Arizona's Top 10 Summer Olympians

Arizona's most famous #phelpsface.EXPAND
Arizona's most famous #phelpsface.

The 2016 Summer Olympics have begun, and a slew of Arizona athletes are in Rio, going for gold. Arizona State University's athletic department alone has reportedly sent at least 20 athletes who'll compete in everything from swimming to tennis to volleyball and track and field events.

Fact is, when it comes to Olympians past and present, Arizona is on the map in a big way.

For your sporting pleasure, New Times has compiled a list of the most famous Olympians who call the Grand Canyon State home. Here, then, are the Top 10 — well, 11, actually — Olympic athletes who hail from or made their home in Arizona...

10. Brady Ellison, archery 
Arizona native Brady Ellison is the state's best-known archer. He's also the world's top-ranked archer. Born in Glendale, Ellison later moved to Globe and took up bow sports at a young age. He competed in his first Olympics in 2008, and was a member of the 2012 U.S. squad that brought home the silver medal from London — a feat the 2016 team has already duplicated in Rio. At age 27, Ellison, whose appetite for gold earned him the nickname "The Prospector" during last year's world championships — and who has been celebrated for his resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio — is vying for gold in the individual competition. In April of this year, he married Slovenian archer Toja Cerne.

9. Amanda Borden, gymnastics 
Amanda Borden was just 19 when she became the captain of the "Magnificent Seven" squad that struck gold at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. As a gymnast, the Cincinnati native was known for her clean form and technique, as well as her vivacious personality. In 1995, she was named Sportswoman of the Year by USA Gymnastics. After the requisite round of media appearances that followed her Olympic triumph, Borden moved to Arizona, where she earned a degree in early childhood development from Arizona State. She and her husband run Gold Medal Gym in Tempe, where Borden coaches gymnastics.

8. Gary Hall Sr. and Gary Hall Jr., swimming
For Gary Wayne Hall Sr. and son Gary Jr., medaling in the Olympics is a family sport. Combined, the pair earned 13 medals and was the first father-and-son duo to each compete three times at the Olympics and bring home medals. In 1968, Hall Sr. represented the U.S. in the games in Mexico, earning a silver medal in the men's 400-meter individual medley. In 1972, during the summer games in Munich, he took home silver again, this time in the 200-meter butterfly. Four years later, in Montreal, it was a bronze in the 100-meter butterfly. Then he moved to Arizona, married, attended medical school, and opened an ophthalmology practice in Phoenix. Gary Hall Jr. would eclipse his father's Olympic success, scoring 10 medals (five gold, three silver, two bronze) in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 summer games. The younger Hall was known to strut across the pool deck, playing to the crowd and the cameras. Hall Jr. capped his Olympic career at age 29 with a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle in Athens in 2004. His father's legacy is less glorious. In 2009, following a series of complaints, investigations, and lawsuits, the Arizona Medical Board permanently revoked his license.

7. Anthony Sanders, baseball
Growing up in Tucson, Anthony Sanders was a three-sport athlete and a member of the student council and the honor society at Santa Rita High School. The Toronto Blue Jays picked him in the seventh round of the 1992 MLB draft, and after bouncing around the minors for the next half-dozen years, he made it to the bigs for the proverbial cup of coffee with the Jays and, later, the Mariners. But it was in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney that Sanders helped make history, as the United States beat highly favored Cuba to win its first (and only) baseball gold. The Olympics had added baseball as an official sport in 1992, but for the 2000 games two significant changes were made: The event went from aluminum bats to wood, and teams were allowed to field professional players. Because the MLB wouldn't permit any players to participate if they were on a big-league roster, the 2000 squad, managed by Hall of Fame skipper Tommy Lasorda, was a mix of marginal players, old timers, and up-and-comers. After playing part of the 2001 season with the Yokohama BayStars of the Japanese Central League, Sanders switched to coaching. For the past decade-plus, he has worked as a coach and manager in the Colorado Rockies' minor-league system. He splits his time between Colorado and Arizona, where he regularly volunteers his time in youth sports.

6. Allison Schmitt, swimming
This summer's Rio games mark Allison Schmitt's third Olympic appearance. In 2008, Schmitt made her debut in Bejing, taking home a bronze medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Four years later she won five medals — three of them gold — in London, setting a new Olympic record in the 200-meter freestyle. Last year, she moved to Tempe, following famed Olympic coach Bob Bowman, who moved from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to Arizona State University. When the 2016 games are over, Schmitt intends to return to Tempe to earn a master's degree in psychology at ASU.

