Continuing the count: American women look to extend Olympic medal streaks

The U.S. womens gymnastics team celebrates winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics
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This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will certainly look different than previous Games, but there are several Olympic medal traditions that American athletes will be looking to continue.

At the 2016 Rio Games, the U.S. topped the overall medal standings with 121 medals (46 gold). American women won 61 total medals, while U.S. men claimed 55 (five medals were also earned in mixed-gender events). American women won a much larger percentage of the gold medal total: 27 of 46.

American women were particularly dominant in team events, a fact that becomes especially clear when you consider the difference between “medals won” and “medals flown home.” (In other words: a gold medal in women’s water polo is represented just once in the medal chart, but 13 female water polo players left the Games with gold medals around their necks.) When counted this way, American women brought home 149 medals (including 85 gold), while American men left the Games with 119 medals (54 gold).

With just over six months until the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, here is a look at some of the streaks U.S. women’s teams will be looking to extend:

Aiming for a third straight gold

U.S. women’s gymnastics team: While the U.S. is the current powerhouse in women’s gymnastics, that has not always been the case. Women’s gymnastics was first contested at the 1928 Olympics, but 68 years would pass until the U.S. won its first gold in the team event (1996). In recent years, the American team has been unbeatable. In addition to claiming the last two gold medals in the team event, the U.S. has also claimed five straight world titles (beginning in 2011).

U.S. women’s water polo: The U.S. women’s water polo team is currently one of the world’s most dominant teams in any sport. The squad has won every major tournament it has entered in recent years, claiming two straight Olympic gold medals (2012, 2016), three straight world titles (2015, 2017, 2019), three straight World Cup titles (2010, 2014, 2018), six straight World League titles (2014-2019), and five straight Pan American Games titles (2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019). [Related: Her Olympic dream in flux, Jordan Raney embraces the chaos]

Aiming for a fourth straight gold

U.S. women’s eight (rowing): Between 2006 and 2016, the U.S. women’s eight compiled one of the most impressive win streaks in any sport, winning every major championship title (including three straight Olympic gold medals). After the 2016 Rio Games, however, the Americans finished off the podium at 2017 Worlds, and then finished third in 2019. (Many members of the U.S. team also contracted COVID-19 last year.) Still, given the depth of the U.S. team’s roster, the Americans are still considered strong contenders for a fourth straight Olympic gold medal.

Aiming for a seventh straight gold

U.S. women’s basketball: In addition to claiming the last six Olympic gold medals (a streak that began in 1996), the U.S. women’s basketball team also hasn’t lost a game since the semifinal round of the 1992 Barcelona Games. In Tokyo, Americans Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi could also become the first basketball players – male or female – to win five Olympic gold medals.

U.S. women’s 4x400m relay (track & field): With the exception of the 1980 Moscow Games (which the U.S. boycotted), the American team has won either gold or silver in this event at every Games since it was added in 1972. In Tokyo, the U.S. squad will be looking to claim a seventh straight gold medal.

Aiming to return to the top of the podium

U.S. women’s soccer: The U.S. women’s soccer team entered the 2016 Rio Games having claimed three straight Olympic gold medals, but the team was ousted in the quarterfinal round, marking the first time American women failed to win a medal since women’s soccer debuted in 1996. While no women’s soccer team has ever claimed Olympic gold following a World Cup win, the one-year postponement could help the Americans become the first.

U.S. women’s softball: In softball’s first three Olympic appearances (1996, 2000, 2004), the U.S. claimed gold each time. The Americans had a particularly dominant showing at the 2004 Athens Games, outscoring their opponents 51-1. A year later, that dominance was seen as one of the reasons the IOC voted to drop the sport from the Games. At the 2008 Beijing Games, softball’s last appearance on the Olympic program, the U.S. women began the tournament with the same dominant style, outscoring their opponents 57-2 heading into the gold medal game. But Japanese pitcher Ueno Yukiko led her team to an upset victory over the U.S. (and American pitchers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott). When softball makes its brief reappearance this summer in Tokyo (the sport will not be contested in 2024), the same three pitchers (Ueno, Osterman, and Abbott) are likely to take the mound, a mind-boggling feat given the sport’s 13-year absence from the Olympic program.

[RELATED: Young female athletes who could make history at the Tokyo Olympics]

The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report. 

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