By any measure, Team USA’s performance at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was golden. The United States topped the overall medal count for the sixth straight Games with 121 and led in gold (46), silver (37) and bronze (38).
Here’s a look at 16 of the most memorable moments for Team USA in Rio.
At West Virginia, Thrasher was a double NCAA shooting champion as a freshman, then was a surprise winner of the three-position event at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. So when the 19-year-old went into the 10-meter air rifle competition on Day 1 of the Games — against a field that included a strong contingent from China — she was considered an underdog. Yet Thrasher won the first gold medal of the Rio Games by shooting an Olympic-record score of 208 to top two-time Olympic champ Du Li of China. Said Thrasher: “Knowing that I had the first gold medal in the entire Rio 2016 Olympics, that was the moment when I thought, ‘I am so proud, I am proud of being American, I am so proud to stand on that podium.’”
“Phelps Face” Goes Viral
It was the death stare that went viral. Just before Michael Phelps swam in the semifinals of the 200-meter butterfly, he was photographed sitting alone, his headphones in and his hood pulled over his head as he glowered at rival Chad le Clos, a South African who had in the past talked trash about the American and was warming up in front of him. The photo took on a life of its own on social media, becoming a meme with amateur comedians weighing in with explanations for Phelps’ angry look, such as: “When you ask for no pickles in your burger and they still put pickles. #PhelpsFace,” or, “When you pour a bowl of cereal and then realize there’s no milk. #PhelpsFace.” Phelps beat le Clos in the semis, then went on to win gold.
Big things were expected of the 4-foot-8, 19-year-old gymnast in her Olympic debut, and she delivered. Biles, who had won all-around titles at the past three world championships, won the all-around crown in Rio, too. Throughout the competition, Biles lived up to her billing as the best gymnast in the world. She easily outscored her teammate Aly Raisman, who won silver. “No one goes into this thinking they can beat Simone,” said Raisman. Biles also won gold medals on floor exercise, vault and as a member of the winning U.S. team. She earned a bronze medal on balance beam. No American woman ever had won four golds at a single Games. To boot, she was chosen by her peers as Team USA flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony.
After Nia Ali crossed the finish line, she knew she was second to teammate Brianna Rollins in the women's 100-meter hurdles. But she wasn’t quite sure if another teammate, Kristi Castlin, had grabbed third. “We were like, ‘Did we do it? Did we do it?’” said Ali, as they waited for the results to be flashed. “And then yes. It was so perfect.” It marked the first time U.S. women had ever swept the medals in an Olympic track and field event. Rollins won in 12.48 seconds. Ali’s time was 12.59. Castlin’s driving lean put her across the line at 12.61, just .02 seconds ahead of the fourth-fastest hurdler. Coming into the Games, the trio called themselves “a dream team,” and they proved it.
The 30-year-old fencer from New Jersey broke a barrier by becoming the first U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab at the Games, but she wanted to do more than break barriers. She wanted to show that Muslim-American women can excel as athletes. She accomplished her goal, winning a bronze medal as part of the women’s saber team. Though she was knocked out in the second round of the individual sabre competition, she and three teammates beat Italy in the bronze-medal match, 45-30. Muhammad said she hoped she had shattered some stereotypes about Muslim-American women. “We’re like any other athletes,” she said. “We have worked really hard for this, and I can’t think of a more deserving group of girls to go home with a medal.”
One of the biggest stars of the Games turned out to be an actress and comedian who didn’t run, swim, jump or bike. “Saturday Night Live” and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones was back home in the States at the start of the competition, but she was constantly live-tweeting about the athletes and events from her living-room couch (while outfitted in stars and stripes) — and gathering quite a following. The ardent Olympic fan caught the attention of NBC, which decided to fly her to Rio and send her to the events to add her touch to the broadcasts. Among her tweets: “How they get the horses in the water” (for water polo); “I already know I would be terrible at this game because first off I would pick the ball up every time” (for soccer); and, “What the (expletive) is this?” (for team handball). Once in Rio, she had a blast. At one point she posted a photo of herself with gymnasts Simone Biles and Aly Raisman with the message: “I can’t believe my life!”
Before the U.S. women’s gymnastics team ever walked into the arena at Rio, 2012 Olympian Aly Raisman said she and her teammates were “going in as the best team in the world.” She said they planned to act like it. “You know, you walk in like you’re No. 1 and I think that’s intimidating to everyone else.” The Americans then backed up their attitude in winning the team gold and nine medals in all, a record for U.S. women in a single Games. Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas (the first defending all-around champ to compete since Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in 1980), Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian made up the “Final Five” that captured Americans’ attention. Biles won all-around gold, the vault and floor exercise while adding bronze in the beam; Raisman had two silvers, in the all-around and floor; Kocian had a silver in the uneven bars; and Hernandez had a silver on the beam. After their stunning performance, the Final Five got more TV time on NBC with actor Zac Efron, Biles’ celebrity crush. He posed for pics with all of them, offered his congratulations and even gave Biles a kiss. Tweeted Biles afterward, with photos: “He kissed me on the cheek just letting y’all know.”
