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14 Rookie Olympians We're Excited to Watch in Rio

by Raphael Chestang 2:00 PM PDT, August 07, 2016
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The Olympics are a special time for everyone, but no one will relish the 2016 Summer Olympic Games more than these athletes who are competing in the international event for the first time!

Read on for the 14 Olympians that we're excited to watch perform in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer.

1. Laurie Hernandez, Gymnastics

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If Gabby Douglas, 20, is Queen Beyonce reigning over the women's gymnastics #squad and Simone Biles, 19, is her heir apparent, then Laurie, 16, is our Rihanna -- a little younger, a little bolder, with seemingly no desire to watch the throne. The rising star has earned the nickname "Baby Shakira" for her charisma and dance-filled routine, and it is that same charisma that makes her a potential darling for sponsors. We look forward to seeing much more of Laurie no matter the outcome of Rio 2016; earlier this month, she signed with agent Sheryl Shade of Shade Global and committed to continuing in elite gymnastics for the next four years.

2. Vashti Cunningham, High Jump

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The 18-year-old daughter of NFL great Randall Cunningham looks to make a name for herself in a family known for athleticism. Her father and coach, a former high jumper himself, described Vashti's high jumps to NPR during an interview in June, saying it's "kind of like this long-limbed gazelle jumping over a bar." Vashti has athleticism on both sides of her family, as her mother, Felicity DeJager Cunningham, is a former ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

3. Chase Kalisz, Swimming

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The kid who used to follow Michael Phelps around at North Baltimore Aquatic Club practice made the Olympic team with his hero at the age of 22. Chase currently holds the American record in the 400y individual medley -- an event that Phelps has dominated in the past. He will compete in the 400m medley in Rio.

4. Steele Johnson, Diving

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The 20-year-old Purdue student has a smile that lights up a room and is grateful for every breath after suffering a horrific injury that could have taken his life. When he was just 12 years old, in 2009, Johnson struck his head on the platform during a reverse somersault, rendering him motionless under water until his coach rescued him. Now, he documents his whole life via vlogs on his YouTube channel.

5. Sydney McLaughlin, Hurdles

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Having been just 16 years old on the day of the opening ceremony (she turns 17 on Aug. 7), the high school senior is the youngest American track athlete to compete in the Olympics since 1972. While she set the world junior record during the trials for the women's 400m hurdles at 54.15 seconds, she almost forfeited the race because of the pressure. She told Yahoo! that her coaches eventually gave her the confidence to carry out her dream.

6. Devon Allen, Hurdles

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The 21-year-old University of Oregon junior is a wide receiver for the Ducks football team, and had a breakout freshman year with 41 catches and seven touchdowns in 2014. After suffering a major setback by tearing his ACL in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the three-time NCAA champion made a full recovery to punch his ticket to Rio 2016.

7. Julie Johnston, Soccer

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The 24-year-old defender earned World Cup gold in 2015, was being named to the FIFA Women's World Cup All-Star team, and is expected to be a force to be reckoned with on the field in Rio. On Feb. 26, she got engaged to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.

8-9. Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, Basketball

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The 24-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers point guard and the 26-year-old Golden State Warriors shooting guard have faced each other in the NBA finals two years in a row, each winning one championship a piece. The two elite players will finally join forces to wreak havoc on their opponents for what is sure to be a spectacular display of pure shooting power.

10. Elena Delle Donne, Basketball

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The 26-year-old WNBA star is a guard for the Chicago Sky. She won the league's MVP award last season, and recently revealed that she is engaged to her longtime love, Amanda Clifton, in a profile with Vogue magazine.

11. Joe Kovacs, Shot put

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The 27-year-old just missed qualifying for the Olympics in 2012, having to settle for the role of an alternate in case someone got injured. This year, he's ready for the big show thanks in large part to his mom, Joanna Kovacs-Royer, who taught Joe and his teammates the basics of grip, footwork and release when he was in high school. Joanna, who was a champion thrower in high school, even held extra workouts with Joe.

12. Taylor Sander, Volleyball

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Nicknamed "The Sandman," the 24-year-old former BYU star is an outside hitter who plays professionally for BluVolley Verona in the Italian league. At 6-foot-4, he can jump out of the gym, but has expanded his game to improve his passing.

13. The USA Rugby Team

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The 12-man Team USA rugby roster is headed to Rio as the sport returns to the Olympics after a 92-year absence. The team will be represented in part by New England Patriots safety and special-teams ace Nate Ebner, who was selected to the team last month.

14. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Fencing

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The 30-year-old New Jersey-born Muslim is making history as the first American Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab.

Growing up, Muhammad was a gifted athlete, excelling in multiple sports, but there was one thing holding her back.

"When I would run track or play tennis, my teammates wore shorts or short sleeves," Muhammad explained to ET. "My parents would have to adjust the uniform for me by adding long sleeves or wearing sweatpants. Each of those sports I had a hard time fitting in, because I wasn't in uniform with my teammates."

An important element that drew Muhammad to fencing was the fact that it gave her the opportunity to pursue her desire to be an athlete while allowing her to be herself as a Muslim woman. Her resolve is what drew media attention and eventually landed her a spot on Time's 100 Most Influential People of 2016.

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