Team USA Athletes to Watch at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics
By Meredith B. Kile
Dan Mullan/Getty Images
The 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, kicked off on Friday, as athletes from around the world come together to represent their countries in dozens of world-class sporting events. From swimming to sprinting, basketball to badminton, the Summer Games are home to some of the fiercest and most-watchable competition in all types of sports -- many of which only get their proper due once every four years.
Team USA has led the final medal count in every Summer Olympics since 1996, and many American athletes are expected to excel once again in Tokyo. Gymnastics GOAT Simone Biles could still add more golds to her medal tally -- despite a surprise withdrawal from the team and all-around finals -- and swimming star Katie Ledecky is expected to once again rule the pool in the distance freestyle events, while Team USA's talented soccer and basketball teams hope to reclaim Olympic glory.
There are even new sports and events in competition this year, with the introduction of surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate to the Olympic program, as well as added mixed team events in swimming, track and field, archery and more.
Simone Biles was the spotlighted star of the women's gymnastics team entering the Tokyo Games, but after her surprising decision to withdraw from the team competition and focus on her mental health, it was Lee who stepped up, winning silver with her teammates before taking the gold in the individual all-around competition. The St. Paul, Minnesota, native is also a favorite for gold on the uneven bars when the gymnasts return for individual skills competitions next week.
The U.S. men's swim team is at the Olympics without Michael Phelps for the first time in over 20 years, but if anyone can hope to fill his legendary fins, it might be Dressel. The Florida native won two relay golds in Rio and could add to that stash substantially in Tokyo, with favorable odds in the freestyle sprint events, 100m butterfly, and up to four relays. As of Thursday, he's already got two -- as the U.S. men were victorious once again in the 4x100m freestyle relay and Dressel won a hard fought race to take gold in the 100m freestyle.
Surfing made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, and headlining Team USA's medal hopefuls was Moore, a four-time world champion who's been ranked No. 1 in the world since her historic air reverse at the Newcastle Cup in Australia earlier this year. And the 28-year-old Honolulu, Hawaii, native got her gold, as she won the first-ever women's surfing gold, beating out South Africa's Bianca Buitendag with a score of 14.93-8.46.
Rugby sevens feature some of the fiercest and most physical competition at the Games, but Maher, a 24-year-old Burlington, Vermont, native, has won fans both on and off the pitch, with her brutal stiff arms as well as her hilarious TikToks, which show a candid, relatable side to some of the most impressive athletes in the world. From goofing around with her teammates in the Olympic Village, to struggling with how to talk to hunky Romanian volleyball players, Maher is definitely a star of the Games so far -- and hopefully she'll soon have a medal to show off as well!
One of the biggest storylines in U.S. men's gymnastics is whether or not Sam Mikulak will get his long-awaited (and, some would say, deserved) Olympic medal in Tokyo. But the spotlight loves Moldauer a 24-year-old former NCAA all-around champion, who won the parallel bars event at the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Championships and finished second in all-around and third on floor and still rings-- and always brings the energy with his exuberant celebrations. While the American men finished off the podium in fifth in the team competition, individual competitions are still to come.
Manuel stepped into the spotlight in 2016, with a shocking tie for the gold in the 100m freestyle. While she won't get a chance to defend her title in Tokyo -- after a surprising elimination at Olympic Trials -- the Stanford star is a medal favorite in the 50m freestyle and relays. So far, she and her American teammates have taken bronze in the women's 4x100m freestyle relay.
The mens sprint competitions won't be the same in Tokyo without the electrifying presence of Usain Bolt, but a number of talented runners have stepped up to fill the legend's cleats, including Lyles. The Virginia native missed out on qualifying in the 100m, but has posted the some of the fastest 200m times in the world since Bolt, with a 19.50 in July 2019 that placed him fourth on the all-time leaderboard.
McLaughlin's back-and-forth competition in the 400m hurdles with American teammate Dalilah Muhammad will be one of the storylines to watch in Tokyo. Muhammad is the defending Olympic and reigning world champion, but McLaughlin edged her out at Olympic Trials, becoming the new world record holder and the first woman to ever run the event under 52 seconds. Their finals heat for Olympic gold is not to be missed.
