#50 Joannie Rochette—Canada from 50 Greatest Winter Olympians
50 Greatest Winter Olympians
#50 Joannie Rochette—Canada
"A six-time Canadian champion and world silver medalist, Joannie Rochette makes this list on the strength of competing within days of the unexpected death by heart attack of her mother, Therese Rochette, who had come to Vancouver to watch her daughter skate,” says panelist Pj Kwong. Rochette hasn’t competed in any major skating events since and decided earlier this year not to compete in this year’s games at Sochi. However, she plans to compete at this year’s Japan Open. “I’m still training and still enjoy skating, but there’s a big difference between doing the Japan Open and doing the Olympics,” she told NBC Sports. “It’s more to give myself a personal challenge. I don’t have the added pressure of competing in the Olympics.”
#49 Franz Klammer—Austria
With an astounding 25 World Cup Downhill wins, it’s not so surprising that Klammer is a big inspiration. The shock factor is that he’s best known for just a single run. The win that made him an Austrian hero was his unorthodox descent at the 1976 Winter Olympics. He took gold and a spot in alpine skiing history by riding recklessly, flailing downhill and barely edging out his rival. Klammer’s top competition was defending Olympic downhill champ, Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, and Klammer beat him by just 0.22 seconds. “Without a doubt the most indelible ski run in history,” said Brian Pinelli, one of our panelists.
#48 Scott Hamilton—USA
Although he had the honor of bearing the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, Scott Hamilton was by no means the star he would become. He placed a respectable fifth in the male figure skating competition, and if his story ended there he wouldn’t be on this list. It was the next four years that vaulted him into the Olympic pantheon. Beginning in 1981, the slight solo skater won every amateur competition he was in, up to and including the 1984 Sarajevo Games where he took home gold. Says panelist P.J. Kwong: “If there was one quality to be attributed to four-time world champion Scott Hamilton, I would have to say: agility. He had the ability to use his blades to generate speed while simultaneously demonstrating enormous control of his edges. An all-around athlete, Scott Hamilton’s programs showcased his great skating skills making him one of the most entertaining performers in his day.” After Sarajevo, Hamilton joined the pro circuit and has since made a quadrennial side-career as an Olympic TV commentator.
#47 Barbara Ann Scott—Canada
Known as ‘Canada’s Sweetheart’, Barbara Ann Scott was a four-time Canadian champion, two-time world champion, European champion and the Olympic champion in 1948. Her many honors included being inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame and The Olympic Hall of Fame, being made an Officer in the Order of Canada, and receiving the Lou Marsh trophy three times as Canada’s top Athlete of the Year.
#46 Brian Boitano—USA
Figure skating star of the 1988 Winter Olympics, Brian Boitano, is going to Sochi. But he won’t be competing; he was chosen to be part of the President’s delegation. While some speculate the reason for his nomination has to do with his sexual orientation, this three-time Olympic athlete has the credentials to dismiss those claims. Four National Championships, two world titles and an Olympic gold cement his place in figure skating history. As if his record weren’t enough, Boitano took his only Olympic gold in dramatic fashion, edging out his friend and rival Brian Orser, by a single judge's vote.
#45 Yuna Kim—South Korea
“Korea’s Yuna Kim is the kind of skater who comes around once in a generation,” says Kwong. Kim’s nearly flawless performances and technically next-to-impossible programs, which included a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, demolished scoring world records at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Still the world record holder in the women’s short program, long program and overall score, according to Guinness World Records, Kim is looking to add to her Olympic legacy in Sochi where she will vie for her second-straight gold.
#44 Peggy Fleming—USA
An American beauty, Peggy Fleming is synonymous with figure skating, earning five American, three world and an Olympic title. Fleming helped to define the look of modern women’s figure skating: athletic, graceful, musical and strong. She was also the first of a wave of American skaters who helped to restart the American figure skating program after the entire figure skating team was killed in a plane crash en route to Worlds in Prague in 1961.
#43 Tara Lipinski—USA
Tara Lipinski will be joining the ranks of retired Olympians headed to Sochi, as NBC recently brought her on as a commentator. Lipinski is most famous for her gold medal coup in 1998, which made her the youngest individual event winner in the history of the Olympics. She took that record from Sonja Henie, who held that distinction for more than 70 years. Lipinski was 15 at the time and she is still the youngest winner to date. She is also the youngest world champion in figure skating history, a feat she conquered at 14 years old. Like many other female figure skaters, after she retired from skating she went into entertainment, first skating on tours and then appearing on many hit shows throughout 1990s.
