With 100 days to go until the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the flame is on its way to South America and about 560 Team USA athletes will soon be heading there as well.
Many of these athletes have not only been to previous Olympic Games, they have already won medals. Others will be making their first trip to the world’s biggest stage. Team USA will compete in 27 of the 28 sports (failing to qualify only in team handball), with two sports – golf and rugby – returning to the Olympic program for the first time in close to a century.
Before the Games begin on Aug. 5, there will still be plenty of action and intrigue as athletes compete to make Team USA. Nearly one-fifth of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team has qualified so far, and track and field, swimming and gymnastics are among the sports that have not yet conducted their Olympic Trials.
Here are 100 storylines to follow as Team USA gets ready to roar into Rio.
Will Team USA retain its position atop the medal table in Rio? In London four years ago, Team USA won more overall medals and more gold medals than any other country. The United States racked up 104 total medals – 46 golds, 29 silvers and 29 bronzes. China was the runner-up with 88 (38 golds, 27 silvers and 23 bronzes). Russia was next with 82 total medals, though only 24 were gold, while Great Britain had more gold (29), but only 65 total medals. The return of golf to the Olympic Games is a stroke of luck for the United States, which will look for some of the top golfers in the world to beef up the medal count.
Can Michael Phelps add to his medal haul and put his record as the most decorated Olympian in history even further out of reach? Seeking his fifth straight Olympic team, Phelps has already won 22 medals, including 18 golds (both records). By the time the Rio Olympic Games roll around, Phelps will be 31 and he and fiancée Nicole Johnson are expecting a baby boy this summer. But he says he’s more motivated and happier than he was prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he tallied four gold and two silver medals and then retired. Phelps’ successful comeback was marred by a DUI and suspension, but he’s back on track. Although Phelps and coach Bob Bowman are tight-lipped about which events he will swim at the Olympic Trials, the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time commands attention whenever he dives into the pool.
Who will be the next Olympian to appear on “Dancing with the Stars”? Olympic athletes have appeared on 16 of the popular television show’s 22 seasons, some sambaing into the lineup soon after returning from the Games. Four Olympians have won the coveted mirror ball trophy: short track speedskater Apolo Ohno, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, gymnast Shawn Johnson and ice dancer Meryl Davis. Two Rio hopefuls could get a leg up on the competition. Triathlete Greg Billington took dance classes growing up and enjoys salsa and ballroom, while canoeist Casey Eichfeld danced for seven years and studied styles including ballet, modern and hip-hop/jazz. Both will have to excel in the Olympic arena before fielding any invitations to show their moves on the dance floor.
Will Team USA female archers channel their inner Katniss Everdeen and reach the podium? The U.S. women haven’t won a medal since 1988, when the team event was added to the program. Khatuna Lorig, who is trying to make her sixth Olympic team, trained Jennifer Lawrence for her role playing Katniss in “The Hunger Games.” The U.S. women have their strongest team in history, demonstrated by their No. 2 world ranking, but if they fail to qualify a full team for Rio in June, only one woman will compete in the individual tournament.
Can Brady Ellison finally hit his gold-medal target – or at least break free from the clutches of 17th place? The archer, who is trying to make his third Olympic team, was 17th in 2008 in the individual event, then 17th again in 2012. However, he helped secure the silver medal in the team event in London and the U.S. has again qualified a full men’s team for Rio. No U.S. man has won an individual medal since Vic Wunderle in 2000.
Badminton is one of just three summer sports in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal (the others are team handball and table tennis). Although other regions of the world have dominated Olympic badminton, Team USA won all three doubles events at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto as part of its six-medal haul. Jamie Subandhi and Phillip Chew are ranked in the top-25 in mixed doubles and while it would be difficult for them to net an Olympic medal, they could at least make a dent in the draw.
Will Stephen Curry be “Golden” in Rio? The Golden State Warriors’ sharpshooting guard has won two FIBA World Cup gold medals, but this would be his first Olympic Games representing the red, white and blue. Barring injury, Curry is a slam dunk to make the team. He was the NBA MVP last season while leading the Warriors to the NBA championship and this season became the first player to pour in 400 three-pointers before any other player hit 300. Team USA is also loaded with Olympic experience. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul could be on the floor when the United States attempts to add its 15th gold medal in the 18 Olympic Games in which it has competed. Since NBA players joined the roster, Team USA is 45-3 and has won five of six gold medals.
Who’s got a 41-game winning streak in Olympic play? Why, the U.S. women’s basketball team, of course. With no losses since 1992, Team USA will try to win its sixth straight gold medal, a record for traditional women’s team sports. While Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi are going for their fourth straight gold medals, newcomer Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP, is hoping to compete in her first major international tournament in a USA uniform.
The U.S. women’s water polo team can also stake a claim as the most dominant team in the country. Team USA is the first women’s water polo team to hold all four major titles – Olympic, world championship, World Cup and World League. The team won an unprecedented fourth world title in 2015, led by MVP Rachel Fattal. Having medaled at every Olympic Games since women’s water polo made its debut in 2000, Team USA finally won the gold medal in London in 2012.
What’s the difference between a Tyrannosaurus rex and boxer Claressa Shields? Though she’s nicknamed T-Rex, Shields is a survivor. Fighting her way to her second straight gold medal in the Olympic ring seems likely since Shields has only been stopped once in her entire career. Her record stands at 69-1 and she is also the reigning world and Pan American Games champion. Shields was 17 when she won the middleweight division in the inaugural Olympic boxing tournament for women at the London 2012 Games, and she is even more intimidating today. She will be the only Team USA boxer – male or female – with Olympic experience.
