2012 Olympics: 50 Breakout Stars to Watch for in London

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2012

2012 Olympics: 50 Breakout Stars to Watch for in London

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    Young, talented and until now relatively anonymous, the following 50 Olympic athletes should get their 15 minutes of fame at the 2012 Summer Games in London.

    But who among them will linger a few ticks longer, crossing that esteemed threshold into celebrity?

    Only an oracle could answer that question, so I'll say this: Each of the athletes on this list makes a compelling case for stardom if things break right. Each could walk that uniquely Olympian path from total obscurity to international hero in a whirlwind two weeks.

    Today, I give you their names. Tomorrow, you just might know them by second nature.

Who Counts as a Breakout Candidate?

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    You won't see Ryan Lochte, Lolo Jones or Tyson Gay on this list.

    Why? Because we've deemed each a little too famous to be considered a breakout star. Of course, that's a subjective assessment, but the idea here is to highlight unknowns and/or athletes who could substantially elevate their profile at the London Games.

    For the most part, that leaves us with Olympic rookies and past Olympians who promise to create much, much bigger waves this time around.

    Finally, a note on ages: The age listed in each athlete's profile is how old he or she will be when the Summer Games open on July 27.

    Now, without further ado, your budding Olympic stars...

50. Wu Peng

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    Country: China

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 25

    Accomplishments: Bronze at 2011 World Championships in 200-meter butterfly

    Specialty: 200-meter butterfly

     

    Path to Stardom

    Wu Peng’s career mirrors the rise of Chinese swimming—from the butterfly specialist's modest eighth-place showing in Athens to a commendable fourth-place finish in Beijing to 2012—with both man and country on the verge of a breakthrough.

    Last year, Peng became the first swimmer to defeat Michael Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly in over 60 races (via USA Today).

49. Race Imboden

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Fencing

    Age: 19

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 Pan American Games, rated sixth in world senior rankings

    Specialty: Foil

     

    Path to Stardom

    Outspoken, red-haired, ambitious and, above all, talented, Race Imboden might just have the right mixture of personality and potential to put fencing on America’s sporting radar. At least that’s what the teenager thinks. Imboden recently told Sports Illustrated he wants to become a catalyst for the sport’s popularity in America. I’d say he was crazy if not for that sharp object in his hand.

48. Yannick Agnel

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    Country: France

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Silver at 2011 World Championships in 4x200-meter freestyle relay, gold at 2011 USA Winter Nationals in 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle

    Specialty: 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle

     

    Path to Stardom

    Yannick Agnel announced his arrival in March when he dispatched Olympic veteran Alain Bernard in the 100-meter freestyle competition at the French Olympic Trials. And get this: The 100-meter freestyle isn't even Agnel's best event. He's better known for his work in the 400-meter freestyle, where he should be a threat to medal in London.

    At age 20 and still improving, Agnel is a name to watch this summer and to remember for Rio in 2016.

47. Hannah Miley

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Silver at 2011 World Championships in 400-meter medley, gold at 2010 Commonwealth Games in 400-meter individual medley

    Specialty: 400-meter medley

     

    Path to Stardom

    With the 400-meter individual medley final slated for opening night, Hannah Miley has a chance to make history for the home country. In her signature event, the one in which she won silver at the 2011 World Championships, Miley is well positioned to capture Great Britain’s first medal at the Games (via The Guardian).

    The young Scottish swimmer would enter her nation’s sporting lore as the long-awaited first champion of a long-awaited Olympic Games.

46. Aaron Cook

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Taekwondo

    Age: 21

    Accomplishments: Gold medal at 2010 European championship, fourth place at 2008 Olympics

    Specialty: 80 kg

     

    Path to Stardom

    Aaron Cook, then 17, had what we might call an adolescent moment in Beijing. After losing the bronze medal match to Chinese fighter Guo Zhu, Cook let loose on tournament officials.

    "I thought the scoring was absolutely horrendous," a distraught Cook told reporters afterwards, via the Daily Mail. "I don't know what the judges were looking at, they must have been looking in the crowd."

    Four years later, the Manchester resident wouldn’t mind a little home cooking. It might just bring him gold.

