Athletes to watch at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

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Throughout July, some 10,900 of the world’s best athletes will descend on Japan for an Olympics unlike any other. They’ll come in all shapes and sizes; with different gender identities, sexual orientations and worldviews; from roughly 200 countries, three generations, and a vast array of cultures that make the Olympic Games what they are.

And the vast majority of them, right now, to casual sports fans, are unknown.

But for 19 glorious days beginning July 21, they’ll step into a potent spotlight at the center of the sporting world. Below are some, though certainly not all, of the athletes who could take advantage of it and star at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics — with a large focus on the best of the 613 athletes who’ll represent Team USA.

GYMNASTICS

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI - JUNE 27:  (L-R) Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, Mykayla Skinner and Sunisa Lee, pose following the Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials at America’s Center on June 27, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Simone Biles (center), pictured at U.S. gymnastics trials, will be the face of the 2021 Olympics. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Simone Biles, U.S., gymnastics

Biles, now 24, is the face of the Olympics. In a sport that churns through phenoms at excessive speed, she hasn’t just held on to the GOAT label; she’s gotten better. She doesn’t need to perform treacherous, unprecedented skills to soar above her competition; but she does, “because I can.” She’ll contend for five golds out of a maximum six in Tokyo, five years after snatching four golds and a bronze in Rio. If she wins all five, she’ll ascend into the Michael Phelps-Usain Bolt Pantheon of Greatest Olympians Ever.

Sunisa Lee, U.S., gymnastics

Lee, 18, is Biles’ second-in-command on a deep, talented U.S. women’s gymnastics team. She is not, to be clear, the next Biles. But she’s brilliant in her own right, better than Biles on the uneven bars, and expected to push Biles on balance beam.

TRACK AND FIELD

The U.S. track and field team is loaded. There are at least a dozen names — Keni Harrison, Will Claye, Michael Norman, Sandi Morris, Athing Mu, Emma Coburn, and many more — that absolutely belong on this list, but that you won't see below because, well, we've got a dozen already.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica, sprinter

A month after U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson ran a 10.72 in the 100-meter dash, announcing herself as the breakout star of 2021, Fraser-Pryce clocked in at 10.63 seconds, the fastest women’s 100-meter time since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988. The 34-year-old Jamaican is one big reason that no American has won the event in a quarter-century. She galloped to gold in 2008 and 2012, and to bronze in 2016. Five years after Bolt became the first man to win three 100-meter Olympic titles, Fraser-Pryce will bid to become the first woman.

Unfortunately, she won't have to go through Richardson. The 21-year-old star tested positive for marijuana at U.S. trials, disqualifying her from the event in Tokyo. So Fraser-Pryce's showdown won't be with a flamboyant American; her showdown will be with history.

Allyson Felix, U.S., sprinter

Felix is back for a fifth and final Olympics, this time as a mom. She gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in November 2018 via emergency C-section. Severe preeclampsia threatened her life. Complications put her daughter in a neonatal ICU for a month. But they both battled. Felix eventually returned to the track, even after a messy split with her sponsor, Nike, over maternity protections. She found her voice. And at Olympic trials, she ran her fastest 400-meter as a mother, closing expertly to qualify for the team. She’ll run the 400 and at least one relay in Tokyo, and if she medals in both, she’ll surpass Carl Lewis as the most prolific American track athlete in Olympic history.

Noah Lyles, U.S., sprinter

Lyles, 23, is a first-time Olympian but already an established star in international track and field. He’s the reigning world champ in the 200 meters, and just ran the fastest time on the planet this calendar year (19.74 seconds). Oh, and his impact extends beyond the track. He has spoken openly about mental health, and raised a black-gloved fist before and after races, à la John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to bring awareness to systemic racism and police brutality.

Noah Lyles celebrates after winning the men's 200-meter final at U.S. Olympic track and field trials. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Noah Lyles celebrates after winning the men's 200-meter final at U.S. Olympic track and field trials. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Trayvon Bromell, U.S., sprinter

Bromell was emerging as a potential Rio star, and perhaps even a Bolt challenger, when pain started to gnaw at his heel and slow him in 2016. Then, toward the end of his 4x100 relay anchor leg, he tumbled to the ground. He exited the track in a wheelchair. He underwent surgery. He needed another surgery a year later. He struggled with more injuries upon his return. His coach thought he might quit.

