Hundreds of athletes born or raised in Washington have competed in the Summer Olympics since the inaugural Games at Athens, Greece, in 1896, but only 14 have won individual gold medals. The state's first Summer Games gold medalist was swimming sensation Helene Madison of Seattle, winner of the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events at the 1932 Olympiad in Los Angeles. Six other swimmers, three boxers, two shooters, one canoeist, and one track and field star have won individual golds. Below, in alphabetical order, are the individual gold medal-winning Summer Olympians from Washington:
Nathan Adrian -- Swimming (2012). A native of Bremerton who started swimming at the local pool at age 5, Adrian (b. 1988) was a phenom by his freshman year at Bremerton High School, when he won the state Class 4A championship in the 100-meter freestyle. Opting out of high school competition the next two years, he began training full-time with the elite Tacoma Swim Club and soon was a member of the U.S. junior national team. When he returned to high school competition for his senior year at age 17, he already was being touted as "a gold medal waiting to happen" ("Greatness Waits on (Pool) Deck ...").
A dominant sprint swimmer at the University of California, Adrian won a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team at age 19 and won a gold medal with the 4x100 freestyle relay team. By the 2012 Games in London he had reached his competitive peak and earned three medals, including gold in the 100-meter freestyle when he came from behind "to win by a fingertip. The margin of victory -- one-hundredth of a second -- was the tightest at the London Olympics" ("Bremerton's Golden Touch ..."). Adrian was in third place at the 50-meter turn. "He needed every bit of his 6-foot-6 frame to finish at 47.52 seconds and edge favorite James 'The Missile' Magnussen of Australia as the pair churned to the finish side by side" ("Bremerton's Golden Touch ..."). Adrian won a second gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay, and a silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay. He collected four more medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro -- bronze medals in the 100- and 50-meter freestyle, and gold medals in the two 4x100 relays.
The next four years would be momentous: Adrian got married in 2018, underwent surgery for testicular cancer in 2019, and became a father in 2020. At the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials, then 32 years old, he finished third in the 50-meter sprint, narrowly missing a fourth consecutive trip to the Summer Games.
Gail Devers -- Track and Field (1992, 1996). Devers was born in Seattle in 1966, the daughter of a preacher, and lived in the city for a short time before her family moved to California. She was raised in National City, graduated from Sweetwater High School, and attended college at UCLA. She remains the only Washington-born athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field.
Devers's first Olympics, at Seoul in 1988, ended when she was eliminated in the semifinals of the 100-meter hurdles. By then she was experiencing severe health problems, including vision loss, and in 1990 she was diagnosed with Graves' Disease, a chronic thyroid disorder. Yet "less than 17 months after doctors told her they would probably have to amputate both of her feet due to the ravages of Graves' disease ... Devers won the 100-meter [dash] at the Barcelona Olympics. In Atlanta four years later, Devers again won the 100, becoming just the second woman to win the 100 at consecutive Olympics" (Greenspan).
At the Barcelona Games in 1992, Devers appeared have another gold medal in hand in the 100-meter hurdles before her front foot clipped the final hurdle, sending her sprawling to the track. She crawled across the finish line to place fifth. "Some people know me for my victory, some people know me for my fall, and some people know me for my illness," Devers said in November 1992. "When I say my blessing on Thanksgiving, it will not be just for the food I'm going to eat. It will be for all I've been through" ("Devers Sails With Gold-Medal Style ..."). Remarkably, Devers continued to compete past her 40th birthday, returning to the Olympics in 2000 at Sydney and in 2004 at Athens but failing to medal. She was elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2011.