#42 Stein Eriksen—Norway
Eriksen was “a legend in his time,” says Pinelli. “Handsome, stylish and charismatic, Eriksen achieved his greatest success at the home Olympics in Oslo 1952 winning gold in the giant slalom and silver in the slalom. [He was] the first male alpine skier from outside the Alps to win an Olympic gold medal. Some consider him the father of freestyle skiing, credited as being the first skier to throw a front flip on skis. Who knows... if freestyle skiing was an Olympic sport back in the 1950’s, Eriksen would have likely won more Olympic medals.”
#41 Hjalmar Andersen—Norway
Known for his strength as a distance speed skater, Hjalmar Andersen was a favorite to win both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. He easily scooped up gold medals for both events, winning by an astonishing 11 seconds in the 5,000-meter and a record-breaking 25 seconds in the 10,000-meter. Adding another victory to his list that year, he surprised spectators by snagging the first place spot in the 1,500-meter race, too. Earning three gold medals over the course of one Olympics, Andersen set a men’s speed skating record that was left unbroken for 28 years. To this day he’s celebrated as an iconic Norwegian athlete with an honorary postage stamp and statues to honor his accomplishments in three Norwegian cities.
#40 Billy Fiske—USA
In the 1928 and 1932 winter Olympics, the United States dominated bobsled racing, largely because of daredevil pilot Billy Fiske. Fiske led team USA to gold medals in the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, at the age of 16, and again in Lake Placid in 1932.
Billy Fiske had another important first in his career. In 1939, he was among the Americans who joined Great Britain’s Royal Air Force to help repel the continuing air attacks by the Germans during the Battle of Britain. On August 16, 1940, he was the first American pilot killed in World War II.
#39 Irving Jaffee—USA
One of America’s first Winter Olympic stars, Jaffee won two golds in speed skating—in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter events—at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. His career total might have included a third gold were it not for a controversy at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. After six of eight heats, Jaffee had been leading the field in the 10,000-meter event—that is, until warm weather melted the ice. When the event was canceled, the IOC ruled Jaffee deserved the gold anyway, but the International Skating Union refused to grant him the medal, according to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Jaffee’s post-Olympic history took a sad turn when, impoverished, he was forced to pawn his medals, never to recover them, according to Olympic historian Tom Ecker.
#38 Armin Zoeggeler —Italy
Up against two legendary lugers (Georg Hackl and Marcus Prock), Armin Zoeggeler made his first Olympic mark after securing a bronze medal in the men’s singles race. At the following Winter Games in 1998 he earned the event’s silver medal, and from there he went on to claim the gold for the following two consecutive games. A five-time Winter Olympic medalist (he also won bronze at Vancouver in 2010), Zoeggeler is considered a luge legend by our panelist Brian Pinelli. He has been awarded the honor of carrying Italy’s flag at this year’s opening ceremonies in Sochi and when the Games begin will set out to claim his sixth consecutive Winter Olympic medal.
#37 Irina Rodnina—USSR
Persistence is a characteristic of all great athletes and Irina Rodnina is no exception. Her list of championships is remarkable, but the story behind those wins is what sets her apart. She is the most successful pair skater in history, winning every competition she entered for 11 consecutive years, according to the official Olympics website.
She began skating with her first partner, Alexei Ulanov, when she was 14. Together they dominated the international figure skating world, until 1972 when they won Olympic gold and then split because Ulanov had fallen in love with another figure skater and wanted to skate with her. She contemplated leaving the sport but ultimately chose to continue with another partner, Alexander Zaitsev. They established themselves immediately during their first year together when, at an international competition, their music cut out and they finished their routine perfectly in silence. That performance received a standing ovation and a gold medal. Her success with Zaitsev included six world championships, two more Olympic golds, and in 1975 they married.
#36 Eddie Eagan—USA
There must be something about the bobsled that appeals to crossover athletes. This year track star Lolo Jones, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, will be going for gold as a member of the U.S. bobsleigh team. But she isn’t the first American to make the leap from summer to winter. In the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Eddie Eagan was a member of the American bobsleigh team that brought home gold. (See Billy Fiske above.) Twelve years earlier in Antwerp, Belgium, he won a very different Olympic event, light-heavyweight boxing, making him the only athlete ever to win gold in two different sports in both the Winter and Summer Olympics.