45. Alise Post

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Cycling

    Age: 21

    Accomplishments: First-ever back-to-back national champion in USA elite division (2011-2012), first woman to receive ABA Rookie Pro of the Year award (2006)

    Specialty: BMX

     

    Path to Stardom

    Labeled "The Beast" when she first began riding, Alise Post’s nickname has evolved from a sarcastic jab at her small stature to a vital part of her racing DNA. Post’s aggressive style has made her one of America’s most decorated female BMX racers, all before reaching what should be her prime. Although age restrictions kept Post from competing in Beijing, the competition won’t be so lucky this time around.

    Like it or not, London, The Beast cometh.

44. Jason Richardson

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Track

    Age: 26

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in 110-meter hurdles

    Specialty: 110-meter hurdles

     

    Path to Stardom

    Hurdler Jason Richardson has always had the infectious enthusiasm of a star. Now on the verge of his first Olympic appearance, he finally has the credentials to match. Richardson became a medal contender after finishing first in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2011 World Championships, besting bigger names like Liu Xiang, David Oliver and Dayron Robles (who was disqualified for interference).

    The victory landed him a spot on The Today Show during NBC’s Olympic kickoff, proof that the cameras love this wide-smiling champion.

43. Brady Ellison

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Archery

    Age: 23

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 Pan American Games, rated second in the world

    Specialty: Recurve

     

    Path to Stardom

    There are some initial indicators that Olympic archery is in for a popularity bump due to the sport’s prominent role in The Hunger Games, according to The Christian Science Monitor. If so, American Brady Ellison is the sport's most likely poster boy.

    Former Olympic archer Butch Johnson told USA Today that Ellison is "just about the best archer the U.S. has ever had." Combine that with the sport’s rising tides, and Ellison has the look of a surprise Olympic hero.

42. Gwen Jorgensen

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Triathlon

    Age: 26

    Accomplishments: Named 2010 USA Triathlon Rookie of the Year, qualified for 2012 Olympics

    Specialty: Running, All-American in track and cross-country at the University of Wisconsin

     

    Path to Stardom

    If you’re a fan of the phenomenal, the inexplicable and the unprecedented, then Gwen Jorgensen has a story for you. The college runner took up triathlon on a whim just over two years ago and has morphed, seemingly overnight, into a world-class performer (per Sports Illustrated).

    The Wisconsin native enters London as one of America’s brightest medal hopes in the event, riding a trajectory that suggests her best days are still to come.

41. Mohammed Aman

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    Country: Ethiopia

    Sport: Track

    Age: 18

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2012 World Indoor Championships in 800-meter race

    Specialty: 800 m

     

    Path to Stardom

    Few men know the feeling of beating Kenyan dynamo David Rudisha in the 800 meter. As of last September in Milan, Mohammed Aman is one of those men. Or should I say boys?

    Aman was just 17 when he became the first runner in over two years to defeat Rudisha (via The Telegraph). Aman’s encore performance in London will have the track world’s undivided attention.

40. Jen Kessy and April Ross

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Volleyball

    Age: 35 and 30

    Accomplishments: 2009 world champions

    Specialty: Beach volleyball

     

    Path to Stardom

    Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh so thoroughly dominated beach volleyball from 2002 to 2008 that their non-participation in the 2009 World Championships turned the tournament into something of a casting call. Is anybody else out there?

    Former USC Trojans Jen Kessy and April Ross answered in the affirmative, winning the world title and maintaining U.S. supremacy. If they can get past a reunited May-Treanor and Walsh team in London, Kessy and Ross will become the newest darlings of the beach.

39. Stephany Lee

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Wrestling

    Age: 27

    Accomplishments: Qualified for 2012 Olympics, U.S. Open champion (2010), U.S. Nationals champion (2009)

    Specialty: Freestyle wrestling, 72 kg

     

    Path to Stardom

    Stephany Lee isn’t the first openly gay Olympic athlete, but there is something about her candor and seeming detachment from the matter that feels groundbreaking. As Lee told the New York Times, "I’m not trying to be a spokesperson for lesbians as an athlete. I’m just being me. Whatever comes of it is fine."

    What comes of it will depend on her results in London—the Times calls her a "contender, not a favorite"—but the potential is there for a new, less intentional kind of gay icon.

