Since the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, Team USA has won over 1,000 gold medals. But in some sports, it took decades for U.S. athletes to break through to the top step of the podium.
Here’s a look at the 22 sports and events where athletes won Team USA’s first Olympic gold medals in the past decade—in five Games, from the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 through the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang.
While many were in sports relatively new to the Games—such as slopestyle skiing and snowboarding in the Winter Games and BMX in the summer—many were also in sports that have been around since the beginning of the modern Games.
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Here’s a look at those gold medals—divided by season and alphabetically, who won them and how.
Women’s Boxing (2012)
Women’s boxing made its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games London 2012, with three weight classes. In the flyweight class, Marlen Esparza won a bronze medal—the first Olympic medal for the U.S. in women’s boxing. A day later, an unheralded 17-year-old named Claressa Shields became Team USA’s first female boxing Olympic champion when she defeated Russian Nadezda Torlopova 19-12. Four years later in Rio, Shields defended her Olympic title, becoming the first U.S. boxer to win back-to-back Olympic medals.
The fourth cycling discipline to join the Olypic program, BMX was born in Southern California. But at its Olympic debut in 2008, Americans missed the top spot on the podium, with Mike Day and Donny Robinson taking silver and bronze. In the women’s race, Jill Kintner also took bronze. Four years later, the American riders missed the medals entirely. But in Rio in 2016, Connor Fields made up for the years of frustration (a poor start had kept him from the medals in 2012). This time, he took charge from the start and by the finish line, 34.642 seconds later, he could call himself both Olympic champion and the country’s first Olympic gold medalist in BMX.
Gymnastics: Women's Floor Exercise (2012)
Aly Raisman started her Olympic Games in 2012 by helping Team USA win its second ever gold medal in the team event (and first since 1996) with her solid floor routine. She then put the disappointment of the all-around competition behind her (she just missed the bronze medal) by winning a gold medal in the floor final—the first ever for the U.S. in this event. She dedicated her floor routine to the 11 Israeli Olympians who died at the Olympic Games Munich 1972 at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. By the time she retired from competition after the 2016 Games, Raisman had won six Olympic medals, including a silver in floor in 2016 (behind teammate Simone Biles). She is the second-most decorated American gymnast behind Shannon Miller.
Gymnastics: Women's Vault (2016)
Going into the Rio 2016 Games, Simone Biles had won 10 world titles, but not one of them in vault. In that apparatus, she had two silvers (2013 and 2014 world championships) and one bronze (2015). She had already won the team and all-around Olympic gold medals in Rio. But vault was the one she really wanted. On her first pass, she did an Amanar but stepped back on the landing. On her second vault, she did a near flawless Cheng, scoring 16.033, the highest of the group. It was her third Olympic gold medal, the most any American gymnast had ever won at one Games. Biles would win two more medals in Rio: gold on floor (beating teammate and defending gold medalist Raisman) and bronze on balance beam.
Judo for men had been on the Olympic program for decades (1964)—and since 1992 for women. While a handful of American men had won silver and bronze medals, no one had yet claimed gold. And no U.S. woman had come near the podium—until 2012. At the London Games, Kayla Harrison came from behind to win her quarterfinal in the 78 kg. division, then beat the world No. 1 in the semifinal before toppling Britain’s Gemma Gibbons in front of a home crowd. Harrison’s Olympic gold medal was the first ever for the U.S. in judo. She successfully defended the title of Olympic champion in 2016.
Shooting: Women’s Skeet (2012)
When the International Olympic Committee discontinued women’s double trap shooting after the 2004 Olympic Games, Kim Rhode—who had won two golds and a bronze in the event (1996-2004)—switched to women’s skeet. She won silver in skeet in 2008. Then, in her fifth Olympic Games and second shooting skeet in 2012, she won her third Olympic gold medal. It was the first Olympic gold in skeet for American women. At the Rio 2016 Games, Rhode won bronze in skeet, making her the only athlete to have won an individual Olympic medal at six straight Summer Games.
Track and Field: Women’s Shot Put (2016)
To date, American women have won Olympic gold medals in about half of the track and field events at the Olympic Games. They conquered two more in Rio in 2016. In shot put, Michelle Carter beat the favorite, two-time defending Olympic champion Valerie Adams of New Zealand, with a throw of 20.63, a new American record.
Track and Field: Women’s 400-meter Hurdles (2016)
In the women’s 400-meter hurdles in Rio, Dalilah Muhammad ran the fastest heat and semifinal, then won the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in the event by almost a half-second. At the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships, Muhammad set a world record in the 400, then bested it at the world championships. She is a favorite to defend her Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
At the 2012 Games in London, Gwen Jorgensen suffered a flat tire in the bike leg of the triathlon and finished 38th. But after that disappointment, she became almost unbeatable. From April 2014 to April 2016, she won 13 consecutive ITU World Triathlon Series races—a record that will likely stand for a long time. At the Rio Games, with a 40-second lead (built during the run), Jorgensen claimed her country’s first Olympic gold medal in triathlon—a sport that was invented in the U.S. back in the 1970s.
Water Polo (2012)
Men’s water polo has been on the Olympic program almost since 1900. But in all those Olympiads, the U.S. men had only won six silver or bronze medals. When women’s water polo was added in 2000, the American women added two more silvers and a bronze. By the time the U.S. women made the final at the 2012 Games, the press was referring to it as “the elusive gold medal.” Led by Maggie Steffens’ five goals in the final (and 21 total for the tournament—an Olympic record), the gold eluded the Americans no longer. They successfully defended it at the Rio Games, with Steffens scoring 17 goals in the Olympic tournament.