#35 Anton “Toni” Sailer—Austria
Despite close calls and last minute mishaps the Austrian alpine skier known as the “Blitz from Kitz” managed to claim three gold medals during his 1956 Winter Olympic debut. According to the story, about 15 minutes before the start of his final race Sailer’s boot strap broke. He had no extras but was lucky enough to borrow one from the Italian team trainer, and even after nearly falling while making his way downhill he still managed to win the race by three and a half seconds. Coming in first by more than 6 seconds, Sailer also holds the record for the largest margin of victory in the giant slalom event and his finishing times for both the slalom and giant slalom races were both record-breaking victories.
#34 Shaun White—USA
We definitely needed to include one snowboarder in our top Olympians list and who better than two-time Olympic half pipe champion? The “Flying Tomato” is a legend! He’s an innovator, an entertainer and an entrepreneur, helping to grow the popularity of the sport exponentially. All eyes will be watching an older and more mature White compete in two events—half pipe and slopestyle—in Sochi. He’s hoping to make it a hat trick this winter on the half pipe and looking to break new ground in slopestyle.
#33 Adrianus “Ard” Schenk—Netherlands
In the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, Dutch speed skater Ard Schenk had begun to make a name for himself when he took home silver. But it was in the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan that he stole the show as the sport’s dominant star, winning golds in the 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter events. Had he not fallen in the 500-meter sprint, he might have swept the entire men’s speed skating field. Riding on his success, Schenk went pro in 1973 and retired before the 1976 Olympics rolled around—but by then he was already a national hero and an Olympic legend.
#32 Vladislav Tretiak—USSR
According to panelist Brian Pinelli, Vladislav Tretiak is a “legendary Russian goalie” and has a reputation as “one of the greatest net-minders in hockey history.” One of the most decorated hockey players of all time, Tretiak earned 3 gold medals as a member of the USSR Olympic Hockey team in 1972, 1976 and 1984. At the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid he and his team earned the silver medal, making him the only men’s hockey player to ever earn three gold and one silver Winter Olympic medals. Though he no longer plays, Tretiak is still very involved with the sport. As the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia his influence continues to live on. “Another gold medal for his team in Sochi would do wonders for his legacy in Russia,” says Pinelli.
#30 Alberto Tomba—Italy
To merely point out that this Italian slalom skier, nicknamed “La Bomba, or, “The Bomb,” won three golds and two silvers over four Olympics doesn’t really do him justice. Tomba exemplified “a fantastic era for ski racing and the Winter Olympics,” says Pinelli. He explains: “[Tomba was] one of the greatest Winter Olympians ever, and surely the most polarizing and entertaining. Tomba did it his way, with panache. Laugh about him if you will, but give the Italian rock star credit for delivering on the grandest stage—at pressure-packed Olympic Games. His first two gold medals in Calgary came at just age 21. Four years later, with unbelievable pressure on his shoulders and everyone expecting him to win, he delivered again with a gold and silver. And don’t forget, the fun-loving and often unpredictable Tomba was the flag-bearer for Italy at the ’92 Albertville Games.”
Pinelli continues: “In Lillehammer, Tomba appeared down-and-out after just the 12th fastest first run in the slalom. However, Tomba amazed once again, rocketing up the leaderboard to a silver medal, his fifth and final Olympic medal, with a sensational final run. Despite the tales of late night partying and playboy antics, Tomba’s aggressive, attacking style and powerful turns on the mountain were thrilling. And he rarely made mistakes, at least not on the race course! Tomba had a flair for the dramatic and no one has ever made ski racing more exciting and popular to the masses.”
#29 Vegard Ulvang—Norway
One of the most popular and successful Norwegian cross-country skiers in recent times, Vegard Ulvang’s 30-kilometer win at the 1992 Winter Games was not only record-breaking (he finished in 1:22:27.8), but it was also the first gold medal achieved by a Norwegian male cross-country skier in 16 years. That year he dominated the competition, snagging two more gold medals in both the 10-kilometer and the 4x10-kilometer relay and a silver in the combined 15-kilometer pursuit. Competing with an injured hip and possibly even worse, the stress of his missing brother in 1994, he still managed to help carry the Norwegian 4x10-kilometer relay to a second place victory. Following the 1996-97 World Cup season Ulvang retired, but thanks to his unprecedented performance in the 1992 Games, merchants from his home city named a Scandinavian Airlines aircraft after him and awarded him with a mountain cottage.