In 1896 in Athens, American triple jumper James Connolly became the first person to win a gold medal in the modern Olympic Games. Since then, the United States has been the most dominant nation. Team USA entered Rio with 977 gold medals in summer competition, far ahead of the 473 won by the Soviet Union and 288 by Germany. At these Games, Team USA won its milestone 1,000th gold in the women’s 400-meter medley relay when swimmers Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Simone Manuel and Dana Vollmer combined to beat Australia by 1.87 seconds. United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun called it “a remarkable achievement.” Added Vollmer: “It’s a huge honor. We think about the generations that came before us and the first Olympic team that we watched. To win that 1,000th medal, just to know the history of the U.S. Olympic Teams, it’s just incredible to be part of that.”
Four years earlier, Jorgensen’s bike blew a tire and she finished 38th in the triathlon at the London Games. That disappointment fueled her drive for 2016. In her second Olympic Games, Jorgensen came from four seconds behind after the bike leg to win gold by 40 seconds over the 2012 champion. After crossing the finish line, she burst into tears. “I’ve said for four years that this was my goal,” she said. “I wanted to cross that line and get the gold medal. It’s pretty incredible that I was able to do it.” Jorgensen’s victory was the first for a U.S. athlete, man or woman.
Stop, Salute, Medal: Sam Kendricks Becomes A Team USA Icon
As Kendricks, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, charged down the runway in the pole vault, he heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” play for a medal ceremony in the Olympic stadium. He stopped, dropped his pole and stood at attention. The video of his impromptu demonstration of patriotism went viral. “Those guys are really proud of me and have given me every chance to continue as a civilian,” said Kendricks of the Army Reserve. “I am certainly looking to represent the Americans on two fronts, as a military man and a U.S. athlete.” The two-time NCAA pole vault champ went on to jump 19 feet, 2¼ inches to earn a bronze medal. It was the first U.S. medal in the event in 12 years.
It was a stunning performance, even by Ledecky standards: In the 800-meter freestyle final, the 19-year-old won the gold medal by an estimated nine body lengths while breaking her own world record by nearly two seconds. It was her fourth gold medal of the Rio Games and fifth overall. Her other championships came in the 200- and 400-meter free and as part of the 4x200-free relay. She also won a silver medal on the 4x100-free relay team. She added a world record in the 200 free. Said U.S. teammate Michael Phelps: “She gets in the water and pretty much gives every world record a scare.”
When Manuel won swimming gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, she knew the medal wasn’t just for her. As the first African-American woman to win an individual event (she tied for first with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in an Olympic-record 52.70), Manuel acknowledged her victory was for other African-Americans. “It’s for a whole bunch of people that came before me and have been an inspiration to me.” Added Manuel: “It’s for all the other people after me, who believe they can’t do it. I want to be the inspiration to others.” Manuel, 20, won another gold in the 4x100-meter medley and silvers in the 50-free and 4x100 free.
The former Dartmouth running star didn’t leave Rio with a single medal, yet she earned a place of honor for her act of sportsmanship. D’Agostino was racing in the women’s 5,000-meter when she and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin collided and both fell to the track. D’Agostino bounced up but saw Hamblin was still down and apparently injured. So she helped Hamblin to her feet. Then, after heading toward the finish, D’Agosino went down because she had torn a knee ligament — prompting Hamblin to help her up. Both finished, but long after every other athlete. Each received the Fair Play award from the International Fair Play Committee. Said D’Agostino: “It’s encouraging that a simple act of kindness just resonates with people. We see it and we know that that’s what this is about. That’s what the Games is about.”
Before these Olympic Games, Japan’s Saori Yoshida was considered the greatest women’s wrestler ever. She was a celebrity in her nation with a fistful of endorsements and was a familiar face on TV commercials. She had won three Olympic titles and 13 world championships and was the favorite to win again. But in the finals of the 53 kg. weight class, Helen Maroulis, a 24-year-old making her Olympic debut, stunned Yoshida in a 4-1 decision. The victory made Maroulis the first U.S. woman to win Olympic wrestling gold. After the win she cried, climbed into the stands to hug family and friends and then ran around the mat with a U.S. flag. “I’ve dreamed of this my whole life,” she said.
The most decorated athlete in Olympic history said his final race was the perfect ending to his swimming career. “It was the cherry on top of the cake that I wanted,” he said. On the final day of his fifth and final Games, Phelps helped the men’s 4x100 medley team to gold. Swimming butterfly in the third leg, Phelps began his final effort in second place, but gained a lead the Americans held. The victory gave Phelps his 23rd gold medal among 28 in all, a total he calls “insane.” Even at age 31, Phelps showed his dominance, winning five golds and a silver at Rio, where he was also chosen as Team USA's Opening Ceremony flag bearer. “I’ve been able to do everything I ever put my mind to in the sport,” said Phelps, who wanted no regrets after deciding to swim in one more Games before retiring. “Being able to close the door on this sport is how I wanted to, that’s why I’m happy now.”
Going into the men’s 1,500-meter final, Centrowitz’s plan was to run steady and be ready to pour it on late. Instead, he saw an early opening, took the lead and held off all comers to become the first American to win the event since 1908. Centrowitz was experienced — the reigning world indoor champion and a two-time world championship medalist (bronze, silver) — and motivated, having finished fourth at London in 2012. “I came in with a different mindset,” he said. His time of 3:50 was far slower than his fourth-place time at London (3:35.17), but it was a pace that suited him. He held off two Olympic champions over the final 400 meters for the win.
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.