Instead, Bromell fought back from “the destruction of my past,” out of “a real dark alleyway.” He won the 100 at Olympic trials with a 9.77, his best time ever, and the fastest time in the world this year. With Christian Coleman, the last 100-meter winner at worlds, banned for doping whereabouts failures, Bromell might be favored to cap his comeback with gold.

Gabby Thomas, U.S., sprinter

Thomas is a 24-year-old Harvard graduate en route to a master’s degree in epidemiology … and also en route to the Olympics as the favorite in the women’s 200-meter race. She qualified with the third-fastest time ever in the event, and threw her arms into the air before she crossed the finish line, suggesting she could go even faster in Tokyo.

Sydney McLaughlin, U.S., hurdles

In 2016, McLaughlin went to Rio as a starry-eyed teen. In 2021, she’ll head to Tokyo having just shattered the world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. That race at the Olympics, though, will be a battle — because the world record she broke was that of U.S. teammate Dalilah Muhammad, the incumbent world champ and a narrow second to McLaughlin at trials.

Erriyon Knighton, U.S., sprinter

Knighton, 17, who qualified behind Lyles in the 200, might not medal in Tokyo. But he’s been toppling some of Bolt’s youth age group records, and … well, we’ll leave you with this stat from NBC’s Nick Zaccardi:

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Grant Holloway, U.S., hurdles

Holloway, 23, the reigning world champ in the 110-meter hurdles, came within 0.01 seconds of a world record at U.S. Olympic trials. (The 2016 gold medalist in the event, Omar McLeod, clipped a hurdle at Jamaican trials and failed to qualify for Tokyo.)

Rai Benjamin, U.S., hurdles

Benjamin, also 23, also came within fractions of a second of a world record in his signature event, the 400-meter hurdles, at U.S. trials. He's among the many American gold medal candidates on the track.

Vashti Cunningham, U.S., high jump

The U.S. hasn’t won Olympic high jump gold in the 21st century. Its hopes of ending that drought lie with a slender, impossibly flexible 23-year-old from Vegas. Cunningham — whose famous NFL quarterback dad is also her coach — took bronze at world championships two years ago, and has jumped higher than any woman in the world this year.

Ryan Crouser, U.S., shot put

Crouser, 28, obliterated a shot put world record at U.S. Olympic trials. The steroid-aided record had stood for longer than Crouser has been alive. He beat it by more than eight inches. The bearded and ponytailed Oregon native is a favorite to defend his Rio gold medal in Tokyo.

Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya, marathon

Kipchoge, 36, is the greatest marathoner ever, the 2016 Olympic champ, and the first man to break the two-hour barrier (albeit with some caveats).

SWIMMING

Katie Ledecky is the most dominant distance freestyler the world has ever seen. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky is the most dominant distance freestyler the world has ever seen. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Katie Ledecky, U.S., freestyle

Ledecky, the greatest female swimmer ever, is off to her third Olympics at age 24. She hasn’t touched her world-record times from Rio in the five years since, and isn’t quite as dominant now as she was then. But her best event, the 1500-meter freestyle, has finally been added to the Olympic program. She’s the overwhelming favorite there and in the 800 — which she won by more than 11 seconds in 2016.

Ariarne Titmus, Australia, freestyle

The biggest threat to Ledecky’s throne is a 20-year-old from Tasmania. Titmus, nicknamed “The Terminator,” sent shockwaves across oceans at Australian Olympic trials, swimming the 400 and 200 free faster than Ledecky has this year — and the 800 only two seconds slower than Ledecky’s best 2021 time.

 Will that translate to Tokyo? Nobody knows. But Titmus’ pace down under will make Ledecky’s races some of the most highly-anticipated at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.

Caeleb Dressel, U.S., multiple strokes

World records tremble every time Dressel, 24, swoops into the pool. The top American male swimmer will take aim at the 50 free, 100 free and 100 butterfly — in which he already owns the best time ever.

Lilly King, U.S., breaststroke

King, perhaps most well known as the victor of swimming’s Cold War in 2016, is back for more in 2021. She’s favored to defend her gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. And she’s as confident as ever. Perhaps even cocky. “Borderline arrogant,” her dad lovingly says. She plays pre-race mind games with opponents. “They concede in the ready room,” her coach, Ray Looze, told Yahoo Sports. King makes a “polite,” sometimes boring sport all kinds of interesting.

