Greatest swimmer of all time: A ranked list of the best swimmers ever

Greatest swimmer of all time: A ranked list of the best swimmers ever

Ciku Njuguna
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:22 PM

Who is the greatest swimmer of all time? Fans, pundits, and players have debated the question since the game's inception, arranging and rearranging the hierarchies with every generation. The sport has seen extraordinary athletes who have gone on to break records and win medals.

Who is the greatest male swimmer?
Michael Phelps competes in a Men's 100m Butterfly heat event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Brazil on August 11, 2016. Photo by Francois Xavier Marit/AFP.
Source: Getty Images

Swimming as a sport has been around since the early 1800s. Various categories of the sport exist, from the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and the individual medley. From these categories, some athletes have exceptionally done well on the international stage.

Top 10 greatest swimmers of all time

Due to the nature of the sport, it is challenging to determine what constitutes a successful swimmer. Although medals can be used to measure success, factors such as influence, ability, leadership, consistency, and longevity can be used to determine how great an athlete is. Here is a list of the most dominant swimmer of all time.

Why is Simone Manuel important?
Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel competes in the Women's 100-meter butterfly race during the TYR Pro Swim Series at Indiana University Natatorium in May 2018 in Indianapolis. Photo by Bobby Ellis.
Source: Getty Images

10. Maritza Correia

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Correia began swimming at six years old after being diagnosed with scoliosis. Despite all odds, she had a successful career, earning an Olympic silver medal in the 4 × 100-meter freestyle relays at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. In 2002, she became the U.S. Open record holder in the 50-yard freestyle.

Maritza Correia is considered a trailblazer for young African American and Latinx swimmers. She was the first swimmer from two ethnic minority groups to join the U.S. Olympic team and set a world and American swimming record. She currently serves as an ambassador for USA Swimming’s Swim 1922 Program.

What is Maritza Correia famous for?
Maritza Correia competes during the Women's 100m freestyle semi-finals at the FINA World Swimming Championships on April 6, 2006, in Shanghai, China. Photo by Andrew Wong.
Source: Getty Images

9. Johnny Weissmuller

Jonny Weissmuller, considered the greatest swimmer of all time and a well-known actor, won five Olympic gold medals for the United States and set 67 world records during his career. Weissmuller was discovered by American swimming coach William Bachrach while swimming at the Illinois Athletic Club.

Johnny Weissmuller is best known for his role and appearances in the classic adventure film Tarzan. He is one of the few swimmers who successfully transitioned from sports into acting. In addition, the real-life hero warmed hearts when he and his brother rescued 20 people in a capsizing boat in 1927.

How many people did Johnny Weissmuller save?
Five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller was also known for his starring role as Tarzan, the Ape-man. The photo was taken on January 01, 1934. Photo by George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation.
Source: Getty Images

8. Jenny Thompson

Jennifer Thompson is undeniably the greatest female swimmer of all time. She is the most decorated female athlete in the sport, having won twelve medals, including eight gold medals, in the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Summer Olympics.

Thompson currently works as an anesthesiologist at the Spectrum medical group in Portland, Maine. She is heavily involved with Swim Across America, a charitable organiZation raising cancer research money.

Why is Jenny Thompson famous?
Jenny Thompson practices in preparation for the 2003 World Swimming Championships at the USA Training Facility on July 15, 2003, in Narbonne, France. Photo by Al Bello.
Source: Getty Images

7. Matt Biondi

Matt Biondi is a former competitive swimmer and water polo player. The 11-time Olympic medalist is an all-time Hall of Famer recognized by different organizations such as the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, the UC Berkeley Hall of Fame, and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

After retiring, Biondi began his career as a high school teacher and swim coach. He currently works at Sierra Canyon School as a math and swimming coach. In addition, Matt serves as a spokesperson for several organizations.

Matt Biondi's medals
Matt Biondi reacts to winning the Men's 50-meter freestyle swimming event of the 1988 Olympic Games held at the Jamsil Swimming Pool in Seoul, South Korea, in September 1988. Photo by David Madison.
Source: Getty Images

6. Dara Torres

Dara Torres is regarded as one of the best swimmers of all time, and she is the first U.S. swimmer to feature in five different Olympics. With 12 Olympic medals under her name, Torres became a world record-holder in three events and the oldest female swimmer to win a medal at the Olympics.

After retiring, Dara Torres worked as a reporter for different television networks across the U.S. The longtime Swim Across America celebrity swimmer is the vice president of Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, an organization that aims to save lives by putting an end to drowning.

