When the Tokyo Olympics open on July 23, roughly 600 Americans are expected to compete. No matter which of those hundreds of athletes you look into, you’ll find a story of determination and dedication that has led them to the biggest sports stage the world offers. But of all the members of the U.S. Olympic Team, there are a few that you’ll definitely want to watch for.
Here are some of the athletes that will make you proud to root for the Red, White and Blue at the summer games.
You probably already know her, but if for some reason this will be your first time watching Simone Biles compete at the Olympics, you are in for a treat. Tokyo will likely represent the Ohio native’s last time competing as part of the U.S. Olympic Team and after five medals in 2016 — including four golds — she has a chance to add even more to her collection. Biles is already considered arguably the greatest gymnast in history and all reports indicate that she’s in even better shape now than she was in Rio.
In addition to improving her athletic prowess, Biles has become an inspiring leader for Team USA, calling for reforms across her sport that would protect young gymnasts in the wake of the sexual assault trial that rocked gymnastics.
Sport: Track and Field
Qualifying for the Olympics multiple times is an immense accomplishment, but the Tokyo Games will be 35-year-old Allyson Felix’s fifth time sprinting for the U.S. Olympic Team, which is almost unthinkable. The nine-time medalist has been part of every summer Olympics since 2004, reaching a podium at every one of them and earning at least one gold medal in each of the last three. To make Felix’s story even more inspiring for the upcoming games, they will be her first since becoming a mom and will see her attempt to tie or break America’s all-time medal count by an individual track and field athlete, which is 10.
As always, the American swim team is expected to contend for many medals — and nobody will be competing for as many as Katie Ledecky. It’s hard to believe these will already be the third Olympics for the 24-year-old star, who was the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic Team in 2012 and the youngest member of the swim team in 2016. She’s no longer the baby of the bunch, but she is still the best and was the only American swimmer to qualify for four different individual events in Tokyo, while also likely taking part in one relay. Ledecky’s already got five gold medals to her name and could become the first woman in world history to tally 10 career golds once these games are over.
Now that swimming icons like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are mere spectators, NBC has already singled out Caeleb Dressel as the sport’s next breakout star. He won two gold medals in Rio as part of relay teams but has yet to medal in an individual event, and he will compete in three of them in Tokyo. People who are turned off by superstar athletes with brash personas will likely be quick fans of Dressel, who is known for having a humble and down-to-earth personality.
The U.S. Women’s National Team
Between basketball, baseball and softball, America will have some top-tier athletes representing it in the team sports, but the women’s soccer team is sure to make plenty of headlines. The two-time reigning World Cup champions were knocked out in the first round of the knockout stage during the Rio Games, giving them plenty of motivation to reclaim the gold medal they last won in 2012 this time around. Household names like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd will return to the pitch, joined by Rose Lavelle, who is already a superstar of the game despite this being her first trip to the Olympics.
The aforementioned Megan Rapinoe’s fiancee, Sue Bird is one of the most seasoned athletes competing for Team USA in 2021. The 41-year-old WNBA legend is going for her fifth gold medal in women’s basketball, which represents a streak of every American championship team since 2004. With one more medal of any type, Bird will surpass hoops icon Lisa Leslie and tie Teresa Edwards for the most combined medals in Olympics and world championship events for a basketball player.
If you’re looking for an Olympic athlete who’s a great role model and that your kids will also think is cool, Nyjah Huston is a great choice. The California native is the all-time king of competition street skateboarding, having won a record 10 gold medals in the event at the X Games. Skateboarding is making its Olympics debut in Tokyo and, naturally, Huston is considered a favorite for the gold in the street event. When he’s not on his board, Huston is improving the clean water supply in countries around the world through his charity, Let It Flow.
Yet another American woman who is competing in her fifth Olympics this year is Oregon’s Mariel Zagunis. She made history in 2004, at the age of 19, when she became the first American to win a gold medal in fencing in 100 years. Now 36, Zagunis is the most decorated Olympic fencer in American history and will try to add to her tally of four medals. Like fellow five-timer Allyson Felix, the Tokyo Games will also represent Zagunis’ first time competing at the event since giving birth in 2017.
Sport: Water Polo
Under the leadership of Maggie Steffens, Team USA has won two straight gold medals in women’s water polo and is looking for a third in Tokyo. NBC has called Steffens the “unquestioned” greatest American player in the history of the sport and she needs just 10 more goals to set the all-time record at the Olympics. In addition to being a brilliant player in the pool, “Captain America,” as the Associated Press has called her, is known as a great leader and teammate to her fellow Team USA players.