Matt Dryke -- Shooting (1984). Born in Port Angeles in 1958 and raised in Sequim, Dryke became an expert shooter as youngster and showed off by shooting at targets while riding a unicycle. "Dryke spent his early years on the 40-acre property where his family raised hunting dogs ... Chuck, his father, turned the land into a training facility for Matt, and he became one of the best quicker than expected. Dryke joined the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at 18 years old, and qualified after three years for the 1980 Olympics. Since the boycott of the Olympics occurred that year, Dryke wouldn't take his first shot in the Olympics until he made the 1984 team, and his first Olympics was golden" ("Matt Dryke, Hall of Fame"). At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Dryke prevailed in the skeet-shooting competition, one of his 14 career gold medals in major national or international competitions. Shooters took aim at 200 clay targets (75, 75, and 50) over three days; after hitting 74 of 75 targets in each of the first two days, Dryke hit all 50 in the final round to win the gold medal.
When Dryke returned home, he put on a trick-shooting demonstration off a dock in Port Angeles but turned down the chance for a parade. He made plans to use his shooting skills in a traveling Wild West Show, but when he couldn't find financing he signed up for another three-year tour with the U.S. Army. He returned to the Olympics at Seoul in 1988 but finished far back, and again at Barcelona in 1992, where he finished sixth. After retiring from competition, he taught marksmanship at his family-owned Sunnydell Shooting Grounds in Sequim.
Kaye Hall -- Swimming (1968). Born in Tacoma in 1951, Hall took swimming lessons as a young child after her father built a boat in the family garage. At age 8 she began training under legendary coach Dick Hannula at the Tacoma Swim Club, and soon she was competing in meets in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Her nemesis was Canadian Elaine Tanner, who defeated Hall every time they met over the next decade. But by Hall's junior year at Wilson High School she had blossomed into a world-class swimmer specializing in the backstroke, and after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, she headed to the 1968 Mexico City Games for a highly anticipated showdown with Tanner.
After pacing herself and swimming just well enough to advance through the preliminary rounds in the 100-meter backstroke, Hall adopted more aggressive tactics in the final. Surging to an early lead over Tanner, she maintained a cushion into the late stages of the race and had just enough left to hold off her rival and touch the wall in 1 minute, 6 2/5 seconds, a world record. Hall was overcome with emotion. "The tears at the end were actually relief that I was finished with the whole deal and I didn't have to swim again if I didn't want to," she recalled years later. "I started swimming when I was 12 with a mental focus. It was a tremendous relief that I met my goal" (Raley).
Hall won two other medals in Mexico City, a gold in the 4x100 medley relay and a bronze in the 200-meter backstroke. Her biggest surprise upon returning home was being elected Wilson homecoming queen. "I was not your typical homecoming queen," recalled Hall, who continued to swim competitively for two more years. She won five gold medals at the 1969 Canadian championships, three AAU titles representing the Tacoma Swim Club, and retired after taking three golds at the 1970 Universiade in Turin, Italy. She met her husband, Ken Greff, through sailing, and worked as an art teacher in the Mukilteo School District.
Nevin Harrison -- Canoe/Kayak (2021). Born in Seattle in 2002, Harrison "was a standout in soccer, softball and track while growing up — sports more typical for a young American with athletic talent. But misfortune made her turn her focus to canoeing. She began feeling hip pain at age 14. Hip dysplasia was diagnosed, a condition in which the hip socket does not connect correctly with the thighbone. 'A doctor said there was no way I was going to compete in sports again,' she said. 'That was super devastating for me. I had only ever hoped to be an athlete'" ("The American Canoeist ..."). Transitioning to the emerging sport of flatwater canoeing, Harrison began a rapid ascent, and by her freshman year at Roosevelt High School she had developed into a world-class athlete. At age 17 she won the 200-meter world championship in Hungary.
Harrison was America's only medal hope when women's canoeing was introduced as an Olympic sport at Tokyo in 2021. After cruising through a series of preliminary heats on Tokyo Bay, she blazed to victory in the final, beating six-time world champion Laurence Vincent-Lapointe of Canada. "It's such a crazy big dream," she told The New York Times of her gold-medal performance, "that it doesn't even seem like it's achievable" ("An American's Canoeing Victory ..."). Harrison immediately set her sights on returning to the Summer Games at Paris in 2024.
