What better year for new Team USA stars to emerge than 2015? For winter athletes, it was the follow-up to the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. For summer athletes, it was the dress rehearsal for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Here are 15 athletes (including one duo) who had a breakout year in 2015.
Tori Bowie, Track and Field
In 2014, Tori Bowie burst onto the international scene by winning three straight Diamond League titles in the sprints. Formerly best known as a long jumper who had placed second at the 2014 USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, Bowie was suddenly a bright new hope in the 100- and 200-meter. Her season ended abruptly, however, with an injury at the USATF Outdoor Championships after clocking a personal best of 10.91 seconds – the fastest time by an American so far that season – in the semifinals. Bowie surged back in 2015 to win her first national crown in the 100 with a time of 10.81. “I think I am a long jumper who can sprint well,” she said after the race. Despite ongoing struggles with her start, Bowie went on to take the bronze medal at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, as the only U.S. woman to medal in the sprints, and prove that she is in the sprints for the long haul.
Morgan Craft, Shooting
Before shooter Morgan Craft could have a breakout year, she needed a break. She was so discouraged by her performance in the summer of 2014 that she withdrew from competition for several months. But Craft came back to the range to earn two world cup medals, a silver in Azerbaijan and a bronze in Cyprus. At the ISSF World Championship Shotgun in Lonato, Italy, she prevailed in a head-to-head shoot-off with teammate Caitlin Connor, winning the gold medal and a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. The two shooters were the last athletes in the hunt for the women’s skeet Olympic nomination according to the USA Shooting’s season-long points system. Tied going into the final station of four targets, Craft hit all four while Connor missed the final two, giving Craft a 15-13 victory.
Jackie Galloway, Taekwondo
Before becoming the first member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Taekwondo Team, Jackie Galloway was an alternate in 2012 … for Mexico. The Texas native holds dual citizenship and moved back to the United States after her failed bid to qualify for the London Games. Galloway, whose Twitter handle is @ikick_urface, won the gold medal at the Pan American Games, the bronze at the world championships (helping end a six-year medal drought) and was fourth at the Grand Prix Final. She qualified for Rio earlier this month by way of her World Taekwondo Federation Olympic ranking: top-six in the +67 kg. weight class. Although the U.S. has won medals in every Olympic taekwondo tournament since the sport’s debut in 2000, Galloway is the first U.S. men’s or women’s heavyweight division athlete to qualify for the Games.
Daryl Homer, Fencing
Ranked 10th in the world and seeded ninth going into the world championships in Moscow, Daryl Homer defied the odds to win the silver medal in men’s saber. He became the first U.S. male fencer to win a medal in saber at senior worlds and only the third U.S. man to win an individual medal in any discipline. Miles Chamley-Watson, the 2013 champion, and Gerek Meinhardt, the 2010 bronze medalist, both competed in foil. Alex Massialas also earned silver at the 2015 worlds, two days after Homer, in foil. Homer, who was sixth at the London 2012 Olympic Games, also made major strides toward qualification for Rio. Homer attributed his win in the semifinal to his work with a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee. He also earned his first grand prix podium in 2015, with a bronze in Seoul, South Korea, and followed that up with a silver at the 2015 Pan American Championships.
Brenna Huckaby, Paralympic Snowboarding
As a 14-year-old gymnast, Brenna Huckaby was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone tumor inside her right knee. After her leg was amputated, she went on a ski trip during her rehabilitation and discovered a new sport. Two months after being named to her first Paralympic snowboarding national team, Huckaby won gold at worlds in snowboardcross in La Molina, Spain. She followed that performance with a silver in banked slalom. Soon after Huckaby earned her spot on the national team last December, she opened her 2015 campaign with a bronze medal in the debut of women’s LL-1 head-to-head competition at the 2015 IPC Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Aspen, Colorado.
Chris Mazdzer, Luge
A veteran of the U.S. luge team and a two-time Olympian in 2010 and 2014 (finishing 13th in Sochi, Russia), Chris Mazdzer finally made it to the top of the podium in 2015. He earned his first luge world cup win in a two-heat race (Mazdzer won the one-heat sprint world cup in Calgary last year) on his home track in Lake Placid, New York, in early December. Tucker West placed second for the first U.S. men’s one-two in a luge world cup. Mazdzer then overcame the pain caused by a neck strain during a mid-week weightlifting session to win the men’s world cup singles title for the second straight week, this time at the Utah Olympic Park. "It was a huge relief to come down and see that big number one," said Mazdzer, who won his first national title in 2007. Away from the track, in 2015 Mazdzer also became the first athlete to hold a voting position on the executive board of the international luge federation. Plus, he completed his degree with DeVry University.
Kiley McKinnon, Freestyle Skiing
After suffering a shoulder injury halfway through the 2013-14 season, aerialist Kiley McKinnon came back to score her first world cup podium in Beijing in December 2014, a bronze. She landed on the podium four more times after that season opener and jumped to a silver medal at the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski World Championships in Kreischberg, Austria. Thanks to her consistency, McKinnon captured the world cup overall title. Her crystal globe was the first for a U.S. woman since Nikki Stone in 1998, and her worlds medal the first for a U.S. woman since Stone in 1999. McKinnon and teammate Ashley Caldwell, who took home two world cup victories last season and was second in the overall standings, give Team USA a formidable duo in the seasons leading up to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Earlier this month, McKinnon took bronze to Caldwell’s gold at the 2015-16 season opener in Beijing.