#28 Johan Olav Koss—Norway
Where was Olympic speed skater Johan Koss the day of the 1992 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony? In a hospital bed, of course. He was admitted to the hospital with an inflamed pancreas, but after passing a gallstone he took off and headed for the Games. After a rocky start, finishing seventh at the 5000-meter, and a week after his departure from the hospital, he made his way to the podium. He took one gold medal and one silver, at the 1,500-meter and 10,000-meter, respectively.
In 1994 at his home games in Lillehammer, he dominated. He took three gold medals in the 1,500m, the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter. He broke world records in each of those three races and became a Norwegian legend. Koss was promoted to head coach of the Norwegian speed skating team in 2009.
#27 Janica Kostelić—Croatia
The winningest female alpine skier in Olympic history, Janica Kostelić very nearly swept the field in the slalom and combined events in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. (She won silver in the women’s Super-G, only 0.05 seconds behind the winner.) A three-time flag-bearer for Croatia, she returned to the Olympics for the 2006 Turin Games where she once again won the combined event and narrowly missed victory in the Super-G, bringing her career medal count to four golds and two silvers.
#26 Katarina Witt—East Germany/Germany
The first female figure skater to earn back-to-back Olympic gold medals since Sonja Henie, Katarina Witt’s incredible talent was undeniable from the very first time she took to the ice at the age of 5. In 1984 at Sarajevo the United States’ Rosalynn Summers was the uncontested favorite, but after landing three triple jumps and pulling ahead by just one-tenth of a point, Witt swooped in to win the gold. She went on to defend her title at the 1988 Winter Games and has also won six consecutive European Championship titles, another accomplishment that she shares solely with Henie. “When you look at a lot of world-class athletes, they're used to working hard for success. You train until you earn it, nothing falls in your lap and you take this attitude through your life." Witt told the Telegraph in 2012. "Sometimes, success almost haunts you. You want to be the best at everything you do and know you have to work hard.”
#25 Dick Button—USA
In addition to winning two back-to-back Olympic titles, Dick Button has the distinction of being the first skater to land a double axel and a triple jump in competition. He also invented the flying camel spin. Button’s list of skating titles goes on and on and includes seven national, three North American, a European and five world titles.
As if his accomplishments on the ice weren’t enough, Button also pursued a law degree at Harvard, was a show skater and has been a hugely successful figure skating commentator on television since 1960.
#24 Uschi Disl—Germany
With a career spanning five Winter Olympics, from 1992 to 2006, German biathlete Ursula "Uschi" Disl was one of the dominant athletes in her sport for a decade and a half, winning nine Olympic medals for her country (two of which were gold) and even being named “German Sportswoman of the Year” in 2005—a rare moment of public recognition for a biathlete.
#23 Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann—Germany
With a total of eight Winter Olympic medals (three gold, four silver, and one bronze), Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann is one of the most successful speed skaters in the entire world. Aptly named by the media as the “ice queen,” she began to display her dominance at the 1992 Games where she placed first in both the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter events and second in the 1,500-meter. In 1998, after knee surgery and two months before the Winter Games, she set the 3,000-meter world record and then went on to win the gold in that event while competing at Nagano. In the final race of her career, Niemann-Stirnemann went on not only to break her own 5,000-meter world record, but also to become the first woman skater to finish the race in less than seven minutes.
#22 Galina Kulakova—USSR
With a total of eight medals this cross country skier was a force for the Soviet Union at a time when women weren’t frontrunners or even widely participating. She proved her athleticism during the 1972 Winter Olympics when she tied Ard Schenk for the most successful athlete. In addition to her many athletic accolades she has won several other prestigious awards. Her list of accomplishments includes receiving the Order of Lenin and earning the Silver Olympic Order in 1984.
#21 Sven Fischer—Germany
Nicknamed “Mr. Biathlon” in his home country of Germany, Sven Fischer racked up four golds and eight medals total in four Olympics, from 1994 to 2006—a biathlon medal count that’s tied with that of his countryman Ricco Gross, and trails only that of the sport’s reigning legend (and Fischer rival) Ole Einar Bjørndalen. Now a commentator for German television, Fischer’s biggest Olympic year was his last, at the 2006 Turin Games, where he was on the winning relay team and carried the sprint event, as well as adding a bronze in the pursuit event to his tally.
