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75 YEARS OF STARS AT THE PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 1958 – 1967

The countdown for the Top 75 athletes who have competed at the Pan American Games continues with the stars from 1958 to 1967.

1958 – ALTHEA GIBSON (USA) – TENNIS

Althea Gibson was a trailblazer for a generation of athletes not only in the United States, but throughout the world. She became the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open in 1956. She would go on to win 11 Grand Slam tournaments throughout her outstanding tennis career, including five singles titles (2 at Wimbledon), five doubles titles and one mixed doubles title. 

Since tennis was not included on the sports program of the Olympic Games from 1924 to 1984, Gibson’s only experience at a multisport Games came at the Chicago 1959 Pan American Games. Her performance in the Windy City did not disappoint, smashing the competition on her way to the gold medal in the women’s singles tournament. She also took home the silver medal in women’s doubles alongside partner Karol Fageros before adding a bronze in the mixed doubles event with Grant Holden, giving her a medal in all three of the events she competed in. 

1959 – JERRY WEST (USA) – BASKETBALL

Jerry West of the United States is such an icon in the sport of basketball that his silhouette is still used to this day as the logo for the National Basketball Association. He began his career as an outstanding player in college at West Virginia, earning him a spot on the U.S. team for the Chicago 1959 Pan American Games. He led the U.S. to a gold medal in Chicago alongside fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. One year later, he also helped Team USA earn the Olympic gold medal in Rome.

His achievements would only increase from there. He entered the NBA in 1960 and played 15 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers, quickly becoming known as “Mr. Clutch” for his incredible shot-making ability at the end of games. He led the Lakers to several appearances in the NBA Finals in the 1960s but consistently lost to the dynasty of the Boston Celtics. In the 1969 championship, Jerry West became the only player in history to be named the Most Valuable Player in the Finals as a player on the losing team. However, he finally exacted his revenge in 1972, winning his first and only NBA championship alongside fellow legend Wilt Chamberlain. His incredible career ranked him 19th all-time on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team announced last season. 

1960 – MARIA ESTHER BUENO (BRAZIL) – TENNIS

Maria Esther Buenos of Brazil is recognized as the one of the world’s best tennis players in history and the best ever in South America. She is the most successful South American woman in tennis and the only to ever win Wimbledon. Her amazing career began at just 15 years old, not only becoming the national champion of Brazil but also winning a bronze medal at the Mexico City 1955 Pan American Games in the women’s doubles tournament alongside partner Ingrid Metzner. 

She would go on to win an incredible 19 Grand Slam tournaments throughout her career, including seven in women’s singles, 11 in women’s doubles, and one in mixed doubles. In 1960 she became the first woman in history to win all four Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles in the same year. She then returned to the Pan Am Games in her home country at Sao Paolo 1963, taking home the singles gold as well as two silvers in the women’s doubles and mixed doubles tournaments. 

1961 – GEORGE KERR (JAMAICA) – ATHLETICS

Like Herb McKenley before him, George Kerr helped establish Jamaica’s storied history in athletics. He broke onto the scene at the Chicago 1959 Pan Am Games, winning the gold in the men’s 400m, a silver in the 800m and another gold in the 4x400m relay to become recognized as one of the top stars of the Games. 

He then took his talents to the Olympics at Rome 1960, winning two bronze medals in the 400m and 4x400m relay. He also excelled at both the Commonwealth Games and the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1962. The CAC Games were held in his home country of Jamaica and he did not disappoint the home fans, winning all three golds in the 400m, 800m and 4x400m relay. He nearly completed the same feat at the Commonwealth Games that same year, winning two golds in the 400m and 4x400m relay as well as the silver in the 800m. 

1962 – WILMA RUDOLPH (USA) – ATHLETICS

Wilma Rudolph of the United States was recognized as the world’s fastest woman in the 1960s for her record-breaking performances on the track. At just 16 years old, Rudolph competed in her first Olympic Games at Melbourne 1956, helping her team win the bronze medal in the 4x100m relay. She then competed at the Chicago 1959 Pan American Games, winning a silver medal in the women’s 100m dash as well as the gold medal in the 4x100m relay. 

While attempting to qualify to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Wilma set a new world record at the U.S. National Championships in the 200m event that stood for the next eight years. She then became world renowned at Rome 1960, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to win three gold medals in the same Olympic Games. She took home golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Her unprecedented performance at those Games made her an icon and helped increase the popularity of athletics in her country, especially for women and black athletes. 

