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20 U.S. Athletes On The Cusp Of Breaking Out In 2020

By Paul D. Bowker | Jan. 06, 2020, 10:15 a.m. (ET)

Justin Dowell competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 11, 2019 in Lima, Peru.


The new year is upon us.

The highlight of the upcoming year will feature the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will begin July 24 — followed, of course, by the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 beginning Aug. 25.

While many of the biggest names heading into Tokyo have already built strong reputations for themselves through their international championships — think Simone Biles in gymnastics, Caeleb Dressel in swimming, or Megan Rapinoe in soccer — a whole other group of athletes is knocking on the door to stardom following a run of strong results.

Who will be Team USA’s upcoming and rising stars leading up to Tokyo? Will they appear on the podium? Here’s a look at 20 up-and-comers who could:

Brittany Brown, Track and Field
An 11-time All-American at the University of Iowa, Brittany Brown is Team USA’s next Olympic hope in the women’s 200-meter. She won a silver medal in the 200 at the 2019 IAAF World Championships, producing Team USA’s first podium finish in that event at worlds since 2011. She recorded a personal-best time of 22.22 seconds in Doha, Qatar. The last American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 200-meter was nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix in 2012.

Adonis Diaz, Judo
Adonis Diaz, a bronze medalist at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, is in position to make his first U.S. Olympic Team in 2020. A 2014 Youth Olympian, Diaz reached the podium with third-place finishes this past year at the Pan Am Games and also an IJF Grand Prix tournament in Montreal. He competes in the men’s 60 kg. weight class and made his first world team in 2017.

Justin Dowell, Cycling
BMX freestyle is making its Olympic debut in 2020 at just the perfect time for Justin Dowell, one of the top men’s freestylers in the world. He won his first world championship in 2018 at the age of 18. He also captured a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan American Games and won a world cup event while finishing fourth at the world championships to finish the season at No. 2 in the world.

Rashida Ellis, Boxing

Rashida Ellis, a women’s boxer in the lightweight (60 kg.) division, won bronze medals at the 2019 Pan American Games and world championships. Ellis, who began boxing when she was 10 years old, won her weight at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in December in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She hopes to contend for her Olympic spot at the American Olympic Qualification Event beginning March 26 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Laura Graves, Equestrian
Laura Graves is seeking her second spot on a U.S. Olympic Team. She made her Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, winning a bronze medal in the team dressage competition and nearly also pulling off a podium finish in the individual event, placing fourth aboard Verdades. She has won the silver medal the last three years in the FEI World Cup Finals, losing only to 10-time Olympic medalist Isabell Werth of Germany.

Adrian Hegyvary, Cycling
Adrian Hegyvary is clearly global. He is married to Rushlee Buchanan, an Olympic cyclist for New Zealand, and splits his time between the United States and New Zealand. He also has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Hungary. Hegyvary has risen through the ranks in men’s Madison, a discipline in which he reached the podium with Daniel Holloway in a world cup stop last year in Cambridge, New Zealand, and finished in fourth place in Cambridge this season, moving him up to sixth place in the world cup standings.

Cory Juneau, Skateboarding
Skateboarder Cory Juneau, a 2017 X Games medalist, began the second season of Olympic qualifying with a win in the Oi STU Open in Rio de Janeiro. He is in solid position to secure a position in men’s park when skateboarding makes its Olympic debut in 2020. Juneau also won a Vans Park Series competition in Paris and is one of two Americans in the top three of the Olympic rankings (Heimana Reynolds is No. 1) in a qualifying period that ends in May 2020.

Casey Kaufhold, Archery

A teenager is the rising star on a U.S. recurve archery team that includes five-time Olympian Khatuna Lorig and three-time Olympic medalist Brady Ellison. Casey Kaufhold, a 15-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, won three medals at the Pan American Games, including a gold medal in mixed team with Ellison and a gold in women’s team with Lorig and Erin Mickelberry. Ellison told TeamUSA.org that Kaufhold may one day be No. 1 in the world.

Fred Kerley, Track and Field
An NCAA champion at Texas A&M, Fred Kerley reached the international stage with a third-place finish in the men’s 400-meter at the 2019 IAAF World Championships and a top-10 world time in the same event at the U.S. championships. His time of 43.64 seconds in the national championships in Des Moines, Iowa, made him the seventh fastest man in world history. He followed that up with a bronze medal at worlds, posting a time of 44.17 seconds to win his first world individual medal. He also won the 2018 Diamond Trophy.

Kristi Kirshe, Rugby
In just one season with the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens, Kristi Kirshe, a record-breaking soccer player at Williams College, helped the U.S. secure a spot at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a second-place finish in the 2018-19 World Rugby Sevens Series. After making her debut in February 2019 in Sydney, she scored in every tournament and was one of four finalists for women’s rookie of the year.

