2020 Summer Olympics: Team USA Names to Know for the Tokyo Games
The ink isn't even dry on the 2016 Olympic record books, but we're already looking forward four years to Tokyo to preview some of the Team USA names and faces that should rise to fame in 2020.
You already know about teenage phenoms and Olympic medalists such as Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez and Shakur Stevenson, and sure, they'll each be key contributors in Tokyo. But our goal is to clue you in on some names that you likely don't yet know.
As much as we've all enjoyed the Olympics, let's face facts: Most Americans won't think about sports like swimming, gymnastics or track and field again in the next 47 months—let alone diving, weightlifting or any of the various shooting events.
Bookmark this page, though, and plan on pulling it back up in July 2020 so you can wow friends and random bar-goers with your knowledge of the relatively unknown Americans who may go down in history as gold medalists.
Michael Andrew, Swimming
Despite competing in five events at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials—50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley—17-year-old Michael Andrew wasn't able to qualify for the Games.
But the kid who turned pro at the age of 14 was close.
Andrew placed fourth in the finals of the breaststroke, missing out on an Olympic berth by 0.56 seconds. The two Americans who did compete in that event in Rio, Cody Miller and Kevin Cordes, took third and fourth place in the medal race, respectively. Give him another four years, and Andrew might be the best in the world in that event.
He also placed sixth in the semifinals of the individual medley, but he scratched the final because A) he had other events to swim that morning and B) he wasn't going to beat Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, so why waste the precious energy? Still, he was right there with some of the best swimmers in the world.
Considering his wide range of strokes, Andrew should be the next Phelps, at least in terms of the sheer number of events in which he swims.
However, one of the main reasons people will be buzzing about Andrew in Tokyo is because his training is revolutionizing competitive swimming.
Practice makes perfect, and that's why the greats like Phelps and Katie Ledecky spend hours upon hours in the pool on a daily basis. But Andrew's coach (his father, Pete Andrew) preaches Ultra-Short Race-Pace (USRP) training, which has swimmers in the pool for a maximum of two hours per day.
USRP is to conventional training what wind sprints or suicides are to distance running. It's anaerobic exercise vs. aerobic exercise, with swimmers always training at the pace they'll actually swim in meets. It makes sense, but it hasn't been a common practice until recently, and his dad believes that because of Andrew, it could be the norm by 2024.
Mallory Pugh, Soccer
Time eventually comes for us all, and many of the stars of the U.S. women's national soccer team from the past decade are on the brink of retirement.
Abby Wambach is already done. 2016 captain Carli Lloyd is 34. Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger are each 31 or older. Hope Solo is 35, though most U.S. fans would survive if this is the last year of her distractions.
Of the 11 starters in the loss to Sweden, eight were 27 or older, and only one was younger than 23—that was 18-year-old Mallory Pugh.
USA scored just six goals in the tournament, but Pugh had one of them, coming on as a reserve in the final game of group play to score the go-ahead goal against Colombia. It was her fourth goal since becoming the youngest woman to play for the U.S. team in an Olympic qualifying tournament and a sign of things to come for the next dozen or so years.
Pugh was nominated three times for the U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year before finally receiving the honor in 2015. She has been a star on USA's U17 and U20 teams and is well on her way to becoming the face of USWNT. She should be to the 2020 roster what Alex Morgan was in 2012, blossoming into both a fan favorite and a key scorer.
Sydney McLaughlin, 400m Hurdles
For many athletes, greatness is in their genes. It's why some college basketball coaches are already offering scholarships to 11-year-old LeBron James Jr., and it's why Sydney McLaughlin is well on her way to an Olympic medal.
Her parents, Willie and Mary, were both track stars in their heyday, and all four of their kids—eldest Morgan, Taylor, Sydney and youngest Ryan—followed suit.
"They all did other sports like soccer and basketball,'' Willie McLaughlin told in early 2014. "But we knew all along they'd get into track. We got them started when they were around eight years old. ... You could see right away that they all had talent."
Sydney wasn't even 17 when she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the women's 400-meter hurdles. She celebrated that birthday in Rio about a week before qualifying for the semifinals of her event, but she'll need to wait until 2020 to compete in her first Olympic medal race, as she placed 17th in those semis.
But it's not because she isn't fast enough to medal. She just wasn't fast enough on that day.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials, she set the world junior record with a finals run of 54.15 seconds—this despite having the worst reaction time of any of the finalists. If she had run that race in Rio instead of the 56.22 that she actually ran, she would have won her semifinal with the second-fastest time of the round.
With four more years of training, the 2015-16 Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year should be ready to medal. Allyson Felix won that award in 2002-03 and was the one to present McLaughlin with her trophy, symbolically passing the torch to another U.S. athlete who thrives in 400-meter races.
C.J. Cummings, Weightlifting
With 15 gold and 39 overall medals, the record books say that the United States' men used to rank among the greatest weightlifters in the world.
But they haven't won a medal in any weight class since the Reagan administration, last standing on the podium in 1984 and last winning gold in 1960.
C.J. Cummings will break those droughts. The only question is when.
According to Ali Eaves of Men's Health, Cummings set a youth world record in his weight category (69 kg) this past June with a clean and jerk of 180 kg. The 2016 Olympic gold medalist in that weight class, Shi Zhiyong, had a clean and jerk of 190 kg.