38. Jonas Valanciunas

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    Country: Lithuania

    Sport: Basketball

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Drafted fifth overall in 2011 by Toronto Raptors

    Specialty: Center, often compared to defensive guru Tyson Chandler (per HoopsWorld)

     

    Path to Stardom

    International prospects Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol and Patrick Mills lit up the Olympic men’s basketball tournament in Beijing. Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas could make similar waves this summer. Like Gasol in ‘08, Valanciunas enters the Olympics having already been drafted by an NBA team—the Raptors took him fifth overall last year—but without having played an NBA game.

    Valanciunas has shown enticing potential in the year since, most notably in leading his country to the U19 World Championship and taking tournament MVP honors. The Olympics could be his first showcase against NBA-level competition, but only if Lithuania can nab one of three remaining Olympic bids at the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

37. Holley Mangold

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Weightlifting

    Age: 22*

    Accomplishments: Made 2012 U.S. Olympic team

    Specialty: Super-heavyweight (165-plus lbs)

     

    Path to Stardom

    Holley Mangold first tasted the spotlight in 2006, when she became the only girl in Ohio prep history to play offensive line in a high school football game. Notoriety came knocking a second time when she starred in a 2011 episode of MTV’s True Life, and then once more when she made the U.S. Olympic team in her new sport, powerlifting.

    Yet after achieving moderate fame in no fewer than three distinct arenas, Holley isn’t the most famous athlete in her family. For now, that distinction belongs to brother Nick, the New York Jets’ All-Pro center.

    Note that I said "for now." After qualifying for her first Olympics well ahead of schedule, Holley is on the kind of steep trajectory that could carry her well clear of a certain sibling’s shadow.

     

    *Age current as of March 2012

36. Kirani James

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    Country: Grenada

    Sport: Track

    Age: 19

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in 400-meter race, gold at 2010 World Junior Championships in 400

    Specialty: 400 m

     

    Path to Stardom

    Born in Grenada, a tiny island nation better known for enduring a 1983 U.S. invasion than producing top athletes, Kirani James is track and field’s most unlikely rising star. In just his fourth professional race, the upstart teen from a raucous coastal neighborhood called "Gun Battle" won the 400 at the 2011 World Championships.

    Now, James is out to prove he’s more than a one-race fluke. With a strong performance in London, he could become the first Grenadian to win an Olympic medal.

35. Qiu Bo

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    Country: China

    Sport: Diving

    Age: 19

    Accomplishments: Two gold medals at 2011 World Championships (10-meter platform and 10-meter synchronized platform), named 2011 FINA Male Diver of the Year

    Specialty: 10-meter platform

     

    Path to Stardom

    Matched up against British darling Tom Daley in the 10-meter platform events, all of Great Britain will know Qiu’s name. He's the man their hero will be chasing, and the man their hero is unlikely to catch.

    The ultra-talented Qiu obliterated his competition, including Daley, at the 2011 World Championships. Further domination in London would end talk of a Daley-Qiu rivalry and confirm Qiu's place as the world's best diver.

34. Ellen Gandy

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Silver at 2011 World Championships in 200-meter butterfly, silver at 2010 Commonwealth Games in 100 butterfly

    Specialty: 100m and 200m butterfly

     

    Path to Stardom

    Charismatic, quick-witted and uber-talented, British butterfly specialist Ellen Gandy is on the verge of stardom in her home country. A gold-medal swim in London would seal the deal, but she’ll need to get past Chinese adversary Liu Zige first. The duel between those two should be one of the better storylines at the London Aquatics Centre.

33. Yohan Blake

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    Country: Jamaica

    Sport: Track

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Two gold medals at 2011 World Championships (100-meter sprint and 4x100 relay)

    Specialty: 100m

     

    Path to Stardom

    Pop quiz: Who is the defending world champion in the 100-meter dash? Usain Bolt? Tyson Gay? Asafa Powell? No, no and no. That prestigious title belongs to Yohan Blake, Bolt's training partner and the latest phenom sprung forth from Jamaica's sprinting dynasty.

    After becoming the first teenager to run a sub-10-second 100 back in 2009, Blake capped his quick ascent by defeating Bolt—who was disqualified for a false start—and the rest of a world-class field at the 2011 World Championships. Another Blake upset this summer would raise notions of a changing of the guard—and in London, no less. How fitting.

