The 5 Best Male Swimmers of All Time

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Few people would spend three to six hours a day swimming laps and choose chlorine as their default personal fragrance. The all-time swimming greats did, calling the pool their second home as they pursued their passion and chased the clock. The five best male swimmers of all time set records, made sports history and put their sport on the map.

5 Michael Phelps

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Michael Phelps’ eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics broke the Spitz medals-per-Games record. Phelps set another medal-tally record by standing on the podium 22 times for the two bronze, two silver and 18 gold medals he won in his career, making him the most decorated Olympian in history. His record-setting stats include the most gold medals won by an Olympic athlete.

4 Mark Spitz

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In 1972, American Mark Spitz wrote swimming history at the Munich Olympic Games by setting a record that stood for 36 years: winning the most gold medals – seven – in an Olympic Games, all of which were world-record performances. “Mark the Shark” won nine golds, one silver and one bronze overall in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 and in the Munich Games. He excelled in both short- and long-distances and garnered 33 world records over his career.

3 Johnny Weissmuller

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On the U.S. stage, Johnny Weissmuller won 52 championships; on the world stage, he set 67 records. His times pale in comparison with today’s norms, but his consistency—he never lost a backstroke race—combined with five gold and one bronze medals from two Olympic Games earned him a place in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It also helped perfect the form he used in 16 Tarzan movies.

2 Rowdy Gaines

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American Rowdy Gaines stood at the top of his sport as “World Swimmer of the Year” when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Four years later, at the ripe age of 25, Gaines won three golds—in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, 4×100-meter medley relay and 100-meter freestyle. Gaines held the world record in all six freestyle distances—a feat no one has matched—when he was 35 years old.

1 Vladimir Salnikov

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Speed was Vladimir Salnikov’s calling card. The Leningrad native cracked two long-distance time barriers in the pool. In 1979, he swam the 800-meter freestyle in less than eight minutes—7:56.49—and was the first to do so. But he lived up to his “monster in the waves” nickname when he became the first to swim the 1,500-meter freestyle event with a sub-15-minute time of 14:58.27. Salnikov earned 12 world records and four Olympic gold medals.

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