Megan Quann Jendrick -- Swimming (2000). Born in Tacoma in 1984, Megan Quann came from an athletic family: Her grandfather Mel Walk was a high jumper who made the U.S. Olympic team but was denied a chance to compete when the 1940 Helsinki Games were canceled because of World War II. Megan's childhood was filled with sports; she played water polo, basketball, soccer, volleyball, and hockey before turning her undivided attention to swimming by age 13. Known for her precocity -- she was the youngest medalist on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, making the squad before her junior year at Puyallup's Emerald Ridge High School -- she also became renowned for her perseverance after she came out of retirement and returned to the Olympics in 2008 following an eight-year absence.
At Sydney in 2000, she captured gold medals in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 400-meter medley relay and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In the 100, she needed a ferocious rally "in a race in which she trailed by more than half a second -- a swimming lifetime -- at the halfway point, blowing away the veteran Penny Heyns and the adrenalin-charged home-pool hero, Australia's young Leisel Jones, in a final 50 meters so stunning it brought 17,000 fans to their feet. All at the ripe old age of 16" (Judd).
Quann went to the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials with high hopes but missed qualifying for the Barcelona Games by a narrow margin, a disappointment that sent her into temporary retirement. She married author Nathan Jendrick later that year, ended her retirement in 2005, and returned to Olympic competition at Beijing in 2008. Competing as Megan Jendrick, she earned a silver medal in the 4x100 medley relay and finished fifth in her specialty, the 100-meter breaststroke. She retired from competitive swimming in 2013.
Helene Madison (1913-1970) -- Swimming (1932). Born in South Bend (Pacific County) in 1913, Helene Madison moved to Seattle with her parents when she was 2. The family home was a short walk from Green Lake, and Madison spent her formative years swimming in the lake before more serious training took her indoors to Seattle's Crystal Natatorium and the Washington Athletic Club. She set a state record in the 100-yard freestyle at age 15 and began her national and international career a year later. During a period of 16 1/2 months in 1930 and 1931, she broke 16 world records at distances from 100 yards to one mile, and at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she won the 100-meter freestyle, the 400-meter freestyle, and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4x100 freestyle relay.
Madison celebrated by dancing at the Coconut Grove with Clark Gable, and upon her return to Seattle, "she was given one of the largest ticker-tape parades the city had ever seen. Fleet Week celebrations were already under way, and 'Queen Helene' was named guest of honor at the Naval Ball held at the Olympic Hotel. A special platform was built outside the hotel, so that Madison could greet and speak to tens of thousands of adoring fans" (Stein).
Madison immediately retired from competitive swimming and returned to Los Angeles to pursue a failed film career. Before long she was back in Seattle, where her life took a series of sad turns because of various illnesses, injuries, and broken marriages. Stricken with throat cancer in 1968, she lived the rest of her life in a small apartment just one block from the Green Lake beach where she learned to swim. She died in 1970 at age 57.
Jack Medica (1914-1985) -- Swimming (1936). Medica's path mimicked the one taken by Helene Madison. Born in Seattle in 1914, Medica was Madison's teammate on the West Green Lake swim club, trained with her at the Crystal Pool, and then followed her to compete under coach Ray Daughters at the Washington Athletic Club. Medica was selected as a 1932 U.S. Olympic team alternate after his senior year at Lincoln High School but didn't get to compete at Los Angeles. Four months later he smashed Johnny Weissmuller's American record over 500 meters, and in February 1933 he broke the 440-meter world record in Vancouver, B.C. -- the first of his 11 world records. At the University of Washington, Medica was the most-decorated swimmer in school history. Possessing an unusual blend of power and endurance, he swept to NCAA championships in the 220-yard, 440-yard, and 1,500-yard freestyle races in 1934, 1935, and again in 1936.
