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10 Promising Athletes Ready To Get A Head Start On The Tokyo 2020 Olympics In 2017

By Doug Williams | Jan. 03, 2017, 2:55 p.m. (ET)

The Rio Games are over, and the Tokyo Games are still over three years away. But the world’s elite athletes will continue on in 2017, and some of the athletes who star in 2020 could make a big impact this year.

Here are 10 U.S. athletes to keep your eye on this year:

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Michael Andrew, Swimming

Although he fell short of qualifying for Rio, 17-year-old Michael Andrew has claimed multiple victories and records over his career, and has been in the spotlight since turning pro at age 14, the youngest swimmer to do so. He’s broken nearly 100 national age-group records since he began swimming at age 7. The 6-foot-6 hopeful from Lawrence, Kansas, made a big splash at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials by finishing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke while setting a world junior record of 59.82 seconds. At the 2015 World Junior Championships he won a gold in the 50-meter backstroke to go with three silvers and a bronze. At the 2016 world championships for short-course distances, Andrew won gold in the 100-meter individual medley and was on two silver-medal relay teams. Olympic swimmer and NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines has said, “Four years from now, he could be the man.”

CJ Cummings, Weightlifting

CJ Cummings is just 16, stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 152 pounds, yet the Beaufort, South Carolina, athlete could be the biggest thing in American weightlifting by the 2020 Games. Earlier this year, Cummings, competing at 69 kg., became the first American since 2000 to win a world junior title, breaking a youth world record in the clean and jerk and an American youth record in snatch in the process. All of that added up to a youth world record of 699 pounds. Later, at the youth world championships, Cummings won three more titles, breaking his own youth world record in the clean and jerk and matching his youth world record total. Dennis Snethen, a two-time U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach, told a reporter in 2014: “In all my years I’ve seen talented kids but nothing like C.J.” He has broken dozens of American records and been called the Michael Jordan and LeBron James of weightlifting.

Keni Harrison, Track and Field

A former standout at Kentucky, Kendra “Keni” Harrison, 24, picked a bad time to have her worst performance of 2016, at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. After setting a U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles early in 2016 and coming to trials as one of the favorites, Harrison finished sixth. But she bounced back quickly to run 12.20 seconds at the Diamond League meet at London in July to break a world record that had stood for 28 years. “I wanted to come out here and show the world that I still have it even though I won’t be going to the Olympics,” she said.

Steele Johnson, Diving

After winning two NCAA championships at Purdue as a freshman in 2015, Steele Johnson took a year off to train for the Olympic team, and made it. At Rio, he teamed with 2012 Olympic champion David Boudia to win a silver medal in synchronized 10-meter platform. He was 13th in the individual 10-meter competition. At just 20, Johnson is primed to make another Olympic Games (or more). After winning silver with Boudia, Johnson, who is from Carmel, Indiana, said finishing second was “beyond whatever I thought I might be able to do.”

Sydney McLaughlin, Track and Field

At 16, Sydney McLaughlin became the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team since 1972 by finishing third in the 400-meter hurdles at the trials. She set a world junior record in that race with a time of 54.15. She fell just short of the Olympic final, but her future is bright. Now 17, she’s a high school senior who has committed to Kentucky. She was named Gatorade National Female High School Athlete of the Year for the 2015-16 academic year.

Kealia Ohai, Soccer

Just 48 seconds into her first appearance with the U.S. national team in October, Ohai scored a goal, a record for the fastest debut goal in team history. The goal helped the U.S. to a 5-1 victory over Switzerland and put the spotlight on Ohai, who’s in position to take a big step forward. In November, the 5-foot-5, 24-year-old forward from Utah earned her first start for the USWNT in a game against Romania. Ohai was an All-American at North Carolina and has been a striker for the Houston Dash of the NWSL since she was drafted No. 2 overall in 2014. She’s had plenty of success with U.S. Soccer, scoring the winning goal in the Under-20 World Cup championship in 2012. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Ohai said of her 2016 call-up to the national team.

Nicole Ross, Fencing

Already a 2012 Olympian, Nicole Ross is poised to leave her mark on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. After just missing out on the 2016 Olympic team by one spot, the 27-year-old women’s foil fencer earned her career-first world cup medal, a bronze in Cancun, Mexico. She also helped the U.S. team to silver at that event, and then followed up her breakout success by taking silver at the world cup in St-Maur, France, and silver at the grand prix in Torino, Italy, medaling at every international event held since Rio. In less than two months, Ross moved up from 12th to fifth in the world. The Columbia graduate was hired as a Cornell assistant coach in September.

Ragan Smith, Gymnastics

Smith, 16, was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team at Rio, capping off a promising first season at the senior level. At her senior debut earlier last year at the 2016 City of Jesolo Trophy, the Georgia native was second on the beam, floor and all-around. Later, she helped Team USA win at the Pacific Rim Championships, while also outscoring Olympian Aly Raisman to win the beam. At the Olympic Trials as a 15-year-old, she finished second in the balance beam, fifth in all-around and was tied for sixth in the floor exercise. Smith excels on the beam and floor and could rise to the forefront of the U.S. team with at least three of the five U.S. Olympians sitting the year out.

Katie Zaferes, Triathlon

In her first Olympic Games, the 27-year-old from Santa Cruz, California, finished 18th at Rio in 2:00:55, about 4½ minutes behind winner and teammate Gwen Jorgensen. Overall, 2016 was a big year for Zaferes, who not only made the Olympic team but won her first ITU World Triathlon Series event, at Hamburg, Germany, in July. She finished second overall in the World Triathlon Series in 2016, besting a fine 2015 year in which she was fifth overall with six podium finishes. Zaferes considered making the Olympic roster alongside Jorgensen and Sarah True a victory in itself. “In a country where the women’s field is so competitive, I am honored to get the opportunity,” she said.

Laura Zeng, Rhythmic Gymnastics

Zeng, 17, was 11th in the rhythmic gymnastics qualification round at Rio. Though she didn’t qualify for the final, her finish was the highest by any American since 1984. Zeng, a 5-foot-3 high school student from Illinois, appears ready to make a run at the podium at the 2020 Games. She’s won consecutive national championships and in May of 2016 she became the first American to medal at a world cup event, winning bronze medals in the hoop and ribbon finals. In 2014, she won a bronze for Team USA at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games, the nation’s first medal in the sport at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. A year later, she won five individual golds at the Pan American Games. Her club coach in Illinois says Zeng is dedicated to improve. “Laura’s best quality, besides her talent, is her focus on training and concentration on training.”

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.

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