Ready For Rio: The Hopefuls

By Paul D. Bowker | Aug. 07, 2014, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final at the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships at the Antwerp Sports Palace on Oct. 6, 2013 in Antwerp, Belgium.

"Ready For Rio" is a five-part feature series celebrating Team USA's top athletes and storylines in commemoration of the two-year countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The second part in the series covers the hopefuls, those on track to make their Olympic debut in Rio.

World champion gymnast Simone Biles watched TV coverage of the London 2012 Olympic Games at her former training gym, Bannon’s Gymnastix, in Houston.

“My coach put it on this giant wall we have so everyone watched it that day,” Biles said, remembering the day in London when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, the “Fierce Five,” won the Olympic team gold medal.

Biles hopes she won’t have to watch the 2016 Olympic gymnastics competition on a TV, as the 17-year-old is a strong contender to make the U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro in two years.

Since debuting on the senior level last year, Biles has claimed the U.S. and world all-around titles, and after winning the Secret U.S. Classic earlier this month, she’ll try to defend her U.S. title at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, beginning Aug. 21 in Pittsburgh.

And the best may yet be to come, says her personal coach, Aimee Boorman.

“It’s definitely all about pacing,” Boorman said. “We don’t want to try to do too much too early. She’s capable of doing a lot more. We want to make sure that she’s doing everything she is currently doing with precision and safety. We want to push the envelope when the time comes, but right now we’re just kind of chugging along.”

The Olympic dream first surfaced for Biles, who is a senior in high school, in 2008, when she watched the Beijing Olympic Games on TV.

“I watched the women compete,” she said of the U.S. squad that finished second while Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson took the top two spots in the all-around. “And I was like, ‘That would be so cool to be in their position.’ But I was so young.”

Biles is of one of many promising U.S. athletes who are hoping to make their Olympic debuts in Rio. Women’s gymnastics is typically one of the most difficult to predict, as Olympians tend to be teenagers, but early contenders include 2014 Pacific Rim team gold medalists Norah Flatley and Bailie Key, 2013 world team member Brenna Dowell, Madison Kocian, Rachel Gowey and MyKayla Skinner.

Other athletes who are in line to hit Rio for their first Games include WNBA star Skylar Diggins in women’s basketball, Mary Cain in track, Isabella Isaksen in modern pentathlon, Sabrina Massialas in fencing, and Steele Johnson and Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg in diving.

With the inclusion of golf and rugby in the Olympic program in Rio, a number of athletes in those sports will be making their Olympic debut. Included among the contenders are golfers Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson.

Here is a look at some more rising stars who could reach their first Olympic Games in Rio:

While not (yet) an Olympian, Diggins has no shortage of experience with the national team. In the same year Team USA competed at the Olympic Games in London, Diggins was helping the U.S. women’s team capture a gold medal in the inaugural 3x3 world championships. Among her four international gold medals are the U19 world title, and she is currently a member of the women’s national team and the WNBA Tulsa Shock.

Distance runner Mary Cain qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at age 16 and became the youngest finalist in the women’s 1,500 at the 2013 World Championships at age 17. She won the 2014 U.S. indoor title in the 1,500 and has finished runner-up at that distance the last two years at the U.S. outdoor championships.

Cain won the women’s 3,000-meter race at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in July.

Also rising quickly in women’s track is Ajee’ Wilson, who has won back-to-back U.S. indoor titles in the 800. She won the world junior championship at that distance in 2012.

Isabella Isaksen, a modern pentathlon athlete, is the younger sister of 2012 Olympian Margaux Isaksen. They could be competing alongside each other in Rio. They are already doing so in world cup competitions. Isabella finished seventh at the 2014 junior world championships.

“My sister, I am so proud of her,” Margaux Isaksen told TeamUSA.org. “I think she’s a force to be reckoned with.”

A six-time senior national champion, diver Steele Johnson is surfacing as a strength in the USA Diving men’s program. He combined with 2012 Olympic gold medalist David Boudia to win the bronze medal in the men’s synchronized 10-meter at the 2014 FINA Diving World Cup.