Simone Manuel, U.S., freestyle

Manuel isn’t the same athlete or person that she was in 2016, when she became the first Black woman to win Olympic swimming gold; or that she was in 2019, when she brought home a whopping four golds and three silvers from the world championships. A devastating battle with “overtraining syndrome” this year derailed her gold medal defense in the 100 free. But she fought back from physical and mental health issues to qualify in the 50 free. If she were to medal in Tokyo, it’d be quite the comeback tale.

Kaylee McKeown, Australia, multiple strokes

In 2019, American Regan Smith was the breakout backstroke star at world championships. Two years later, it appears the 19-year-old has been usurped by a fellow 19-year-old. McKeown broke Smith’s world record in the 100 back at Aussie trials, and also owns the fastest time in the world this year in the 200 back.

The Australians, as a team, will be robust obstacles in between the U.S. and women’s swimming dominance in Tokyo. In addition to McKeown and Titmus, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell look capable of going 1-2 in the freestyle sprints.

Michael Andrew, U.S., multiple strokes

Andrew is as unorthodox as he is powerful. The 22-year-old has bucked just about every convention in the sport since becoming the youngest American swimmer to turn pro at age 14. His parents homeschooled him, trained him in a backyard pool, and built his brand on teenage hype. Andrew will cash the family’s bet on themselves in Tokyo. He’ll contend for medals in the 50 free, 100 breast, 100 fly and 200 IM — probably his best race, and one in which he could someday chase down Ryan Lochte’s world record.

Teenage American swimmers

The youngest U.S. Olympic swimming team in decades features 10 teenage girls who represent the future of the sport — and, in some cases, the now. Among the medal contenders are:

OTHER SPORTS

Naomi Osaka will take on the Olympics in the country of her birth. (Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka will take on the Olympics in the country of her birth. (Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka, Japan, tennis

Osaka, the world No. 2, and arguably the most famous Japanese athlete on the planet, has stepped away from tennis to focus on her mental health. She plans to return for the Olympics in the country of her birth.

Rose Lavelle, U.S., soccer

You know Megan Rapinoe. You know Carli Lloyd. And if you watched the U.S. women’s national team at the 2019 World Cup, you know Lavelle as well. But she’s an Olympic first-timer, and she’s key to a USWNT trying to do something for the first time: win the World Cup and and then Olympic titles back to back.

Luka Doncic, Slovenia, basketball

The U.S. basketball teams are, as always, stacked. The women, led by Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Diana Taurasi, will almost surely win a historic seventh consecutive gold medal. They haven’t lost an Olympic game since 1992. The men, with Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, are heavily favored as well.

The Olympics only get fun when the Americans get challenged. When a few NBA stars surrounded by nobodies try to topple the USAB behemoth. And none is more intriguing than Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ Slovenian savant.

First, though, Doncic and Slovenia will have to qualify at one of four FIBA tournaments this week. They play either Lithuania or Poland in a do-or-die final on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

April Ross and Alix Klineman, U.S., beach volleyball

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time Olympic champ and forever queen of beach volleyball, failed to qualify for Tokyo — and, in doing so, implicitly passed the torch to a former teammate, Ross. The 39-year-old Californian and Klineman, once an indoor player, are the defending world silver medalists, and probably represent Team USA’s best shot at a medal on the beach.

Nyjah Huston and Heimana Reynolds, U.S., skateboarding

Skateboarding makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo, and the U.S. has two medal favorites. Huston, 26, one of the most decorated skateboarders ever, heads the field for the men’s street event. He’s been winning X Games medals since he was 14. His fiercest competition will come from a hometown kid, 22-year-old Yuto Horigome of Japan.

Reynolds, meanwhile, is the reigning world champ in the men’s park event.

Misugu Okamoto, Japan, and Sky Brown, Great Britain, skateboarding

Okamoto won the women’s park world championship in 2019 as a 13-year-old. Brown, who was born in Japan, trains in the U.S. and competes for Team GB, might be the coolest 12-year-old on the planet. Both will showcase skateboarding’s youth on the Olympic stage.

On the street side, the woman to watch is 28-year-old Brazilian Leticia Bufoni.