Nelly Korda, Golf
Golfer Nelly Korda, who was a rookie on the LPGA Tour just two years ago in 2017, has quickly moved up the Olympic Golf Rankings over the last year with wins in the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA and ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, along with a strong performance in the Solheim Cup playing alongside sister Jessica Korda. The 21-year-old Nelly Korda enters 2020 at No. 3 in the Olympic rankings, trailing only South Korea’s Jin Young Ko and Sung Hyun Park. As many as four Americans will qualify for Tokyo.

Evy Leibfarth, Canoe/Kayak

Evy Leibfarth, a teenager from North Carolina, made a quick splash in canoe/kayak slalom this past summer. She won a gold medal in canoe slalom K-1 at the Pan American Games, but even that performance came after an impressive world cup debut in Europe. Leibfarth, 15, made the finals in both the C-1 and K-1 events in her world cup debut in Bratislava, Slovakia. One week later, she became the first American woman to reach the podium in a world cup canoe slalom event, finishing third in the C-1 in Slovenia.

Jay Litherland, Swimming
A 2016 Olympian, Jay Litherland won his first world medal in the men’s 400-meter individual medley at the 2019 FINA World Championships, finishing second. Litherland made the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the first time in 2012 and made the Olympic team four years later, finishing fifth in the 400 IM in the Rio while teammate Chase Kalisz won the silver medal. Litherland, a native of Japan, has two triplet brothers who also swim and he has triple citizenships: U.S., Japan and New Zealand.

Harrison Maurus, Weightlifting
A three-time member of the U.S. world team, Harrison Maurus made history this past summer at the Pan American Games when he captured the 100th medal in USA Weightlifting history at the event. He won a bronze medal in Lima in the 81 kg. weight class with total lifts of 350 kg., a mark he tied with a ninth-place finish at the world championships. The journey toward Tokyo 2020 has been building for Maurus, who won a world bronze medal in his world team senior debut in 2017, and won a world gold medal at the youth level and a bronze medal at the junior level.

Morgan Pearson, Triathlon
Seeking his first berth on aU.S. Olympic Team, Morgan Pearson is 20th in the Olympic and world rankings after a pair of podium finishes in world cup competition in 2019. He helped the U.S. men to a podium sweep in the season-ending world cup race in November in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, finishing third behind Matt McElroy and Kevin McDowell. Pearson also had a second-place finish in Huatulco, Mexico, and two other top-five finishes.

Tom Scott, Karate
Karate will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020, and it is a moment U.S. karateka Tom Scott has anxiously awaited. He was the first American to be ranked No. 1 in the world by the World Karate Federation in 2015. He has won three medals in the Pan American Games, including a gold medal this year in Lima, in addition to a half dozen North American championships. Scott is currently ranked fifth in the Olympic standings.

Eliza Stone, Fencing

Mariel Zagunis made U.S. history in women’s saber in 2004 by winning the first Olympic gold medal for any U.S. fencer in 100 years. Now one of her teammates is ready to write her own chapter. Eliza Stone, currently ranked fifth in the world, won a bronze medal at the 2018 world championships – her first individual world medal to go along with the three team world medals she has racked up. Stone claimed the gold medal in her Pan American Games debut this past summer in Lima and is hoping to make her first U.S. Olympic Team in 2020. She teamed up with Zagunis, Chloe Fox-Gitomer and Kamali Thompson to win a team bronze medal in a world cup tournament in December in Salt Lake City, giving the U.S. its first world cup medal in over two years.

Jordan Thompson, Volleyball
Jordan Thompson’s volleyball journey has been powerful and sudden. In the span of just a few months, Thompson went from a Team USA debut to making the starting lineup for the team’s clinching win at the Olympic qualification tournament. She had 50 kills for the University of Cincinnati in a match this season, reaching a number that hadn’t been seen in 20 years at the NCAA Div. I level. Next up, she’ll transition from college to full-time Team USA.

Beiwen Zhang, Badminton
The 2019 season helped put Beiwen Zhang among the best of the elite women’s badminton players in the world. She made the semifinal round of two BWF World Tour events for a pair of bronze medals and goes into the new year ranked 16th in the world and No. 11 on the world tour. A native of China, Zhang has competed for the U.S. since 2013.

Anastasija Zolotic, Taekwondo

Since winning a silver medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, Anastasija Zolotic has moved up in weight classes and has kept reaching the podium. She moved up from the 49 kg. weight class as a Youth Olympian and to 52 kg., where she won a gold medal at the 2018 junior world championships. Then, in 2019, she moved up to 57 kg., and won a gold medal at the Pan American Games and a bronze medal at the World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final. The rising U.S. star defeated two-time Olympic champion Jade Jones of Great Britain in the Grand Prix Final.

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

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Adonis Diaz

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Justin Dowell

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Rashida Ellis

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Laura Graves

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Adrian Hegyvary

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Casey Kaufhold

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Kristi Kirshe

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Evy Leibfarth

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Jay Litherland

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Harrison Maurus

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Morgan Pearson

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Tom Scott

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Eliza Stone

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Jordan Thompson

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Anastasija Zolotic