Summer Olympics 2016: Biggest Breakout Stars of 2016 Rio Games

Beau Dure@duresportFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2016

Summer Olympics 2016: Biggest Breakout Stars of 2016 Rio Games

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    Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse opened a lot of eyes in Rio.
    Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse opened a lot of eyes in Rio.FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images

    You knew about Simone Biles. You knew about Katie Ledecky. If you didn't remember Ashton Eaton from the 2012 London Games, maybe the series of ads jogged your memory. And you might have heard about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

    But which Olympians who were lesser known outside of hardcore fans two weeks ago made an impression in Rio? Impressive U.S. performances largely dominated the NBC airwaves, but plenty of other internationals introduced themselves to the world as well. 

    Here are a few who caught our eyes in the countless hours of broadcasts from Rio de Janeiro.

Ginny Thrasher

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    The gold medal she won was substantially larger than the targets she hit to win it.
    The gold medal she won was substantially larger than the targets she hit to win it.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    We told you to keep an eye on her.

    The West Virginia University student and shooter took up the sport a few years ago and has been a quick learner. Up in the first medal event of the Games, the 10-meter air rifle, she adapted quickly to Olympic pressure, taking a solid sixth in qualification to make it to the final.

    In the new format for shooting finals, competitors are eliminated one by one. Teammate Sarah Scherer went first. As others were eliminated, Thrasher pulled herself into medal position. Then into first place. 

    By the time the competition was down to Thrasher and China's Du Li, the 19-year-old American held a solid lead. One bad shot can ruin a final, but she never took one. The Games opened with gold for Thrasher.

Laurie Hernandez

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    Laurie Hernandez spots the landing.
    Laurie Hernandez spots the landing.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    The five U.S. women's gymnasts headed to Rio didn't exactly fly under the radar. But while Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman were holdovers from London and Biles' rep had been steadily growing through a succession of world titles, Laurie Hernandez was the newbie.

    The 16-year-old from New Jersey debuted in senior-level competition just a few months ago, but she showed no sign of nerves in Rio. She did vault, floor and beam in the team competition, more than holding up her end as the USA ran away with the gold medal.

    And she wasn't done, returning to the beam to take an individual silver.

    Not bad for someone who was competing in junior competition a year ago.

Andre De Grasse

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    His turn in 2020?
    His turn in 2020?Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Don't laugh if someone shows up at a high school track meet with basketball gear and no idea how to use the starting blocks. A few years ago, that was Andre De Grasse.

    "Within a two- to three-month span this guy dominated all the high school kids," coach Tony Sharpe told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.

    The suburban Toronto kid crossed the border to compete in junior college and moved on to Southern Cal, where he won the 2015 NCAA 100- and 200-meter titles. That summer, he also tied for third in the 100 at the World Championships.

    None of which prepared us for the sight of him joking with Bolt as they crossed the line of the 200-meter semifinals.

    By that point, De Grasse already had an Olympic medal, taking bronze in the 100 meters with a new personal best of 9.91 seconds. He went on to take silver in the 200. With Bolt and Justin Gatlin not likely to compete or be in top form in four years, everyone else will be trying to catch De Grasse.

Maya DiRado

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    Retiring with a lifetime average of four medals per Olympics.
    Retiring with a lifetime average of four medals per Olympics.Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

    Talk about starting and finishing an Olympic career with a bang.

    Maya DiRado didn't make the Olympic team in 2012. She continued swimming at Stanford and worked her way on to the national team for the last two World Championships, taking a relay gold in 2013 and a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley in 2015.

    This year, it was all or nothing. Whatever happened in the ultracompetitive U.S. trials and then in Rio, she was retiring. She's married and has a job waiting.

    So what happened? She started with a silver medal in the 400 IM, beaten only by Katinka Hosszu's world record. Then she claimed bronze in the 200-meter IM.

    She completed her set of medals in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, earning gold.

    But she had one more event, the 200 backstroke. It was the last race of her career. And her last win.

    Maybe she could take some time off work in 2020?

Monica Puig

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    Don't overlook Monica Puig in a tennis tournament draw ever again.
    Don't overlook Monica Puig in a tennis tournament draw ever again.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    The Puerto Rican Olympic team came to Rio with a grand total of eight medals in Olympic history. No gold. None in women's sports.

    Monica Puig came to Rio with one career WTA title. Her career-high ranking was 33rd. The Olympic draw was as strong as any major tournament—the top eight seeds were all ranked in the top 10.

    Puig opened with a routine win and followed up with a minor upset over Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 19th-ranked player in the world. Then came the stunner—6-1, 6-1 over third-ranked Garbine Muguruza of Spain.

    By that point, anything was possible. Germany's Laura Siegemund had a similar run of upsets to reach the quarterfinals, and Puig beat her in straight sets. Next was 14th-ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, who seemed to have momentum in the semifinal after winning the second set 6-1. Puig stormed back to win the third set, 6-3, setting up a final matchup with the world's No. 2-ranked player, Germany's Angelique Kerber. 

    Again, Puig took the first set and dropped the second set. But in the third set, the unheralded player from Puerto Rico took command, winning 6-1 to take gold.

Ryan Murphy

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    Ryan Murphy goes backward quickly.
    Ryan Murphy goes backward quickly.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Ryan Murphy, who came up just short in the 2012 trials, was busy this spring racking up points and records for California in the NCAA championships.

    On the international scene, he hadn't done that much, joining the 4x100-meter medley relay team for first place in the 2015 World Championships and placing fifth in the 200-meter backstroke.

    He did just a bit better in Rio. He won the 100-meter backstroke. Then the 200. Then he led off the 4x100 medley relay with a world record.

    Can he top that in Tokyo?