In an era dominated by Japanese swimmers, Medica went to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin as the United States' best hope for a gold medal. On August 12, 1936, he met his Japanese challengers in the 400-meter freestyle final. Reporting from Berlin, Royal Brougham of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that Medica, "churned the blue waters of the Olympic pool in the sensational new Olympic record time of 4:44.5 to win the 400-meter free style championship from the seemingly invincible Japanese ... his 4:44.5 shattered Clarence 'Buster' Crabbe's Olympic mark of 4:48.4, established at Los Angeles in 1932, and erased the standard of 4:45.5 set up in the trial heats by chunky Shunpei Uto of Japan ... Uto seemed headed for a runaway victory until Medica spurted 15 meters from the finish. They battled unyielding until Medica's power and courage pushed him frontward just before the end" ("Seattle Boy Sets Mark").
Medica added to his medal haul in Berlin with silvers in the 1,500 freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relay, and then embarked on an exhibition tour of Poland before returning to Seattle to a hero's welcome in September. He went on to compete "all over the world including in China, Japan, New Zealand, Cuba, the Philippines, and Europe. When World War II broke out, he retired from competitive swimming and focused on coaching" ("Penn People: Jack C. Medica"). He was the swimming coach at the University of Pennsylvania from 1944 until 1958, and then a physical education instructor until his retirement in 1976. He died in 1985 at age 70.
Launi Meili -- Shooting (1992). Meili was born in Spokane in 1963 and grew up in Eastern Washington, graduating from Cheney High School and Eastern Washington University. She emerged on the international shooting scene in 1987 when she set two world records and won the U.S. national championships. According to The Seattle Times, Meili "redefined the image of the competitive female shooter by posing in a form-fitting, rhinestone-studded black evening gown, rifle in hand, smoke rising in the background, for the cover of the U.S. Shooting Team's 1992 media guide" (Johnston). "I have to tell you it was exciting," she told the newspaper. "I've never been in a $1,000 dress ... It was fun. It gave people a little jolt" (Johnston).
A two-time Olympian, Meili set an Olympic record in a preliminary round of the air rifle competition at Seoul in 1988 but faded to finish sixth in the finals. She returned to the Games in 1992 at Barcelona. After finishing 11th in the air-rifle competition, she earned a surprising victory in the three-position smallbore rifle event, a competition in which shooters use .22 rifles fired from prone, standing, and kneeling positions at a target 50 meters away. Meili scored 586 out of a possible 600 in the preliminaries and 97.3 out of a possible 100 in the finals, both Olympic records.
Following her competitive career, Meili coached shooting at the University of Nebraska, and in 2007 she was appointed head coach of the U.S. Air Force Academy rifle program in Colorado.
Pete Rademacher (1928-2020) -- Boxing (1956). Born in the Yakima Valley town of Tieton to an apple farmer and an organic gardener, Pete Rademacher attended ninth grade at Tieton High School before his parent sent their two sons to Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee, a place Pete called "a rich man's reformatory" (Drosendahl). The brothers took up boxing at Castle Heights and soon were winning tournaments. Rademacher enrolled at Yakima Valley Junior College after graduating, and in 1950 he entered Washington State College in Pullman. A year later he won the Northwest Golden Gloves competition in Seattle as a light heavyweight. Before long he had hooked up with legendary Seattle trainer George Chemeres and his boxing career began to take flight.
Rademacher married Margaret Sutton in 1953, and because he had made an active-duty military commitment, the couple moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1954. Stationed there for nearly three years, Rademacher emerged on the national boxing scene in 1956 when he won the Chicago Golden Gloves and both the All-Army and All-Branches service championships. From there he advanced to the U.S. Olympic trials, and then to the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, where he rampaged through the heavyweight division, knocking out fighters from Czechoslovakia and South Africa en route to a stunning first-round knockout of the Soviet Union's Lev Moukhine for the gold medal. "It was a dominating performance and, from a propaganda standpoint, had the extra impact of an underdog U.S. Army lieutenant beating a fearsome Russian for the gold. Celebrating Hungarians and Americans hoisted Rademacher onto their shoulders. Tears streamed down his face and onto his medal. The U.S. Olympic Committee picked him to carry the American flag in the closing ceremonies" (Drosendahl).