Johnson is an incoming freshman at Purdue University, where his brother Race is a football player.

Rising stars on the women’s side include Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg, Maren Taylor and Amy Cozad. Bromberg is a three-time national champion and won a bronze medal in platform diving at the 2010 Junior World Championships. She is convinced that she’ll earn her first Olympic spot in 2016.

“I’m going,” Bromberg told TeamUSA.org after winning the women’s synchro platform event at the 2013 AT&T National Diving Championships with partner Cheyenne Cousineau. “When you dedicate this much of your life to one thing, I really want it. Definitely.”

In fencing, another Massialas may be ready to become an Olympian in Rio. Sabrina Massialas, the younger sister of 2012 Olympian Alexander and daughter of three-time Olympian Greg, made her first senior world team this year and will compete at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in China. Greg is the coach of the U.S. men’s foil squad.

Another talented U.S. swimming team could feature the Olympic debut of Simone Manuel. She was a gold medalist in the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay and a finalist in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2013 FINA World Championships at age 17. She set an American record in the 100-yard freestyle earlier this year.

Olympic interest will be high for Paul George, a star forward for the NBA Indiana Pacers who fractured his leg in the USA Basketball Showcase on Aug. 1 in Las Vegas. George’s recovery is expected to take at least a year, and a question to be answered at that time is whether he would pursue a spot on the Olympic Team. He was considered to be a lock to make the national team for this year’s FIBA World Cup.

Other team sports to follow heading toward Rio are men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, men’s and women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s beach volleyball. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup will likely feature rising stars in U.S. women’s soccer. The U23 men’s national team will be out to qualify for Rio after not making the Olympic field in 2012.

Young talent on the USA Volleyball men’s national team include setter Micah Christenson and outside hitter Taylor Sander.

Among the youngest Olympic hopefuls is 12-year-old Crystal Wang, a table tennis athlete who qualified for the 2014 World Championships.

Mackenzie Brown, LaNola Pritchard and Ariel Gibilaro, who are each resident athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will be among those seeking Olympic berths in women’s recurve in archery. They were on the USA Archery team at the 2012 World Archery Youth Championships.

Also seeking his Olympic debut in 2016: Levan Onashvili, the son of five-time Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig. “Hopefully we will be the first mother and son in the Olympics,” Lorig told the Park Labrea News of West Hollywood, California.

Shakur Stevenson, who is the first U.S. male boxer to win both a junior world championship and youth world championship, may emerge in 2016 as a top contender in Rio. Also in position is super heavyweight boxer Darmani Rock, who a won a gold medal at the 2014 Youth World Championships. The U.S. men were shut out of boxing medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Rising through the waters in canoe/kayak is Michal Smolen, an 18-year-old native of Poland who did not obtain his citizenship in time to compete for the United States at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The paperwork was completed in 2013. Smolen won a gold medal at the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom U23 World Championships, as well as a bronze medal on the world cup circuit.

In equestrian Lucy Davis, at age 20, became the youngest rider to win a global Champions Tour event at the 2014 Grand Prix of Lausanne.

And then there is Buck Davidson, the son of Olympic two-time gold medalist Bruce Davidson in equestrian, who is seeking his first Olympic berth after serving as an alternate for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Now that Kayla Harrison became the first American in 2012 to win an Olympic gold medal in judo, who is next? Among judo’s rising stars are Alex Hyatt, 15, who finished second at the 2013 IJF World Cadet Championships, and Adonis Diaz, 18, a fifth-place finisher at the cadet worlds. Both will compete at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.

Adeline Gray, a 2012 world champion and 2014 world team trials champion, will go after an Olympic berth in women’s wrestling. She finished second to Elena Pirozhkova at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Also hoping to make their Olympic debuts are two-time world bronze medalist Alyssa Lampe and world silver medalist Helen Maroulis.

Doubles players Phillip Chew and Sattawat Pongnairat are among those chasing after a first Olympic medal for the United States in badminton. They won the Brazil International championship in 2013 and finished third at the 2014 Peru International.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org.

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