Simone Manuel

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    She even surprised herself.
    She even surprised herself.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

    Expectations were high for the U.S. swimming team in a lot of events. Not in the women's sprint freestyle races. Not against the mighty Campbell sisters of Australia and a host of global stars.

    Stanford swimmer Simone Manuel had done well just to reach the final of the 50- and 100-meter freestyle at last year's World Championships. But when the water calmed after the 100 in Rio, Manuel had a gold medal and shared the Olympic record with another breakout star of the Games, 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak.

    She already had a silver from the 4x100 freestyle relay, and she added another surprising silver in the 50 freestyle and another gold in the 4x100 medley relay.

    It's a good summer for U.S. athletes named Simone.

Wayde van Niekerk

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    Wayde van Niekerk (center) broke out in Rio.
    Wayde van Niekerk (center) broke out in Rio.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Wayde's World, Wayde's World...excellent.

    South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk was certainly known within the track and field world heading into the Games. He was the reigning world champion in the 400 meters, after all.

    But the spotlight was on defending champion Kirani James of Grenada, along with American LaShawn Merritt, in his quest for medals in the 200 and 400.

    Van Niekerk gave little indication of what was to come in the semifinals. He was second behind Trinidad and Tobago's Machel Cedenio, both lagging behind the times James and Merritt posted in another semifinal.

    His reward was the outside lane for the final, from which winners usually don't emerge. But by the time the runners made the last turn, it was clear James and Merritt were racing for silver.

    The clock stopped at 43.03 seconds. New Olympic record. New world record.

    And he's only 24.

Helen Maroulis

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    One of the most emotional celebrations of the Games.
    One of the most emotional celebrations of the Games.JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

    Saori Yoshida was the immovable object. Helen Maroulis spent years molding herself into the irresistible force.

    Not that the American wrestler was confident the whole time. With Olympic wrestling weight classes reconfigured, Maroulis had to go on a strict diet while training to beat the three-time Olympic champion and 13-time world champion, who had pinned her in each of their two previous meetings.

    "With wrestling, it's two hours a day, four hours a day," she told NBC's Nick Zaccardi. "Hard practices, and then I'd be like, OK, I have to make sure I don't eat anything I'm not supposed to for the next six hours, before I go to sleep. And then I have to wake up and do it all over again."

    But Maroulis went to Rio in better shape than anyone could have imagined. Through luck of the draw, she had to wrestle once more than most of her peers. She built momentum with two blowout wins, a comeback win in the quarterfinals, then a stunning pin of Swedish favorite Sofia Mattsson in the semifinals.

    She fell behind Yoshida, 1-0. The next three minutes made her an Olympic champion.

Connor Fields

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    They're not going to catch Connor Fields.
    They're not going to catch Connor Fields.Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

    BMX seems like an event the USA would dominate. But through two appearances in the Olympics, Latvia's Maris Strombergs had won both of the men's gold medals. In 2008, the U.S. men took silver and bronze, while the women took bronze. In 2012, the USA was shut out.

    This time, the USA brought an experienced group. Both of the women's cyclists, Alise Post and Brooke Crain, had competed in London. So had two of the three men's cyclists, Nic Long and Connor Fields.

    They looked strong in the semifinals. Post was in the top three of all three runs, placing second behind defending champion Mariana Pajon of Colombia. Crain was also second in her semifinal group. Long and Fields also made it through to the final.

    Post had a fantastic run in the final, taking silver behind Pajon. Then came the men's final, which for a while looked like it might be a one-two U.S. finish with Fields and Long out front. Long slipped to fourth. Fields led the whole way through and leaped off his bike in excitement.

Ashleigh Johnson

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    Not in MY goal.
    Not in MY goal.GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

    Check that U.S. women's water polo roster. Menlo Park, UCLA. Santa Barbara, USC. Santa Monica, Stanford. Laguna Beach High School. Californians. 

    Miami? Princeton?

    Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson is a geographical misfit on the water polo team, but she's right at home in front of the U.S. goal. She started the Olympics with 11 saves on 15 shots in an 11-4 rout of Spain. She kept the door shut as the USA finished the group stage with comfortable wins over China and Hungary, then stopped all six shots she faced before departing in a 13-3 quarterfinal win over Brazil.

    The rematch with Hungary in the semifinals was Johnson's biggest challenge. She stopped eight shots but conceded 10 goals. Still, she came up big when needed, while the offense roared in a 14-10 win.

    The final against Italy was her masterpiece. Nine saves on 13 shots, including many big saves in the first half when the outcome was still in doubt. By the time she saved a penalty shot midway through the third quarter, her team was cruising to the gold medal.

Matthew Centrowitz

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    Haven't seen this many people chasing someone at top speed since the Benny Hill Show stopped airing.
    Haven't seen this many people chasing someone at top speed since the Benny Hill Show stopped airing.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The USA doesn't win middle-distance races at the Olympics.

    No medals in the women's steeplechase...until Emma Coburn did it in Rio. No medals in the women's 1,500 meters...until Jenny Simpson did it in Rio. No medals in the men's 800 meters since 1992...until Clay Murphy did it in Rio.

    The men's 1,500? The USA hadn't won that event since 1908, when hardly anyone else showed up. Jim Ryun took silver in 1968, and Leo Manzano matched that a scant 44 years later.

    Matthew Centrowitz, son of an Olympian by the same name, had come close. He was fourth in London, a run sandwiched between two medals at the World Championships.

    In Rio, no one pushed the pace, content to let Centrowitz lead. Surely they would pass him with a lap to go. Or 200 meters to go. Or 100. Right?

    Wrong. Centrowitz held off the world's best 1,500-meter runners to take gold.