#20 Lidiya Skoblikova—USSR
Competing for the USSR in 1960 at Squaw Valley and in 1964 at Innsbruck, Lidiya Skoblikova never accepted anything less than a gold medal for every single one of the six speed skating events she competed in. During her 1960 Winter Olympics debut she scored two first place wins in both the women’s 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter events. Four years later she swept every single one of her opponents, snagging a gold medal in each of the four speed skating events, a notable achievement on its own made even more impressive by the fact that each race distance requires a special set of abilities and tactics. Adding to her already extraordinary accomplishments, that year Skoblikova also set the Olympic record in the 1,500-meter race, which she won by 2.9 seconds—the largest margin of victory in the history of the event.
#19 Jean-Claude Killy—France
This French ski legend won the “Triple Crown” of alpine skiing sweeping all three races in Grenoble at the age of 24. He’s only the second skier after Toni Sailer to win all three events at one Winter Olympics.
As a double world champion in 1966 and as the first winner of the FIS World Cup tour in 1967, the suave Frenchman handled the home nation pressure without a problem in Grenoble, not too far from where he grew up. Continuing his Olympic legacy, Killy was co-President of the 1992 Albertville Games, as the Winter Olympics returned to his native France. Killy is also a longtime International Olympic Committee (IOC) Member.
Killy is still giving back to the Olympic movement and has been the head of the IOC Coordination Commission for Sochi 2014 working closely with the Sochi Organizing Committee. So, if Putin’s Games are a success, the 70-year-old Frenchman deserves much of the credit!
#18 Eugenio Monti—Italy
Not only was Monti the greatest bobsled pilot ever—concluding his Olympic career winning a pair of gold medals in Grenoble 1968 at the age of 40, as well as two silvers at his home Olympics in Cortina 1956—but he’s also noted for two of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in Olympic and sports history. Nicknamed "The Flying Redhead," Monte helped out English-speaking rivals, not once but twice at the ’64 Innsbruck Games. First, in the two-man, his British challengers busted a bolt on their bobsled and Monte gave them a replacement off of his team’s sled. Tony Nash drove to gold, while Monte settled for bronze. The Italian media was not happy with the Italian star. Then, in the four-man, Canadian rivals damaged their sled’s axle. Again, it was Monte and his mechanics coming to the rescue and repairing the damaged sled. Canadian driver Vic Emery took gold, while Monte and his Italian team settled for bronze. Incredible acts of sportsmanship by an Italian legend!
For his selfless act of graciousness, Monti was the first athlete and only Winter Olympian ever to be presented with the Pierre de Coubertin medal, an honor awarded by the IOC to athletes who exemplify the true spirit of sportsmanship. And Monte would have likely won two more medals had bobsledding been held at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
#17 Georg Hackl—Germany
A luger from Germany, Georg Hackl has competed in some of the sport’s most exciting, photo-finish races and across the span of his career has conquered a handful of historic feats. He was the first Winter Olympian to medal in five consecutive Games, he is just one of just six Olympians who has won the same individual event three times, and even though he had been injured for a part of the season, at the age of 40 he proceeded to compete in his 6th Winter Olympic Games in Turin in 2006. In his entire Olympic career he’s earned a total of five medals: three gold and two silver. A true Olympic star, in his homeland, he has been fondly nicknamed the “Speeding Weisswurst,” or speeding white sausage, a reference to his speedy racing abilities and well-known white bodysuit.
#16 The 1980 USA Men's Hockey Team
Surely the greatest team in Winter Olympics history and from an American perspective, the greatest moment in Winter Olympics history.
However, we are talking about individuals, and not teams, so any of these players technically deserve a top spot: Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, the list goes on. What a team, what a moment, and of course, what a Miracle!
During a time when the U.S. was struggling with exorbitant gas prices and long lines at the pump, a delicate hostage situation in Iran and many Americans just felt down and out, these young collegiate hockey studs galvanized an entire nation and changed hockey in America forever! And of course, huge props to Herb Brooks, Craig Patrick and the voice…Al Michaels! “…11 seconds, you've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!!”