One of the brightest young stars in the NBA, Booker headed to the Olympics fresh off his first NBA Finals run with the Phoenix Suns, in the hopes of helping to lead a talented U.S. squad to their fourth consecutive gold medal, alongside fellow pros like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and more.
Women's BMX Freestyle is a fairly new competition on the world stage, and Roberts, just 19, has been there for all of it. The Michigan native has won three of four world championships since the inaugural event in 2017, and has been the top-ranked rider in the world since 2018. She'll certainly be a favorite for the events first-ever Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
The United States rarely fields high-level competitors in table tennis -- a sport absolutely dominated by China, who has won 53 of the 100 medals awarded in the sport since its Olympic debut in 1988. However, 20-year-old Jha is Team USA's greatest hope in the sport by far, after winning the first men’s Olympic or Youth Olympic medal ever for the U.S. in table tennis, a bronze at the Youth Olympics in 2018. While he was eliminated in the second round of the singles competition, Jha still has the team event to go in Tokyo.
Like her fellow Team USA skater Nyjah Huston, Zeuner started competing at the X Games as a preteen, winning her first gold in women's park at just 13 years old in 2017, and repeating the very next year. After an injury-plagued 2019, the young skating star celebrated her 17th birthday just before heading off to Tokyo, with hopes of winning one of the first-ever Olympic gold medals for skateboarding.
While the spotlight was on defending gold medalist Lilly King -- the finger-wagging phenom who backed up her trash talk in Rio with a stunning win in the 100m breaststroke -- it was her American teammate Jacoby who came from behind to take the gold in the event in Tokyo. The 17-year-old, who had already made history as the first-ever Team USA swimmer from Alaska, shocked the field as she touched out the final heat, including King, who earned bronze.
Currently ranked No. 3 in the world, Florence famously beat out surf legend Kelly Slater to make the first American Olympic surfing team, but he's plenty worthy on his own merit. The Honolulu native won back-to-back world championships in 2016 and 2017 and came into the Games strong, off a win at the 2020 Pipe Masters -- just nine months out from ACL surgery. Unfortunately, an inaugural surfing medal wasn't in the cards for the American men -- Florence was eliminated from competition by countryman Kolohe Andino, who was knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual silver medalist Kanoa Igarashi of Japan.
Steffans is the undisputed GOAT of women's water polo, entering Tokyo with just 10 Olympic goals between her and the all-time record -- and she cut that by half in the very first matchup of the Games, a dominant 25-4 win over host nation Japan. As the captain of the favored U.S. squad however, her primary focus will be leading the American women to a third-straight water polo gold.
Ellison enters his fourth Olympic Games chasing an elusive gold medal -- after winning team silvers in 2012 and 2016, in addition to an individual bronze in Rio. He's got a good shot this time around, after a career year in 2019, he's top-ranked in the world and will have an additional shot at the top of the podium in the new mixed team event, which he and teammate Casey Kaufhold won at the 2019 Pan American Games.
One of the most dominant American wrestlers of all time, Gray enters the 2021 Olympics looking to rebound from disappointment in Rio, where she was eliminated in the quarterfinals and finished seventh. She's got a strong lead-in -- 2019 saw Gray winning her fifth world title, the most ever for any American in the sport, regardless of gender or wrestling style.
An elite skater since his preteen years, Huston has tallied 13 X Games gold medals and three consecutive world skateboarding championships in the men's street event, which made him a favorite for the gold as skateboarding makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Unfortunately, after some frustrating falls in the "Best Trick" portion of the street competition, Huston missed the podium, but cheered on his fellow countryman, Jagger Eaton, who won the bronze.
Harrison originally dreamed of being an Olympic runner, until hip dysplasia forced her to change sports. Now, at just 19, she's one of the breakout stars in 200-meter sprint canoeing -- and, after a world championship gold in 2019 and two more World Cup wins -- one of the favorites for gold.