Michael Phelps in action during the Mens 200m Butterfly Heats at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 in Sydney.
Every great Olympic career has to start somewhere.
These six athletes are among the most successful ever in their sports. Some were destined for greatness from a young age. Some were ready to compete for medals from Day 1. All used the experience at their first Olympic Games to build decorated careers, five of which are still going strong.
Here’s a look at six memorable Team USA Olympic debuts.
Michael Phelps - Sydney 2000
Long before he was Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals and all but five of them gold, he was Michael Phelps the scrawny 15-year-old from Baltimore lining up in Lane 6 for his first Olympic final at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre. Wearing blue knee-length jammers, Phelps dove in for the 200-meter butterfly and promptly found himself in last place at the turn. That was no concern for the teenager. Like he’d do so many times in his career, he was swimming his race, just waiting for his moment to pounce. True to form, Phelps eventually did surge into the pack. In this case, though, that finishing kick wasn’t quite enough for a medal — Phelps ended in fifth, while fellow American Tom Malchow took the gold medal. Nonetheless, by competing in Sydney Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in nearly 70 years. And, of course, he’d go on to win plenty of hardware, particularly in the 200 fly.
Kerri Walsh Jennings - Sydney 2000Kerri Walsh competes at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 24, 2000 in Sydney.
The sight of Kerri Walsh Jennings indoors might seem foreign today, but before the 6-foot-3 superstar was spiking balls on sun-kissed beaches she was indeed one of the country’s brightest indoor volleyball stars. Coming off a decorated college career at Stanford, one in which she was a four-time All-American and the 1999 Co-National Player of the Year, Walsh Jennings (then just Walsh) made her Olympic debut in indoor volleyball at the Sydney Games, where as an opposite hitter she helped Team USA finish fourth. Of course, she’s best known for what happened next. In 2001, the Californian teamed with Misty May-Treanor to form beach volleyball’s most dominant team, a run that included consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012, followed by a bronze medal for Walsh and new partner April Ross in 2016.
Allyson Felix - Athens 2004 Allyson Felix competes at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 24, 2004 in Athens.
While her peers from Los Angeles Baptist High School were enjoying their last summer of adolescence, 17-year-old Allyson Felix was signing her first pro contract. Such is the case when you’re one of the most accomplished teenage sprinters in a generation. In a video interview at the time, later published by the Olympic Channel, her coach Pat Connolly predicted Felix “has a very long career ahead of her,” one that could extend into her 30s, and added “that’s why it's very important that she gets started out right, that she gets the basics now.” She did more than that. One year after going pro, Felix was lining up as one of the favorites in the 200-meter final in Athens. Fresh off a win at the previous month’s U.S. trials, Felix got a solid start and finished in 22.18 seconds, just shy of Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown. It was a result that would repeat itself four years later in Beijing, but in 2012 Felix broke through to win her first Olympic gold medal in the distance. Now with nine Olympic medals — and counting — Felix is tied for the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field, while no woman in the sport can match her six gold medals.
Katie Ledecky - London 2012Katie Ledecky reacts at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 3, 2012 in London.
As the British crowd cheered on hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington, a high school sophomore from Maryland stole the show at the London Aquatics Centre. Katie Ledecky’s rise in the sport had been rapid. Just one year earlier she was thriving at the junior level but aiming more realistically for the 2012 Olympic trials than the Olympics. Instead her times dropped and dropped, and suddenly the 15-year-old found herself at the London Games for her first international competition. The 800-meter freestyle was supposed to be a celebration of Adlington, the defending Olympic and world champion and reigning world-record holder. Instead, Ledecky went out in record pace and built an insurmountable lead over 16 laps. Though Ledecky just missed taking the world record herself, her time of 8:14.63 broke the 23-year-old American record set by another American phenom, Janet Evans. She’d go on to win four more golds and a silver medal in Rio, and will no doubt be a favorite to bring home more hardware from Tokyo.
Mikaela Shiffrin - Sochi 2014Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates during the medal ceremony at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 on Feb. 22, 2014 in Sochi.
The women’s slalom field at the Sochi Games featured some of the biggest names in the sport’s history, and all were upstaged by one of the brightest young stars the sport has ever seen. At 18, Mikaela Shiffrin had already won her first world and world cup titles in slalom. The Colorado native showed that was no fluke with a near-perfect first run in Sochi, giving her an advantage of .49 seconds. All she had to do was put down a clean second run and she’d almost certainly win the gold medal. Instead, midway through her final run under the lights at Rosa Khutor, Shiffrin went airborne and nearly lost control on a turn. Alas, she didn’t. Shiffrin was able to adjust in the air and get back on track. And though she lost some speed, she was still able to pad her winning margin over Austrian legend Marlies Schild. With the victory, Shiffrin became the youngest slalom champ ever and was well on her way in the record-setting career that is still going strong.
Kyle Snyder - Rio 2016 Kyle Snyder stands on the podium at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Kyle Snyder came into the Rio Games as the defending world and NCAA champion. To win an Olympic gold medal, the 20-year-old from Maryland would need to get past Azerbaijan’s Khetag Goziumov, an Olympic or world championships medalist in seven of the previous eight years. Snyder, wearing a red singlet, took a 1-0 lead by grabbling hold of Goziumov’s leg and pushing him out of bounds in the first period. Then he added a point when the shot clock ran out on Goziumov. However, Goziumov got one back when the shot clock expired on Snyder. Another score from the Azerbaijani would give him the win. Instead, Snyder held on to become Team USA’s youngest Olympic wrestling gold medalist — all before his junior year at Ohio State.