He’s a stand-up comedian who calls himself the “Taylor Swift of Boxing” and legally changed his name, but Cam F. Awesome has proven he is no joke in the ring. The former Lenroy Thompson has dropped down to the heavyweight division thanks to a vegan diet and strict training. After eight years of trying to fight in the Olympics – including a near-miss in 2012 when he won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials but was suspended for failing to provide his whereabouts for drug testing – he once again won the Olympic Trials and will try to punch his ticket to Rio in May. Expect him to be nothing less than Awesome when he gets there.
Can the U.S. canoe/kayak slalom team paddle to the podium for the first time since 2004? Michal Smolen won the bronze medal at the 2015 world championships in K1 and the gold at the 2015 Pan American Games. He hopes to become the first U.S. medalist since Rebecca Giddens won a silver medal in 2004. Although Smolen’s fear of the water initially steered him away from kayaking – and, oddly, to swimming – he eventually got back in the boat because kayaking was more exciting and extreme.
Didn’t Kristin Armstrong retire? Yes. Twice. And she’s back again. The road cyclist is trying to win her third straight Olympic time trial gold medal. In 2015, she won the time trial national championship in just her second event since getting back in the competitive saddle. She also took fifth at the 2015 UCI Road Cycling World Championships. This would be her fourth Olympic Games.
Is it Hammer Time? Sarah Hammer hopes the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” will accompany her in Rio. She won two silver medals four years ago on the track in London in team pursuit and omnium. A seven-time world champion and world-record holder, Hammer and her teammates have spent the past four years pursuing the team pursuit gold and achieved it at the world championship level last month. Hammer actually retired in 2003, but was inspired by the Athens 2004 Olympic Games to return to cycling and hasn’t stopped pedaling since.
Four years ago, Team USA ended a 12-year Olympic medal drought in diving with not just one medal, but four. And four of the divers who stood on the podium in London are still knifing into the water, led by David Boudia, who won the gold on the men’s 10-meter platform and took the bronze with Nick McCrory in the 10-meter synchro event. Boudia, who since London became the father of a 1-year-old daughter and won two more individual silver medals at world championships, is now teamed up with 19-year-old Steele Johnson, who has won five individual 10-meter national titles. Boudia and Johnson have combined for five synchro 10-meter crowns.
Abby Johnston must be a champion multi-tasker. After winning the Olympic silver medal in 3-meter synchronized diving, she took the plunge into medical school at Duke University. Johnston didn’t give up diving though, so will another medal in Rio be just what the doctor-to-be ordered?
Hairstylists tame unruly manes all the time. Laura Graves left her hairstyling career to tame an unruly horse (his mane wasn’t the problem) and found success. She and Verdades, known as Diddy, seemingly came out of nowhere at the 2014 USEF Grand Prix National Championship and took reserve champion behind three-time Olympian Steffen Peters. They then placed fifth in the grand prix freestyle at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games. Now can this dynamic dressage duo turn heads at the Olympic Games?
Which horse will Beezie Madden ride in the Olympic Games? Madden, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in show jumping, has developed two fine horses, Cortes “C” and Simon, since the retirement of Authentic, who led the U.S. for the better part of a decade. Aboard Coral Reef Via Vola at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Madden did not advance past the first round as her mount refused to complete a combination jump, dropping them to near the bottom of the standings.
Will Daryl Homer take home the first U.S. medal in men’s saber at the Olympic Games? Homer won silver at the 2015 world championships, becoming the first U.S. men’s saber fencer to medal at the event.
Will the “face of fencing” show off his runway walk on the way to the podium? A modeling agency scouted foil fencer Race Imboden at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and he became a menswear fashion model. Imboden has worked for brands including J. Crew, Louis Vuitton and Mark Jacobs. In 2015, he also became the first U.S. man to win an individual overall world cup title. However, Imboden, ranked No. 4 in the world was named the replacement athlete for the team event and is not on the official U.S. roster in Rio unless he gets to compete. Alex Massialas, who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the end of 2015 and was Team USA’s youngest male Olympian in 2012 at age 18, No. 3 Gerek Meinhardt and Miles Chamley-Watson make up the U.S. team.
Can the most decorated fencer in U.S. history earn another “first”? Mariel Zagunis was the first woman to win a saber fencing gold medal in 2004 – and also the first U.S. fencer to win gold in 100 years – when the discipline joined the Olympic program. Then she became the first woman to repeat as champion in the event, also winning the saber team bronze. After a disappointing finish in London, where Zagunis was elected U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, she will try to be the first woman to win double gold in the individual and team events in Rio.
What impact will Ibtihaj Muhammad have as the first U.S. woman to wear a hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women) in Olympic competition? Muhammad, who will compete in the individual and team saber events, is a role model for not just Muslim girls, but all competitors. She says in her USA Fencing bio that she wants to “prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender. I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
Can 10 returning Olympians help the U.S. women’s field hockey team rise in the standings? A disappointing last-place finish in the 12-team field in London four years ago spurred the veteran players to commit to another quadrennium. Their diligence has paid off, with a fifth-place world ranking marking a milestone for the program. Led by team captain Lauren Crandall, a three-time Olympian, Team USA won the gold at the Pan American Games. With new coaches, the implementation of cutting-edge technology and a move from the West Coast to the East Coast – they now train at the "home of hockey" at Spooky Nook Sports in Pennsylvania – Team USA looks to be a threat on the pitch.