Hannah Roberts, U.S., BMX freestyle

BMX freestyle is another exciting new Olympic sport, and Roberts, 19, might just be the gold medal favorite. (BMX freestyle is the tricks-based event. BMX racing has been an Olympic sport since 2008.)

Hannah Roberts gets big air during the women's freestyle BMX final at the 2019 Pan American Games. (Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Hannah Roberts gets big air during the women's freestyle BMX final at the 2019 Pan American Games. (Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

Carissa Moore, U.S., surfing

Moore, a Honolulu native, has been surfing ever since she was 5. She’s been competing internationally since she was a teen. Now, finally, at age 28, come the Olympics. Surfing was added to the Games agenda for Tokyo 2020. Moore might be the favorite for the inaugural gold medal.

Cat Osterman, U.S., and Yukiko Ueno, Japan, softball

In the last Olympic softball game, 13 years ago, Ueno out-pitched Osterman. Japan stunned the Americans, winners of every previous gold at the Games and every previous game in Beijing. And then ... the sport went dark, knocked off the Olympic program for two quads. Household names, like Osterman and Monica Abbott, faded from the public eye. Osterman retired.

But then softball was reinstated. Osterman, now 38, unretired. She’s back on the team for one last hurrah, and heading to Tokyo, where familiar faces — Ueno, also 38, and the Japanese — stand between the U.S. and gold once again.

Masahiro Tanaka, Japan, baseball

Baseball is also back at the Olympics — without anybody on a 40-man MLB roster. That, however, won't necessarily make this a tournament of journeymen. Tanaka, the former Yankee ace, now plays for the Rakuten Eagles in Japan’s NPB — which has scheduled a summer break to free up domestic stars for the Tokyo Games.

Kyle Snyder, U.S., and Abdulrashid Sadulaev, Russia, wrestling

On the wrestling mat, all eyes will turn to the men’s 97-kilogram division, where Snyder, 25, the defending gold medalist, will likely meet Sadulaev, the “Russian Tank,” who won gold at 86 kilograms in 2016. Now they’re in the same weight class and on a collision course, figuratively and literally.

Kyle Snyder (left) beat Abdulrashid Sadulaev at the wrestling world championships in 2017. (BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP via Getty Images)
Kyle Snyder (left) beat Abdulrashid Sadulaev at the wrestling world championships in 2017. (BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Maggie Steffens, U.S., water polo

Steffens, 28, could break an all-time Olympic goalscoring record in Tokyo, and could — likely will? — win a third consecutive Olympic MVP award. If, that is, the U.S. women win a third straight gold.

Mikkel Hansen, Denmark, handball

Handball is the one must-watch Olympic sport that the U.S. isn’t any good at. Neither the American men nor women have qualified since Atlanta 1996. So why not tune in and appreciate the world’s best?

Hansen, 33, who plays professionally for Paris Saint-Germain in France, has scored over 1,000 goals for Denmark since debuting for the national team in 2007. The Danes have won the last two world championships and Olympic gold in Rio. They’re the team to beat in Tokyo.

Nevin Harrison, U.S., canoe sprint

Harrison was a sprinter — the track type — until hip dysplasia, a condition most commonly found in dogs, undid her original Olympic dream. So, as a teen, she picked up a different type of sprinting. A few years later, at age 17, she won the U.S. its first ever canoe sprint world title. Now 19, she’ll paddle furiously for 200 meters and try to become the first American woman to win Olympic gold in any canoe or kayak event.

Brady Ellison, U.S., archery

A few years ago, Ellison, a bronze and silver medalist in Rio, thought his competitive archery career might be over. He couldn’t shake searing arm pain. Doctors, he has said, advised him to retire. Then, per his telling, a “natural healer” in Slovenia cured him and put his chase for an elusive Olympic gold back on track.

Katie Zaferes, U.S., triathlon

Zaferes, now 32, finished 18th in the triathlon at Rio 2016. In the five years since, she's crept up the world rankings, claimed the top spot, and now separated herself from the pack. Her story is one of remarkable persistence, whether she wins gold in Tokyo or not.

Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, U.S., rugby

The U.S. men's rugby sevens team failed to reach the quarterfinals at Rio 2016, the sport's Olympic debut. Isles and Baker, the two most exciting American players with the ball in their hands, have plans for a better showing in Tokyo.

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