32. Tom Daley

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Diving

    Age: 18

    Accomplishments: 10-meter platform gold medal at 2009 World Championships, 10-meter platform and platform synchro gold medal at 2010 Commonwealth Games

    Specialty: 10-meter platform

     

    Path to Stardom

    Daley faced few expectations as a 14-year-old competitor at the 2008 Olympics. Qualifying for the Olympics at that age is an accomplishment unto itself.

    Now on home turf, with a 10-meter platform world title to his name, the Plymouth-born diver should be one of his sport’s main attractions and under far greater scrutiny. As is so often true on the platform, Daley will be up against a strong contingent of Chinese divers. If he can snag a gold medal, Daley should graduate from teenage prodigy to full-blown star.

31. Danell Leyva

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in parallel bars, 2011 U.S. all-around national champion

    Specialty: Parallel bars, high bar

     

    Path to Stardom

    The Cuban-born, Miami-raised Leyva broke out at the 2011 U.S. Championships, toppling 2008 medalist and defending champion Jonathan Horton en route to the men’s all-around title.

    Now, the exuberant high-flier heads to London as one of Team USA’s best chances for a medal. Although Leyva hopes to make headlines on the podium, the media focus could well fall on the sideline antics of his coach and stepfather, Yin Alvarez. Together, they make a colorful and compelling combo.

30. Marlen Esparza

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Boxing

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Six-time U.S. champion, bronze medal at 2006 World Championships, gold medal at 2008 Pan American Games

    Specialty: Flyweight (112 lbs)

     

    Path to Stardom

    As women's boxing makes its Olympic debut, Houston native Marlen Esparza represents one of Team USA’s best chances for an inaugural medal. Cerebral (Esparza finished in the top two percent of her high school class) and dedicated (she turned down multiple college scholarships to train full time), the Mexican-American Esparza speaks openly about becoming a symbol of Latino pride.

    Within that self-awareness, it’s easy to spot a savvy that could make Esparza one of her sport’s first Olympic stars.

29. Jesse Williams

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Track and Field

    Age: 28

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships, won U.S. Outdoor Championships in 2010 and 2011

    Specialty: High jump

     

    Path to Stardom

    The United States isn't accustomed to long droughts in track and field, which is what makes Jesse Williams' high-jump gold medal at the 2011 World Championships such a wonder. He was the first American to win an international medal in the event since 1996, and the first to medal at a world championship since 1991.

    With that heavy history hanging over him, Williams aims for another American breakthrough in London.

28. Dai Greene

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Track

    Age: 26

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships, gold at 2010 European Championships, gold at 2010 Commonwealth Championships

    Specialty: 400-meter hurdles, 4x400 relay

     

    Path to Stardom

    Dai Greene’s legs have been world-class the past two years, but his mouth is getting almost as much attention. Greene won the 400-meter hurdles at the 2011 World Championships, supplementing 2010 victories at the European and Commonwealth Championships.

    The Welshman also supposedly attacked America’s hurdling corps on his Twitter account—though Greene denied the claim—prompting U.S. rival Bershawn Jackson to declare that the Brit wouldn’t even medal on home turf.

    Then there are Greene’s comments on recently reinstated 400-meter champion LaShawn Merritt, whom he called a cheat before saying he would relish the chance to beat him and his American teammates in the 4x400 relay.

27. Trey Hardee

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Decathlon

    Age: 28

    Accomplishments: Two-time world champion (2009 and 2011)

    Specialty: 100-meter dash, long jump, 110-meter hurdles, javelin

     

    Path to Stardom

    Decathlon isn’t the celebrity kingmaker it was in Bruce Jenner’s day, but signs of a renaissance are nigh. Trey Hardee headlines a trio of Americans, including fast-riser Ashton Eaton, capable of a USA medals dominance.

    If that doesn’t grab your attention, I should mention that the New York Jets, everyone’s favorite newsmaker, offered Hardee a tryout back in 2008.

26. Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta

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    Country: Brazil

    Sport: Volleyball

    Age: 30 and 29

    Accomplishments: 2011 world champions; Larissa competed at 2008 Olympics with a different partner and finished fourth

    Specialty: Beach volleyball

     

    Path to Stardom

    Recap: 21-17, 13-21, 16-14. The match score was remarkable enough, a three-set slugfest that required extra points in the third frame before deciding a winner.

    Even more remarkable were the losers’ names: Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. For the first time in a decade, the dominant American duo failed to win a major international tournament, settling for silver while Brazil’s Larissa and Juliana danced away with the 2011 beach volleyball world championship.

    If it can manage a repeat in London, the Brazilian duo will put an unequivocal end to the May-Treanor-Walsh era and emerge as early faces of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

25. Desi Davila

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Track

    Age: 29

    Accomplishments: Second place at 2011 Boston Marathon, second place at 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials

    Specialty: Marathon

     

    Path to Stardom

    After a solid career running track at Arizona State, most would have pegged Desi Davila for a ho-hum transition into the "real world." Davila had other ideas, moving to snowy Michigan in 2005 in order to try her hand at the marathon.

    Seven years later, the diminutive Californian is a revelation, emerging from near anonymity to finish second at the Boston Marathon. Davila’s slight frame and meteoric rise are sure to make her a fan favorite in London.

24. Holly Bleasdale

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Track and Field

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Bronze at 2012 World Indoor Championships, bronze at 2010 World Junior Championships

    Specialty: Pole vault

     

    Path to Stardom

    The women’s pole-vault final should be prime watching this year. Along with the interest generated by Russian legend Yelena Isinbayeva’s impending retirement, the home country will have a close eye on young Holly Bleasdale.

    Though she didn’t take up the sport until 2008, Bleasdale has already set Britain’s national pole-vault record and posted the fourth-highest clearance in pole-vault history. Bleasdale is certainly on the upswing, but does she have enough momentum to catch Isinbayeva? The world finds out in London.

23. Bernard Tomic

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    Country: Australia

    Sport: Tennis

    Age: 19

    Accomplishments: Reached quarterfinals at Wimbledon 2011, won two Junior Grand Slam events

    Specialty: Known for a lethal backhand (see video)

     

    Path to Stardom

    Whatever Bernard Tomic does in the Olympic men's tennis tournament, it should be interesting. Australia’s teen titan is one of the few players talented enough to break up the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic trifecta and sneak off with a medal. He’s also combustible enough to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

    Earlier this year, Tomic asked a chair umpire to remove his visibly displeased father from the stands mid-match. When asked for cause, Tomic gave the stereotypical teenage response: "He's annoying me." 

    Although such moments cause one to question Tomic's maturity, there's no denying his skill. In a sport ruled by unyielding hierarchy, Tomic is the rogue element threatening to make a mess of things—for better or for worse.

22. Ander Herrera

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    Country: Spain

    Sport: Soccer

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Started on Spanish team that won 2011 U-21 European Championship

    Specialty: Midfield, often compared to English star Steven Gerrard

     

    Path to Stardom

    Manchester United and Manchester City are both after Spanish hotshot Ander Herrera, and this summer the intra-city rivals will get an up-close look at the object of their desire. The Bilbao-born playmaker leads a talented Spanish team looking for its first medal since 2000. If Spain makes the podium and Herrera, as expected, leads the charge, Manchester’s moguls may have to open their pockets a bit wider.

21. Shanaze Reade

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Cycling

    Age: 23

    Accomplishments: Four-time world champion in women’s elite division

    Specialty: BMX

     

    Path to Stardom

    BMX racing is a cauldron of unpredictability, a lesson Shanaze Reade learned the hard way when—as the gold-medal favorite and two-time reigning world champion—she crashed coming around the final turn in Beijing.

    Now, Reade has a massive opportunity to erase, or at least obscure, that letdown with a victory in front of the home faithful. All Reade needs to do is stay upright and ride with her usual blistering pace. It sounds easy, but Reade, of all people, knows otherwise.

20. Carmelita Jeter

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Track

    Age: 32

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in 100-meter dash, silver at 2011 World Championships in 200-meter dash, bronze at 2009 and 2007 World Championships in 100-meter dash

    Specialty: 100m and 200m

     

    Path to Stardom

    Jeter (rhymes with "letter") is the fastest woman alive—a 32-year-old sprinting legend with six world-championship medals to her name. Hasn’t she already broken out? Not really, in large part because she failed to qualify for the 2008 Games.