It took 112 years, but golf is back in the Olympic Games. Can Jordan Spieth, the No. 1 player in the world, earn a gold medal to go along with his Masters green jacket? “Medaling for your country is something special,” he said. “Winning a gold would be, I believe, like winning a major championship.” The difference between a gold medal and a green jacket, though, is the athlete does not have to leave the gold medal back in the clubhouse.
Who’s got better honeymoon plans than Staci Lewis? The women’s pro golfer will marry University of Houston golf coach Gerrod Chadwell in Connecticut on Aug. 6 (the day after the Opening Ceremony in Rio). They’ve got plenty of time to honeymoon in Rio before the women’s tournament begins on Aug. 17. Lewis, who has 11 career victories, is ranked No. 4 in the world and hopes to be the bride, not the bridesmaid, in Rio.
Speaking of rankings, Lexi Thompson is ranked No. 3, one spot ahead of Lewis, in the world golf rankings. At age 16, she was the youngest golfer in history to win an LPGA event, emerging victorious in the 2011 Navistar Classic. During the final tournament of the 2015 season, Thompson began putting with her eyes closed and continued to do so in 2016. Will she see her way clear to Rio gold?
Will Simone Biles become the fourth straight U.S. female gymnast to win the Olympic all-around gold medal? Biles, from the felicitously-named Spring, Texas, became the first woman in history to win three consecutive world all-around gold medals. She was also the first to collect 10 world championship gold medals and the first U.S. gymnast – male or female – to win 14 world medals. Biles hopes to follow Carly Patterson (2004), Nastia Liukin (2008) and Gabby Douglas (2012) to the top of the all-around podium.
If anybody can keep Biles from ascending that top step, it could be Douglas, who yearns to defend her title. Douglas would be the first reigning all-around champion since 1980 to compete in back-to-back Olympic Games. Her predecessor? None other than Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian star who now lives in the United States. Douglas took about 2½ years off following her London victory. She then surged back to claim the silver medal at the 2015 world championships.
Know any good nicknames? In 1996, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team became the Magnificent Seven after winning the first team gold medal for the U.S. Team USA didn’t win the title again until 2012, when the squad was known as the Fierce Five. Douglas and team captain Aly Raisman return from the Fierce Five, and at the 2015 world championships they were joined by Biles, Maggie Nichols and Madison Kocian. If all make the team, expect Team USA to be just as fabulous as four years ago. Fantastic Five, anyone?
Did Sam Mikulak pick up where he left off in 2015? Mikulak was the first man to win three straight U.S. all-around titles (2013-15) since Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist. At the 2015 Pan American Games, Mikulak was the first U.S. male to win the all-around title in 28 years and was instrumental in helping win the first team gold medal since 1995. A torn Achilles prevented him from competing at the 2015 world championships, but upon his return Mikulak won the 2016 Winter Cup Challenge all-around title. His ability to bounce back should come as no surprise. A year before the London 2012 Games, Mikulak broke both ankles. He subsequently worked on pommel horse and still rings, events which require upper-body strength, and used his new prowess to make the 2012 Olympic team.
Can Kayla Harrison repeat as Olympic champion in judo by taking down another hometown hero? In 2012, Harrison became the first American judoka – male or female – to win an Olympic gold medal. She was the surprise winner at 78 kg., throwing British rival Gemma Gibbons twice in the London final. In Rio, Harrison’s top competition is expected to be Brazilian Mayra Aguiar. Harrison, currently ranked No. 1 in the world, defeated Aguiar at the 2015 Pan American Games, but the Brazilian prevailed at a 2016 tournament in Paris. The rivals appear to be heading for a showdown in Rio.
Can the only American judoka to beat Ronda Rousey win Rio gold? In her book “My Fight / Your Fight,” Rousey, an Olympic judo bronze medalist before she became a mixed martial arts superstar, claimed that Marti Malloy was the only U.S. opponent to have beaten her. Alas, Malloy says she has no recollection of the encounter, and says it must have been in their youth training days. Malloy, who won the Olympic bronze medal in 2012 at 57 kg., also earned the respect of her teammates at San Jose State University, where she became the first female captain of a judo team composed primarily of larger males.
Will pentathlon be a family affair? The Isaksen sisters, Margaux and Isabella, and the Schrimsher brothers, Nathan and Lucas, could all qualify for Team USA. So far, only Nathan Schrimsher, a U.S. Army Specialist, is guaranteed a berth based on his third-place finish at the Pan American Games. Margaux Isaksen is vying for her third Olympic team. She was just 16 when she competed at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, then placed fourth in London, 2 seconds shy of a podium spot. Both sets of siblings train together.
Meghan Musnicki knows how to deliver. The 2012 Olympic rowing gold medalist won praise for her commencement address at Ithaca College, her alma mater, in May 2015. A few months later, she helped Team USA win its 10th consecutive world or Olympic title in the women’s eight. The U.S. has not lost an Olympic or world championship in that boat since 2006. Will Musnicki and her teammates deliver the third straight Olympic gold medal for Team USA in Rio?
While the Team USA women’s eight has long been a force to be reckoned with, 2015 was a breakthrough year for the women’s quadruple sculls. The boat won an historic first gold medal at the world championships. Can they glide on that momentum to gold in Rio? The quadruple sculls boat from the 2015 worlds includes Megan Kalmoe, who capped the season with an unprecedented second straight USRowing Female Athlete of the Year award. She also received the 2015 Woman of the Year Award.