#15 Marit Bjørgen—Norway
After bronchitis put a damper on Marit Bjørgen’s performance at the 2006 Olympics in Turin—she won a single silver medal—the Norwegian cross country skier came back with a vengeance four years later. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics she skied her way to three golds and five medals total, the most by any individual that year. Competing this month in Sochi, Bjørgen will be in her fourth Winter Games and looking to add more gold to her collection of seven Olympic medals—not a bad bet for the winningest cross country skier in FIS World Cup history.
#14 Sixten Jernberg—Sweden
Known as one of the first ever cross country skiing stars, over the course of his Olympic career Jernberg dominated the sport from the start of his very first race up until crossing his final finish line at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck. Aside from earning a total of nine Olympic medals (4 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze) across three consecutive games, he also achieved four world championship titles and was recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1965 with the Mohammed Taher Trophy (an award that has since been discontinued).
#13 Bonnie Blair—USA
Perhaps the greatest female speed skating sprinter ever, Bonnie Blair took three consecutive gold medals in the 500-meter between 1988 and 1993; an extremely tough “triple” to pull off. She was the only American Winter Olympian with six medals until Apolo Ohno came along. The longtime Milwaukee resident thrived on the Olympic stage, probably due to the fact that she began competing at just four years old!
#12 Karin Kania—East Germany
Beginning her career as a moderately successful figure skater, Karin Enke—who also competed under the name Karin Kania—wisely switched to speed skating in time for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where she took home gold in the 500-meter sprint event. After a dominant four years on the championship circuit, she returned to the Olympics in 1984, winning two golds and two silvers in Sarajevo—and setting a world record in the 1,500-meter event to boot. Another appearance in the Winter Games in 1988 netted her three more medals, bringing her career total to eight—which makes her one of two female Winter Olympians with eight medals in individual events.
#11 Clas Thunberg—Finland
Clas Thunberg left a lasting mark on the history of Olympic speed skating, and his accomplishments are made all the more impressive by the fact that he didn’t even begin competing at the International level until the age of 28. He crushed his competition at the first ever Winter Games in 1924, claiming five medals (three gold, one silver, and one bronze) and the title of most successful athlete of the entire Winter Olympics that year. He returned to the rink in 1928 to snag two more gold medals, setting the record for the most gold medals ever achieved by a male speed skater—an achievement only matched by Eric Heiden in 1980. What’s more, Thunberg had the opportunity to set the bar even higher. However, he withdrew from the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. as a protest against the new “mass-style” race starts that had been introduced that year.
#10 Apollo Anton Ohno—USA
The most decorated American Winter Olympic Athlete of all time only competed in three Olympic Games. Over the course of those Games he took a total of eight medals and coped with intense attention from the crowd. In his first Olympic appearance in 2002, he was surrounded by controversy. First, he was accused of throwing an Olympic trial race and then he won gold in the 1,500-meter, but only after the South Korean athlete who finished first was disqualified for apparently blocking Ohno. Despite the initial negative attention, Ohno has earned his spot in speed skating history and become an American icon. Our panelist Brian Pinelli calls him “a master technician with explosiveness on the ice like no short tracker in history.”
#8 Ricco Gross—Germany
Our panelist Brian Pinelli calls four-time Olympic gold medalist Ricco Gross a “biathlon legend,” which is a pretty remarkable statement considering Gross’ last Olympic appearance (where he earned his fourth gold medal) was just eight years ago at the Winter Games in Turin. Still, with a total of eight Olympic medals and as the only biathlete to ever win four Olympic relay titles, there’s no doubt his name will forever be etched in history as one of the best biathletes of all time. His recipe for success: “Never try to imitate anyone else. Follow your own path, find something new, something that is yours, and stick with it.”
#7 Eric Heiden—USA
Humble and low-key, Heiden provided the single most outstanding Olympic performance at one Games in history! 5 speed skating events, 5 gold medals, 4 Olympic records and one world record over a nine-day span in 1980, winning everything at a home Olympics at just 21 years old! And he even slipped in the 1,500 before winning in an Olympic record time.
In our current era of specialization in everything that we do, Heiden took gold in events as vastly different as the 500-meters and 10,000-meters. And he did so at an outdoor oval in the elements…bitter cold and wind, unlike today’s indoor speed skating venues, where every element is controlled. Seems utterly impossible and surely a feat that will never be matched!
