A softball veteran to a surfing champ: 10 US athletes to watch at Tokyo 2020 | USA Olympic team
1) Brady Ellison
Event: Men’s archery
Why you should watch: US fans are fascinated with people trying to round out their legacies by winning Olympic gold. Ellison was ranked first in the world in 2011-12 and reclaimed that position in 2019. He has won four World Cup finals. He won the 2019 world championship. He has two silver medals in the team competition and bronze in the 2016 individual event. Olympic gold is the only thing left. Also, he wears cool hats.
Medal chances: Very good, but knockout rounds can be fickle. In 2016, South Korea’s Kim Woo-jin set a world record by shooting 700 (out of a possible 720), then lost in the round of 32. Ellison broke that record with a 702 in the 2019 Pan Am Games, then lost in the quarter-finals.
2) Rai Benjamin
Age: 23 (but turns 24 on 27 July)
Event: Men’s 400m hurdles
Why you should watch: At the Olympic trials, Benjamin posted the fastest time (46.83 seconds) since Kevin Young set the world record (46.78sec) in 1992. Five days later, Norway’s Karsten Warholm took down Young’s record, running 46.70sec on home soil. Only seven times faster than 47 seconds have ever been posted – one by Young, two by Benjamin, three by Warholm, and one by Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba in 2018. The women’s 400m also has a promising duel and potential world record, but with 21-year-old Sydney McLaughlin already claiming the world record at the Olympic trials, she may have pulled away from fellow American and former record-holder Dalilah Muhammad, who is almost 10 years older than the phenom.
Medal chances: Only a misstep would keep Benjamin off the podium, but can he hold off Samba and catch Warholm for gold?
3) Hannah Roberts
Event: Women’s BMX freestyle
Why you should watch: Roberts is already a three-time world champion and is poised to be her sport’s first Olympic champion. The powerful rider makes flips and spins look easy, and she’s the first woman to land a 360 tailwhip in competition. Women’s BMX is also one of the rare action-sports events to have found the path to inclusion in the Olympics easier than the path to inclusion in the X Games.
Medal chances: All judged sports have their idiosyncrasies, but Roberts has been a consistent performer since her mid-teens.
4) Sunisa Lee
Event: Women’s gymnastics
Why you should watch: It’s not quite accurate to say she beat Simone Biles at the US gymnastics trials, but she did post a higher score than the GOAT on the second day. Yes, Biles had a rare fall on that day, but Lee has a solid track record when healthy, which has been all too rare. Her comebacks have been all the more inspiring after a couple of years of loss – her father was paralyzed from the chest down after a fall in 2019, and she lost her aunt and uncle to Covid-19. Lee, the first Hmong American named to an Olympic team, already has post-Olympic plans, having committed to compete for Auburn University when she was 14.
Medal chances: A US team gold medal is one of the surest bets in the Olympics. The all-around is unforgiving, with only two athletes qualifying per country, but she has the second best score in the world this year. She’s also a contender on the uneven bars and floor exercise, having medaled in both in the 2019 world championships.
5) Sakura Kokumai
Event: Karate, women’s kata
Why you should watch: Karate makes its Olympic debut this year. One discipline, kumite, will look somewhat familiar to anyone who has watched taekwondo or grew up memorizing the dialogue from the climactic scene of The Karate Kid. Kata, on the other hand, will be new to the average viewer. To be precise, it’ll be unfamiliar to the average American viewer – a video of Japanese great Rika Usami in action has more than 17.5 million views. Imagine a cross between the floor exercise in gymnastics and someone facing an imaginary coterie of attackers – perhaps a flippant description, given the athleticism and visual intrigue of the competition, but also a reasonable way of picturing it. Kokumai, who was born in Hawaii and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Japan before settling in Los Angeles, has posted about her recent experience with anti-Asian harassment.
Medal chances: Kokumai earned her Olympic spot by ranking fourth among athletes who aren’t from the host country of Japan, and she has the 2012 world championship bronze among several international medals.
6) Nyjah Huston
Event: Skateboard, men’s street
Why you should watch: Skateboarding has joined the Olympics too late for Tony Hawk and Shaun White, though the latter can content himself with his snowboarding medals. The vanguard of the sport today is Huston, who earned his first sponsorship at the age of seven and has been winning X Games medals since he was 14 despite a custody battle in which he spent a couple of years outside the spotlight in Puerto Rico.
Medal chances: He stumbled to silver earlier this year in the world championships, but his three world championship gold medals and 10 X Games wins say even more about his chances than his 485,000 subscribers on YouTube and 4.6 million followers on Instagram.
7) Cat Osterman
Why you should watch: One of the USA’s stronger sports returns from a 13-year exile — only to begin another seven years out of the Olympics when the last pitch has been thrown in Tokyo. Osterman was the starter for the final game in Beijing, when the USA missed out on the gold medal for the first time in softball’s brief Olympic history. The 2004 gold medalist, two-time world champion and two-time ESPY winner (for top collegiate female athlete) emerged from retirement to take advantage of another shot at gold, a task made slightly more challenging by the fact that the host country is the USA’s biggest rival and 2008 nemesis.
Medal chances: The US women have played in the final of every major tournament for decades – a mixed blessing, with the lack of global competition being a factor in the sport’s exclusion from the Olympics. Anything other than a USA-Japan showdown for gold would be a shocker.
8) Carissa Moore
Event: Women’s surfing
Why you should watch: The four-time world champion – representing Hawaii rather than the United States, an option she does not have in the Olympics – is leading the way again this year as her sport makes its Olympic debut. While barely out of her teens in 2013, she was named a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year, not just for her on-board accomplishments but also for her successful advocacy for gender equity in her sport and her candid conversations about overcoming issues with body image. Her 2019 season was documented in a film called Riss.
Medal chances: She has been on the podium in all six World Surf League events this year and in eight of her 10 competitions in 2019.
9) Katie Ledecky
Why you should watch: An obvious choice, of course, given the fact that she won her first gold medal at age 15 in London and grabbed four gold medals and a silver in Rio. But she’s worth extra attention this time around because the Olympic program has an additional race – the 1500m freestyle – in which she’s unbeatable, barring a serious mishap or illness such as the one that limited her to only one gold medal and two silvers at the 2019 world championships. In the 2017 world championships, she earned five gold medals and took silver in the 200m, her “weakest” event but one in which she won gold in Rio.
Medal chances: She hasn’t lost in the 800m or 1500m as an adult. The shorter the distance, the more vulnerable she is, but it’s really a question of how many of her medals are gold.
10) Kyle Dake
Event: Wrestling, men’s 74kg freestyle
Why you should watch: Olympic qualification for wrestling is brutal – one spot per country per weight class – and the weight class (79kg) in which Dake is the reigning, two-time world champion isn’t contested at the Olympics. In 2016, Dake moved up to 86kg and lost to eventual bronze medalist J’den Cox at the Olympic trials. This time around, Dake dropped to 74kg and had to go through Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 gold medalist and four-time world champion. Dake swept Burroughs to earn his first Olympic spot at age 30, eight years removed from a glittering college career at Cornell in which he won NCAA titles in four different weight classes and finished on a 77-match winning streak.
Medal chances: Dake doesn’t have a lot of international experience at 74kg and therefore didn’t get one of the four available seeds. But he does have a win against top-seeded Frank Chamizo, albeit at 79kg.