Paging Dr. Stone. The doctor is in – single sculls, that is. Gevvie Stone will try to win the first U.S. medal in the event since Michelle Guerette took silver in 2008. Stone had planned to retire after the London 2012 Olympic Games and finish medical school at Tufts University. But her seventh-place finish seemed to promise even faster races in the future. Stone kept her oars in the water and won silver and bronze medals in world cup regattas last year and was fourth at the world championships. Stone is the daughter of 1976 Olympian Lisa Hansen, who finished seventh in women’s coxed quadruple sculls in Montreal, and 1980 Olympian Gregg Stone, who missed the Moscow Games because of the boycott. Her father is also her coach.
Seth Weil was a big man on campus whose college friends had even bigger plans for him. They were rowers who saw potential in the 6-foot-6 Weil. He took to the sport and stayed with it, earning honors in the men’s four. Weil and his teammates dug deep for the bronze medal at the 2013 world championships, followed by the silver a year later. Weil is USRowing’s most recent Male Athlete of the Year. The four-man boat is the priority boat for the U.S. following its bronze-medal performance in Rio.
The last time rugby was played in the Olympic Games, the United States won its second straight gold medal in the sport. But that was 1924 and the format was 15-a-side. Now it’s 2016 and rugby sevens, a faster-paced game, is on the program. Still, can the U.S. return to the podium? If Carlin Isles, “the fastest man in rugby” has something say about it, it’s a done deal. Isles has so much speed he competed in the U.S. indoor track and field championships in the 60-meter dash. He made his debut for the U.S. national sevens team in October 2012 as a substitute and scored a try in his first minute on the pitch.
Can Jillion Potter complete her comeback by landing a spot on the U.S. women’s rugby team? Potter suffered a broken neck in 2010, but had no intention of quitting the sport. Then she was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. Within 14 months, Potter was back as captain. “In rugby, one of the biggest things you learn is resilience and persistence and getting knocked down in a tackle and having to get back up and support your teammates and play the game,” she said. “It's the same in life.”
Now that golf and rugby are in the Olympic Games, are they golden to stay on the program forever? No, they are only guaranteed through the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Their status will be reevaluated after the 2016 Olympic Games. According to the IOC, the key factors in determining a sport’s suitability for the Olympic program include “youth appeal, universality, popularity, good governance, respect for athletes and respect for the Olympic values.”
Will Paige Railey finally sail to an Olympic medal in the Laser Radial class? She has achieved almost everything else in her career. Railey is a world champion, Rolex ISAF World Sailor of the Year and US Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. After placing eighth at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was third at the 2013 world championships (to go along with bronze medals in 2010 and 2011). Railey was fourth at the Rio test event last year and last week won the silver medal in the 2016 world championships by a single point. Is this her year?
Can Kim Rhode go six-for-six? The shotgun athlete has never failed to bag a medal in her five Olympic Games dating back to 1996. Rhode is the only American to go five-for-five in an individual sport, winning her first three medals in double trap (gold in Atlanta, bronze in Sydney, gold in Athens) and her latest two in skeet (silver in Beijing, gold in London). She’s gunning for her sixth straight Olympic Games in Rio in skeet. A sixth straight medal that would tie Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler (1994-2014).
Will rifle shooter Matt Emmons “Czech” off another medal? The New Jersey native lives in the Czech Republic with his wife, Katerina Kurkova, whom he met at the 2004 Olympic Games. They married in 2007 and have three children. Emmons already has a medal of every color: gold in Athens and silver in Beijing in prone and bronze in three-position in London. He clinched his position on Team USA for Rio in three-position. Emmons’ wife also has competed in three Olympic Games and has a medal of every color. However, she retired a couple of years ago.
Vincent Hancock has earned more than Olympic medals for his country. He is the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in skeet (2008 and 2012) and one of the most decorated athletes in shooting history as the first U.S. shotgun athlete to win three world championship titles. But Hancock, who served six years with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in Fort Benning, Georgia, has other medals, too: the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the Distinguished International Shooter Badge.
Can Team USA keep the ball rolling in women’s soccer? Since women got a tournament of their own 20 years ago, the U.S. has been a juggernaut with gold medals in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Even when the U.S. Women’s National Team was suffering World Cup woes, its Olympic fortunes remained bright. Now for the first time since 2000, Team USA is going into the Olympic Games as reigning World Cup champions following its stirring 5-2 victory over Japan. No women’s soccer team has ever won the World Cup and Olympic Games back-to-back. Team USA is led by Carli Lloyd, who scored the winning goal in the 2008 gold-medal game in overtime against Brazil and both goals in the 2012 gold-medal match against Japan. Lloyd also won the Golden Ball as the best player in the 2015 Women’s World Cup and was named the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year and FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year.
If you are flying down to Rio and happen to be sitting behind U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan, keep your feet under your seat. Morgan says her biggest pet peeve is when someone kicks the back of her chair on an airplane. Morgan will be doing plenty of kicking, though, when she gets to Rio.
