When Dara Torres won her first Olympic gold medal -- in Los Angeles in 1984-26 of the 42 members of this year's swim team hadn't been born. No wonder 23-year-old Michael Phelps calls Torres his "sort-of mom." On a team full of prodigies Torres, 41, who came out of retirement after having a daughter two years ago and undergoing shoulder and knee surgeries in the last year, could be the story of the Games; in her fifth Olympics she'll likely add to her career haul of nine medals. Natalie Coughlin, who broke the 100-meter world backstroke record at the trials in Omaha, tied a record at the 2004 Games with five medals (two of them gold) -- a total that could be eclipsed by Katie Hoff, who will swim six events in Beijing. Another backstroke ace is Margaret Hoelzer, the reigning 200-meter world champ and world-record holder. Beyond Phelps, the men's team is deep and experienced. In Athens, Aaron Piersol won three gold medals, while Ryan Lochte took a relay gold and an individual silver. Then there are newcomers Garrett Weber-Gale, 22, a surprise winner of the 50- and 100-meter freestyles at the trials, and Cullen Jones, a Bronx native who set a U.S. 50-meter free record in Omaha. Jones is just the second African-American swimmer to qualify for an Olympic individual event.
TRACK AND FIELD
Pro wrestling fan Reese Hoffa used to wear a black mask to meets and call himself the Unknown Shot Putter. No more: By the end of the Games, Hoffa, who beat world champ Adam Nelson at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., could be one of many household names on a team that should dominate. In Eugene, decathlete Bryan Clay, the 2005 world champ, had the world's highest score in four years. Allyson Felix sprints for gold in the 200 meters and the 100- and 400-meter relays. Four years after taking up the pole vault, Jenn Stuczynski the leading career hoops scorer at NAIA Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. -- is already the U.S.-record holder and a gold contender. LaShawn Merritt upset reigning Olympic 400-meter champ Jeremy Wariner at the trials. And 110-meter hurdler Terrence Trammell, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and part-time real estate speculator, will try to close the deal at his third Games.
The women's all-around gold could come down to a battle between Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, gymnastics' dream duo. Johnson, 16, is the reigning world champ; Liukin, 18, the daughter of two former Soviet gymnastics champions, has held the U.S. uneven bars title since 2004. Bitter rivals? Not quite. "We've always had a close relationship," says Liukin. "We're teammates and friends first."
She's happy to help people in her sales job at The Home Depot, but on the water Michelle Guerette works alone. The 2005 world single sculls bronze medalist is aiming for the event's first U.S. Olympic title.
An Olympic gold isn't California dreamin' for goalie and Michigan grad Betsey Armstrong. She and attacker Heather Petri led the U.S. to the 2007 world title; Armstrong is the only national-team player from a non-Cali college.
U.S. Olympians in need of tour guides in Beijing should seek out the table tennis team: All four members -- Gao Jun, Crystal Huang, Wang Chen and David Zhuang -- were born in China. Gao, 39, who won an Olympic doubles silver for China in 1992, became a U.S. citizen in 1994. This year she led Team USA, which has never won a medal at the Games, to its highest finish (12th) at the world championships since 1989.
The U.S. has won all three golds since the sport joined the Games in 1996 -- and outfielder Laura Berg has been on each of those squads. She should go 4 for 4 this year; Team USA is stacked. In 2004 third baseman Crystl Bustos set Olympic records with five home runs and 10 RBIs. Ace Cat Osterman pitched the title-clinching games at the 2006 worlds and '06 and '07 World Cups. The rotation also has Jennie Finch and Monica Abbott , who went 6- for the U.S. team last year and didn't allow a run. The full squad: catcher Stacey Nuveman, outfielder Caitlin Lowe, Osterman, Abbott, third baseman Vicky Galindo, outfielder Jessica Mendoza, infielder Tairia Flowers; Bustos, infielder Andrea Duran, catcher Lauren Lappin, Berg, Finch, shortstop Natasha Watley, outfielder Kelly Kretschman, second baseman Lovieanne Jung. Because the IOC voted to drop softball from the Games after '08 (but will reconsider it next year), "we've got two things in mind: win gold and get softball in people's minds," Berg says. "There are 128 countries that play the sport. It is important the IOC sees that."
Ronda Rousey may have golden genes. Her mom, AnnMaria DeMars, is the only U.S. woman with a world judo title.
The U.S. sends two current world champs to Beijing: flyweight Rau'Shee Warren , 21, the only U.S. holdover from the 2004 Games; and welterweight Demetrius Andrade, 20.
She missed the 2004 Games with a torn ACL, but freestyler Marcie Van Dusen is back -- and is a 121-pound medal hope.
