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New Stars Await Opportunity To Shine In Rio

By Paul D. Bowker | Aug. 21, 2015, 10:10 a.m. (ET)

Simone Biles competes on the vault during the women's team final at the 45th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Guangxi Sports Center Stadium on Oct. 8, 2014 in Nanning, China.

They were rising stars in waiting.

When the London 2012 Olympic Games were held, gymnast Simone Biles, then just 15 years old, watched TV coverage at her former training gym in Houston. Triathlete Katie Zaferes was working babysitting jobs in Syracuse, New York.

“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, dubbed the “Fierce Five,” won the Olympic team gold medal.

Since then, Biles has won two world all-around championships, vaulting onto an international platform she might share with 2012 Olympic gold medalists Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross, who are all still competing in hopes of defending their titles at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, which begin one year from today.

The Olympic dream first surfaced for Biles in 2008, when she watched the Beijing Olympic Games on TV.

“I watched the women compete,” she said. “And I was like, ‘That would be so cool to be in their position.’ But I was so young.”

Katie Zaferes competes in the 2014 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final
on Aug. 30, 2014 in Edmonton, Alberta.

Zaferes is ranked No. 2 in the latest ITU World Triathlon Series Rankings, but her quest to qualify for her first Olympic Games is complicated by the athletes surrounding her in the rankings. Top-ranked Gwen Jorgensen and third-ranked Sarah True, both 2012 U.S. Olympians, earned their 2016 Olympic nods by finishing first and fourth at the ITU World Olympic Qualification Event earlier this month in Rio. Zaferes took sixth place, but only the top two U.S. athletes within the top eight could earn an Olympic bid, so Zaferes will have to secure her nomination in the spring.

Biles and Zaferes aren’t the only stars looking to make their Olympic debuts in 2016. Other athletes who are in line to hit Rio for their first Games include WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne and NBA MVP Stephen Curry in basketball, Mary Cain in track, Sabrina Massialas in fencing, and Steele Johnson and Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg in diving.

In addition to Jorgensen and True, five other athletes have already earned bids to Rio (all qualifications and nominations are still pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee). First on that list is modern pentathlete Nathan Schrimsher, a 2010 Youth Olympian, who clinched his first Olympic nomination by merit of a third-place finish at the Pan American Games this past month in Toronto.

“I don’t have words yet. It’s not going to sink in for awhile,” Scrimsher said afterward.

Another modern pentathlete, 32nd ranked Isabella Isaksen, is hoping to make her first Olympic team. If she does, she could join her older sister Margaux Isaksen, the world’s ninth-ranked pentathlete who narrowly missed winning a medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Another set of siblings could join the Isaksens on the U.S. Olympic Team: Sabrina Massialas, the daughter of three-time Olympian Greg Massialas and a 2014 Youth Olympic champion herself, is hoping to join her older brother Alex Massialas, a 2012 Olympian, in Rio.

Three other athletes won’t have to wait to secure their bids for their first Olympic Games: Table tennis’ Yue “Jennifer” Wu and open water swimmers Jordan Wilimovsky and Sean Ryan already earned their first nominations as well.

Among the best of the rising stars in the pool is Simone Manuel, a sophomore-to-be at Stanford who won three medals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.

“She’s fearless,“ four-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin told TeamUSA.org. “She’s going to get up on the block and she’s going to race and she’s going to do whatever it takes. She’s not afraid of anything and I think definitely that’s something that not everyone has.“

Other swimmers contending for their first Olympic spots include Maya DiRado, Tom Shields and Kevin Cordes.

No matter who represents Team USA in golf, they will be first-time Olympians, as golf is returning to the Olympic program in 2016 after having not been held since 1904. Based on the current Olympic Golf Rankings, the United States would send four men and four women to Rio.

Jordan Spieth hits his tee shot on the third hole during the first
round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on Aug.
13, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wis.

Jordan Spieth (No. 1), Bubba Watson (No. 4), Jim Furyk (No. 6) and Dustin Johnson (No. 6) lead the U.S. men while Stacy Lewis (No. 3), Lexi Thompson (No. 8), Brittany Lincicome (No. 11) and Cristie Kerr (No. 12) lead the U.S. women.

