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2016 Rio Olympics: 6 Kickass Athletes You Should Watch and the One Event You Absolutely Shouldn't Miss

by Ann Donahue 7:08 AM PDT, August 05, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

The Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games start tonight in Rio, and for those of us who live and breathe sports -- The triumphant highs! The gutting lows! The once-in-a-lifetime chance at victory! The American flag manicures! -- it's a glorious two weeks. Here is a primer on the six athletes to follow -- all ladies, because we adhere to the Book of Beyonce and girls run the world -- and the one event you should make sure to plant yourself in front of the TV to watch.

Gwen Jorgensen, 30, USA, Triathlon

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The Olympic distance triathlon consists of a 1-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run. Gwen Jorgensen is the toughest, fastest woman in the game -- at one point in her career, she set a record in the sport (male or female!) by winning 13 elite races in a row. Not just competed, mind you -- finished first -- and all because she put on hold her smartypants career as a tax accountant to train fulltime. And she also offers up some big #lifegoals: Married in late 2014, her husband, Patrick, quit his job to cook and take care of her during her grueling travel schedule for competitions.


Photo: Getty Images

See her in action: women’s individual triathlon, Sat., Aug. 20 

WATCH: The U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Is Official! Meet the 'Fierce Five' Who Will Compete in Rio

Katie Ledecky, 19, USA, Swimming

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There is one fail-safe way to prepare for the Olympics: set world records in most of the events that you are going to compete in. This very straightforward training plan was developed by Katie Ledecky, and do not play a drinking game for every time she is called the “female Michael Phelps” over the next few weeks because you will get quite toasty. The comparison isn’t entirely fair: Yeah, they both are up for five medals in Rio. But Ledecky’s dominance over her competitors -- let’s see if NBC can keep her in the same frame as her distant followers during the race -- is something that everyone should envy. So, you know, maybe start calling Phelps the male Ledecky.

Photo: Getty Images

See her in action: women’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay, Sat., Aug. 6; women’s 400m freestyle, Sun., Aug. 7; women’s 200m freestyle, Mon., Aug. 8; women’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay, Weds., Aug. 10; women’s 800m freestyle, Thurs., Aug. 11

Simone Biles, 19, USA, Gymnastics

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There’s this thing called gravity; you know, the invisible force that keeps us bound to the earth. But there’s also the exception to every rule -- and in the case of gravity, it’s Simone Biles. Her joyously acrobatic floor routine makes her look like she’s on another plane altogether, and the woman has style -- in the middle of her floor routine, when she won the national title, she spied 2008 gold medalist Shawn Johnson in the stands…and winked at her. Winked! That is some ice in those veins. Look at Biles’ routine and tell me you don’t yell some possibly expletive-laden version of “HOW DOES SHE DO THAT?!”

See her in action: women’s uneven bars, women’s beam, women’s vault, women’s team all-around, women’s floor exercise, women’s individual all-around, all Sun., Aug. 7

PICS: U.S. Gymnast Simone Biles Has Us Super Pumped for the Olympics

Serena Williams, 34, USA, Tennis

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Greatest female athlete of all time? As Serena Williams herself declared with barely concealed scorn at a recent press conference, she’d really rather be considered the greatest athlete of all time, full stop. Williams’ Terminator-style approach to tennis is always a thrill to watch, but she brings her A-game to the Olympics, and is one of the rare big-money professional athletes who you can feel how much it means to them to represent their country in sport. Her relentless desire to win lifts all those around her -- in particular, her sister Venus Williams, with whom she will compete in Doubles.

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See her in action: women’s singles, women’s doubles, both Sat., Aug. 6

Tatyana McFadden, 27, USA, IPC Athletics

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Tatyana McFadden was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that created a hole in her spine and paralyzed her from the waist down. She lived in a Russian orphanage until she was 6, when she was adopted by an American couple, Deborah McFadden and Bridget O’Shaughnessy. As part of Tatyana’s therapy, her parents introduced her to sports-- and discovered she was an unparalleled prodigy. McFadden has won the London, Boston, Chicago and New York marathons -- yes, all of them -- for three years in a row. It’s an astoundingly inspirational story -- you should be screaming your lungs out for McFadden to sweep all seven of her events at the Rio Paralympics.


Photo: Getty Images

See her in action: The Paralympics run from Sept. 7 – Sept. 18, and McFadden will be competing in the 100m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m, the 4 x 400m relay…and the marathon. 

Ibtihaj Muhammad, 30, USA, Fencing

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Much has been made of the fact that Muhammad will be the first Muslim woman who wears a hijab to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team -- but that is overlooking the fact that she is, fundamentally, a tremendous person and tenacious athlete. She began fencing at 13, was a three-time All-American at Duke University (where she got dual Bachelor’s degrees in International Relations and African and African-American Studies, no bigs) and then went on to train at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York, which teaches fencing to kids in underserved communities.


Photo: Getty Images

See her in action: women’s individual sabre, Mon., Aug. 8; women’s team sabre,, Sat. Aug. 13

…and the one event you can’t miss? It’s the women’s soccer gold medal game.

Photo: Getty Images

It may be horrifyingly presumptuous to assume that the American women will be playing in the gold medal game, but, really, it’s probably the safest bet in the books. They are the reigning World Cup champions, and they haven’t lost a significant international match in five years. Plus, the team certainly has incentive to excel when playing in front of soccer-obsessed Brazilian fans. Best yet, the USWNT still has its own underdog story in the form of 18-year-old Mallory Pugh, who will be in Rio as the second-youngest player to ever make the Olympic squad. (It helped that she scored her first goal for the USWNT 24 minutes into playing her first game.) You go, girl.


Photo: Getty Images

Watch it: Fri., Aug. 19

To see Muhammad give ET's Kevin Frazier a fencing lesson, watch the video below:

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