A junior star, Sarah Hammer quit cycling in 2002 and sold her gear on eBay. But watching the 2004 Games rekindled her interest -- and her skills came back as easily as, well, riding a bike: Hammer, 24, won world individual pursuit titles in '06 and '07.
Heather O'Reilly, Kate Markgraf and new coach Pia Sundhage lead a team with plenty of experience; eight members won gold in 2004. Team USA also has a huge hole to fill -- top scorer Abby Wambach will miss the Games after breaking her left leg last week -- and something to prove. The last time they visited China, the U.S. women, who are ranked No. 1 in the world, finished third in the 2007 World Cup.
In 1983 Julio Lopez, a suburban Houston architect and a Chuck Norris fanatic, enrolled his eight-year-old son, Jean, in what he thought was a karate class. It was taekwondo, as it turned out, and the rest is history. Jean now coaches younger siblings Mark, Diana and Steven Lopez, the first U.S. Olympic sibling trio since 1904. Steven is a two-time gold medalist; Mark and Diana will make their Games debuts.
In June, Sheila Taormina blogged about her desire to torpedo the idea that "a person is too old at age 39 to learn new sports and . . . that it takes 10 years or more to learn a sport." Mission accomplished. In the last four years the 1996 swimming relay gold medalist and 2000 and '04 triathlete picked up shooting, fencing and riding; she'll be the first U.S. woman to compete in three Olympics in three different sports.
Mary Beth Dunnichay, diving, 15. Dunnichay (pronounced DUN-ih-kay), born Feb. 25, 1993, is five months younger than runner-up Haley Ishimatsu, with whom she'll dive in synchronized platform. Together the two are as old as gold-medalist teammate Laura Wilkinson, 30.
John Dane III, sailing, 58. A first-time Olympian after 40 years of trying, Dane will race in the Star class with his 30-year-old son-in-law, Austin Sperry. Dane, the CEO of New Orleans-based Trinity Yachts, had his house and much of his shipbuilding business destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina but rebuilt both. The oldest woman is pistol shooter Libby Callahan, 56, a former Washington, D.C., police sergeant. Callahan, who'll be in her fourth Games, is the oldest woman in any sport ever to make a U.S. Olympic team.
Shawn Johnson, gymnastics, 4' 8" -- an inch and a half shorter than Mary Lou Retton was in 1984.
Dwight Howard, basketball, 6' 11", an inch taller than teammate Chris Bosh. Fellow hoopster Sylvia Fowles tops the women at 6' 6", edging four-time Olympian Lisa Leslie by an inch.
Michael Phelps has 4,594 friends on Facebook.
Charlotte Craig, taekwondo. Doctors removed Craig's dysfunctional left kidney when she was a year old and told her family she should avoid contact sports. Softball shortstop Natasha Watley grew up with severe asthma and spent the first two weeks of her life on a respirator.
MOST PRESIDENTIAL I
Brittany Hayes, water polo. The Santa Ana, Calif., native is a descendant of the 19th U.S. president, Rutherford B. Hayes.
MOST PRESIDENTIAL II
Jessica Mendoza, softball. After Beijing the 27-year-old Stanford-educated leftfielder will take over as president of the Women's Sports Foundation.
• Taylor Phinney, track cycling, son of riders Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney. At the 1984 Games, Davis won bronze in the team time trial and Connie brought home gold in the road race.
• Michelle Carter, shot put, daughter of Michael Carter, 1984 silver medalist in the shot and former Pro Bowl nosetackle for the San Francisco 49ers. The elder Carter is the only athlete to have won an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same year.
• Marvell Wynne, soccer defender, son of former San Diego Padres outfielder Marvell Sr.
• Mariel Zagunis, defending gold medalist in sabre fencing and daughter of Cathy and Robert Zagunis, who rowed in the '76 Montreal Games.
• Ariel Rittenhouse, diving, daughter of 1964 swimming silver medalist SharonFinneran and niece of 1972 Olympic diver Mike Finneran.
• JW Krumpholz, water polo, son of Kurt Krumpholz, who set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle in the preliminaries of the '72 Olympic trials, then failed to make the team.
• Shalane Flanagan, 10,000 meters, daughter of ex-marathon world-record holder Cheryl Treworgy, now a track and field photographer who often shoots Shalane in action.
Lovieanne Jung, softball. The second baseman was named for Gilligan's Island characters Lovey Howell (the millionaire's wife) and Mary Anne Summers. Sadam Ali, a 132-pounder, will be not only the first Arab-American Olympic fighter but also the first Ali to box in the Games for the U.S. -- the 1960 gold medalist was still Cassius Clay.