What happened next was audacious. Rademacher teamed up with a promoter from Georgia and raised $250,000 so he could fight for the world heavyweight championship in his first professional fight, "an achievement without precedent. His opponent was Floyd Patterson. The fight took place August 22, 1957, in Seattle's Sick's Stadium. Patterson knocked out Rademacher in the sixth round, but the challenger was impressive in defeat. He went on to become a successful salesman, inventor, and business executive in his adopted home state of Ohio, and a much decorated figure in Washington sports history" (Drosendahl). Rademacher fought until 1962, winning 17 and losing six, but never again fought for the title. He died in 2020 at age 91.
Leo Randolph -- Boxing (1976). Born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1958, and raised in Tacoma, Randolph climbed into the ring at the Tacoma Boys Club when he was 9 and began horsing around with his cousin. "A club supervisor scolded them, and said if they wanted to box they'd have to come back Thursday. Randolph returned on Thursday, and for most Thursdays after that, learning how to fight. He began boxing regionally, and at 14 set his sights on winning an Olympic gold medal" (Sand). Randolph blossomed quickly; he was a junior at Wilson High School when he earned a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, a feat that required him to win nine consecutive bouts at the national championships after losing to a top-ranked veteran fighter early in the competition.
At the Summer Games in Montreal, Randolph, a 5-foot-5, 112-pound flyweight, advanced through his preliminary bouts before meeting Cuban Ramón Duvalón for the gold medal. Attacking his more deliberate opponent with a flurry of punches, Randolph prevailed narrowly, winning a 3-2 judges' decision. "The joy was overwhelming," he said of the medal ceremony. "I learned that you could achieve things in life by putting your whole heart and mind to it -- it was an affirmation" (Boling). Rejecting immediate offers to turn pro, he returned to Tacoma for Leo Randolph Day and his senior year of high school.
Randolph eventually turned pro, and on May 4, 1980, in Seattle, he gained the World Boxing Association featherweight title with a victory over Ricardo Cardona. "But my life started getting like that 'Rocky' movie, where he starts living too fast and doesn't give himself time to train for his next fight," Randolph recalled (Boling). After getting knocked out in a title defense in Spokane, he retired from boxing at age 22. "With the gold medal and having been world champ, there were a lot of doors open to me," he recalled. "But ever since I was young, I wanted to drive a truck" (Boling). Thus he realized another goal, driving various vehicles -- a dump truck for a construction company, and then a Pierce Transit bus for more than 30 years -- for the rest of his professional life. "I never had a killer instinct," Randolph said of giving up boxing. "I had a sportsman's desire" (Sand).
Tracie Ruiz-Conforto -- Synchronized Swimming (1984). A trailblazer in synchronized swimming, Hawaii native Tracie Ruiz (b. 1963) spent most of her childhood in Bothell. She took up synchronized swimming in the early 1970s after the Northshore pool was built and advanced steadily through local, regional, and then national competitions in solo, in duets with partner Candy Costie of Kenmore, and in team events featuring eight athletes swimming in unison. Ruiz was a 16-year-old student at Bothell High School when she helped the U.S team win gold at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.
In 1981 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added duets as a new Olympic sport, and early in 1982 Ruiz was named a finalist for the 1981 Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the U.S. Later that year she scored an overwhelming victory in the solo competition at the world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In June 1984, just two months before the start of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the IOC added the solo event to the Olympic program, sending Ruiz to Los Angeles as a heavy favorite to win two gold medals. On August 9, Ruiz and Costie edged a Canadian pair for the duets gold medal, and three days later Ruiz easily defeated Carolyn Waldo of Canada in solo before a crowd of nearly 11,000 for her second gold. Wrote Steve Rudman in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"Ruiz rules the world of synchronized swimming today. Her movements are not only extremely difficult, they are innovative, intricate and charismatic. 'I think that was definitely one of my better performances,' said Ruiz, who began it by cartwheeling into the pool and staying completely submerged for 55 seconds as the crowd went fairly bonkers ... Ruiz used 13 pieces of music in a routine that included splits, rockets and verticals. Sometimes she stayed upside down in the pool for so long it was a surprise she didn't sprout gills. Then again, what was the surprise at all? Ruiz has never been beaten by anybody in solos" (Rudman).
