2016 Olympics: USA's Best Bets for Gold in Rio

Tyler DonohueNational Recruiting AnalystAugust 13, 2012

2016 Olympics: USA's Best Bets for Gold in Rio

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    We've seen American icons emerge in every Olympics since the competition's inception. From Phelps to Flo Jo, the Summer Games give us a glimpse of the greatest athletes the U.S. has to offer. 

    As we continue to soak in the sensational performances that took place throughout the 2012 Olympics in London, there's no time like the present to take a look at the future. The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games give us a reason to anticipate more gold-medal moments from America's athletes. 

    So as some of the nation's premier performers step aside from Olympic action, let's take an opportunity to examine which U.S. competitors could take center stage in Rio. 

Missy Franklin, Swimming

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    As Franklin deliberates whether to turn pro or compete in college, we can only imagine the progress she'll make in the next four years. Franklin, 17, earned five medals during an Olympic debut that featured four golds and a world-record performance as a member of the American 400-meter medley relay team. 

    The grand expectations of a nation came to fruition as the Colorado native excelled in London. Franklin made it clear she's ready for prime time, and "Missy the Missile" appears ready to take the torch from Michael Phelps as USA's premier performer in the pool.

    If any current U.S. Olympian has hopes of approaching Phelps' newly established record of 22 total Olympic medals, it could be her. Assuming she stays healthy, Franklin figures to have at least two more opportunities to compete in the Summer Games. 

    She will surely look to exceed her 2012 medal count when she races in Rio. 

Kevin Durant, Basketball

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    Multiple members of the 2012 Olympic champion U.S. basketball squad should be back four years from now. However, it remains to be seen how many of the team's top scorers will suit up in red, white and blue once again.

    Kobe Bryant confirmed that this was his final run with Team USA. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, each already with three Olympic runs under their belt, should be considered question marks. 

    Kevin Durant, who is just 23 years old, is already a three-time defending NBA scoring champion. The Oklahoma City Thunder star scored 30 points in the 2012 gold-medal game against Spain after periodically sitting back and allowing his veteran teammates to take the lead during early stages of the Summer Games. 

    Durant was absolutely unstoppable as the U.S. leader during the team's run to the 2010 FIBA World Championship. He was named tournament MVP, having averaged 22 points and six rebounds per game. 

    Look for him to continue his progression as an all-time American great in Rio. Durant is the NBA superstar you can most count on to return for another run at Olympic gold. 

Alex Morgan, Soccer

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    Dubbed "the next Mia Hamm" since her dominant collegiate career at University of California, Morgan continues to live up to the hype. She starred as a reserve during the U.S. women's soccer squad's 2011 World Cup journey but took the next step as a superstar in 2012.

    Morgan, 23, stepped into a starting role with the national team and may already be the best striker on the planet. Fortunately for Americans, she is paired with the only other striker who could argue that distinction (Abby Wambach). 

    Through 21 national team games in 2012, Morgan owns 20 goals and a team-high 12 assists. She kept the squad's Olympic title hopes alive with a game-winning header in Team USA's come-from-behind semifinal victory over Canada. 

    "Alex is going to be one of the best players in the world for a long time," U.S. teammate Lauren Cheney told USA Today.

    The U.S. went on to win its third consecutive gold medal. Morgan scored three times in Olympic competition, and by the time 2016 rolls around, the question could become, "Who's the next Alex Morgan?"

Ashton Eaton, Decathlon

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    Ashton Eaton earned recognition for shattering the world record in the decathlon during U.S. Team Trials in June. The 24-year-old Olympic rookie followed that achievement with a phenomenal performance in London.

    Eaton claimed his first gold medal in the decathlon with a dominant display. He set an Olympic decathlon record in the 100-meter dash and accomplished a personal best in the javelin portion of competition.

    The Oregon native became the 12th American to earn gold in the Olympic decathlon and is in line to enter the 2016 Games as a heavy favorite in the event. Eaton's 2012 dominance already has praises pouring in from some of the sport's most respected figures. 

    “He’s the best ever,” Dan O’Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist decathlete, told The Washington Post. “He’s absolutely the best ever.”