#6 Claudia Pechstein—Germany
At age 41, German speed skater Claudia Pechstein will soon be competing in her sixth Winter Olympics. Since making her Olympic debut at the 1992 Games in Albertville, Pechstein has won nine medals, five of which are gold—more medals than any other speed skater and the second-most gold medals among female Winter Olympians. That total might have been higher were it not for a scandal: blood doping allegations led to a two-year ban, sidelining her during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Pechstein has repeatedly denied the charge and even fought it in court.) Regardless, her previous medals remain undisputed and in Sochi she’ll be looking to further cement her status as an all-time great.
#5 Raisa Smetanina—USSR
Over her impressive 16-year cross-country skiing career, Raisa Smetanina earned 10 Winter Olympic medals—the most achieved by any female athlete in history. Three of those medals (two gold and one silver) were earned at the 1976 Winter Olympics alone, which tied her with Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier for the title of most successful athlete of the entire Games that year. Beyond the wild success of her Olympic debut, Smetanina went on to win two more gold medals in 1980 and 1992, was the first athlete to ever appear on the podium at five different Winter Olympic Games, and is one of just three Olympians who have collected a total of five silver medals. And as if all those firsts and bests just weren’t enough, when her relay team claimed gold in the 4x5-kilometer relay at the 1992 Games—about two weeks before she turned 40—she became the oldest female medalist in all of Olympic history.
#4 Stefania Belmondo—Italy
Stefania Belmondo is the perfect storm embodied in an Olympic cross-country athlete. She had the trifecta: a 10-year-long Olympic career (disrupted by a major injury), the utmost admiration from her country and an underdog story. Belmondo was considered by many to be too small for the sport of cross-country skiing; she set out to prove the naysayers wrong. Over the course of five Olympic Games, she took two gold medals, three silver and five bronze, making her the most successful Italian Winter Olympian to date. After a major injury and a disappointing 1994 Games, Belmondo took a break from cross-country, but the resolute Belmondo came back to take two gold medals at the 1999 World Championships. She closed out her Olympic career in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games when she took her final Olympic gold medal. Her record and popularity brought her to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, where she lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.
#3 Ole Einar Bjørndalen—Norway
The Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen competed at five Winter Olympics, from 1994 through 2010, and won 6 golds, 4 silvers and one bronze. Calling Bjørndalen a “dominant international force in the sport for nearly two decades” and “among the greatest athletes of all-time,” Pinelli gives the details:
“Sure, in the U.S., we don’t put too much emphasis on biathlon and infrequently is it discussed on sports talk radio, but Bjørndalen is the greatest biathlete of all-time and among the greatest Winter Olympians. His 11 total medals is second only to his cross-country skiing countryman Bjorn Dæhlie’s twelve. In Salt Lake City 2002 he went four-for-four in the events he entered, taking four gold medals home to Norway.”
Pinelli adds: “Aside from the Olympics, his 93 World Cup biathlon wins between 1996 and 2012 may never be matched—in any winter sport!”
#2 Sonja Henie—Norway
Few Olympic athletes are capable of garnering A-list-level celebrity, but three-time gold medal figure skater Sonja Henie was known for drawing hordes of fans so large and rowdy that police were often called in for crowd control. And it wasn’t just because she was a sweet, smiling blonde either. A fierce competitor, Henie won her first Olympic gold medal at the age of 16. From there she went on to defend that title in the next two Winter Olympic Games, and just one week after winning her third Olympic gold she placed first at the World Figure Skating Championships for the tenth straight year in a row, setting a record that has yet to be broken. A true trailblazer for the sport, Henie was known for her untraditional short-skirted costumes, white skates (black was the norm at the time), and innovative choreography. “To this day [she is] the undisputed ‘Queen’ of figure skating,” says Pinelli.
#1 Bjørn Dæhlie—Norway
Perhaps not a household name to most American sports fans, but he's the most decorated Winter Olympic champion ever with eight gold and 12 total medals, both unequaled.
He amassed three gold and a silver in both Albertville and Nagano. At the home Games in Lillehammer, Daehlie had two silver and two bronze. Despite his amazing achievements, he will always be remembered for getting beat by the narrowest of margins on the final leg of the team 4x10-kilometer, by Silvio Fauner and the Italians. Norway was heartbroken! Despite the one disappointing loss to the Italians on home snow, Daehlie is still a living Norwegian legend!