THE SUPER SIX
Of the half-dozen members of the soon-to-be-famous women's gymnastics team, four are from the Midwest -- Shawn Johnson (West Des Moines, Iowa), Chellsie Memmel (West Allis, Wis.), Samantha Peszek (Indianapolis) and Bridget Sloan (Pittsboro, Ind.) -- and two are coached by their fathers. Nastia Liukin(opposite) trains in Plano, Texas, under dad Valeri, a four-time Olympic medalist for the Soviet Union, and Memmel is coached by dad Andy, who runs a gymnastics gym.
Fencing. Jason Rogers was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. Emily Cross won the world junior title in foil in '05 and then passed up senior worlds to finish her sophomore year at Harvard. Sada Jacobson has a history degree from Yale. Tim Morehouse is a Brandeis grad and former teacher. It's no wonder the siblings on the team, who work in finance in New York City, are named Keeth and Erinn Smart.
Eric Shanteau, swimming. In June, a week before the start of the U.S. trials in his sport, Shanteau, a 24-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., was told by his doctors that he had testicular cancer. They cleared him to swim at the trials, where he unexpectedly made the team, edging close friend, world-record holder and University of Texas-based training partner Brendan Hansen for second place in the 200-meter breaststroke. Shanteau, whose cancer was detected early, will have weekly blood tests and CT scans and -- unless doctors see a worsening of his condition -- will compete in Beijing.
DOWN THE AISLE
Before Matt Reed married fellow triathlete Kelly Rees in 2003, he helped nurse her back to health after she was struck by a 15-ton construction truck while biking in Boulder, Colo.
Triathlete Hunter Kemper went on his first date with future wife Val the day she was cut from the 2000 U.S. Olympic volleyball team.
Casey Burgener (whose berth on the team is pending) proposed to fellow weightlifter Natalie Woolfolk while the two were riding an elephant after last year's world championships in Thailand. The pair plans to marry in California this fall.
After Matt Emmons lost a gold medal at the 2004 Games by firing his final 50-meter rifle shot at the wrong target, Czech shooter Katy Kurkova came over to offer sympathy and was impressed with the way he handled the disappointment. The pair married last year in the Czech Republic.
Natasha Kai, soccer. The Hawaii native's 19 tattoos include hibiscus flowers, the Hawaiian Islands, turtles, her initials written in a tribal language and the names of assorted family members. Greco-Roman wrestler Jake Deitschler has Chinese characters that translate to "God, wrestler warrior" tattooed under his right armpit.
Nine active members of the military qualified for the shooting team. In addition, modern pentathlete Eli Bremer (nephew of L. Paul Bremer, the former head of U.S. rebuilding efforts in Iraq), is a reservist after having served as an Air Force captain; Greco-Roman wrestler Dremiel Byers is an Army staff sergeant; Greco teammate Adam Wheeler spent five years in the Coast Guard; and fencer Seth Kelsey is a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
Judoka Adler Volmar, a onetime Navy medic, served as a bodyguard last year in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. When Volmar was growing up in Haiti his father worked briefly as a driver for that country's then dictator, François Duvalier.
Bryan Volpenhein, rowing. After winning gold as a member of the men's eights boat at the 2004 Athens Games, Volpenhein took a year off to attend culinary school in Seattle. He cooks for teammates and provides a monthly recipe to the U.S. Rowing website, which posts video of him preparing it.
DON'T BLAME HIM
Point guard Jason Kidd, who played in the Sydney Games but missed Athens, is the only player on the men's basketball team who is one-for-one in gold medals.
Based on 2007-08 salaries, that would be Kidd, who earned $19.728 million, just ahead of the $19.491 million taken home by Kobe Bryant. By contrast, a typical athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs receives free room and board and a monthly stipend between $1,000 and $3,000.
A LITTLE EXTRA
The USOC will pay athletes bonuses of $25,000 for every gold medal they win, $15,000 for every silver and $10,000 for every bronze.
The colleges with the most team members (current students or alums) are Stanford (31), UCLA (19), USC (19), Texas (17), Cal (14) and North Carolina (13).
Valerie Gotay, judo. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, Gotay, then 18, became seriously ill (she thinks from cutting weight for the 106-pound class) and couldn't compete. Plagued by medical problems for two years, she retired. She has since married, had two daughters, separated and returned to judo, building a gym in her barn in Harlingen, Texas. In June she made her second Olympic team -- 16 years after her first -- at 125 pounds.
The five-member archery team has a five-time Olympian (Butch Johnson), a four-time Olympian (Khatuna Lorig), a three-time Olympian (Vic Wunderle), a two-time Olympian (Jennifer Nichols) and a first-time Olympian (Brady Ellison).