It’s the same situation for rugby sevens, the smaller-sided rugby game that makes its Olympic debut in Rio. Both the U.S. men and women’s teams have already qualified. Among the leaders of the women’s team are Lauren Doyle, Kelly Griffin and Kate Zackary, who each scored three times in the Olympic berth-clinching win over Mexico earlier this summer.

The United States has no shortage of talent when it comes to basketball, and the pipeline continues as new generations of stars rise on both the men’s and women’s side. Curry, who led the Golden State Warriors to the 2015 NBA title, could make his Olympic debut after playing on the U.S. teams that won world titles in 2010 and 2014.

On the women’s side, Delle Donne is one of the sport’s fastest rising stars after leading her Chicago Sky to the WNBA Eastern Conference finals as a second-year player last season. Tulsa Shock guard Skylar Diggins, who was taken one pick after Delle Donne in the 2013 WNBA Draft, was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2014 and made the All-WNBA first team. And then there’s 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner, who led her Phoenix Mercury to the 2014 WNBA title and Team USA to the 2014 world title.

The U.S. women’s field hockey team, which qualified for the Rio Games by winning the gold medal at the Pan American Games, could feature some Olympic debutants, including new national team members Loren Shealy, who led North Carolina to a pair of NCAA championship game appearances, and Ali Froede, a two-time All-Mid-American Conference selection with Miami (Ohio).

“It is an honor to be given the chance to represent my country and to play field hockey at the highest level,” Shealy said.

On the track, 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 indoor national title in the 1,500 and has finished runner-up at that distance the last two years at the national outdoor championships.

Also rising quickly in women’s track is Ajee’ Wilson, who has won back-to-back U.S. indoor titles in the 800 and finished third in the 800 in the 2015 outdoor national championships. She won the world junior championship at that distance in 2012.

Shamier Little is also on a hot streak on the Road to Rio. The 20-year-old earned the 2014 U.S. junior 400-meter hurdles title before going on to claim the junior world championship title. This season, she has won gold at the NCAA Championships, Pan American Games and U.S. championships.

In diving, Amy Cozad was the first to secure an Olympic quota spot for the United States at the FINA World Championships, finishing sixth in the women’s 10 meter. It was the highest finish in that event for an American woman since 2007.

Steele Johnson competes at the 19th FINA Diving World Cup at the
Oriental Sports Center on July 15, 2014 in Shanghai, China.

A six-time senior national champion, Steele Johnson combined with 2012 Olympic champion David Boudia to win the bronze medal in the men’s synchronized 10-meter at the 2014 FINA Diving World Cup. Other rising stars include Samantha “Murphy” Bromberg, a bronze medalist in the 2010 Junior World Championships, and Michael Hixon, who won a bronze medal in the men’s 1-meter at the 2015 FINA World Championships and finished one spot out of the finals in the 3-meter event.

Rising athletes on the strong USA Shooting team include 18-year-old Lydia Paterson, who won an Olympic quota in women’s air pistol, and 13-year-old pistol shooter Carson Saabye, who is the youngest member of the team in history.

Mackenzie Brown, LaNola Pritchard and Ariel Gibilaro, who are each resident athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, will be among those seeking Olympic berths in women’s archery. Pritchard fell just one win short of clinching a quota spot in the 2015 World Archery Championships. Meanwhile, Brown recently won gold at a world cup in Wroclaw, Poland, where she also teamed with Pritchard and five-time Olympian Khatuna Lorig to earn Team USA’s first-ever women’s team world cup win.

Youth Olympic Games boxing champion Shakur Stevenson, who is the first U.S. male boxer to win a junior world championship and youth world championship, is a contender in boxing. The U.S. men were shut out of boxing medals at the London Games.

Rising through the waters in canoe/kayak is Michael Smolen, an 18-year-old native of Poland who did not obtain his citizenship in time to compete for the United States in 2012 in London.

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 2012 and 2008 Olympic Games.

Adeline Gray, a two-time world champion, will go after an Olympics berth in women’s wrestling. 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, finished third at the 2014 Peru International and won gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Simone Biles

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