The Korda Sisters
Siblings competing together at the Olympics is hardly a new phenomenon, but the odds against it happening are so high that it’s still an amazing feat. Jessica Korda, 28, and Nelly Korda, 22, both play on the LPGA Tour and are playing well enough in 2021 to have landed two of the four slots that Team USA was allowed to fill for the women’s golf tournament. The sisters are having a dominant season, having combined to win four of the 15 LPGA Tour events that have been held so far this year. Heading into the Olympics, Nelly Korda will will be a favorite for the gold medal as the world’s No. 1-ranked player.
Sport: Track and Field
Returning to defend his 2016 gold medal in the shot put, Oregon native Ryan Crouser is still regarded as the best in his sport. The 6-foot-7-inch powerhouse proved his prowess during the recent U.S. Olympic Team Trials by crushing a world record throw that had been on the books since 1990. Crouser is viewed as the clear favorite for gold in Tokyo, but his fellow Team USA competitor, Joe Kovacs, is no slouch and could be the one to dethrone him.
When Cat Osterman first pitched for Team USA, she led the talented squad in strikeouts despite being the youngest player on the roster. That was at the 2004 Olympics and now the 38-year-old softball legend has come out of retirement just to compete in Tokyo. She led America to the gold medal in 2004, but then the team was stunned by Japan in 2008 and ended up with a silver medal before softball was removed from the Olympics program for 12 years. All that sets up a potential meeting between the Americans, their veteran leader and the host country that comes straight out of a Hollywood screenplay.
Lydia Jacoby will be only the second athlete from Alaska to ever compete in the Summer Olympics — and the first to do so in swimming. She’s one of several athletes who were actually helped by the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as she was originally only going to be able to go to the Tokyo Games as a fan on a trip with her parents. But the year-long pause gave 17-year-old Jacoby time to improve her strength and swim times, leading her to qualify in the 100-meter breaststroke.
When she’s not punishing opponents in the ring, North Carolina’s Naomi Graham is serving her country as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. That day job makes her trip to Tokyo historic, as Graham will be the first woman who is an active member of the American military to box in the Olympics. She fights as a middleweight and is viewed as a favorite to medal following her silver medal performance at the 2019 Pan American Games, which was later upgraded to a gold after her opponent was found to be doping.
Sport: Track and Field
Florida-born sprinter Trayvon Bromell’s first trip to the Olympics in 2016 ended in no medals, an injury and complete disappointment for him. But now he’s risen to become one of the world’s premier runners and is viewed as the odds-on favorite for gold in the men’s 100-meter event. Leading up to the Tokyo Games, Bromell had not lost a single race at that distance during the entire season. If he wins gold in that marquee event this year, he’ll be the first American to do so since Justin Gatlin in 2004.
Simone Manuel became an instant fan-favorite at the 2016 Olympics, when the world saw her reaction as she realized she’d won gold in the 100-meter freestyle. That win was a major milestone for the Houston native, as she became the first Black swimmer in American history to earn an individual medal at the games. Manuel earned four medals total in Rio and will likely be up for a few more in Tokyo, including in the 50-meter freestyle.
Sport: Track and Field
Everyone loves when an athlete bounces back from a soul-crushing disappointment to finish on top again. That’s exactly what long-distance runner Emily Sisson did in qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. The Missouri native was viewed as a favorite in the 10,000-meter run — which is more than 6 miles — heading into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but dropped out of the race and thought her dream of competing in Tokyo was over.
But when the pandemic gave her a second chance to qualify in 2021, she dominated the field in 85-degree heat, with a performance that shattered a finishing-time record that had been standing at that event for nearly 20 years.
When Serena Williams loudly declined a spot in the women’s tennis tournament at the Tokyo Olympics, it left the door open for the next generation of American stars to shine. Coco Gauff, who famously upset Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019 to burst onto the scene, is one who will benefit from her absence. At 17 years old, the Atlanta native will be the youngest tennis player to compete at the Olympics since 2000 and the second-youngest to ever represent Team USA in the sport.
Sport: Track and Field
Mount Vernon, New York’s Rai Benjamin is going to be one of the favorites when the men’s 400-meter hurdles event is run in Tokyo. At the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Benjamin left the athletics world stunned by finishing that event with the second-fastest time in world history. His finish was just 0.05 seconds off the pace that has been standing since 1992, giving the 23-year-old the chance to outdo himself and smash it on the biggest stage of them all.
Sport: Beach Volleyball
Tokyo will be the third time April Ross has represented the U.S. Olympic Team in beach volleyball and she has some serious unfinished business. After capturing the silver medal in 2012, the native Californian had a disappointing bronze-medal finish in 2016, leaving her starving for a gold to round out her collection. At 39 years old, Ross is sure to be one of the older competitors in the field — her teammate, Alix Klineman, is 31 — but that only makes her quest even more thrilling.
