10 potential first-time U.S. Olympians to watch ahead of Rio 2016
The Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are a year away. How will the U.S. fare once the torch is lit in Maracanã stadium on Aug. 5, 2016? In 2012, American athletes took home 103 medals, 46 of which were gold, and there is every reason to expect another impressive haul in Rio. Familiar faces such as Michael Phelps, LeBron James, Gabby Douglas and Allyson Felix figure to be in the mix, but here are 10 fresh faces to watch who could well become stars in what would be their first Olympic appearances next summer:
Simone Biles: 18, gymnastics
Biles is the two-time world all-around champion and will head to Rio as a favorite for gold. The Texas native could make history as the first woman to win three world all-round titles at the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships held in Glasgow in October. Biles is already the first African-American woman to win a world title with her two gold medals from 2013. Biles defeated reigning Olympic champ Gabby Douglas to defend her all-around title at last month’s Secret Classic.
On July 29, Biles chose to forego any NCAA eligibility and turn professional by signing with Octagon agency, the same agency that represents past gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Aly Raisman. Biles plans on attending UCLA after the Olympics.
Joe Kovacs, 26, track and field
Kovacs tossed a personal best of 21.66-meters in the shot put at the 2012 Olympic trials, but finished fourth and did not advance to London. Kovacs has won the last two U.S. national titles and continues to improve each year. His throw of 22.56 at the Monaco Diamond League on July 17 was a personal best that ranks No. 1 in the world this year—and made the Penn State grad the 8th best performer in history. It was the farthest throw since 2003 and it suggests Kovacs may have a shot at the world record, which is held by American Randy Barnes at 23.12 meters.
Ajee Wilson, 21, track and field
Wilson is at the head of the pack in the most competitive and deepest event in U.S. track and field—the women’s 800 meters. The New Jersey native made her debut on the senior global championship stage with a sixth-place finish (1:58.21 U.S. junior record) at the 2013 world championships and last season led the world with a 1:56.67 performance. She also has world youth and world junior championship golds on her résumé. Wilson will go for more gold at the world championships in Beijing later this month.
Jordan Speith, 22, golf
With golf returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, the U.S. is expected to send top contenders for gold. Speith would be the leading American based on the latest world golf rankings. The U.S. will get to send four men and four women, so Speith could be joined by the likes of Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, each of whom is in the world’s top five. Speith, whose historic run in 2015 already includes wins in the Masters and the U.S. Open, as well as the John Deere Classic, along with his oh-so-close fourth at the British Open, could become the U.S.’ second Olympic gold medalist—after Charles Sand, whose win came 116 years ago in the Paris Games.
Brittney Griner, 24, women’s basketball
Griner was in contention for the 2012 Olympic team, but withdrew her name from consideration, citing her upcoming school schedule at Baylor and family health problems. The U.S. has won the last five Olympic gold medals, and Griner is expected to be in their plans for a sixth. The 6’ 8” center made her Team USA debut in 2011 as part of the squad’s European training tour. She was named to the 2014 FIBA Women’s World Championship all-star team after averaging 12.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the tournament.
Cam Awesome, 27, boxing
Lenroy Thompson is a thing of the past. Before dubbing himself the “Taylor Swift of boxing” after taking bronze at the 2015 Pan-Am Games, Awesome had his slip-ups in the sport. He missed out on the 2012 Olympic team after failing on three occasions to report his whereabouts to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He went unsponsored, became a vegan and worked as a personal trainer before returning to the sport as Cam F. Awesome (The F does not stand for anything in particular. It’s up to the fan.) A favorite for the U.S. super-heavyweight spot for 2016, the New York native has titles from U.S. Nationals and the Golden Gloves from his comeback to add to his 10 national titles as Thompson.
Katie Zaferes, 25, triathlon
Zaferes is a newcomer to the triathlon scene, but has transitioned well after her days as a 3,000-meter steeplechaser for Syracuse, where she holds the school record in the event. Due to her running and early swimming credentials, Zaferes was recruited by USA Triathlon to turn professional in 2013. In five of her six ITU World Triathlon races this year, Zaferes has finished in the top five. Zaferes has crossed the finish line behind Gwen Jorgensen, arguably the most dominant triathlete and gold medal favorite at the moment, in four of those races.
Adeline Gray, 24, wrestling
The 2014 world championship gold medal means more to the Denver native than her first gold, from the 2012 world championships, in which many of the best wrestlers did not compete due to the proximity to the Summer Games. Gray was in attendance in London as an alternate, but did not compete. In 2015, the 165-pounder has collected victories at the U.S. World Team Trials, U.S. Open and World Cup before getting ready to compete at the worlds in Las Vegas on Sept. 7-12. Last year, Gray was named USA Wrestling’s Woman Wrestler of the Year.
Madison Hughes, 22, rugby
Rugby sevens will debut in Rio, marking the first time that the sport has been played in the Olympics since three teams competed with 15 players in 1924. Hughes, who has been making his name as captain and scrum half for the U.S. national team and Men’s Eagles Sevens, led the World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series tournament with 65 points and seven five-point tries as the U.S. won its first world rugby sevens world series title.
The U.S. team qualified for the Olympics with a win over Canada at the North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) Sevens Championship game in June. Hughes returned to Dartmouth over the summer to finish his degree. Now he and head coach Mike Friday hope to put the Americans into the medal conversation currently dominated by Australia, Fiji, Great Britain, New Zealand and South Africa.
Taylor Sander, 23, volleyball
Sander was the tournament MVP in the United States’ gold-medal upset of Brazil at the 2014 FIVB World League. The 6’ 4” outside-hitter graduated from BYU before heading overseas to compete for Blu Volley Verona in the top Italian league. Sander was named the 2014 AVCA Player of the Year, the most prestigious honor in men’s volleyball.