What Katie Ledecky did at the 2015 world championships with five gold medals was nothing short of amazing, but then that has become the norm for her. In Kazan, Ledecky won the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyle events, an even more impressive span than the 400-800-1,500 triple she accomplished two years earlier in Barcelona. Ledecky also swam a leg on the 800-meter relay at both world championships. Alas, Ledecky, who is also the world-record holder in the 400, 800 and 1,500, won’t be able to swim her longest event at the Olympic Games. That’s because the longest event for women is 800. Which events she swims in Rio remains to be seen, but she is sure to build on the one gold medal she won in London when she was just 15 years old.
Which current athlete is tied for second place in career Olympic medals among U.S men with Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi? That’s Ryan Lochte with 11. However, Spitz and Biondi did not have to share the pool with the likes of Michael Phelps. Still, Lochte has carved out his own niche, winning the gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley in 2012 as well as gold in the 200 backstroke in 2008. He’s trying to become only the third U.S. male to qualify for four Olympic teams, joining Jason Lezak and… Phelps.
Will Tyler Clary parlay Olympic gold into another kind of racing career? Clary, the 200-meter backstroke gold medalist four years ago, is an aspiring race car driver. He recognizes that making a big splash in the pool can help him land sponsorships when he’s out of the water.
Can Jordan Wilimovsky win the first U.S. Olympic medal in men’s open water swimming? Wilimovsky won the 10-kilometer event at the 2015 world championships.
What can Missy Franklin do for an encore? She won four gold medals and a bronze in London and helped orchestrate the “Call Me Maybe” lip-synching video that helped bond the U.S. swimming team. Franklin followed her Olympic success with a six gold medals at the 2013 world championships – a record for female swimmers and something even Ledecky could not surpass. She still holds the world record in the 200 backstroke. Franklin turned professional after a successful collegiate career and with her natural effervescence, she’s sure to be called.
Can Nathan Adrian become the fastest swimmer on the planet? And can he help the U.S. get back on top of the world in the 400 freestyle relay? The defending champion in the 100-meter freestyle, Adrian hopes to also compete in the 50 in Rio as well as swim legs on the 4x100 medley, which won gold in London, and the 4x100 freestyle, which took silver four years ago behind France.
Will Natalie Coughlin become the most decorated female swimmer of all time, as well as the most decorated U.S. female athlete? With 12 Olympic medals, she is tied with fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres. Coughlin, whose events are the 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and relays, is now 33, but age is no deterrent. Torres was 33 when she won Olympic gold medals in Sydney in 2000 and 41 when she captured silver medals in Beijing in the 50 freestyle and two relays.
Swimmer Simone Manuel says her worst habit is procrastinating. Well, she has no time to waste in the 50 and 100-meter freestyles, where she is one of the top U.S. hopes. Team USA is hoping to win gold in the 4x100 free, an event it has won 14 times, for the first time since 2000.
If swimmer Maya DiRado makes the U.S. Olympic team, the NBC cameras will surely be trained on her. DiRado, who won the silver medal at the 2015 world championships in the 400-meter individual medley and was fourth in the 200 IM, started swimming at age 6. Her first race was a 25-meter freestyle, which she won. Unfortunately, her dad was filming the race but accidentally focused on the girl in the lane next to DiRado – who did not have a good race. Will DiRado’s dad get a chance to make up for his early error with video from the Olympic pool?
Olympians often get a tattoo of the Olympic rings as a reminder of their achievement. Swimmer Conor Dywer got some ink after earning a gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle at the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he was also fifth in the 400 freestyle. Originally, Dwyer’s grandfather had forbidden all of his grandchildren from getting a tattoo. He made one exception: They could get one if they made an Olympic team. He told all the other grandchildren they, too, can get a tattoo if they make an Olympic team.
When the U.S. synchronized swimming duet comes up for air in Rio, will it earn its first Olympic medal since 2004? Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva finished seventh in the Rio test event in March. Koroleva will be making her second Olympic trip, while Alvarez is an Olympic rookie. They teamed up in 2015 and recently won their first international gold medal.
Table tennis player Lily Zhang is the only American to compete in the Olympic Games prior to a Youth Olympic Games. Two years after playing in London, Zhang won the 2014 YOG bronze medal in singles in Nanjing, China. No other Team USA athlete has won a medal in table tennis at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. And yes, even she calls it ping pong sometimes.
Fifteen-year-old table tennis player Kanak Jha is the first U.S. athlete born in the 2000s to become an Olympian. Jha, born June 19, 2000, secured his spot by defeating 2012 Olympian Timothy Wang, the No. 1 U.S. player. Jha has been a member of the U.S. worlds team since 2014, when he was the youngest participant in the history of the world championships. As the newest U.S. hope for the 21st century, Jha likely has many more Olympic Games in his future.
If there’s an Olympic taekwondo competition, Steven Lopez can’t be far away. The most decorated athlete in the sport, Lopez, 37, won gold medals in 2000 (when taekwondo became a full-medal Olympic sport) and 2004 and the bronze medal in 2008. Although he had an ankle injury in 2012 and lost in the first round, Lopez had no intentions of retiring. However, new Olympic qualifying procedures required athletes to earn world ranking points at numerous international competitions, which took a toll on his body. Lopez won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games and then underwent shoulder surgery in late 2015. He qualified for the 2016 team in the welterweight class.
Jackie Galloway went to London four years ago under the Mexican flag, but was an alternate and did not compete. At age 14, Galloway had been the youngest athlete in Mexico national team history and trained in Mexico City for two years. Galloway, who has dual citizenship, then decided to compete under her native U.S. flag. She has known she was going to Rio since December, when she qualified based on her World Taekwondo Federation rankings. Competing at +67 kilograms, Galloway is the first male or female heavyweight to earn a spot on a U.S. Olympic Team since taekwondo joined the Olympic program as a full-medal sport in 2000.