    That shocking setback relegated her to the second tier of track stars, a place incommensurate with her talent and résumé. With a victory or two in London, Jeter can finally enter her name, and its pronunciation, into the great tome of U.S. track lore.

19. Aliya Mustafina

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    Country: Russia

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 17

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2010 World Championships in all-around, silver at 2010 World Championships in vault, uneven bars and floor exercise

    Specialty: Uneven bars, general artistry

     

    Path to Stardom

    After an all-around title at the 2010 World Championships, there’s no doubting Aliya Mustafina’s skill. She has the goods to top Jordyn Wieber or Russian teammate Viktoria Komova in the individual all-around.

    But after an ACL tear forced her to miss the 2011 World Championships, it’s hard to know which Mustafina will surface in London. Amid all that uncertainty, there is but one given—the stoic Mustafina won’t let London’s bright lights overwhelm her.

18. David Rudisha

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    Country: Kenya

    Sport: Track

    Age: 23

    Accomplishments: Gold medal in 800-meter run at 2011 World Championships, named IAAF World Athlete of the Year (2010), world-record holder in 800-meter run

    Specialty: 800m

     

    Path to Stardom

    Even by the otherworldly standards of Kenyan running, David Rudisha is something special. In 2010, he broke Danish runner Wilson Kipketer’s 13-year-old record in the 800. A week later, he bested his own best, becoming the first 800 runner to set two world records in such short order. Now, the former decathlete is after Olympic gold, the only major prize he has yet to claim.

17. Christophe Lemaitre

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    Country: France

    Sport: Track

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Bronze at 2011 World Championships in 200-meter dash, gold at 2010 European Championships in 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash

    Specialty: 100m and 200m

     

    Path to Stardom

    French sprinter Christophe Lemaitre is young, talented and, as this article in The Guardian makes abundantly clear, white. Europe buzzed in 2010 when Lemaitre became the first white man to break the 10-second barrier in the 100. Lemaitre downplayed the hype, insisting that race should play no part in his story. In a sense, he's right.

    Having posted better times than top sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell did at his age, Lemaitre’s skills need no qualification. Of course, in a world where race brushes against nearly every corner of society, those objections aren't likely to change the narrative.

16. Ye Shiwen

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    Country: China

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 16

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in 200-meter medley, named Swimming World Magazine's 2011 Pacific Rim Female Swimmer of the Year

    Specialty: 200-meter medley

     

    Path to Stardom

    World, meet Ye Shiwen—China’s newest swimming sensation. The teenage upstart claimed China’s first gold medal at the 2011 World Championships, winning a 200-medley final where she was the youngest swimmer by more than five years. Still improving by the season, there’s no telling what new standards Ye might set in London and beyond.

15. Darya Klishina

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    Country: Russia

    Sport: Track and Field

    Age: 21

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 European Indoor Championships, gold at European U-23 Championships

    Specialty: Long jump

     

    Path to Stardom

    There’s no getting around it: Darya Klishina is pretty. And so we confront the stark, perhaps sad, truth that Klishina’s breakout potential has little to do with her talent. That isn't to say she has none.

    After finishing fourth at the 2012 World Indoor Championships, Klishina should contend for a medal in London and, if she stays the course, Rio as well. But we've seen parts of this story before—most notably with tennis temptress Anna Kournikova—and at some point, results become secondary.

    To wit, sports-marketing giant IMG signed Klishina to an exclusivity deal mere months into her professional career.

14. McKayla Maroney

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 16

    Accomplishments: Gold on vault at 2011 World Championships, team gold at 2011 World Championships

    Specialty: Vault, floor exercise

     

    Path to Stardom

    Maroney wasn’t age-eligible for senior competition until 2011, but she wasted little time making her mark. In her first World Championships, Maroney helped the U.S. team to all-around gold and took individual gold on the vault.  

    Young, talented and dripping with confidence, Maroney is ticketed for stardom. But first, she must clear perhaps her biggest hurdle—earning a spot on America’s loaded women’s gymnastics team.