The tennis team has two sets of siblings: identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan, the world's No. 2-ranked men's doubles team, and Venus and Serena Williams, the 2000 doubles champs.
Shawn Estrada, the middleweight boxer, has 15 siblings and half-siblings.
Team USA includes athletes who were born in 28 other countries. These 36 Olympians include:
• Bernard Lagat, the world 1,500- and 5,000-meter champ, who won two Olympic medals for Kenya before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2004.
• Lopez Lomong, a 1,500-meter runner and one of the Lost Boys of Sudan; he was separated from his family when fleeing militia members at age six and spent a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the U.S. in 2001 with the help of an aid group.
• Bob Malaythong, badminton, who came to the U.S. from Laos in 1989 at age eight with his sister and mother; he eventually worked as a dishwasher, cookie baker and burrito maker to support himself. His badminton teammates Eva Lee and Howard Bach were born in Hong Kong and Vietnam, respectively.
NOT GOING DUTCH
Determined to be a U.S. Olympian someday, backstroker Matt Grevers, then 19, turned down an offer to switch countries and swim for the Netherlands, birthplace of his parents, in the Athens Games. The gamble paid off: At this year's U.S. trials Grevers, an underdog, out-touched star Ryan Lochte in the 100 back to earn a berth in Beijing.
WIN SOME, LOSE SOME
The men's soccer team has Ghanaian-born Freddy Adu, Brazilian-born Benny Feilhaber and Scottish-born Stuart Holden, but it failed to land U.S.-born Giuseppe Rossi. The gifted 21-year-old striker, who grew up in Clifton, N.J., as the son of Italian immigrants, has dual citizenship and decided to play for Italy.
The U.S. now has top-level foreign-born coaches in many of the 28 Summer Olympic sports. While Romanian-born women's gymnastics team director Martha Karolyi (wife of former Olympic coach Bela) may be better known to American fans, the head coach with the biggest global following is women's volleyball's "Jenny" Lang Ping, who starred for China's gold-medal team at the 1984 Games and remains a national hero in her homeland.
Marcie Van Dusen, wrestling. In January the 121-pounder ended the 10-year, 119-match international winning streak of 2004 Olympic champ Saori Yoshida of Japan.
STATE OF THE STATES
Based on hometowns, California produced more members of Team USA (175) than any other state. The runners-up were Texas (44), Pennsylvania (28), Florida (27), New York (25), Washington (19), Illinois (17), Georgia (16), New Jersey (16) and Ohio (16). No team member is from Montana, North Dakota or West Virginia.
Brad Vering, Greco-Roman wrestling, grew up in Howells, Neb. (pop. 632).
ISLAND OF DEFENSE
The only men's water polo player not from California is goalkeeper Brandon Brooks of Hawaii. Including Brooks, the U.S.'s starting water polo goalie at five of the last six Olympics has been from Hawaii.
Melanie Roach, weightlifting. The 117-pounder -- one of 20 mothers on the team -- finally made her first Olympics at age 33. Roach set a world record of 250 pounds in the clean and jerk in 1998 but in 2000 suffered a seemingly career-ending herniated disk. Today, the former gymnast runs a gymnastics school in Sumner, Wash., with her husband, Dan, a four-term state representative. The couple has three kids, including a son who is autistic.
If the women's soccer team triumphs, midfielder Shannon Boxx and her sister, Gillian, a catcher on the '96 softball team, will be the first U.S. sisters to win gold in different sports.
T.C. Dantzler, Greco-Roman wrestling. The 37-year-old runs TC logiQ, a background-screening company that he founded in Colorado four years ago. The firm has grown from three employees to 23, and Dantzler plans to take it public in three years.
• Cullen Jones, swimming, hopes to write for a men's fashion magazine such as GQ.
• Amy Acuff, high jump, is studying to become an acupuncturist and a doctor of Oriental medicine.
• Ben Wildman-Tobriner, swimming, majored in biomechanical engineering at Stanford and wants to be a surgeon.
• Raynell Williams, boxing, plans to be an accountant.
Several baseball players are accustomed to the media spotlight. Outfielder Colby Rasmus batted .417 for the Phenix City, Ala., team that lost to Japan in the 1999 Little League World Series final. Lefthanded pitcher Clayton Richard played quarterback at Michigan. And power-hitting outfielder Matt LaPorta was the key prospect acquired by the Cleveland Indians from the Milwaukee Brewers on July 7 in exchange for the American League's reigning Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia.