Expect taekwondo to be a bit different in Rio compared to London. In 2015, the WTF introduced several measures in a bid to raise excitement levels. Octagonal mats, three points for a spinning kick to the body and sensors within the headgear were implemented for the first time at the 2015 world championships.
Team USA has won 13 Olympic gold medals in tennis, more than any other nation, since the sport was reinstated in 1988. Serena Williams has won four of those medals. She won her first singles medal in London four years ago, accomplishing the “Serena Slam” of all four majors singles titles and the gold medal. She then teamed up with older sister Venus to win her third Olympic doubles title (2000, 2008 and 2012).
Born three minutes apart, Bob and Mike Bryan are the winningest doubles team in tennis history. Now the 37-year-olds are aiming for their fourth straight Olympic team. Though identical twins, the Bryan Bros. are easy to tell apart: Bob is left-handed while Mike is right-handed. They won the bronze medal in Beijing, then upgraded to the gold medal in London four years ago. Mike was doubly busy in in 2012. He also teamed up with Lisa Raymond for the bronze medal in mixed doubles in 2012 at the famed Wimbledon courts.
While Jack Sock has never competed in the Olympics, the U.S. tennis player already lives by the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and fair play. Sock, who is the second-highest ranked U.S. singles player at No. 26 (behind John Isner, who has said he will not compete in Rio, at No. 16), was playing in the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, in January against soon-to-be-retired Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Hewitt was down 4-5 in the first set when his first serve was ruled out. Sock then shouted to him, “That was in if you want to challenge it." Hewitt was taken aback, but challenged the call. The replay showed the ball had hit the line. Hewitt went on to win the match 7-5, 6-4.
Will the son and daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham leap for the skies in Rio? Vashti Cunningham won the world indoor high jump gold medal in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year at age 18. Her older brother, Randall II, competes for the University of Southern California and is a contender for the U.S. men’s team. Growing up, both Cunninghams were coached by their father – known in his NFL days as “The Ultimate Weapon” and together won gold medals at the Pan-American Junior Championships in 2015.
Is Tianna Bartoletta a long jumper who sprints or a sprinter who long jumps? Who cares? She’s world class at both. Bartoletta won the long jump at the 2015 world championships, earning the gold medal 10 years after taking the crown in 2005. But at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was strictly a sprinter, running a leg on the gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team that still holds the world record.
The same could be said for Torie Bowie. She competed in the long jump at the 2014 world indoor championships in Poland, then won the bronze medal in the 100-meter at last year's outdoor worlds. “I think I am a long jumper that can sprint well,” she has said.
People often say that the U.S. Olympic swimming and track and field trials are tougher than the Olympic Games. “There’s been a lot of times in our history where the third backstroker in the U.S. would have gotten an Olympic medal, but wasn’t able to go,” said Olympic backstroke gold medalist Matt Grevers. Even though track and field allows as many three entrants in each event – compared to two for swimming – it’s still just as hard to make the team. “What Olympic Trials does is it makes people rise to the occasion,” said hurdler Dawn Harper-Nelson, who won Olympic gold in 2008 in the 100-meter hurdles and the silver in 2012.
The world’s greatest athletes – male and female – may live in the same house. Ashton Eaton won the decathlon gold medal in 2012, is the reigning world champion and holds the world record in the two-day, 10-event test. His wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, is a heptathlete from Canada. She won the silver medal at the 2013 and 2015 world championships and will try to match her husband with a gold in Rio.
So, what’s that on Eaton’s head? He plans to wear a “cooling hood” between events during competition with a goal of reducing the heat around his face and head in an effort to maximize recovery. Interesting.
Now this is pressure. Before a race, Justin Gatlin’s son Jace tells him, “You better win, Daddy.” And for the past few years, Daddy has had to run against Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt. Will Gatlin live up to his son’s expectations in Rio? A U.S. sprinter has not won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter since Gatlin was victorious in 2004. He won the 100-meter bronze medal in 2012. In between, Gatlin served a doping suspension from 2006-10. At least something good came out of it: Jace was born three months before Gatlin’s doping ban ended in 2010.
Some people who undergo kidney transplants go on to compete in the Transplant Games of America, which promote organ and tissue donation. Aries Merritt has his heart set on the Olympic Games. After all, he’s the defending champion in the 110-meter hurdles, and if not for that kidney transplant last September, he would probably be the favorite to repeat as gold medalist. Against the odds and with only 20 percent kidney function, Merritt won the bronze medal at the 2015 world championships in Beijing. Days later, he went under the knife, his new kidney donated by his sister LaToya.
LaShawn Merritt admits that he does not enjoy walking. When he has to walk, he does so very slowly. So Merritt runs. He’s one of the top 400-meter runners in the world, coming off his silver medal performance in the world championships in Beijing. He also helped the U.S. team win the 4x400-meter relay. Seven years earlier, Merritt won the Olympic gold medal on the same track in both events. Primed to defend his 400-meter title in London, he tore his hamstring two weeks before the Games and did not compete. At age 30, can Merritt win another individual gold?