He’s only 25 years old, but Kyle Snyder is already one of the most decorated American wrestlers ever. The Maryland native became the country’s youngest gold medalist ever in the sport at the 2016 Olympics in freestyle wrestling. He’s also got NCAA wrestling championships, a pair of world championships and a host of other medals from international competitions in his trophy room. Wrestling fans are salivating for a potential medal matchup between Snyder and Russian star Abdulrashid Sadulaev, which NBC called a dream contest on the Olympic stage.
If you love rooting for young upstarts at the Olympics, skateboarding phenom Brighton Zeuner will be one to watch. The Arizona native was born in July 2004, just before the start of the Athens Games that saw several athletes on this list in competition. Zeuner turned 13 years old the day before she won gold in park skateboarding at the 2017 X Games, making her the youngest champion in X Games history. Now 16 years old and practically a grizzled veteran of the sport, Zeuner is expected to be a favorite for gold as skateboarding makes its Olympics debut, even after recently overcoming a serious ankle injury.
John John Florence
Hawaii’s John John Florence is another who had to battle back from a serious injury to qualify for Tokyo. In his case, it was a torn ACL and he somehow recovered enough to earn a spot on Team USA as surfing makes its Olympics debut. Florence is known for his shy personality, which may make the upcoming stage a little uncomfortable for him, but his skills riding a wave are legendary. So far, he’s won two world championships and will be one of the biggest names competing to be one of the first surfing medalists in Olympics history.
Another Hawaiian who makes surfing look much easier than it is, Carissa Moore will be a favorite for gold in Tokyo. She’s currently the top-ranked women’s surfer in the world by a large margin, showing Moore’s game is in peak condition just in time for her to make history. And making history is nothing new for the 28-year-old athlete, who became the youngest surfer to ever win a world title in 2011 and the first woman to ever compete in Hawaii’s prestigious Triple Crown of Surfing.
BMX racing has been part of the Summer Olympics program since 2008, but Tokyo will see the debut of freestyle BMX. One of the athletes who will have a strong chance to become the first Olympic champion in that event is Indiana-born Hannah Roberts. Still just 19 years old, Roberts won a world championship in 2019 after a bronze finish the year before. All you have to do is read an interview with her to know that Roberts is down-to-earth, kind and has a wonderful personality to go with her skills on a bike.
After a gap of 13 years, baseball will be back in the Olympics this time around. Active players signed to MLB teams aren’t eligible to compete in Tokyo, so the roster will consist of talented free agents that include former All-Stars like Matt Kemp and Todd Frazier. Among them will likely be Miami native Eddy Alvarez, who spent some time playing for his hometown Marlins in 2020. Alvarez’s story is very unique as his background is in speedskating, for which he won a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
If Alvarez is part of the final Team USA baseball roster and earns a medal, he would be only the sixth person to ever medal at both the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, and only the third American to do so.
Sport: Track and Field
Missouri’s hammer-throwing DeAnna Price worked her way into the history books in the weeks leading up to the Tokyo Games. After a recent diagnosis with celiac disease that weakened her and a bout with an illness in April that made her “miserable,” Price showed up at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and became only the second woman in history to throw a 4-kilogram (8.8-pound) ball and chain farther than 80 meters (roughly 262 feet). It was the longest throw ever for an American woman and gives her the country’s best chance for its first medal ever in the women’s hammer throw event.
Sport: Track and Field
If you’re excited to watch the sprinting events at the Tokyo Games, you’ll almost surely be hearing about Atlanta-born Gabby Thomas. The 24-year-old flash amazed the athletics world at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials when she ran the second-fastest time ever recorded in the women’s 200-meter dash. That came days after doctors discovered a benign tumor on Thomas’s liver that had been nagging her on the track.
Thomas has called teammate Allyson Felix her “biggest inspiration” and told TeamUSA.org that “being on the team with her makes me want to cry.”
Sport: Track and Field
Despite having already racked up gold medals at sprinting competitions around the world — including two at the 2019 world championships — Tokyo will be Noah Lyles’ first time racing at the Olympics. Like his teammate Gabby Thomas, the 23-year-old Floridian ran the world’s fastest time of 2021 in the 200-meter dash, securing his spot on the roster for Tokyo, making him a favorite for gold. If he pulls that off, he’ll be the first American man to do so in that event since 2004.
Plenty of athletes competing in Tokyo have stories about hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sunisa Lee’s story is as tough as they come. The Minnesota native lost both her aunt and uncle to the disease and lived in constant fear of infecting her father, who has been paralyzed from the chest down since an accident in 2019. Despite all those mental obstacles, Lee earned a spot on the ultra-competitive women’s gymnastics team and will be a favorite to win gold in the uneven bars. Her routine in that event has been called the most challenging one being performed in the world today.
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