Women’s Wrestling (2016)
When the horn sounded at the end of the women’s 53 kg. freestyle wrestling match in Rio, Helen Maroulis looked stunned. She had just won the first ever Olympic gold medal for U.S. women in wrestling. To achieve it, she first had to drop from the 55 kg. division, in which she was the reigning world champion (but it was not an Olympic event), to the 53 kg. class. Then Maroulis had to defeat three-time Olympic and 13-time world champion Saori Yoshida from Japan in the final match. But Yoshida was not Maroulis’ enemy. The American had learned by studying—and admiring—the Japanese wrestler.
Alpine Skiing: Women's Downhill (2010)
Until 2010, American women had won medals in slalom, giant slalom and super-G, but never in alpine skiing’s marquee event—the downhill. Lindsey Vonn came to the Vancouver Games as the world cup leader in downhill and the defending world champion. She overcame a bruised shin and skied a near perfect line to win gold—a first for her, and for the U.S.
Alpine Skiing: Men’s Giant Slalom (2014)
In the early part of this decade, Ted Ligety redefined giant slalom. On new giant slalom ski dimensions mandated by FIS—his sport’s international federation—he learned how to carve a turn better than anyone else. Coming into the Sochi Games, “Mr. GS” was the two-time defending world champion, and he was looking to win his first Olympic medal since his surprise victory in combined in 2006. On the slopes of Rosa Khutor, he stood up to the pressure, becoming the first U.S. man to win gold in giant slalom and the first to win two Olympic gold medals in alpine skiing.
Cross-Country Skiing (2018)
“Here comes Diggins, here comes Diggins!” It was the shout heard round the world as NBC commentator Chad Salmela vocalized 42 years of pent-up emotion and frustration in the cross-country skiing world. No American cross-country skier had won an Olympic medal since 1976 and none had ever won Olympic gold. That is, until Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins came along in the team sprint. After putting themselves in medal position with Norway and Sweden halfway through the six-lap team sprint, Diggins flew past Sweden in the final straight and lunged for gold. On a team that prides itself on cohesion, it was fitting that the medal came in a team event.
The United States is not known as a curling powerhouse. But on an exhilarating night in PyeongChang, John Shuster skipped his team of “scrappy, regular guys” (Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and alternate Joe Polo) to a dominant performance over Sweden. It was the mother of all comeback stories: Team Shuster had been down 2-4 in round-robin play before winning its next five matches. The Olympic gold medal—a first for the U.S. in curling—helped the Americans overcome the devastation from the two previous Olympic Winter Games, when the U.S. had finished last and near last. The gold medal also rekindled some of the joy from the 2006 Games, when the U.S. men won bronze. Shuster was on that team as well.
Figure Skating: Ice Dance (2014)
In figure skating’s prior 111-year history on the Olympic program, American skaters have won 51 medals—almost twice as many as closest rival Russia (26)—and 15 of them gold (one more than Russia). But until the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, no American skaters had won a gold medal in ice dance. With speed, power, drama and fluidity, Meryl Davis and Charlie White beat the defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, their training partners and rivals from Canada, and brought home the gold. Davis and White’s career had been leading up to that Olympic gold. They won silver at the Vancouver 2010 Games before claiming the nation’s first ice dance world title in 2011, which they again won in 2013.
Freestyle Skiing: Men’s Slopestyle (2014)
The freestyle skiing events of slopestyle and halfpipe made their Olympic debut at the Sochi 2014 Games, and Team USA dominated, winning three of the four events. In men’s slopestyle skiing, Joss Christensen—who wasn’t even favored to make the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team—led a U.S. sweep of the medals, ahead of teammates Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper.
Freestyle Skiing: Men’s Halfpipe (2014)
In men’s halfpipe, David Wise didn’t let a heavy snowfall in Sochi derail his plans. The only skier to score over 90 on his first run, the father (of one child at the time, now he has two) brought home halfpipe skiing’s first Olympic gold medal. He successfully defended his title four years later in PyeongChang.
Freestyle Skiing: Women’s Halfpipe (2014)
In women’s halfpipe, Maddie Bowman’s father stood at the bottom of Sochi’s halfpipe ringing a gold bell. Bowman likely did not hear the bell, but she still put down a technically “golden” run and celebrated U.S. women’s halfpipe skiing’s first Olympic gold medal.
Nordic Combined (2010)
Combining ski jumping with cross-country skiing, Nordic combined has been dominated by Scandinavians and Russians since its Olympic debut at the first Winter Games in 1924. But until 2010, American Nordic combined skiers had never neared the Olympic podium. Three skiers aimed to change this: Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong—all Nordic combined world champions. At the Vancouver Games in 2010, Spillane got things rolling with a silver in the normal hill event (with Lodwick in fourth). The men, along with Brett Camerota, then won another silver in the team relay. Then in the final Nordic combined event—the large hill—Demong used bike racing strategy to win the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in the sport; Spillane again took silver in that race.
Snowboarding: Men’s Slopestyle (2014)
The new kid on the block—snowboarding—got even more hip at the Sochi 2014 Games with the debut of slopestyle. With rails to ride into three big jumps, slopestyle brought X Games thrill to the Winter Games, and U.S. snowboarders in Sochi let the world know that this is their event. In men’s slopestyle, Sage Kotsenburg threw a huge 1620 Japan Air Mute grab on his first air. It was so big that he locked in the win on his first run. His Olympic gold medal would be the first for the U.S. at the Sochi Games.
Snowboarding: Women’s Slopestyle (2014)
The next day, Jamie Anderson brought her winning style to women’s slopestyle. The Californian found her Zen and won gold with a near flawless run in Sochi. She was on top of the world. Anderson repeated the feat at the PyeongChang 2018 Games, where she also earned silver in big air—an event new to those Games.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.