10 US Athletes to Watch at the Rio Olympics

10 US Athletes to Watch at the Rio Olympics
(Harry How/Getty Images)
Dave Martin

It's time. The years of training, the back-breaking pain, the exhaustion, and the moments that almost crushed the athletes will be forgotten as the drama unfolds in Rio de Janeiro. Over the next 16 days, victors will emerge and moments of humanity will capture our hearts.

Nations will erupt with pride as their new heroes take the podium, while others will be devastated by the disappointment of defeat. But all will find glory in the feats of the human body as it flies higher and runs faster than ever before.

For some athletes, the hopes of a lifetime will culminate in one moment as they perform on the world's biggest stage.

The 554 athletes of Team USA are primed to compete in 27 sports for a possible 244 of 306 total gold medals.


Michael Phelps

 Michael Phelps (Harry How/Getty Images)
Michael Phelps (Harry How/Getty Images)

The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, 31, will be competing in his fifth Olympics when he dives into the pool in Rio. The 18-time gold medal winner (no one else even has 10) is only swimming in three events, so he won't top the six golds he won in Athens (2004), the eight he scored in Beijing (2008), or the relatively disappointing (for him) four he took in London (2012).

Now, he is seven years beyond the last of his 29 world record-setting times and more than twice the age he was when he placed fifth in the 200-meter butterfly at the Sydney Games (2000) as a 15-year-old—then the youngest male Olympian since 1932. Phelps will be looking to medal in that same event for his fourth straight time, while seeking an unprecedented four-peat in the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley.

It's a realistic goal if last year is any indication. He posted the fastest times in the world in those same three races at the U.S. Nationals in August. After Phelps's brief retirement following the 2012 games and stint in rehab after his second DUI arrest in 2014, these could be Phelps's redemption games. For sure, they're his swan song.

Phelps's first race will be on Saturday, Aug. 6.


Simone Biles

 Simone Biles (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Simone Biles (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Only a few months shy of her 15th birthday when the London Games kicked off in 2012, Simone Biles was forced to watch from afar.

But 2016 is her year. The 19-year-old powerhouse is scintillating to watch and the runaway favorite. The degree of difficulty in Biles's routines, coupled with her consistency, puts her in a class of her own, and it would take a major upset to deprive her of some top Olympic hardware.  

The 4-foot-8-inch phenom from Spring, Texas, has won all 11 all-around events she has entered since winning the U.S. title in August 2013—including the last three world championships.

Rio will certainly represent the largest stage that Biles has competed on, and although she has few weaknesses, her prowess on the floor is probably her greatest strength.

Her signature skill—known as "the Biles"—is a ridiculously difficult combination in her second tumbling pass during the floor routine in which she performs two backflips, followed by a half twist done in a straight body position, resulting in a blind landing. She invented it herself, and if she lands it (as she usually does), the rest of the competitors will be vying for silver.

Biles competes from Sunday Aug. 7 through Tuesday, Aug. 16.


Gwen Jorgensen

 Gwen Jorgensen (Harry How/Getty Images)
Gwen Jorgensen (Harry How/Getty Images)

Gwen Jorgensen is ready to put the ghosts of London behind her as she enters the Rio Games as the favorite. But anything can happen in the triathlon—a 10-kilometer run, 40-kilometer bike ride, and 1,500-meter swim—as she well knows; a flat tire in London dropped her to a disappointing 38th place.

A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, Jorgensen is on her game and ready to go—she has a record-setting 12 straight wins in the international field and went undefeated last year in the World Triathlon Series.

Jorgensen was a swimmer early in life and took up long-distance running at the University of Wisconsin. The 30-year-old was working as a tax accountant for Ernst & Young in Milwaukee in 2009 when officials of USA Triathlon approached her.

She is now one of the most decorated athletes in her sport.

Her secret weapon? Husband Patrick Lemieux does basically everything for Jorgensen, bar training and racing—like cooking all her meals, arranging her travel, and ensuring a smooth race day. "It's a huge advantage that I have," she told NBC recently.

Let's hope it pays off for Jorgensen at the Rio event, which is probably her last shot at Olympic glory in a single win-or-go-home race that's too exhausting for any qualifying heats.

Jorgensen's race is on Saturday, Aug. 20.


Kerri Walsh Jennings

 Kerri Walsh Jennings (Kevin Lee/Getty Images)
Kerri Walsh Jennings (Kevin Lee/Getty Images)

If it seems like Kerri Walsh Jennings has been playing (and winning) volleyball in the Olympics for as long as you can remember, it's probably because she has.

The soon-to-be 38-year-old (on Aug. 15) was a four-time, first-team All-American at Stanford from 1996 to 1999 and part of the 2000 Olympic indoor team that placed fourth in the Sydney Games in 2000.

She took up beach volleyball soon after and won three straight Olympic golds with longtime playing partner Misty May-Treanor. The duo ended up being one of the most prolific teams ever, racking up 112 straight wins at one point. In Olympic competition, they were a perfect 21–0 and only dropped one set in their three-game run from 2004 to 2012.