Ruiz returned home to Bothell, retired from swimming, married former Penn State football player Michael Conforto in 1985, and, still eager for competition, took up bodybuilding, competing briefly in that sport before returning to synchronized swimming in 1987. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she competed only in the solo event. Ruiz-Conforto, who had help inspire a generation of swimmers, took the silver medal and Waldo won the gold. In 2001, the International Swimming Hall of Fame named Ruiz-Conforto the Synchronized Swimmer of the Century.
Ray Seales -- Boxing (1972). Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1954, Seales spent his formative years in Tacoma with his mother, Balencita Seales, and his seven siblings. Their home was a block away from the Tacoma Boys Club, and soon Seales had thrown himself headlong into boxing under the tutelage of Boys Club coach Joe Clough. In 1971, "Sugar" Ray won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national welterweight championship, and the following year he was crowned the national Golden Gloves champion at 139 pounds. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, he won all five of his bouts to capture the light welterweight gold medal. His first bout, a victory over Ulrich Beyer of East Germany, came on his 20th birthday. Seales then defeated fighters from Ireland, Cuba, and Yugoslavia before meeting Bulgarian brawler Anghel Anghelov in the final. Reporting from ringside, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's John Owen wrote:
"Balencita Seales threw more punches than her now-celebrated son during his Olympic championship bout with Anghel Anghelov of Bulgaria ... Her shadow-boxing in the aisles drew the amused applause of the capacity crowd at the Olympic Boxhalle. And Seales' punching power and poise under fire caught the attention of three of the five judges who awarded him the victory. The other two judges called it a draw. It was the only championship for the U.S. boxing team. Seales threw his hands over his head in a victory salute when the decision was announced. Then he stood proudly at attention, his hand over his heart and the gold medal around his neck as the U.S. flag was raised. 'I'll let my mother wear the medal for a few days, then I'll reclaim it,'" Seales said (Owen, 148).
Seales went on to a successful professional career as a middleweight, highlighted by a draw against Marvin Hagler in Seattle on November 26, 1974. But a retina injury in his right eye in 1980 rendered Seales legally blind, and by the time Muhammad Ali came to Seattle in 1984 to help raise funds at a benefit dinner, Seales was broke. A subsequent surgery restored sight in his damaged eye, and Seales later worked as a teacher in the Tacoma Public School District.
Mary Wayte -- Swimming (1984). Wayte (b. 1965) grew up on Mercer Island, became a member of the Mercerdale Swim Club at a young age and was swimming year-round at age 8. She developed into a world-class swimmer by age 16, won eight Washington state high school championships, and then eight NCAA championships at the University of Florida. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she prevailed in the 200-meter freestyle, besting American rival Cynthia "Sippy" Woodhead. After capturing a second gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, Wayte returned to Mercer Island to a parade, and later the community swimming pool was named after her. She went back to the Olympics in 1988 in Seoul, winning silver and bronze medals in relay events. She retired shortly thereafter.
Thirty years after her gold-medal performance, Wayte expressed mixed feelings about the sacrifices she made for swimming. "There was this sense that I would trade it all away for a normal childhood because there is just this element of insanity that goes hand in hand with that type of training and intensity," she told the Mercer Island Reporter in 2014. "But I never dreamed of the benefits and the doors it opened. It was like an automatic free pass to being legitimate. Even in a job interview or ordinary conversation, if someone finds out I won a gold medal, I no longer have to prove I know how to set a goal or complete a job. Those become table stakes instead of proving ground and that is significant in any walk of life. That has been wonderful" ("Mary Wayte Reflects ...").