 

5. Michele Mitchell, diving
Born and raised in Phoenix, Michele Mitchell was a two-time Olympic medalist, scoring silver medals in both 1984 and 1988. Considered the most decorated diver in Arizona history, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1995. When she retired from diving, Mitchell moved to Tucson, where she earned a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate from the University of Arizona. Following a long tenure as head diving coach, she's now director of operations for the university's swimming and diving program.

4. Amy Van Dyken, swimming
No list of famous Arizona Olympians would be complete without six-time gold medalist Amy Van Dyken. During her career, Van Dyken was one of swimming's fiercest competitors. She took home four gold medals from the 1996 Atlanta games, making her the first American woman to accomplish that feat. At the 2000 games in Sydney, she snagged another two golds. In 2001, Van Dyken married NFL punter Tom Rouen, and the two split their time between homes in Colorado and Arizona. But tragedy struck on June 6, 2014, when an ATV accident nearly cost Van Dyken her life. Her spinal cord was severed, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. But Van Dyken, now 42, has continued to inspire, working to raise money for spinal-cord research. She was recently appointed captain of Team Reeve, the fundraising arm of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

3. Kerri Strug, gymnastics 
For the U.S. women's gymnastics team, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were like a made-for-TV-movie plot. Going into '96, the U.S. had never won the team gold. Since 1948, meanwhile, a team from the former Soviet Union had never not struck gold (if you don't count 1984, the boycott year). The Americans, nicknamed the "Magnificent Seven," swore '96 would be their year. And going into the final event of the all-around — the vault for the U.S., floor exercise for the Russians — it looked as if they had it in the bag. Then Dominique Moceanu fell — twice. Now it would be up to Tucson native Kerri Strug, at four-foot-nine tiny even by gymnastics standards, to carry the team to victory. Strug negotiated her first vault, only to botch the landing and fall, injuring her left ankle. Her score reflected the fall, and with the Russians yet to complete their final rotation, it was unclear whether the U.S. lead would stand up. So Strug had to stand up and make her second and final vault. Sprinting down the runway despite her injured ankle, Strug nailed the handspring and dismount. The rest was history. Today, at age 38, Strug lives with her husband and two kids in Tucson. (h/t Rick Weinberg for the dramatic narrative.) 

2. Jesse Owens, track
As a junior at the Ohio State University in 1935, Jesse Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, made track-and-field history, breaking three world records and tying a fourth in the space of less than an hour at a Big Ten meet. The following year, Owens made history, period. The specter of World War II loomed over the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler viewed the event as a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Imagine the Führer's dismay when the United States won 11 gold medals, six of them by black athletes, and four of them — in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4x100 meter relay, and the long jump — by Jesse Owens. A decade later, the war would be over, but the myth of white superiority would persist in Owens' homeland. As he put it, "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt], either." Stateside, Owens was able to make a living in public relations. In 1972, he moved to Phoenix, where he became the first black member of Phoenix 40 (now known as Greater Phoenix Leadership). He spent his retirement playing golf at Camelback Country Club in Scottsdale. A longtime pack-a-day smoker, Owens died in 1980 from lung cancer. He was 66.

1. Michael Phelps, swimming
Before he even dipped a toe in the Olympic pool in Rio, Michael Phelps was the most decorated Olympian of all time: 22 medals, 18 of them gold. He's also one of Arizona's most famous athletes, having moved here from Baltimore last year to follow his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who helms Arizona State University's swim team. Phelps' accomplishments in the pool are legendary. He holds more world records than any other swimmer, in events that include the 100-meter butterfly, the 200-meter butterfly, and the 400-meter individual medley. Many of the age-group records he set as a kid still stand. After the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps announced his retirement, but that didn't last long. Halfway through the first week of the Rio games, he had added three more gold medals to his Olympic treasure chest. Phelps, who turned 31 in June, will be plenty busy when he returns to Tempe. Two months ago, his fiancée Nicole Johnson gave birth to their first child, Boomer Robert Phelps. And the new dad has promised to continue to work as an assistant coach at ASU.


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