16 Athletes to Watch in 2016

By Brianna Tammaro | Jan. 04, 2016, 2 p.m. (ET)

As the 2016 Paralympic Games reaches the eight month countdown and nearly the two year mark for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, Team USA boasts a wide pool of seasoned veterans and talented up-and-comers to be excited about. After making a splash in 2015, see which 16 U.S. athletes are ones to follow on the Road to Rio and Pyeonchang:

Haley Beranbaum, Swimming

19-year-old Haley Beranbaum was unstoppable at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, capturing five medals—one gold, two silver and two bronze—to tie teammate Mallory Weggeman for the most medals of the Games for Team USA. A rising swimming star and resident at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, Beranbaum has put herself on the map with several successful performances in 2015. At the spring and winter Can-Am Para-swimming Opens, she came away with three first place, five second and five third place finishes and will certainly be one to follow heading into Rio.

Dartanyon Crockett, Judo

Coming off of a wave of success in 2014 after being crowned world champion, Dartanyon Crockett returned with a vengeance in 2015 and has already qualified for Rio with his world title. After having shoulder surgery in September 2014, the 24-year-old navigated the road to recovery with top finishes in several international competitions, including May’s IBSA World Games in Seoul, South Korea. He took silver at the Competition Heidelberg in Germany in addition to bronze at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto. Crockett will be going into Rio as a favorite for the men’s -90-kilogram division with hopes of upgrading his 2012 bronze to gold in 2016. 

Lex Gillette, Track and Field
Three-time Paralympic silver medalist Lex Gillette is going full speed ahead to Rio and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The Raleigh, North Carolina native has put in gold-medal performances right after another, winning the long jump at May’s Desert Challenge Games, June’s U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships and August’s Parapan Am Games. At Parapan Ams, he tied his own world record jump with a leap of 6.73m. Gillette also held onto his world title in 2015, taking gold in the men’s long jump T11 with a mark of 6.38-meters, 11 centimeters ahead of the runner-up. He hopes to add to his collection of gold medals in 2016 at the Paralympic Games in September and from the looks of it, Gillette is one to bet on. 

Sam Grewe, Track and Field

Sam Grewe shocked the Paralympic world in 2015 when he went from being an underdog to a world champion after only a year of competing in the sport and just four years after losing his right leg to cancer. The 17-year-old from Middlebury, Indiana made his name known at the 2015 IPC  Athletics World Championships when he won the gold medal in the men’s high jump T42, triumphing over former Paralympic medalists and the European champion with a personal best of 1.81 meters. Grewe’s personal best was an astounding 20 centimeters better than his previous-best set at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in June and a mark that would have won him gold at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Earlier in the year, Grewe also took hardware at track and field nationals as well as a fourth place finish at Parapan Ams in Toronto. Now that he has his first world title, Grewe has his sights on a few more firsts: a trip to Rio for his first Paralympic Games and a Paralympic medal. 

Robert Griswold, Swimming
Having emerged through the U.S. Paralympics Swimming pipeline, Robert Griswold has arrived and is making his presence known on the national swim team. Griswold, 19, was one of the youngest members of the U.S. team at the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships in Glasgow this past July, coming away with a bronze medal in the men’s 400 freestyle. In December, the freshman at Carson Newman University dominated in the men’s S8 classification, winning six events and breaking his own world record by two seconds in the 200 backstroke, proving he’s an athlete to watch on the road to Rio.

Will Groulx, Cycling
A three-time U.S. Paralympian in wheelchair rugby, Will Groulx has made the transition to Paralympic cycling in dominant fashion and heads into Rio as one of the most consistent performers in the men’s H2 class. The U.S. Navy veteran collected three silver medals at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships—two individual and one with the handcycle relay. After missing the first two world cup races of the season due to injury, Groulx proved that he was still in top form, winning the overall world cup title with the men’s handcycle relay and earning four individual world cup victories over the course of the summer. He also added two medals—gold and silver—at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto.

Blake Haxton, Rowing
An accomplished high school rower in suburban Columbus, Haxton suffered from a flesh-eating disease before turning to Para-rowing and rapidly rising to become one of the top young athletes in the sport. In only his second year with the national team, 24-year-old Haxton triumphed after coming from last place to win the arms and shoulders single sculls at the 2015 Para Rowing and Junior World Championships Trials. In August, he finished fifth in the arms and shoulders single sculls at the world rowing championships and is aiming to make his first Paralympic team for the 2016 Games. 

Brenna Huckaby, Snowboarding
In just two years with the U.S. Paralympics snowboarding team, Brenna Huckaby has emerged as one of the bright young stars and world’s best when she captured gold in women’s LL-1 snowboardcross at the 2015 IPC Snowboard World Championships in La Molina, Spain. The 20-year-old followed that performance with silver in banked slalom. Huckaby earned more hardware earlier in the 2015 season, opening the campaign with bronze in the debut of women’s LL-1 head-to-head competition at the IPC Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Aspen, Colorado.