13. Jessica Ennis

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    Country: United Kingdom

    Sport: Heptathlon

    Age: 26

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2009 World Championships, silver at 2011 World Championships, gold at 2010 Indoor World Championships (pentathlon)

    Specialty: 200-meter sprint, 100-meter hurdles, high jump

     

    Path to Stardom

    If sponsorship dollars are any indication of expectations, Jessica Ennis will have the world on her shoulders in London. In her quest to become the planet’s greatest female athlete, Ennis has the support of BP, Jaguar, Adidas, Olay, Powerade, Omega and British Airways.

    Clearly, the Brits think her Olympic debut will be a golden one. The rest of us would be wise to follow the money.

12. Kayla Harrison

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Judo

    Age: 22

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2010 World Championships, gold at 2011 Pan-American Games

    Specialty: 78 kg

     

    Path to Stardom

    Sexually abused by her first coach, Harrison escaped the torment when she went to train with Olympic bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro in Boston. Healing begot growth, both on and off the mat, and in 2010 Harrison became the first American woman since 1964 to win a judo world title.

    If she can deliver the same result in London, Harrison would be the first American judoka, male or female, to win Olympic gold. Moreover, it would give Harrison a larger platform to raise awareness about sexual abuse—or as Harrison’s mother told USA Today, "It would be a life victory."

11. Jordan Burroughs

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Wrestling

    Age: 23

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships, gold at 2011 Pan-American Games

    Specialty: Freestyle wrestling, 74kg

     

    Path to Stardom

    Burroughs, a Nebraska product, recently told USA Today, "I want to be the face of USA Wrestling." Now more than ever, the sport needs a champion. As many mat rats leave for the greener pastures of MMA, Burroughs has the talent and personality to stem the tide. First, he has to win gold.

10. James Magnussen

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    Country: Australia

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 21

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in 100-meter freestyle and 4x100 freestyle relay

    Specialty: 100-meter and 50-meter freestyle

     

    Path to Stardom

    Freestyle sprinter James Magnussen is swimming’s next big thing—and he knows it. The brash Australian upstart told his Olympic competitors to "brace themselves" for London, warning rivals of the sleepless nights they would endure at his mercy.

    The man they call "The Missile" certainly has the talent to back up the talk. If things break right, Magnussen could become the first Australian to win four gold medals in one Olympiad—all at the tender age of 21.

9. Queen Underwood

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Boxing

    Age: 27

    Accomplishments: Five-time U.S. champion, bronze medal at 2010 World Championships

    Specialty: Lightweight (132 lbs)

     

    Path to Stardom

    One cannot speak of Queen Underwood’s considerable boxing talents before acknowledging her painful past. Abused by her father as a child, the spiraling aftereffects led Underwood to near ruin. It wasn’t until she stumbled upon a Seattle boxing gym at age 19 that Underwood found renewed purpose. Now, the construction worker by day is out to overcome one final obstacle: the lightweight Olympic field.

8. Viktoria Komova

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    Country: Russia

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 17

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships on uneven bars, silver at 2010 World Championships in all-around

    Specialty: Uneven bars, balance beam

     

    Path to Stardom

    Komova heads a Russian outfit seeking redemption after it failed to medal in Beijing. Despite a lingering ankle injury, Komova finished a close second to American Jordyn Wieber at the 2011 World Championships. If the diminutive Russian is healthy in London, no gymnast poses a stronger threat to America’s title hopes.

7. Katie Taylor

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    Country: Ireland

    Sport: Boxing

    Age: 26

    Accomplishments:  Three-time world champion, five-time European champion

    Specialty: Lightweight (132 lbs)

     

    Path to Stardom

    Whatever happens in London, Katie Taylor's place in the pantheon of women's boxing pioneers is secure. In 2001, she won Ireland’s first-ever officially sanctioned female boxing match and later was a key figure in the push to include women’s boxing as an Olympic sport.

    While fighting for equality outside the ring, Taylor has pummeled foes inside it. She owns three consecutive world titles, five European crowns and over 100 career victories. Perhaps even more impressive, she has enough expendable energy to play for Ireland’s women’s soccer team in between fights.

    Now, on the eve of a long-awaited Olympic debut, Taylor is the overwhelming favorite and her country’s greatest chance for gold. But for the many women who will follow in her footsteps, Taylor has already done enough.

