It was a long and difficult road to Tokyo 2021, but the Olympics are finally here!The Olympics are our chance, every four years, to stand united as a country behind The United States' most sensational athletes. Of course, we all look forward to watching the NBA stars dismantle the basketball competition and the women's soccer team continue its world domination, but the Olympics are also a time for many of those underserved, underappreciated sports to shine. Olympic glory is a dream that only comes every four years and the line for qualifying is so razor thin. After a long wait, these athletes were forced to put their dreams on hold one extra year as the Covid-19 pandemic shut the world down. They've been waiting patiently to put there skills on display. Each Olympic Games, a new star takes over living rooms across the country. Past examples include Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. Both ladies are back in 2021 and eyeing the top of the podium once again, but there will also be plenty of new faces representing the red, white, and blue who are sure to become household names in just a few short weeks. Get on the hype train before it's gone! Here are 5 rising stars to watch as they make their Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo.
GABBY THOMAS Hometown: Florence, MA Age: 24 Track & Field - 200-Meter Dash, 4x100-Meter Relay @gabbythomas
There's an understandable level of disappointment surrounding Team USA Track & Field after a failed drug test resulted in the disqualification of popular sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson. Although Richardson will be sorely missed in Tokyo, she wasn't the only sprinter expecting to bring hardware home this summer.Gabby Thomas delivered one of the most electric performances of the entire Olympic Trials when the former NCAA champion won the 200-meter race, clocking in the second fastest time EVER (behind only the legend, Flo-Jo), immediately catapulting her atop the gold medal conversation. Thomas’ genuine humility was apparent throughout her post-race interview when the interviewer repeated the time to her, and an embarrassed smile flashed across Thomas’ face. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe she did it. Her performance also earned her the nod for the 4x100-meter relay, a race the American women have won at the past two Olympics. Aside from her gold medal dreams, Thomas has plans beyond running. Plans focused on addressing the racial inequalities in the healthcare system, an issue that became all too evident during the peak of Covid-19. Since graduating with a neurobiology degree from Harvard and additional degrees in global health and health policy, Thomas is now a graduate student at University of Texas, studying her master's in public health. She may be a gold medal favorite, but Gabby Thomas' greatness expands way beyond the track.
KYLE DAKE Hometown: Ithica, NY Age: 30 Freestyle Wrestling - 74 kg @kyledake444
It may come as a bit of a shock that the 30-year-old Dake is only making his first Olympic team.After all, the former Cornell star is the only person ever to win four NCAA wrestling titles at four different weight classes, making him one of the greatest college wrestlers in American history. Still, Dake was faced with one of the most difficult paths to the Olympic team of anyone on Team USA, in any sport. To punch his ticket to Tokyo, he'd have to go through nine-time world team member and former Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs. It was a heated rivalry and one where the flames were only stoked more during a delayed Olympic year. This time, though, Dake got it done. He was able to overcome a 1-7 record against Burroughs, beating him decisively two matches in a row of the best of three series and confirming he's the United States' top guy at 74 kilograms. Dake's known for his athletic style, his unbreakable defense, and his knack for bombing opponents-earning him the nickname Kid Dynamite. American fans at home are hoping to see a lot of #DakeBombs in his first Olympics. His biggest competition at the Games will likely come from powerhouse Russia's Zaurbek Sidakov, the two-time defending world champion at the weight class. But Dake has two World titles of his own up at the 79kg weight class. There's a possibility these two guys could see each other in the first round, due to wrestling's random draw bracket system. In my opinion, his toughest test came in the Olympic Trial finals. I expect Dake to come home with a gold medal.
SUNISA LEE Hometown: St Paul, MN Age: 18 Gymnastics @sunisalee
It’s the most popular sport at every Olympic Games.The members of the USA women’s gymnastics team tend to inherit overnight superstardom in ways usually only saved for Masters champions and USC quarterbacks. Even as part of the most popular team, it’s easy to get overshadowed by teammate Simon Biles’ star power. But at the time, when she needed it most, Suni Lee’s star shined bright. Lee was nearly flawless during the Olympic Trials finals, finishing a close second behind only Biles to lock in one of the two automatic bids to Team USA. It was a competition that was extra special to her and her family as it was the first time Suni’s father could watch her compete in person since a 2019 accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. All weekend long, the 18-year-old was graceful, focused and composed - refusing to let the magnitude of the moment get to her. When asked what allowed her to stay focused all competition long? "Just thinking of this moment right here,” she beamed, holding a bouquet of flowers and dawning her Team USA-issued gear. Lee’s best event is the uneven bars where she owns one of the most difficult routines in the world and will certainly enter Tokyo as a top contender to take home gold in the apparatus. With that said, if she puts on a performance similar to what she did at the Trials, she’ll be a real threat in the all-around competition, as well.
As for the team competition, we’ll all be rooting for our girls to take home gold again!
BOBBY FINKE Hometown: Tampa, FL Age: 21 Swimming - 800-Meter Freestyle, 1500-Meter Freestyle @robert_finke
2021 will be the first Olympics since the 90’s that won’t feature American swimming legend Michael Phelps. That means - on the men’s side, at least – fans will need a new hero to champion in the pool, and young Bobby Finke is certainly a candidate.Finke first made a splash in 2016, when he qualified for his first World Championships and Olympic Trials at only 16 years old. Now, at 21, he’s made his first Olympic team. The Florida Gator is a four-time NCAA All-American and two-time SEC champion who owns the American record in 1650-meter freestyle by over six seconds. Though, the 1650-meter race unfortunately isn’t an Olympic event. He swam a top-3 time in the world in the 1500-meter freestyle just weeks ago at the Olympic Trials and was part of a Gator Sweep in men’s freestyle events after Caeleb Dressel and Kieran Smith joined him in qualifying for the team. Finke also won the 800-meter freestyle race at the Trials – a new event in this Olympics. It’s clear Finke is the best distance swimmer in the United States, but is he the best in the world? We’ll find out soon.
RACHEL GARCIA Hometown: Palmdale, CA Age: 24 Softball - Pitcher/Infield @rachel_00_garcia
Softball fans across the world can hardly contain their excitement for this summer as the sport finally returns to the Olympic Games for the first time since its removal in 2008.The 2021 USA squad will look to improve on a silver medal finish in 2008 and one of the young stars to watch on the diamond will be UCLA’s Rachel Garcia. The 2019 NCAA champion, and two-time National Player of the Year, is one of only three NCAA players on the 2021 Olympic team. This past season, she was a finalist for National Player of the Year finishing just behind Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo. Garcia adds some serious versatility for Team USA, as she’s known for her power from the plate AND from the mound. Though this combination is much more common in softball than in baseball, with the emergence of Shohei Ohtani in the MLB, it adds another level of intrigue to Garcia’s Tokyo prospects. This past NCAA season, Garcia went undefeated on the mound and led the nation with a 0.60 ERA while also blasting 11 home runs and a .362 batting average. The ability to excel at such a specialized skill like pitching while also hitting bombs is just a tribute to Garcia’s supreme athleticism. If Team USA earns redemption in softball’s re-introduction to the Olympic Games, Garcia will be a big reason why.