But Shi is almost 23. Cummings is only 16.
"There's never been anybody that strong at that weight and that age that ever lived in America. Ever," former USA Weightlifting President Dennis Snethen told USA Today's Jason Jordan last August. "If you related it to basketball, C.J. would be Michael Jordan."
High praise for a kid who just wants to play video games and eat french fries in his free time, according to the bio on his website.
Vashti Cunningham, High Jump
Like Sydney McLaughlin, Vashti Cunningham has athleticism in her DNA. Her dad was a track star (in high jump) in high school, but he was much more famous for his contributions to a different sport, as Randall Cunningham became one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks in NFL history.
Though just 18 years old, many thought 2016 would be Vashti's year. According to Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, Cunningham conducted more than a dozen sit-down interviews with both national and international outlets in the lead-up to Rio—more than any female U.S. athlete without Olympic experience not named Simone Biles.
That's largely because the high-jumper set a world junior record in March with a leap of 1.99 meters—six feet, six inches and some change for the metric averse, or fractions of an inch taller than Michael Jordan for the numbers averse—and had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold.
Regardless of age, that's an incredible jump. The women's world record is 2.09 meters, but that was set way back in 1987. In most years, 1.99 meters would be good enough for a fourth-place finish at the Olympics. This year, it would have been good enough for gold, as four high-jumpers cleared the bar at 1.97 meters, but each failed all three of their attempts at 2.00.
But also like McLaughlin, Cunningham was unable to replicate her best in Rio.
It took her three tries, but Cunningham cleared 1.94 meters in qualifying to reach the finals. However, 1.88 was all she could muster in the finals, striking out on her three attempts at 1.93.
Fortunately for Cunningham, she's far from her prime in the sport. To an extent, high-jumpers age like a fine wine. 2016 gold medalist Ruth Beitia is 37. Of the four women who cleared 1.97, only 26-year-old Mirela Demireva of Bulgaria is younger than 32. In both 2008 and 2012, the gold medalist was 30.
You get the idea. This 18-year-old is only going to get better. Cunningham might win gold in Tokyo and could break the world record over the coming years, too.
Maria Coburn, Diving
Like weightlifting, the United States' dominance in diving was a lifetime ago for some, especially for a 14-year-old like Maria Coburn.
China has completely dominated the sport lately, taking seven out of a possible eight gold medals in Rio. In women's diving, China has taken all four golds in each of the past three Olympics. And in Coburn's best event (three-meter springboard), China has won eight consecutive gold medals, also taking four silvers and one bronze in the last five Olympics.
Thus, if Coburn does win gold in Tokyo, it would be a rather big deal.
What's crazy is that she almost made it to Rio this year.
Coburn has been obliterating the competition in her age group for the past few months, placing first at the 2016 USA Diving Nationals in the girls one-meter, girls three-meter and senior women three-meter events. She just didn't have quite enough to qualify for the Olympics, placing fifth in the three-meter springboard behind Kassidy Cook, Abby Johnston, Lauren Reedy and Laura Ryan at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in June.
At this rate, though, she'll be challenging the Chinese for diving supremacy in 2020.
Ragan Smith, Gymnastics
Ragan Smith just turned 16 two weeks ago, and at 4'6", she makes Simone Biles look tall. But don't let her age or height fool you.
This girl is a fantastic gymnast.
Right now, it feels like Biles and Laurie Hernandez are locks to be the United States' individual all-around participants in 2020. However, at this time four years ago, we assumed the same about Gabby Douglas for Rio, so don't rule out the possibility of Smith being USA's star gymnast in Tokyo.
Even if she doesn't compete in the all-around, she should be a key contributor in the team event and a threat to win gold on the balance beam and floor exercise. Officials named Smith an alternate for this year's team after she placed second on beam and was tied for sixth on floor at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
At the 2016 Pacific Rim Championships in April, Smith was one of nine individual Americans to win gold, doing so on the balance beam.
Kanak Jha, Table Tennis
And, well, it was a sobering learning experience for him. He was eliminated 4-1 in the qualifying round of the men's singles tournament and was part of USA's 3-0 first-round team loss to Sweden, getting swept in both his singles and doubles matches.
Even Bob Costas defeated Jha in one of NBC's most comical segments of the 17-day run in Rio.
But we're talking about a boy trying to beat grown men. In any other sport, expecting anything but a blowout would be a laughable proposition. Imagine pitting the best high school basketball player in the world against Stephen Curry, or picture a 16-year-old baseball phenom trying to bat .300 against Clayton Kershaw.
Against kids his own age, though, Jha has been untouchable. According to Sam Borden of the New York Times, Jha has been putting spin on the ball since picking up the sport at the age of five and "dominated his classmates throughout the Ping-Pong unit of his school's physical education class."
(Where the heck was that gym option when we were 13 years old?)
Though he competes for the United States, Jha lives full time in Halmstad, Sweden, training daily at one of the greatest table tennis clubs in existence.
"Kanak is young, but he is very focused," said Mattias Karlsson, a top player in Halmstad and part of Sweden's team that eliminated the United States. "Sometimes we forget how young he is. He is still learning."
Even he had little hope of doing much in Rio. Ranked 272nd in the world, Jha told Borden that just winning three matches in the preliminary rounds to reach the main draw would be a success for him. In Tokyo, though, his sights will be set much higher.