6. Sun Yang

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    Country: China

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: Two gold medals at 2011 World Championships (800- and 1,500-meter freestyle), silver medal in 400-meter freestyle at 2011 World Championships

    Specialty: 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle

     

    Path to Stardom

    The Beijing Games came a bit early for China’s swimmers, but make no mistake: Chinese tides are rising in the pool. At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, China won 14 medals and finished second only to the U.S in overall medal count.

    Emerging star Sun Yang headlined his nation’s breakout performance, taking gold in the 800 and 1,500 freestyle while setting a new world record in the latter. After finishing eighth in the 1,500 as a 16-year-old in Beijing, it appears Sun and his country are ready for a coronation.

5. Oscar Pistorius

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    Country: South Africa

    Sport: Track

    Age: 25

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2008 Paralympics in 100-, 200- and 400-meter dash

    Specialty: 400m

     

    Path to Stardom

    There are two Olympic athletes on TIME magazine’s just-released list of the "100 Most Influential People in the World." The first, Novak Djokovic, is an international tennis superstar. The second, Oscar Pistorius, is a South African runner no one expects to medal in 2012, or even to make an event final.

    So how did Pistorious wind up on a list next to Warren Buffett and Adele? One glimpse of Pistorius in motion reveals all. Born without fibulae, the prosthetic-powered dynamo is one qualifying time away from becoming the first amputee runner to compete in an Olympic Games. Considering the potential impact of that breakthrough, perhaps it is Djokovic who should feel out of place.

4. Kohei Uchimura

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    Country: Japan 

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 23

    Accomplishments: Silver at 2008 Olympics in all-around, all-around individual gold at 2011, 2010 and 2009 World Championships

    Specialty: Floor exercise and vault, also known for uncanny ability to stick landings

     

    Path to Stardom

    Uchimura’s all-around silver in Beijing, earned when he was just 19, would have garnered more attention if not for the white-hot media focus on Chinese champion Yang Wei. In the four years since, however, Uchimura has turned plenty of heads, becoming the first male gymnast to win three all-around world titles. With a gold medal in 2012, Uchimura can seal one of the greatest runs in gymnastics history.

3. Neymar

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    Country: Brazil

    Sport: Soccer

    Age: 20

    Accomplishments: 2011 South American Footballer of the Year

    Specialty: Forward; Neymar is an all-around attacking force, but he gets particularly high marks from Bleacher Report’s Michael Cummings for his dribbling ability.

     

    Path to Stardom

    Neymar is already bold-ink news in the soccer world, but he’s never had a tournament to himself the way he will in football-crazed London. The attacking wunderkind, who draws comparisons to Argentine star Lionel Messi, has been cast as his sport’s next big thing. In an event that highlights soccer’s youngest and brightest, no one shines brighter than Neymar.

2. Jordyn Wieber

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Gymnastics

    Age: 17

    Accomplishments: Gold at 2011 World Championships in all-around, gold at 2012 Pacific Rim Championships in all-around

    Specialty: Lauded as a superior overall threat, coach John Geddert told International Gymnastics, "She doesn't have a weak event."

     

    Path to Stardom

    Wieber upset a favored, albeit slightly injured, Viktoria Komova at the 2011 World Championships to win the individual all-around title. And just like that, the risk-taking spark plug from DeWitt, Mich., became a front-runner for gold at the London Games.

    America always seems to fall for a teenage gymnast ‘round about the Olympics—Shawn Johnson, Carly Patterson, Shannon Miller—and Wieber fits the bill for 2012. Brace yourself, world: Wieber fever is on its way.

1. Missy Franklin

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    Country: USA

    Sport: Swimming

    Age: 17

    Accomplishments: Five medals (three gold, one silver, one bronze) at 2011 FINA World Championships, named 2011 FINA Female Athlete of the Year

    Specialty: 100- and 200-meter backstroke, freestyle relay

     

    Path to Stardom

    Don’t let Missy Franklin and her I’m-just-happy-to-be-here insouciance fool you—the girl can swim. With a 6'1" frame that The Washington Post called "built for speed," the Colorado native has enough God-given ability to become one of her generation’s greatest Olympians. Dominating London is step one.