(L-R) Tony Azevedo, Kim Rhode, Claressa Shields, Richelle Stevens and Mariel Zagunis have all held the prestigious honor of Team USA flag bearer.
Have a conversation with an Olympian about what motivates them to put in the days, weeks, years of dedication and sacrifice, and at some point you’ll hear something along these lines:
“I want to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage.”
The 553 U.S. athletes who will run, jump, shoot, swim and ride in Brazil will do just that. But there are two who upon whom the spotlight will shine the brightest. We don’t know who they are just yet – in fact, they don’t even know.
They are the two athletes who will be selected to carry their nation’s flag and lead Team USA into Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 5 and the Closing Ceremony on Aug. 21.
In the days before the ceremony, the team captains from each sport meet to select the flag bearer. Each captain is given the opportunity to nominate a teammate and explain why his or her nominee should be selected for the honor. Some are distinguished and highly decorated Olympians, while others are put forward because of their inspirational personal stories.
Five members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team understand the honor and responsibility that comes with selection as the team’s flag bearer because they have had the good fortune to be selected by their peers at either an Olympic Games, a Youth Olympic Games or a Pan American Games: water polo player Tony Azevedo, shooter Kim Rhode, boxer Claressa Shields, rugby player Richelle Stephens and fencer Mariel Zagunis.
Of the five, Zagunis is the only one to serve as flag bearer at an Olympic Games, leading Team USA into the Opening Ceremony at the London 2012 Games. Zagunis kick-started a resurgence in American fencing with her gold medal in saber at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games at the age of 19. A late addition to the team when Nigeria handed back its quota spot, Zagunis, the next highest-ranked fencer, received her invitation only two weeks before the competition began. She made the most of the opportunity, stunning the world and becoming the first U.S. fencer to win Olympic gold in 100 years. She successfully defended her Olympic title and added a team bronze in Beijing. Although she left London without a medal, she enters the Rio competition ranked No. 3 in the world and a favorite to add to her Olympic collection. The Olympic Games are in her blood: Her parents, Robert and Cathy, were rowers at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.
Rhode also had the honor of leading her teammates into an Opening Ceremony, doing so at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. A living Olympic legend, she heads to Rio looking to add even more luster to an already glowing legacy. Having won five medals in five consecutive Olympic Games, she is drawing a bead on her sixth medal, which would tie Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler for the record for most consecutive Games winning a medal. Rhode is the first American to go five-for-five in an individual sport. Her first three medals came in double trap (gold in Atlanta, bronze in Sydney, gold in Athens). When women’s double trap was dropped from the Olympic program after Athens, she switched to skeet to earn two more medals (silver in Beijing, gold in London). Although she didn’t know it at the time, she had company while setting the Olympic record by hitting 99 of 100 targets in London: She was pregnant with her son, Carter. Post-partum complications have made her preparations for Rio more challenging, but she heads to Brazil ranked No. 8 in the world and in a position to earn a medal on a fifth different continent.
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Shields served as Pan American Games flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony after winning gold in Toronto. The first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing, Shields has inspired people around the world with her personal story, one of triumph over tremendous adversity to become the world’s greatest female boxer. In her illustrious career she has lost only one time, falling to British world champion Savannah Marshall in the months prior to the London 2012 Games. Shields rebounded from that setback to claim gold in London, then won the 2013 youth world title and two elite world championships (2014, 2016). She will compete in Rio as the odds-on favorite to defend her Olympic title.
Azevedo also handled Closing Ceremony flag bearer duties at a Pan American Games, carrying the Stars and Stripes in 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he led the U.S. water polo team to the gold medal. Born in Rio in 1981, he is the only Brazilian-American on Team USA. His family has deep roots in Brazilian sport: His grandfather played in soccer’s World Cup and his father, Ricardo, was a two-time player of the year for the Brazilian water polo national team who has enjoyed a highly success coaching career, including a stint coaching the U.S. men’s team. Since 2013, Tony has been playing professionally in Brazil for Sesi and led the club to its first Brazilian League championship. A member of the silver-medal-winning team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the 2016 FINA World League final, he has five Pan Am Games gold medals to his credit. Entering his fifth Olympic Games, Azevedo and the U.S. men, ranked No. 2 in the world, hope to win the first Olympic gold in their sport since the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games.
The youngest of the past flag bearers at age 20, Stephens was selected for the responsibility during the Closing Ceremony at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. She and her teammates are sporting pioneers as the first American women to compete in rugby at an Olympic Games, just as she was part of the first team to compete at a Youth Olympic Games. Although she is less than 18 months removed from high school, Stephens already has an impressive list of accomplishments, including playing every minute of six games in her international debut at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championship tournament, where she helped the U.S. qualify for Rio. She backed up a fourth-place finish in Nanjing with a silver-medal performance at the Pan Am Games last summer.
Who will be selected for the honor of flag bearer in Rio? It’s anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: That athlete will feel the rush of joy, pride, humility and honor summed up by Zagunis as such:
“We athletes all have a mutual understanding and respect for each other knowing: I've dedicated my life to this, I want this more than anything, nothing else matters more than bringing home that gold medal. Everyone's story is unique and special, yet the bond remains that we are all there, marching through the tunnel in the Olympic Stadium, united under one purpose. This is why being chosen to be the 'face' of Team USA — to represent all of those struggles, stories and successes — is such a huge honor. During the Olympic Games, the world has their eyes on Team USA, and during the Opening Ceremony, the world had their eyes on me. I am forever grateful and appreciative to my Olympic teammates who granted me this opportunity to represent them and our country in this way.”