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, Figure Skating
Soon after teaming up in April 2012, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim showed promise by winning the Coupe de Nice in France. They won their first national title in 2015, posting U.S. championships record scores for the short program, free skate and total. Scimeca and Knierim also became the first U.S. pairs team to perform a quadruple twist in competition. They were fifth at the Four Continents Championships and seventh at the world championships, capping their season at the World Team Trophy, where they helped Team USA win the gold medal. Scimeca and Knierim picked up where they left off for the 2015-16 season, winning their first grand prix medal, a silver, at Skate America. They clinched the bronze medal at the NHK Trophy to become the first U.S. pair since 2007 to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, where they were seventh. They also struck gold at the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, earlier this season. Scimeca and Knierim have such great chemistry that they’re a couple off the ice as well and are engaged to be married next year.
Michal Smolen, Canoe/Kayak
The runner-up at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Michal Smolen proved that he is now the top contender to qualify for his first Olympic team in Rio with his bronze medal at the 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships. It was the first Team USA medal in men’s kayak at worlds in 16 years. While Smolen had success in 2014 – a gold in the Under-23 World Championships and a world cup bronze in Prague – he struggled to reach the top-10 on the 2015 world cup circuit. Smolen regained his form to win the gold medal at the Pan American Games in July. His father Rafal was a competitor for the Polish national team and head coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.
Kyle Snyder, Wrestling
Wrestling in his first senior world championships at age 19, Kyle Snyder became the youngest U.S. wrestling world champion. Ranked No. 15 in the world going into the tournament, Snyder won five straight matches, knocking off returning world champion Abdusalam Gadisov of Russia for the gold medal at 97 kg. in Las Vegas in September. “I like making history,” Snyder said. “I want to be known as one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live.” The 2013 junior world champion, Snyder placed second at the Big Ten and NCAA championships as a freshman at Ohio State. He then won the Pan American Games gold medal in July, which should have given his world championships opponents an inkling of what he could do on the international stage.
Jordan Spieth, Golf
Sure, people heard of Jordan Spieth in 2013, when he was PGA Rookie of the Year. They followed him in 2014, when he tied for second at the Masters, losing his bid to become the youngest Masters champion in history. But it was 2015 when Spieth really caught fire. He shot an opening round 64 at the Masters and held on for the first wire-to-wire win in Augusta since 1976. Spieth was the second-youngest player to win the tournament and set the record for most birdies with 28. He followed his green jacket with a victory at the U.S. Open, his second major. He was only the sixth player to win the two tournaments back-to-back. Spieth had a shot at winning a third major, but wound up second to Jason Day at the PGA Championship. Spieth finished his season with a flourish, winning the 2015 Tour Championship by four strokes to pocket the $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup and regain the No. 1 world ranking.
Roderick Townsend, Paralympic Track and Field
Born with a weakened right arm with limited range of motion, Roderick Townsend became a high jumper and competed on the Division I collegiate level for Boise State. Although he’d heard of the Paralympic Games, Townsend did not know he was eligible to compete until three-time Paralympian Jeff Skiba urged him to get classified. That proved to be the start of a whole new athletic career for Townsend. In his first meet, the Desert Challenge Games in Mesa, Arizona, Townsend won the 100-meter and set an American record in the high jump. At the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships, he won the 100, long jump and high jump, breaking the high jump world record, and was second in the triple jump. Going into the IPC Athletics World Championships with – naturally – high hopes, Townsend won the gold medal in the high jump and was second in the long jump, triple jump and 4x100-meter, making him an early favorite for Rio. Townsend also won gold medals in the high jump (breaking his own world record) and long jump at the Parapan American Games, placing fifth in the 100.
Jordan Wilimovsky, Swimming
To become the first swimmer to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Jordan Wilimovsky had to win the men’s 10-kilometer open water race at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. He secured his spot with a time of 1 hour, 49 minutes, 48.2 seconds to become the second American to win the race, joining Chip Peterson who won in 2005 in Montreal. Wilimovsky had a margin of more than 12 seconds over Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands. “I was just trying to get into the top 10 and qualify for Rio,” said Wilimovsky, who placed only 16th at the Pan Pacific Championships the summer before. He was not only named Breakout Performer of the Year by USA Swimming at its Golden Goggles Awards, but his race was also named “Male Race of the Year,” defeating performances by Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Yue “Jennifer” Wu, Table Tennis
At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Yue “Jennifer” Wu was seeded last in her table tennis bracket. By the end of the tournament, she was on the top of the podium and had become the second Team USA athlete in any sport to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Wu’s low seeding was due to not playing in an international event in four months and having no ranking. But she didn’t let that discourage her. Wu, who was born in Beijing and became a U.S. citizen in 2014, lost only three games in her first six matches. In the gold-medal match, she was up 2-0 on Brazil’s Lin Gui, then lost three straight games. Wu won the sixth and took the tiebreaker 11-7.
Laura Zeng, Rhythmic Gymnastics
How dominant was Laura Zeng at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games? In her first year as a senior competitor, she swept all five gold medals in rhythmic gymnastics – all-around, hoop, ball, ribbon and clubs. Zeng was the first athlete to achieve that feat since Mary Sanders in 2003. At the 2015 FIG Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships, Zeng had to finish in the top 15 in all-around to qualify the United States for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. She accomplished her mission with plenty of room to spare, finishing eighth in Stuttgart, Germany, to post the best finish by a U.S. gymnast at the world championships in the all-around. She eclipsed Sanders’ 10th place in 2003. Zeng was also a finalist in clubs at worlds – the first American to qualify for the club final since Sanders in 2003 – and placed seventh. Over nine routines and five days of competition at worlds, Zeng, who won the bronze medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, never scored lower than 17.233.