Which track star can leg press 700 pounds and yet was saddled with the nickname “Chicken Legs,” by her high school teammates? That would be Allyson Felix, who could be the first 200-400 double threat since Michael Johnson of the U.S. and Marie-Jose Perec of France accomplished the feat in 1996. In 2012, Felix became the first female athlete since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 to win three track and field gold medals in a single Games (200, 4x100 and 4x400). Felix, whose “baby” is the 200-meter, focused on the 400 at the 2015 world championships, winning the gold in a personal-best time of 49.26 seconds.
English Gardner’s mother gave her such an unusual first name because she predicted her daughter would be destined for greatness, thus needing a name that would be hard to forget. Gardner ran 10.79 in the 100-meter in 2015, ranking No. 8 all-time in the event in the United States and No. 2 in the world last season. Will the American English be unforgettable in Rio?
Alysia Montano could get one step closer to her life’s dream if she makes it to Rio. Naturally, she wants to win an Olympic medal in the 800-meter. But she has another goal, too. Montano wants to meet Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend. Growing up, Montano played soccer and always asked for No. 10 because that was his number. Fifth in the London 800, will Montano make both her dreams come true?
How does marathon man Meb Keflezighi find the time to write two books? He has published “Run to Overcome” (with Dick Patrick) and “Meb for Mortals: How to Run, Think, and Eat like a Champion Marathoner” (with Scott Douglas). Keflezighi will be 41 years old in Rio, making him the oldest U.S. marathoner to compete in the Olympic Games, thanks to his second-place finish in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. He’s also the last American to medal in the event, claiming the silver in Athens on the historic marathon course. Four years ago, Keflezighi just missed the podium, placing fourth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The native of Eritrea was 12th in the 10,000-meter in 2000, two years after becoming a U.S. citizen.
Can Galen Rupp pull off one of the most difficult Olympic doubles? So far, Rupp has only run one marathon in his life, but it was a doozy. He won the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 12 seconds, the sixth fastest time in trials history (and more than a minute faster than Keflezighi). The Rio Olympic marathon will be Rupp’s second attempt at the distance. But he also wants to run the 10K on the track, and will attempt to qualify in July at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field. Rupp won the silver medal in the 10K in London. In Rio, the events will be eight days apart, with the 10K on Aug. 13 and the marathon on Aug. 21. In 1952, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia won the marathon, 10K and the 5K.
Can Joe Kovacs bring the shot put gold medal back to the United States? Kovacs is the reigning world champion, defeating two-time defending champion David Storl of Germany. The United States has won 17 of 27 gold medals in the Olympic shot put, but none since Adam Nelson in 2004 (although Nelson actually was upgraded from silver to gold nine years later when the original champion from Ukraine tested positive for doping). Christian Cantwell, the 2008 silver medalist, and Reese Hoffa, the 2012 bronze medalist, are also vying to make Team USA, so more than one man on the podium is not out of the question. The U.S. has won multiple Olympic shot put medals on 17 occasions and has not been shut out in a non-boycott year since 1976.
If ever there was a year for the U.S. to capture its first Olympic medal in triathlon since Susan Williams’ bronze in 2004, this is it. Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah True, both 2012 Olympians, and Olympic hopeful Katie Zaferes swept podiums at ITU World Triathlon Series events last season in Gold Coast, Australia, and London. The U.S. is only the second nation to claim a sweep and the first to earn two in one season. The three women also combined to win 16 of the possible 30 medals awarded in the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series.
Forty must be the new 30 for triathlete Hunter Kemper. He is the only male triathlete in the sport to complete – not just compete – all four Olympic triathlons. Kemper’s best finish is seventh in 2008.
Nothing says fun in the sun like beach volleyball. While the sport’s venue at London’s Horse Guards Parade was magnificent, it returns to its roots in Rio. No need to truck in sand – the iconic Copacabana Beach will host the competition. Team USA has won a gold medal in either the men’s or women’s tournaments ever since beach volleyball became a full-medal sport in 1996, and the trend should continue in 2016.
If Kerri Walsh Jennings wins her fourth gold medal in her fifth Olympic appearance, she would become just the third American to win four gold medals in one event for a team sport. A medal of any color would make the mother of three the most decorated beach athlete, male or female. She would also break the tie with longtime partner Misty May-Treanor, who also has three beach gold medals from 2004 to 2012. Walsh Jennings, who played on the indoor volleyball team in 2000, is now partnered with 2012 Olympic silver medalist April Ross.
Better late than never for John Hyden, who at age 43 is trying to make his first Olympic team in beach volleyball. He would be the oldest to qualify in the sport. Hyden, who is partnered with 26-year-old Tri Bourne, competed on the men’s indoor national team at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.
Starting setter Micah Christenson’s middle name is a mouthful. It is Makanamaikjalani, which means “Gift from Heaven.” His mother had to undergo surgery while she was pregnant with him and it was unknown if he would survive. Christenson is thriving in the USA Volleyball system. He became the team’s starting setter when he still had two years to go at the University of Southern California. Christenson also was named Best Setter of the 2015 World Cup and played this winter with one of Italy’s top professional teams.
Can Karch Kiraly lead another team to an Olympic gold medal? Chosen the greatest volleyball player of the 20th century by the FIVB, Kiraly is the only athlete to win Olympic gold medals in both indoor (1984, 1988) and beach volleyball (1996). In 2012, he accepted the head coaching job for the U.S. women, whom he’d coached as an assistant from 2009-12. In Kiraly’s three years at the helm, Team USA has a 99-20 overall record with eight tournament titles including the 2014 FIVB World Championships. After three Olympic silver and two bronze medals, could Kiraly have the magic touch to propel the U.S. onto the podium?