Amazingly, Walsh Jennings was pregnant with her third child at the 2012 London Games, but still grabbed the gold. May-Treanor retired after London, so Walsh Jennings teamed up with April Ross—who was on the "other" U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team that won silver in London.

The new duo have gone 72–19 against Olympic-bound teams and are expected to medal, but to win gold they'll likely have to advance past the Brazilian duo of Larissa Maestrini and Talita Antunes, who have downed the Americans in five of six matches.

Walsh Jennings's first match is on Saturday, Aug. 6. The final is on Wednesday, Aug. 17.


Justin Gatlin

 Justin Gatlin (Harry How/Getty Images)
Justin Gatlin (Harry How/Getty Images)

At 34, Justin Gatlin is the oldest sprinter to make a U.S. Olympic squad and has made quite a nice comeback from a four-year doping suspension that cost him competitions from 2006 through 2010—including the 2008 Olympics.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gatlin was a standout at the University of Tennessee, winning six NCAA titles.

At the 2004 Athens games, the 6-foot-1-inch speedster took home the gold in the 100-meter sprint with a blistering time of 9.85 seconds. He also won a bronze in the 200 and silver in the 4x100 relay.    

Eight years later, Gatlin finished third to the one-and-only Usain Bolt in the 100 with an even better time of 9.79 in the London Games. Late last year, Gatlin finished runner-up to Bolt again in both the 100 and 200.

In Rio, Gatlin will be running the 100, 200, and 4x100 relay. And, let's be honest—with a personal best of 9.74 in the 100, unless Bolt breaks a leg (literally) everyone else is running for lower spots on the podium—and Gatlin is at the top of that heap. But any medals he may win will be shrouded in doping speculation.

Gatlin's first race is on Saturday, Aug. 13.


Katie Ledecky  

 Katie Ledecky (Harry How/Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky (Harry How/Getty Images)

As a 15-year-old, Katie Ledecky burst onto the Olympic scene in 2012 by upsetting Great Britain's hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington in the 800-meter freestyle to win gold in her lone Olympic event.

Four years later, Ledecky owns the top 11 times ever recorded in the event and is so good at both long-distance and "sprinting" that she became the first ever to win the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 freestyle events at a major competition when she swept all four at the World Championships last year. She added a gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay for good measure.

After placing first in three freestyle races at the U.S. Olympic trials in April—the 200, 400, and 800—Ledecky, 19, looks poised for a big run in Rio (there is no women's 1,500-meter race in the Olympics). Add the relays and her medal haul could be Team USA's most impressive performance at the games.

Ledecky's first swim is on Sunday, Aug. 7.


Kanak Jha

 Kanak Jha (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Kanak Jha (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

At 16 years of age, table tennis phenom Kanak Jha is the first American born in the new millennium to qualify for the Olympics and is also the youngest ever Olympian in the sport.

How good is he? Well, as a 13-year-old, he entered every age category in the U.S. Nationals—under 15, under 18, under 21, and the seniors—and wound up sweeping the former three before finally losing in the semi-finals of the seniors tournament. In all, he won 27 of 28 matches.

To qualify for the Olympics, Jha first made the national team at the U.S. trials, which qualified him to play in the North American Qualification Tournament—a three-day event played in Canada in April.

In stunning fashion on day three, Jha came back from an 0–5 deficit in the semi-finals against a Canadian player by winning 11 straight points (each set is played to 11) to earn a place in the finals.

His win ensured an all-American championship final, which he won while securing an Olympic berth for himself and the U.S. team.

As thrilling as the Olympics will be for Jha, the world's 272nd-ranked player will have his hands full in a sport dominated by China.

A U.S. table tennis player has never advanced past the quarterfinals of an Olympic tournament.

Jha's first match is on Saturday, Aug. 6.


David Boudia

 David Boudia (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
David Boudia (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

David Boudia is the reigning 10-meter individual platform diving Olympic champion and is looking to defend his gold in the same event in Rio.

The 27-year-old father of one also qualified in the synchronized event—the same event in which he won the bronze four years ago—with diving partner Steele Johnson.

For Boudia, Rio will be his third Olympic Games, following his success in 2012—when he became the first American since Greg Louganis in 1988 to win gold in the individual competition—and disappointment in Beijing in 2008, when he finished outside the top three in both events—5th in the individual and 10th in the synchronized.

Since winning gold in London, Boudia has won a pair of individual silvers at the World Championships (2013 and 2015) and became the first American male since Louganis to medal at those competitions three straight times (also winning silver in 2011).

To win gold in Rio, Boudia will likely have to beat out China's Qiu Bo, who's won gold at each of the last three World Championships (2011, 2013, and 2015), but was edged out in London by Boudia, who performed a back two-and-a-half somersault with a two-and-a-half twist pike dive on his final dive to win the gold by 1.8 points.

Boudia will compete in the synchronized 10-meter on Monday, Aug. 8, and the 10-meter individual on Friday, Aug. 19.