How old was Dara Torres when she won her last Olympic medal?
Dara Torres competes in the Women's 100-meter butterfly swimming semifinal at the 2000 Olympic Games in September 2000 at the Sydney International Aquatic Center in Australia. Photo by David Madison.
Source: Getty Images

5. Natalie Coughlin

Natalie Coughlin is a former swimmer and Olympic medalist. Natalie was the first female athlete to swim under 1:00 in the 100-meter backstroke (long course) and the first female swimmer in the modern Olympics to win three gold, four silver and five bronze medals.

Natalie ventured into business after retiring from the sport. She is a brand ambassador and investor in the frozen food company Luvo Inc.

Natalie Coughlin's medals
Natalie Coughlin competes in the Women's 100 Meter Backstroke during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at the CenturyLink Center in June 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Al Bello.
Source: Getty Images

4. Ian Thrope

Ian Thrope is a retired Australian Olympic swimmer famously known as the Thorpedo. The highly decorated freestyle swimmer who won 9 Olympic medals in his career also holds the record for the most gold medals won by any Australian athlete. Ian was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2008 as an Athlete Member and elevated to Legend of Australian Sport in 2021 for his contribution to swimming.

After his retirement, Thrope ventured into film. In the movie Bullied, he presents a controversial and compelling insight into the issue of school bullying that brings victims and their classmates together to help understand the impacts of bullying.

Famous Australian swimmers
Australian triple Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe practices at the Olympic Aquatic Center on the eve of the 2004 Olympic Games opening on the 12th of August 2004. Photo by Tim Clary/AFP.
Source: Getty Images

3. Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky is undeniably the GOAT of women's swimming, with seven Olympic gold medals and 19 World Championship gold medals, the most in history for any female swimmer. Katie is considered a dominant force in every freestyle event ranging from 200 metres to the mile.

Ledecky has worked as a volunteer with Bikes for the World. She worked with the organization for two years, repairing old bicycles and sending them to would-be cyclists in the developing world.

How old was Katie Ledecky in her first Olympics?
Katie Ledecky competes in the Women's 400m Freestyle heats at the 2019 FINA World Championships at Nambu International Aquatics Centre in July 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. Photo by Catherine Ivill.
Source: Getty Images

2. Mark Spitz

Who is the second-greatest swimmer of all time? Mark Spitz is a former competitive swimmer and nine-time Olympic champion. During his most successful Olympic appearance in the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, he won seven gold medals, each in world-record time.

Mark retired from swimming after the Munich Olympics at the age of 22. Named as one of the greatest Olympians, the 2000 Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century has worked as a motivational speaker, influencer, and investor.

Does Mark Spitz still hold any world records?
Mark Spitz of the USA in action during a butterfly event at the 1982 World Swimming Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport.
Source: Getty Images

1. Michael Phelps

Is Michael Phelps the greatest swimmer of all time? Michael holds the all-time world record for Olympic gold, with 23 gold, three silver, and two bronze medals and is the record holder for the most gold medals ever earned in a single Olympics.

Due to his dominance in the sport, fans have always been curious about how Michael Phelps became the greatest swimmer of all time. He started swimming at a young age under Olympic Swimming Coach Bob Bowman, who instilled discipline in him.

Has Michael Phelps ever lost a race?
Phelps was in action during the Men's 200m Butterfly Heats at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Ross Kinnaird /Allsport.
Source: Getty Images

Who is the greatest British swimmer of all time?

Over the years, England has produced some exciting swimmers, such as John Arthur Jarvis, Henry Taylor, Judy Grinham and Thomas William Darnton Dean. Undoubtedly, Adam Peaty is the best British swimmer of all time, a double Olympic champion who won five medals in the Olympics.

Is Adrian Radley the greatest swimmer of all time?

Although Australian swimmer Adrian Radley did not know anything about the sport when he joined the school team, he retired as a master in backstroke events. Alongside his relay teammates, Radley set Australia's first world record in 30 years during the 100m medley relay at the FINA World Championships in 1997.

Who is the greatest swimmer of all time in the Philippines?

Miguel Molina, a Filipino American Olympian, has won fan recognition as one of the greatest Filipino swimmers. He has represented his country in the Olympics and other international competitions, winning four individual events and two relays. Before his retirement, he had won 11 gold, seven silver, and seven bronze medals.

Who is the most famous Filipino swimmer?
Miguel Molina of the Philippines swims during the men's 200 meters event at the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) at Los Banos, in Laguna, Manila, in November 2005. Photo by Joel Nito/AFP.
Source: Getty Images

Swimming has produced some fantastic and exciting athletes over the years. Michael Phelps is the most excellent swimmer of all time, having amassed 28 medals. He is a trailblazer and the number one GOAT in the sport.

READ ALSO: Who are the GOATs of all sports? A list of the greatest to ever play each sport

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Ciku Njuguna photo
Ciku Njuguna
Ciku Njuguna is a journalist with 3 year’s experience in content creation based in Kenya. She currently covers sports personnel as well as team biographies.