Eventually, more than 500 athletes will be on Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Many of them will be stars from past Games who’ve won multiple medals and vaulted onto TV screens, headlines and commercials.
Yet none will be able to top Nathan Schrimsher in one category.
Schrimsher, a 23-year-old modern pentathlete from Roswell, New Mexico, was the first athlete to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, accomplishing the feat by winning a bronze medal at the recent Pan American Games in Toronto.
Six other U.S. athletes have since joined Schrimsher in qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Team (all qualifications and nominations are still pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee). But Schrimsher will go down as No. 1 on a roster that will march into the Opening Ceremony a year from today.
It’s still sort of a surreal experience for Schrimsher, a specialist in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete program at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I still feel like I’m regular Nathan from Roswell, New Mexico,” he said, laughing. But the nomination is the fulfillment of years of work, since he first attended a pentathlon camp at the age of 12 run by his swimming coach — who just happened to have competed for Poland in modern pentathlon at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
“To be able to see the Olympics over the years on TV and now to be able to say I’m … going to be a part of it, I can’t wait till next year to see what it brings,” he said.
It had been a tough year in every way possible for Schrimsher, whose father died unexpectedly at the age of 59 in March. Keith Schrimsher had been a devoted, supportive father of Nathan and his brother, Lucas (also on the U.S. modern pentathlon team).
In addition, Nathan came into 2015 believing he was primed for a big season, but had been plagued by gun malfunctions in three world cup events.
In May, things finally turned around, as Schrimsher and teammate Margaux Isaksen won a silver medal at a world cup mixed relay event in Hungary.
Going into the Pan Am Games, Schrimsher believed it was his best chance to secure a qualifying spot for Rio — though he admits now that he was incredibly nervous. At times, he’d sit in his room in the days leading up to the pentathlon telling himself, “I want to win this thing.”
He said he had a rough start in fencing but then performed well in swimming and riding. Going into the final event — a combined shooting/running test — he figured shooting would be key. If he could keep his time low in the four, five-target shooting sessions that are held before the start of four 800-meter runs in the 3,200-meter cumulative race, he believed he had a shot at a podium finish and a berth in Rio.
He was on the money, posting the fastest time in those shooting areas — just 43.96 seconds — to help him finish ninth overall in the combined event. After having finished first in the 200-meter freestyle swim, fourth in show jumping and fourth in both fencing rounds, the ninth-place finish in the combined event secured him the overall bronze medal.
Since his Pan Am Games performance, Schrimsher has been receiving congratulatory calls and messages from family and friends, and says he feels great that he’s been able to earn an Olympic spot for all the people who’ve believed in him through the years.
He just wishes his father could have seen it.
“He was always pushing us to be the best we could be,” Schrimsher said. “Whether we were struggling or excelling, he was always there, 100 percent. It’s been bittersweet to see it come full circle, and he’s not here. I’m going to do the best I can for him.”
Get to know the other athletes who have qualified for the U.S. team in Rio:
Yue “Jennifer” Wu
Sport: Table tennis
Wu won the Pan Am Games gold medal in women’s singles in Toronto to clinch her spot. The 25-year-old Wu moved to the United States from China, where she was born and learned to play the game from her mother. Now a member of the New York Indoor Sports Club and a New Jersey resident, Wu beat Lin Gui of Brazil 4-3 in a seven-game Pan Am final. It was Wu’s first Pan Am Games experience.
“I still don’t believe it’s true,” she said after her victory. “Now I just feel amazing. I’m going to the Olympic Games!”
Sport: Open water swimming
Wilimovsky, 21, of Malibu, California, won the 10-kilometer open-water race at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, to earn his nomination to Rio. His winning time was 1:49:48.2, nearly 12 seconds ahead of the second-place swimmer, Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands. Wilimovsky took the lead with 3,000 meters to go and never gave it up.
Wilimovsky, who’s taking a year off from Northwestern to train for the Games, was the first U.S. swimmer to win gold in the 10K at the world championships since 2005. He’s also considering an attempt at qualifying for the 1,500-meter in the U.S. pool trials.
“I just wanted to build the first 5K and then really go hard the last 5K, and I was fortunate enough to find myself at the front with 2.5K to go,” Wilimovsky said.
Sport: Open water swimming
Ryan, 22, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, finished fourth behind teammate Wilimovsky in the 10K at the FINA World Championships. Placing two swimmers in the top 10 earned the U.S. two berths in the Rio Games. Ryan’s time was 1:50:03.3. With about 1,000 meters to go, he was second to Wilimovsky.
“The last 2,000 meters I was just hoping I could hold on,” Ryan said. “I saw Jordan up there, and I knew if we were both up that high there was a good chance we would both be going to Rio. It’s a surreal feeling right now. Going to Rio is a dream come true.”
Sport: Open water swimming
Anderson, who won a silver medal in the 10K swim at the London Games in 2012, finished ninth in the in the event at the FINA World Championships to secure her nomination for Rio. She finished in 1:58:35.9. Aurelie Muller of France won gold in 1:58:04.3.
“It feels really good to know I’ll be going back to another Olympics,” said Anderson, 23, from Granite Bay, California. “I’m not too happy with ninth. I had more expectations. But I’m just happy to make it and learn from my mistakes.”
The former USC standout and NCAA champion also successfully defended her 5K world title three days before the 10K race held on the same Kazanka River course in Kazan. Anderson won her first 5K world title in 2013.
Jorgensen, a 29-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, claimed her spot in Rio de Janeiro by winning the International Triathlon Union World Olympic Qualification Event on Sunday in the same city. Jorgensen, the top-ranked woman in the ITU World Triathlon Series, won the Rio test event in 1:58:46.
In second place by one second after the bike leg, Jorgensen broke into the lead on the third lap of the run. The course — expected to be the same for the 2016 Games — consists of a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run. She finished 19 seconds ahead of second-place Non Stanford of Great Britain.
Wrote Jorgensen on Twitter after the race: “Can you even believe it?!? I am now officially qualified for Rio 2016 #RoadToRio.”
Jorgensen earned her second Olympic berth while winning her 12th straight major international race, a streak that dates back to May 2014. She qualified for the London Games in 2012 but suffered a flat tire on the bike leg and finished 38th.
“I have been working towards this for a while, since the London Olympics, so I am excited to be able to come back here next year,” she said.
True (formerly Sarah Groff), 33, who is third in the world rankings, finished fourth in the Rio test event to also earn an Olympic nomination. She finished in 1:59:46. Like Jorgensen, True will be going to her second Olympic Games. True, from Hanover, New Hampshire, was fourth in London.
True knew coming into this season that it would be difficult to earn a spot on the team competing against a deep pool of athletes, including top-ranked Jorgensen and fellow American Katie Zaferes, No. 2 in the ITU World Triathlon Series rankings. Zaferes finished sixth this weekend and hopes to earn her spot in the spring.
“I knew it was going to be hard this year,” True said. “We have so much depth. I’m happy I got through.”
Fans are encouraged to join the "Team Behind the Team" and support these athletes and more on the Road to Rio by visiting TeamUSARegistry.org. The Team USA Registry allows fans to see what Olympians and Paralympians require on their path to the podium - from running shows to plane tickets - and help athletes bridge the gap between their average incomes and training expenses that far exceed that total.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.