1963 – AL OERTER (USA) – ATHLETICS

Al Oerter of the United States is widely considered one of the best throwers in the history of athletics for his great strength in the discus throw event displayed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. At just 20 years old, Oerter won his first Olympic gold in the event at the Melbourne 1956 Games, an event he would go on to dominate over the next decade. He competed at his first and only Pan American Games at Chicago 1959, easily besting the competition by over four meters to win the gold medal. 

He then traveled to Rome in 1960 where he successfully defended his Olympic title. Al set his first world record in 1962 and was the first athlete in history to throw over 61 meters in the event. Despite facing injuries at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, Oerter competed through the pain to win his third consecutive Olympic gold while also setting a new Olympic record. He competed in his final Olympics at Mexico City 1968, and although his teammate was the favorite, Oerter once again set the new Olympic standard to become the first American in history to win gold medals in four consecutive Games. 

1964 –  MARLENE AHRENS (CHILE) – ATHLETICS

Marlene Ahrens is a legend in her home country of Chile who shocked the world at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. She threw the javelin 50.38 meters to win the silver medal, the first woman in Chile’s history to win an Olympic medal, an achievement that has yet to be matched nearly 70 years later. She then competed at the Chicago 1959 and Sao Paolo 1963 Pan American Games, winning gold medals in both editions of the events to solidify herself as one of the greatest Chilean athletes in history.

She competed at the Olympics once again in 1960 but was unable to reach the podium. She was then banned from competing at Tokyo 1964 for political reasons and switched her focus to playing tennis. She won a Chilean National Championship in the doubles event in 1967, but knee injuries forced her to change sports once more. She returned to compete at the Pan American Games at Mar del Plata 1995, this time in the equestrian events. 

1965 – DONNA DE VARONA (USA) – SWIMMING

Donna de Varona of the United States was a specialist in setting world records in the pool, claiming her first in the 400m individual medley at just 13 years old. That same year she competed at her first Olympics in Rome, competing in the preliminary races of the 4x100m freestyle relay but she didn’t receive the gold medal of her teammates because she didn’t race in the finals. 

She competed at her first and only Pan American Games at Sao Paolo 1963, winning gold medals in both the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relays. She returned to the Olympics at Tokyo 1964, winning the women’s 400m individual medley by more than 6 seconds to set a new Olympic record. She also helped Team USA set a new world record in the 4x100m freestyle relay to earn her second gold medal. Throughout her legendary career, Donna set 18 world best and world record times. 

1966 – ELAINE TANNER (CANADA) – SWIMMING

Elaine Tanner helped popularize the sport of swimming in Canada despite only competing for less than four years in major international competitions. She broke onto the scene at the 1966 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first woman ever to win four gold medals and seven total medals. One year later, the Pan American Games were held in her home country of Canada where Elaine helped contribute to the best swimming competition in the history of the Games. 

Tanner set two world records in the 100m and 200m backstroke events on her way to gold medals, while also adding three silver medals in the 100m butterfly, 4x100m medley and 4x100m freestyle relays. The athlete nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” for her small yet powerful stature competed at her first and only Olympics at Mexico City 1968. She won two silver medals in the 100m and 200m backstroke events as well as a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay. She retired from competition after her success at the 1968 Olympics.

1967 – MARK SPITZ (USA) – SWIMMING

Mark Spitz of the United States was undoubtedly the world’s greatest swimmer of his generation. His outstanding career featured nine Olympic golds, five Pan American Games golds and 35 world-record setting performances. But before competing at the Olympics, Spitz was part of the best swimming competition in the history of the Pan Am Games where 13 new world records were set in the pool at Winnipeg 1967. 

Mark was responsible for one of those world records in the men’s 100m butterfly which he swam in 56.29 seconds. He added four more gold medals in the 200m butterfly, 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays and the 4x100m medley relay. His five golds at the same Pan Am Games would set a record that would not be beat until Thiago Pereira of Brazil won six at Rio 2007. 

He then competed at his first Olympic Games at Mexico City 1968, winning two gold medals in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays as well as a silver in the 100m butterfly and a bronze in the 200m butterfly, unable to reach his expectations of six gold medals at the Games. However, he would come back stronger than ever at the Munich 1972 Olympics. He outdid his expectations this time, winning an unprecedented seven gold medals and all of which came in world record times. This legendary performance would not be outdone until Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. 

Follow @panamsports on social media to see who lands in the Top 75 for the next decade in the history of sport in the Americas!