Team USA’s Top 17 Men Of 2017

By Blythe Lawrence | Dec. 28, 2017, 5:08 p.m. (ET)

 

There were records and firsts, confirmations of dominance, jaw-dropping comebacks and come-from-behind victories.

For the men of Team USA, 2017 was a year of seizing victories and laying the groundwork for future ones. From the breakout swimmer of 2017 to a Para higher jumper who set three world records in a single day and a rising star in weightlifting, here are 17 of the brightest stars of the year:

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Lowell Bailey, Biathlon

And to think that last year he nearly retired from the sport to take up cattle farming. Bailey’s 2017 was filled with firsts: The 36-year-old became the first American to win a gold medal in the six-decade history of the biathlon world championships, a sterling result for a man who had never finished higher than fifth in major international competition. Even before his surge in the 20-kilometer individual, Bailey had made history — two top-six finishes in earlier events at worlds in Hochfilzen, Austria, made him the very first U.S. athlete to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. He also earned world cup sprint silver on the Olympic course and then he and Susan Dunklee also took silver in a single mixed relay for the country’s first team medal in 23 years.

 

Mikey Brannigan, Para Track and Field

Middle-distance star Brannigan was golden in the T20 800- and 1,500-meter races at the World Para Athletics Championships this year, continuing a run of success that saw him crowned as the 2016 Paralympic champion in the 1,500. The 21-year-old, who runs for the New York Athletic Club and was the first person with autism to run a mile in less than four minutes, added silver medal in the 5,000 at the London worlds, bringing the his world medal collection to five.

 

Nathan Chen, Figure Skating

Four minutes was all it took for Chen to jump from talented youngster to Olympic podium favorite. The 18-year-old from Salt Lake City grabbed the skating world’s attention when he became the first figure skater ever to land five quadruple jumps in a single program, an exploit he accomplished at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. He ended the year by gliding off with the first place at the ISU Grand Prix Final, the first American man to do so since Evan Lysacek did it in 2009, months before his gold-medal performance in Vancouver. Is it an omen? Bring on PyeongChang.

 

Caeleb Dressel, Swimming

Earning two Olympic gold medals with U.S. relay teams in Rio was just the beginning. This was Dressel’s breakout year: With seven gold medals at his FINA World Championships debut in Budapest in July, the then-20-year-old junior from the University of Florida was the undisputed star of the meet. His medal haul ties Michael Phelps’ record for the most golds at a single world championships, but even Phelps never won three in a single day, which is how Dressel finished his meet.

 

Justin Gatlin, Track and Field

In the final individual 100 meters of Usain Bolt’s glorious career, it was Gatlin and not the Jamaican superstar who streaked to the win at the IAAF World Championships in London. The race, packaged as a victory lap for Bolt as he closed out a legendary career, quickly became a redemption for Gatlin, who at 35 years old earned his first world title since 2005. Not one to ignore history, Gatlin paid homage to Bolt on the track, bowing in front of him even after being acknowledged as the winner.

 

Isaac Jean-Paul, Para Track and Field

In his first appearance at the World Para Athletics Championships this summer, Jean-Paul set a world record in high jump in the T-13 classification — then bettered it twice in the space of a few minutes en route to gold. The legally blind 24-year-old is a newcomer to the Para sports world, and the London worlds were just his third competition. One of his greatest strengths is having turned his disability into an advantage: not being able to see the bar until he’s almost upon it means he doesn’t panic about clearing it. He also does well when there’s no bar at all, collecting an additional bronze in the long jump.

 

Sam Kendricks, Track and Field

Running, jumping and hugging — that’s how Kendricks won a world title in pole vault this summer in London. The Rio bronze medalist went on a roll, recording no misses before clearing 5.95 meters to clinch his first world title, the first American man in a decade to accomplish that feat. When France’s Renaud Lavillenie clinched bronze, Kendricks leaped onto the mat to hug him. With gold in hand, he forfeited his chance to jump again and went off to embrace his family in the stands following an undefeated season. Kendricks also went undefeated through all 17 of his meets during the 2017 season, recording seven of the year’s top 13 marks.

 

Andrew Kurka, Para Alpine Skiing

Alaska native Kurka collected a complete set of medals at this year’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships — among them gold in the downhill — and grabbed the overall super-G world cup title to cap of his 2017. After making the U.S. Paralympic Team for Sochi four years ago only to break his back during his first training run in Russia, Kurka heads to PyeongChang determined to capitalize on the moment. The 25-year-old hopes to become the first Alaskan to capture a Paralympic medal. A versatile skier, he’ll likely have several opportunities.