Katie Ledecky, Swimming

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    Katie Ledecky, the youngest member of Team USA, unexpectedly commanded the spotlight with a start-to-finish victory in the 800-meter freestyle final. The 15-year-old Maryland native fell just shy of an Olympic record as she cruised to victory nearly four seconds ahead of Spain's Maria Belmonte Garcia.

    Her poise and tenacity made it easy to forget that Ledecky is only entering her sophomore year of high school this autumn. Remarkably, she will still be a teenager when the 2016 Olympics arrive. 

    "It's all a blur," she told People Magazine. "I felt I could be in the thick of things. I wasn't sure what the tactics were going to be in the race, and what anybody else was going to do. I just focused on my own race." 

    Ledecky was just three years old when Michael Phelps participated in his first Olympics. She joins Missy Franklin as the headliners of America's next generation of swimming stars.

    Expect her to compete in both the 800- and 400-meter freestyle events in Rio. Ledecky narrowly missed qualifying for the 400-meter race in London after finishing in third place at that distance during U.S. Team Trials. 

Christian Taylor, Triple Jump

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    The reigning World Outdoor gold medalist entered the 2012 Olympics as an under-the-radar athlete. A gold medal in his rookie Summer Games run should change all that.

    Taylor, 22, topped American teammate Will Claye with a leap of 17.81 meters. That set a new high mark in the event for 2012 and officially announced his arrival as a track and field phenom. 

    “My confidence, obviously, is through the roof,” Taylor told the New York Daily News.

    The gold-medal performance is the latest addition to a list of impressive achievements by the Georgia native.

    A 10-time NCAA All-American at the University of Florida, Taylor was the youngest finalist in the 2011 World Outdoor Championships final. He will be 26 when the time comes to head to Rio de Janeiro.

    Taylor is undoubtedly the early favorite to defend his newly-earned Olympic title. 

Candace Parker, Basketball

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    Still just 26 years old, Parker has accomplished quite a bit in her high-profile basketball career. The two-time national champion at the University of Tennessee earned her second Olympic gold medal in London. 

    Parker was fresh out of college when she competed at the 2008 Beijing Games. Despite coming off the bench, she managed to score close to 10 points per game and led the team in free-throw attempts.

    This summer, her role with Team USA expanded significantly. 

    Parker, the 2008 WNBA MVP, tallied 21 points to lead the Americans to a gold-medal-game victory over France. She helped the team pull away early with a personal 8-0 run in the second quarter. 

    Although she will be getting a little long in the tooth at age 30 in 2016, Parker should be back to fill the role of team leader and still rank among the squad's primary scorers. She will help Team USA chase its sixth consecutive gold medal in women's basketball. 

Ryan Lochte, Swimming

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    In London, we saw Lochte secure two gold medals (400-meter individual medley and 4x200 relay), two silver (200 IM, 4x100 relay), a bronze (200-meter backstroke) and fourth place in the 200-meter freestyle. Surely, those achievements are nothing to sneeze at, and his career Olympic medal count has climbed to 11 (five gold, three silver, three bronze).

    But for a superstar following in the footsteps of Phelps' 2008 performance (eight events, eight gold medals) and outwardly appearing to consider himself the heir apparent, those results left more to be desired.

    Lochte, a former University of Florida star, seems ready to take on his fourth Olympic adventure. This time he won't have to contend with the legendary Michael Phelps, barring an unexpected reversal to Phelps' retirement plans.

    "I'm probably going to swim more events in 2016, and I'm going to swim as long as I'm having fun," Lochte told the Associated Press.

    Motivation shouldn't be an issue for Lochte, who could potentially move into second place in all-time Olympic medal standings with a strong performance in Rio. The question will be whether he can still possess the same supreme physicality in 2016, when Lochte will be 32 years old.

    Apparently, he has a plan for combating the effects of growing older, and it includes an adjusted workout regimen.

    "I'm definitely going to be training a lot differently and I'll be training for more of the shorter events, so I'll be cutting down my training a little," he told the Associated Press.