Adeline Gray

 Adeline Gray (Harry How/Getty Images)
Adeline Gray (Harry How/Getty Images)

Women's wrestling wasn't an Olympic sport until Athens 2004, and eight years later when Adeline Gray went to qualify for London, there were only four weight classes—as opposed to 14 on the men's side, which ranged from freestyle to Greco-Roman.

Gray's 67 kg (148 pound) class wasn't included in London, so she opted to drop down a weight class rather than go up. She lost in the finals at the Olympic trials at the 63 kg (139 pound) class and went to London as an alternate.

Now, the Olympics have expanded to six weight classes for women, which includes Gray's current 75 kg (165 pound) class—and it's a good thing for Team USA.

Gray, 25, who's currently ranked number one in the world in her weight, hasn't lost a match in more than two years and has won back-to-back world titles—and three of the last four. She dominated in the Olympic trials, winning the final in just 65 seconds by technical fall (like the mercy rule) to seal her Olympic bid.

The 5-foot-10-inch champ is a heavy favorite to bring home gold for the United States—which would be a first for U.S. women wrestlers.

Gray's matches take place on Thursday, Aug. 18.


Ashton Eaton

 Ashton Eaton (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Ashton Eaton (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Nowadays sprints attract the most hype and are generally considered the most exciting track and field events. But the hype used to belong to the decathlon, where the winner was considered the overall best athlete in the world. Think Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, or Daly Thompson.

Four years ago, little-known Ashton Eaton took home gold in the 10-part event at the London Games and has won every major competition since—including World Championships in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The 28-year-old also won gold in the last three heptathlons (2012, 2014, and 2016) at the World Championships.

The 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound Eaton is the heavy favorite to become just the third two-time Olympic champion in decathlete history—a sport he picked up at the University of Oregon.

Should he do it, he'll extend the Americans' dominance in the all-around competition even further; the United States has won gold in the event 13 times in 23 Olympic Games.

"The pursuits, tribulations, stories, global borderless collective efforts … there is nothing, nothing like being in the Olympic Games," Eaton tweeted on July 29.

Eaton is married to Canada's Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who is a world-class athlete in her own right—she is favored to win the heptathlon in Rio.

Eaton will compete on Wednesday, Aug. 18, and Thursday Aug. 19.


Other Americans to Watch

Allyson Felix, women's 200, 400, and 4x400 relay. Felix has four golds and three silvers already and this is her fourth Olympics. 

LaShawn Merritt, 200, 400, 4x400 relay. After winning gold in the 400 in 2008, Merritt was sidelined over an injury in 2012. He is favored to win the 400.

English Gardner, 100-meters. Will be the biggest threat to Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce's attempt at three golds in a row.

Aries Merritt, 110-meter hurdles. Defending his gold medal from London, but is a slightly different person from four years ago—last September he underwent a kidney transplant.

Devon Allen, men's 110-meter hurdles. Allen is an emerging star and has played wide receiver for the University of Oregon football team.

Delilah Muhammad, women's 400m hurdles. She will be hard to beat, posting the fastest time in the world this year.

Sydney McLaughlin, women's 400 hurdles. McLaughlin, 16, is the youngest American track athlete at the games and a crowd favorite. She is definitely one to watch.

Molly Huddle, 10,000-meters. Huddle competed in the 5,000 in London and finished 11th, the top American.

Meb Keflezighi, marathon. Won the Boston Marathon in 2014, the year after the bombings. He has also won the New York City Marathon (2009) and an Olympic silver medal (2004).

Jenn Suhr, pole vault. Going for back-to-back golds. Also keep an eye on newcomer Lexi Weeks. 

Caeleb Dressel, swimming, 100 free and 4×100 relay. Dressel is an up-and-comer and worth keeping an eye on. He is hard to miss with some very patriotic body ink adorning his arm and chest.

Lilly King, breaststroke, 100 and 200. King is currently ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in the world for these events. 

Sam Mikulak, gymnastics. America's best hope in the men's all-around competition.

Laura Zeng, rhythmic gymnastics. Zeng, 16, will compete in the women's individual all-around competition. 

Lin Dan, badminton. Lin is aiming for his third gold in the men's singles.

Kayla Harrison, judo. Defending the gold she won in London, could repeat.  

Kim Rhode, skeet shooting. Rhode has won medals in five straight Olympics and a medal in Rio would make her the first woman to win medals in six straight Olympics. 


Fast Facts About Team USA

  • 554 athletes (262 men and 292 women) competing in 27 sports (40 disciplines).
  • Will compete for 244 of the 306 sets of medals.
  • 365 athletes are making their Olympic debut
  • 46 states are represented as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands
  • 12 athletes have parents who competed at the Olympics
  • Phillip Dutton, 52, is the oldest Olympian on the team
  • Kanak Jha, 16, is the youngest
  • The United States lead the track and field medal count from 1996–2012; the next four nations, in order, are Russia, Kenya, Jamaica, and Ethiopia.



For the full schedule, visit nbcolympics.com/full-schedule

Dave Martin is a New-York based writer as well as editor. He is the sports editor for the Epoch Times and is a consultant to private writers.