come out on top.”
King also holds the world record in the 50 breaststroke, which is an event at worlds, but not at the Olympics.
U.S. women’s 4x100-meter medley team (Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Kelsi Worrell, Simone Manuel), 3:51.55, July 30, 2017, Budapest, Hungary
With a lineup that included two world champions (King in the 100 breaststroke and Manuel in the 100 freestyle), a silver medalist (Baker in the 100 backstroke) and a bronze medalist (Worrell in the 100 butterfly), Team USA sliced half a second off the previous mark of 3:52.05 set by Team USA five years earlier at the London Games. Russia was second at 3:53.38.
“We wanted to finish with a bang,” said Worrell, “and no better way to do that than with the gold and the world record.”
Ashley Carroll, Trap, 48, March 5, 2018, Guadalajara, Mexico
In blustery conditions, Carroll set the world record en route to her second career world cup gold. She missed only her fifth and 46th targets, shattering 48 clays. Catherine Skinner of Australia, the reigning Olympic champion, hit 44. The previous world record of 45 was set by China’s Wang Xiaojing on May 5, 2017.
“I found a rhythm and ended up working out really well,” Carroll said. “I’m so glad this outcome showed just how hard I’ve worked this whole match.”
Aeriel Skinner, Trap (qualification round), 119, March 5, 2018, Guadalajara, Mexico
This world cup marked the first time internationally where women shot the same number of targets (125) that men shoot in competition. Previously, women would shoot 75 targets for qualification.
Skinner failed to break only six of the clay targets. In the final, she wound up earning the bronze medal by hitting 34 of her 40 targets.
Kim Rhode, Skeet, 56, March 1, 2017, New Delhi
Rhode hit 33 consecutive targets midway through the final to finish with 56 out of 60 and win her 25th world cup medal and 16th in skeet. Thailand’s Sutiya Jiewchaloemmit was second with 51.
“I think there’s not really any secret,” said Rhode, who has won an Olympic medal in every Olympic Games since 1996. “It’s just a lot of hard work and a lot of practice. I owe a lot to my family and to my training. I’m just never giving up!”
She equaled that mark of 56 on Oct. 25, 2017, at the World Cup Final, while Diana Bacosi of Italy did the same. In a shoot-off, Bacosi missed the 22nd target to give Rhode the victory.
Rhode hit 56 again on March 10, 2018, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Kim Rhode, Skeet (qualification round), 122, March 10, 2018, Guadalajara, Mexico
With 122 out of 125 hits, Rhode was five targets ahead of her nearest competition. In the final, she missed two targets at her first station, but ran 30 straight to equal her own world record and win her 11th skeet world cup gold medal.
Long Track Speedskating
Heather Bergsma, 1,500-meter, 1:50.85, Nov. 21, 2015, Kearns, Utah
Six days after teammate Brittany Bowe took down the longest-standing world record in women’s speedskating, Bergsma snatched it away from her.
On Nov. 15, 2015, Bowe became the first U.S. woman to hold the 1,500-meter long track speedskating world record, clocking 1:51.59 to break Canadian Cindy Klassen’s mark of 1:51.79 set on Nov. 20, 2005. For Bowe, that was consolation for Bergsma taking her 1,000-meter world record in Calgary.
But Bergsma did it again the following weekend. At the next world cup stop outside Salt Lake City, Bergsma claimed the 1,500 record as well. Bowe, who was skating alongside her, took the silver in 1:51.31, which also was better than her world record.
“I think we (Brittany Bowe) feed off each other,” Bergsma said.
U.S. women’s eight (Amanda Polk, Kerry Simmonds, Emily Regan, Lauren Schmetterling, Grace Luczak, Caroline Lind, Victoria Opitz, Heidi Robbins, Katelin Snyder), 5:54.16, July 14, 2013, Lucerne, Switzerland
With Snyder as coxswain at the Lucerne World Cup, the crew clipped .01 off the previous mark set by Team USA at the same site the year before. Team USA led from the start, with Romania coming in second at 6:00.42.
“For two girls, it’s their first international experience,” Snyder said, “and there is just a lot of really positive energy. It’s fun to practice, and it’s even more fun to race.”