Receiver Kayla Banwarth was born to play volleyball. When she was little, she would sit on the living room floor. Her mom would sit on the sofa and they would pepper a stack of newspapers back and forth. Banwarth and Team USA are coming off the gold at the NORCECA Olympic qualification tournament.
Tony Azevedo is going back to his old stomping grounds, but will he have fond memories of his stay? The Rio de Janeiro native is attempting to make his fifth Olympic team, a U.S. water polo record. Azevedo also runs camps and clinics from Brazil to North America and speaks Portuguese, Italian, Serbo-Croatian-Montenegrin. Azevedo’s father, Rich, is the women’s head coach for China. He also helped launch the Water Polo Players Organization, which aims to unite water polo players around the world and improve the sport.
Will sisters Makenzie and Aria Fischer become the next generation in their family to play Olympic water polo? Their father Erich competed for Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Maddie Musselman, another rising talent on the team, also has a dad who played sports at a high level. Eric Musselman was a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets.
Can Team USA lift a huge burden off its shoulders in weightlifting? The men haven’t won an Olympic medal in 32 years – much less a gold in 56 years – and the women haven’t reached the podium since Tara Nott’s victory and Cheryl Haworth's bronze in 2000. Four years ago, Team USA posted three top-10 finishes, with Sarah Robles placing seventh and Holley Mangold 10th in the women’s +75 kg. weight class and Kendrick Farris 10th in the men’s 94 kg. division.
Could “The LeBron James of Weightlifting” end that men’s medal drought? Or could it be “The Michael Jordan of Weightlifting”? Both terms describe CJ Cummings, who will turn 16 on June 6. He’s the most promising young U.S. lifter in years. In 2015, Cummings competed in the youth, junior and senior world championships and has set more than 20 American records. He was the youngest athlete in any weight class to compete at the 2015 senior world championships, placing 31st in the 69 kg division. And Cummings – who lifted 153 kg. in the 62 kg. clean and jerk last year to set an American senior record – is only getting stronger.
Will weightlifter Norik Vardanian achieve his goal of making the Olympic team for a second country? Vardanian competed at the 2012 Olympic Games for Armenia, the country of his birth, placing 11th in London. Vardanian, who has dual citizenship, then moved back to the United States and is currently a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Not many athletes can boast that they are national champions in two countries. Vardanian won the silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games and set American records for the snatch and total in the 94 kg. division. His father, Urik Vardanian, is an Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion.
What’s the best motivational song for an athlete? For weightlifter Jenny Arthur, it’s “Victory” by gospel singer Yolanda Adams. Arthur holds both senior and junior American records in the snatch, clean and jerk and total in the 75 kg. division. She was the first weightlifter of either gender to qualify for Rio and will be the first athlete to represent Team USA in the 75 kg. division since 2000.
How has the “CrossFit” craze helped U.S. weightlifting build its talent pool? The fitness program has a large focus on Olympic-style weightlifting, driving many new athletes to the sport. Over the past few years, USA Weightlifting’s membership has more than doubled, with the growth spanning youth, junior, senior and masters levels.
Can Jordan Burroughs defend his Olympic gold medal in the men’s freestyle 74 kg. division? And then can he make it three in a row in Tokyo? Whoa, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but Burroughs has already announced his intention to compete through 2020, when he hopes to surpass two-time Olympic champion and four-time world champ John Smith as the winningest U.S. wrestler of all time. Burroughs already has three world titles and a world bronze medal, which he earned while grappling with a leg injury.
Will Kyle Snyder surpass 2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo as the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion in history? Snyder became the youngest U.S. world champion at age 19 when he won the 2015 world title following his freshman year at Ohio State. Earlier this month, he knocked off defending Olympic champion Jake Varner to earn the Team USA freestyle spot at 97 kg. Cejudo was 21 years, 6 months old when he earned Olympic gold in Beijing. Snyder will be 20 years, 8½ months when the Rio Games begin.
Can Adeline Gray become the first female U.S. gold medalist in wrestling? Gray, who competes at 75 kg., already has three world titles and five total world championship medals, second only to Tricia Saunders (with five world gold medals) and Kristie Davis with nine total world medals. Gray also boasts a winning streak of more than 35 matches dating back to July 2014. Can she keep it going all the way through Rio?
What difference does 2 kg. make? For people checking bags at airports … a lot. The same goes for Helen Maroulis, the 2015 wrestling world champion at the non-Olympic 55 kg. Maroulis had to choose between going up 3 kg. or down 2 kg. to make her first Olympic team. She opted to drop down to 53 kg., adopting a strict diet and exercise program. After her victory at the Olympic Trials, Maroulis traveled all the way to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where she won a tournament last weekend to secure the Rio qualifying spot. Four years ago, Maroulis was the runner-up at the Olympic Trials, losing by one point. She hasn’t lost in international competition in more than a year. Losing weight, however, is her constant challenge.
Foreign competitors know him as “The Cowboy.” In the U.S., he’s called “The Stache” and even his Twitter handle (@Biseks_Stache) includes the nickname. But on the mat, Andy Bisek is simply known as the best Greco-Roman wrestler for Team USA. Competing at 75 kg., Bisek won back-to-back bronze medals at the 2014 and 2015 world championships. With wins over the reigning Olympic champ and several world champions, can Bisek wrangle a gold for Team USA?