Michelle Konkoly, Swimming

Michelle Konkoly has made significant strides since first joining the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Program in 2012. Almost five years after an accident that left her with a traumatic spinal cord injury, Konkoly overcame an arduous journey to become a Rio hopeful and one of Team USA’s most exciting up-and-comers. The Eagleville, Pennsylvania native struck international success at the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland where she captured her first career world medals with silver in the S9 100m freestyle, 50m freestyle and 4x100 freestyle relay. Konkoly also won five events at the spring and winter Can-Ams and is already one of the breakout stars on Team USA.

Andrew Kurka, Alpine Skiing
Just three months after breaking his femur in a skiing accident and only one month after returning to the snow, Andrew Kurka won his first world championship medal with bronze in the men’s super-G sitting race in 2015. The 23-year-old from Palmer, Alaska went on to earn a national title in giant slalom and multiple victories at U.S. Nationals, ending the season with a top-10 ranking in the downhill and super-G disciplines. Kurka, who injured his back in a training run before the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, is starting the 2015-2016 season right on track with already several podiums at IPCAS Alpine Skiing races as he eyes PyeongChang in 2018.

Hannah McFadden, Track and Field
At 19 years old, Hannah McFadden has already developed into a seasoned track competitor since first stepping into the spotlight as the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team at 16 in 2012. With international success of her own, McFadden has made a name for herself with her superstar sister Tatyana supporting her from the next track lane over. After just missing the podium at the world championships in 2013, she captured her first world medals in 2015 with silver in the 100-meter T54 and bronze in the 200. She also struck her first international gold in addition to silver at the Parapan American Games in Toronto, putting her in great position to emerge in Rio.

Mike Minor, Snowboarding
In his international Para-snowboard debut, Michael Minor went a perfect two for two in banked slalom races at the IPC Snowboard World Cup, held Nov. 19-20 in Landgraaf, Netherlands. Minor upset the world champion from Austria in the upper limb impairment class to lead Team USA to two gold medals in the 2015-2016 world cup season opener. With all eyes on him, the 25-year-old will look to add to his breakout season with a loaded world cup season and make a name for himself on the U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team.

Shawn Morelli, Cycling
In 2015, United States Army veteran Shawn Morelli showcased why she’s one of the top competitors in the world heading into Rio with dominant international performances. Morelli successfully defended her road world title en route to a sweep of her women’s C4 class for road race and time trial. She also picked up a bronze at the track world championships and Parapan Am Games. On the world cup circuit, she won all but one world cup race with seven gold medals and one silver, ending the season as the overall world cup champion. 

Allysa Seely, Paratriathlon
Allysa Seely wasn’t expecting to podium at the 2015 ITU Elite Paratriathlon World Championships in Chicago, much less win gold and the world title, leading a Team USA medal sweep. Seely passed her teammates, Hailey Danisewicz and Melissa Stockwell — both former world champions — midway through the run around Chicago’s Grant Park to cross the tape first in the women’s PT2 category, spearheading the U.S. medal haul. In the process, she also secured one quota spot for Team USA as Paratriathlon will make its debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. She’ll hope to fill that spot in 2016 at a selection race this spring. Seely first began triathlon as an able-bodied athlete in 2008 and transitioned to paratriathlon in 2012 after having her leg amputated below the knee due to an infection. Since then, she has burst onto the scene and now with her first world crown, will be a serious contender for Rio. 

Steve Serio, Wheelchair Basketball

Two-time U.S. Paralympian Steve Serio was the statistical bright spot for Team USA at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto, aiding the team to the gold medal and Rio qualification. The co-captain of the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team led Team USA in almost every individual statistic category, scoring a total of 68 points, capturing 49 rebounds and dishing out 36 assists throughout the entire tournament.  The men’s team qualified for Rio with a 59-36 victory in the semifinal game against Argentina and went on to take gold in the final, dominating Canada 62-39.

Jill Walsh, Cycling
2015 marked a memorable year for Jill Walsh who won her first rainbow jersey of her career at the 2015 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships. Walsh dethroned Australia’s defending world champion and Paralympic gold medalist in the women’s T2 road race by six seconds in Nottwil, Switzerland. She followed that performance with a silver in the time trial, improving her bronze-medal finish from 2014. Her momentum carried just a few weeks later in Toronto at the 2015 Parapan American Games where she took home gold in the mixed road time trial, showcasing her as a world class competitor.  The retired New York State Trooper was consistent throughout the entire 2015 season, placing first or second in each world cup race that she competed in with two golds and four silvers and helping Team USA to a #1 UCI world ranking in road and overall.