 

Joey Mantia, Long Track Speedskating

Talk about being leader of the pack: Mantia emerged from the mass start at the World Single Distances Championships as the new world champion in an event that will be held for the first time at an Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Mantia, a Florida native and former inline skater whose résumé in that sport includes 28 world titles, packed his bags and headed west to train with the best on ice beginning in 2010. He’s found that the chaos of mass start, where up to two dozen skaters jockey simultaneously for position, suits him because it resembles inline skating. Mantia then kicked off the 2017-18 season with world cup silver in the mass start and a silver in the 1,500 the following week.

 

Harrison Maurus, Weightlifting

The talented 17-year-old from Washington state ended a 20-year drought in American men’s weightlifting with a pair of world championship bronze medals for the total and clean & jerk in the 77 kg. weight class. The gymnast turned weightlifter produced stunning results for someone so young: a successful 193 kg. lift broke his own youth world record, and he also set two new American records over the course of the championships.

 

Mike Minor, Para Snowboarding

A knee injury at the 2016 Winter X Games delayed Minor’s plans for dominating adaptive slopestyle events, but what he didn’t accomplish then he made up for in 2017. The former Copper Mountain lift attendant was golden in snowboardcross and added a silver medal in banked slalom at the World Para Snowboard Championships in British Columbia, while also winning eight gold medals – and nine overall – during the 2016-17 world cup season to claim the overall, banked slalom and snowboardcross world cup titles in the men’s SB-UL class. Though quiet about his ambitions before competition, Minor lets his snowboarding do the talking, a trend he hopes to carry on this winter in PyeongChang

 

Christian Pulisic, Soccer

In a disappointing year for the U.S. men’s national team, Pulisic continually provided a shining promise for the future. A few examples of the 19-year-old’s considerable talents and star power: scoring the U.S.’s two goals, 10 minutes apart, in the 2-0 victory against Trinidad and Tobago in June; electrifying the crowd by inciting them to cheer when playing for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga; and, finally, encouraging fans crushed by the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia to look to the future and rebuild. In the coming years, “I’m going to be obsessed with doing my part to help U.S. Soccer get over the hump,” he wrote. As the youngest ever named the U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, which he was crowned earlier this month, Pulisic recorded six goals and four assists in nine matches for the national team this year.

 

Duke Ragan, Boxing

Ragan made it to the gold-medal bout in the bantamweight division at the AIBA World Championships in Hamburg, Germany, the first American boxer to get so far at worlds since 2009 and a promising start for a 19-year-old who made his debut in international boxing this season. Though he lost 3-2 to Kazakhstan’s Kairat Yeraliyev in the final, Ragan’s silver was cause for celebration. His effort capped off a three-medal performance by Team USA athletes in Germany, its strongest finish at worlds since 1999.

 

Kyle Snyder, Wrestling

In a battle between Olympic champions, the scrappy Snyder came from behind in what was dubbed “The Match of the Century” with Abdulrashid Sadulaev to beat the Russian and secure Team USA’s first world freestyle wrestling team title in 22 years. His last-second spin-behind takedown of Sadulaev, the Rio champ at 86 kg., resulted in a 6-5 victory for the 22-year-old Snyder, himself an Olympic gold medalist in Rio in the 97 kg. weight class, and extended his winning streak at major events to three, having taken the 2015 world title as well.

 

Christian Taylor, Track and Field

The two-time Olympic champion triple jumper continued his domination of the event with a gold medal over teammate Will Claye at the IAAF World Championships in London for his 17.68 meter leap. The win made Taylor the first man to win three triple jump world titles. Taylor, who also went 1-2 with Claye in Rio and London, has won five of the last six major titles in triple jump and is the first to win two world titles in a row. Later in the season he won the Diamond League title as well. What the 27-year-old has yet to do is set a world record, but he’s working on it. As a reminder, 18.30 (the world record, set in 1995, is 18.29 meters) is written in his shoe.

 

McLain Ward, Equestrian

This was another stellar season for Ward, one of the country's most decorated show jumpers. Already a four-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist, Ward won the FEI World Cup Jumping Final for the first time in 17 tries when he and HH Azur delivered five consecutive clean rounds this past April in front of a home crowd in Omaha, Nebraska. A few months later, in September, Ward and HH Azur were part of the four-person U.S. team that won the silver medal at the FEI Nations Cup Jumping Final, one of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious team events. And Ward, who turned 42 in October, shows no signs of slowing down, telling TeamUSA.org in May: "I’d like a few more Games before it’s all said and done."

 

McRae Williams, Freestyle Skiing

Williams had a banner year in 2017, winning his first world championships gold medal, claiming the slopestyle world cup crystal globe and taking silver at X Games Aspen. Team USA’s excellent depth in slopestyle kept him off the Sochi Olympic team, but his pristine technique and newfound mental toughness make him a podium possibility for PyeongChang this winter. Until then, you’ll find the Park City, Utah, native getting in some extra “training” on the slopes of his hometown, though that’s not what he’d call it. “I don’t necessarily train; I just have fun,” he said.

 

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor toTeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.