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Ten American swimmers who were teenage sensations

Katie Ledecky
Katie Ledecky
Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

During the 2012 Olympic Games, then-17-year-old Missy Franklin took the swimming world by storm. At the London Olympics, Franklin won four gold medals and one bronze, making her the most decorated female swimmer of the 2012 games.

Likewise, American Katie Ledecky dominated the 800-meter freestyle, winning Olympic gold by a margin larger than four seconds. At the time, Ledecky was just 15 years old. Now 19 and 17 respectively, the girls have continued to dominate on the world scene, winning medals and setting world records.

In today's athletic climate, when swimmers compete until they are much older, the success of Franklin and Ledecky at such a young age seems to be an anomaly. A quick look at swimming history, though, shows that Franklin is not the first to take the swimming world by storm — she's simply the most recent. In winning Olympic gold as a teenager, Franklin has joined a long list of elite American swimmers who won multiple medals during their teen years.

Here's a quick look at some of those athletes:

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Charles Daniels arrived at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis at just 19 years old. By the time he left the Games, he'd amassed a total of five Olympic medals — three gold, a silver and a bronze. In 1908, Daniels returned to the Olympic Games as a 23-year-old and won two more Olympic medals. Daniels was a freestyle swimmer, and his Olympic medals were earned in events ranging from 50 yards to 440 yards.

Mark Spitz is best remembered for his gold-medal haul at the 1972 Olympic Games, but Spitz also won medals as an 18-year-old in 1968. In Mexico City, Spitz was a member of the 4x100- and 4x200-meter freestyle relays that won gold. He added a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle. In 1972, he went on to win a then-record seven gold medals.

Susie Atwood was 19 when she competed at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. At the '72 Games, Atwood earned a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke. The Munich Olympics marked the only year she competed in the Games.

Like Atwood, 15-year-old Melissa Belote also swam the backstroke events at the 1972 Olympic Games. Belote left Munich with three Olympic gold medals, which came in the 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke and 4x100-meter medley relay, and she broke the world record in the 200 backstroke. Belote returned to the 1976 Olympic Games, though she did not medal there. She retired from swimming in 1979.

Shirley Babashoff is the third female teenager on the list who competed at the 1972 Olympic Games. At 15, Babashoff won a gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay and she won silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events. Still a teenager in 1976, Babashoff returned to the Olympic Games at 19 to win a second freestyle relay gold medal. That year, she also added silver medals in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events.

Mary T. Meagher arrived at the 1984 Olympic Games as a 19-year-old, and she left as a three-time Olympic gold medalist. Meagher won the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and she was a member of gold-medal medley relay team. Four years later, Meagher won a bronze in the 200 butterfly at the 1988 Olympic Games. Some believe that she would have won medals as a 15-year-old in Moscow, too, had the U.S. not boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games. In 1981, Meagher set world records in the butterfly events that stood for nearly 20 years.

In 1984, Pablo Morales was just 19 years old. At the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Morales won a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay, and he added silvers in the 100 and 200 butterfly events. Four years later, Morales returned to the Games and took home two additional gold medals.

Janet Evans won her first Olympic medals in 1988 at 17. There, she won gold medals in the 400 and 800 freestyles and the 400-meter individual medley. In 1992, Evans swam at the Olympic Games again and picked up two more medals — gold in the 800 freestyle and silver in the 400 freestyle. During her career, Evans set three world records that would stand for more than 15 years each.

Amanda Beard arrived at the 1996 Olympic Games as a smiling 14-year-old. The breaststroke swimmer left with two individual silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes. She also was part of the 4x100 medley relay that won gold. Four years later, Beard returned to the Olympic Games at 18 and won bronze in the 200 breaststroke. She would go on to swim in two more Olympic Games, racking up one more gold and two more silver medals in the process.

Michael Phelps officially cemented himself as the greatest swimmer in history as a 27-year-old, but he began his journey as a teenager. At the 2000 Olympic Games, Phelps qualified to swim the 200 butterfly at 15. That year, he finished fifth and failed to medal. Four years later, Phelps returned to the Olympic Games in Athens, where, at 19, he won six gold medals and two bronze medals.

In 2008, Phelps went on to win his historic eight gold medals at 23, and in 2012 he claimed three gold and two silver medals. In total, he's won 22 Olympic medals, which makes him the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.

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