Sanya Richards, track. The 400-meter star wears a childhood gift from her mother: a necklace with a pendant of a bullet.
LIVING UP TO HIS REP
If sprinter Jeremy Wariner defends his title in the 400 in Beijing, he'll equal the feat of Michael Johnson, who won the 400 in 1996 and 2000 -- and is Wariner's manager.
ARTISTS AT WORK
Jill Kintner, a BMX cyclist from Seattle, graduated from California College of the Arts and has a website that showcases her sketches, action photography and graphic design skills. Women's water polo goalkeeper Jaime Hipp designs and sells her own line of jewelry.
LOST AND FOUND
Rebecca Ward, fencing. The 2006 sabre world champion was introduced to her sport at age nine when she went to the wrong place for a gymnastics practice in her hometown of Beaverton, Ore., and stumbled upon a fencing class instead.
• Reese Hoffa, shot put, can solve a Rubik's Cube in 45 seconds.
• Donny Robinson, BMX, performed in musical theater until age 17.
• Pia Sundhage, women's soccer, is a guitarist who serenaded the U.S. players with The Times They Are A-Changin' when she took over as coach last year.
• Shannon Rowbury, track, competed in Irish dancing before she became an elite miler.
• David Neville, 400 meters, played drums in the Indiana University marching band for a year before joining the track team.
• Scott Parsons, kayak, brews beer at his Bethesda, Md., home.
• Georgia Gould, mountain biking, can juggle and ride a unicycle and auditioned for the Ringling Bros. circus three times; she never made the cut.
Not every member of the swim team was born a fish. Michael Phelps took his first lessons on his back because he was afraid to put his head underwater. The mother of Katie Hoff had to wash her daughter's hair as little as possible because Katie didn't like water either.
Leonel Manzano, who'll run the 1,500 meters in Beijing, stands 5' 5" but according to his doctors has a heart the size of a 7-foot man's. (They have told him it's the result of his intense training and is perfectly healthy.)
• Kate (Tiki) Barber, field hockey captain, was given that handle when she was playing for North Carolina and the future NFL running back was at ACC rival Virginia.
• Bershawn (Batman) Jackson, 400-meter hurdler, earned the moniker as a kid because he had big ears, but keeps using it because he now flies over the hurdles; he has the nickname on his license plate.
• Michael (Meatball) Friedman, cycling, has -- as the name suggests -- an un-Lance-like physique.
World 200-meter-dash champion Allyson Felix, whose schoolmates at Los Angeles Baptist High used to call her Chicken Legs, was featured in both Vogue's Shape Issue and Glamour's 11 Greatest Bodies on Earth.
• Dara Torres, swimming, worked as a reporter for ESPN and Fox News and hosted a sports segment on the Discovery Channel science and technology show The Next Stop.
• Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, the reigning Olympic champions in beach volleyball, played themselves on an episode of CSI: Miami.
• Shawn Crawford, the defending 200-meter gold medalist, raced a zebra and a giraffe on Fox's reality show Man vs. Beast. He beat the giraffe but lost to the zebra.
Softball pitcher Jennie Finch appeared on the celebrity edition of The Apprentice and was fired by Donald Trump in the fourth week.
Six team members -- softball players Vicky Galindo, Lauren Lappin, Jessica Mendoza and Stacey Nuveman, 15-year-old swimmer Elizabeth Beisel and race walker Philip Dunn -- were among the 130 international athletes who in June signed a letter to President George W. Bush, Chinese President HuJintao and other world leaders asking them to try to ensure that during the Games an Olympic truce is observed in Sudan, home to the violence-torn Darfur region. The letter was given to Bush by former Olympic speedskating champion Joey Cheek, the head of an international athletes' organization called Team Darfur.
Through appearances and promotion of a website (crohnsandme.com), sprint kayaker Carrie Johnson works to raise awareness of Crohn's Disease, a chronic and often debilitating inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract from which she and softball infielder Tairia Flowers (and an estimated 500,000 other Americans) suffer.
Ben Askren, wrestling. The former University of Missouri star is known for the long blond curls that he braids or styles into a mullet for matches. "I actually don't really like my hair that much, but I'm a man of realism, and I realize people like gimmicks," he says. "[In Beijing] my hair's going to be my gimmick. Hopefully, I'll get a sponsorship or two, maybe get some money out of having stupid, curly hair."
WHAT A DIFFERENCE
Anna Willard will compete in Beijing as the American-record holder in a new Olympic track event, the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase. Four years ago, during the Games in Athens, she was waiting tables at the Fish Monger in Woods Hole, Mass.
With reporting by Laura Bernheim, Emily Cunningham, David Epstein and Rebecca Sun