2021 Tokyo Olympics: Breakout Stars to Watch at This Year's Games

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2021

2021 Tokyo Olympics: Breakout Stars to Watch at This Year's Games

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Though some events, like softball and baseball, have already gotten underway, the Tokyo Olympics will officially begin Friday at the opening ceremony, which is set to begin at 6:55 a.m. ET and will be broadcast on NBC.

    While there has been debate over whether to hold the Olympics amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Games will go on, and the athletes attending have the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports and become overnight stars in the process.

    From a 13-year-old skateboarder who could become the youngest Olympic gold medalist of all time, to an American gymnast not named Simone Biles who will wow the world, to a sprinter who could set a new world record at the Games, there is no shortage of talent to root for this summer.

    Let's take a look at eight of the most exciting athletes who could break out at the Tokyo Olympics.

Sky Brown, Skateboarding

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    When those who may not follow skateboarding closely tune in to the broadcast to watch the sport make its debut at the Tokyo Olympics, 13-year-old Sky Brown may not be who they were expecting to see. 

    But Brown, who is the youngest Nike-sponsored athlete in the world, is also one of the fastest-rising skateboarding stars. Though her name may be new to the general public, she has been tearing it up in action sports since she competed in the Vans US Open at eight years old in 2016.

    Brown turned pro at age 10. In 2019, the women's park skater made headlines at X Games Minneapolis when she became the first female skateboarder to land a frontside 540 in competition. And she's heading into Tokyo on a high note, having taken silver at Dew Tour Des Moines—an Olympic qualifying event—in May and winning gold last week in the X Games women's park final. 

    Brown's mother is Japanese and her father is British, meaning she could have chosen to compete for either national team. She chose Team Great Britain, which might have been a smart strategy. The available spots on Japan's Olympic skateboarding team were hotly contested, and Brown will likely be battling top Japanese skaters Sakura Yosozumi and Misugu Okamoto for podium position. 

    All three women have a backside 540 in their repertoire, so if Brown can land the trick in both directions, she'll make a good case for gold. But ultimately, Brown thinks trick selection is less important than overall technique. "The 5 is a really good trick, but I don't think you need a 5," she told me at Dew Tour. She also said she has a new trick she's hoping to debut in the Olympics. "I hope I can do it in Tokyo," she said. "I'm so excited to be there."

    You can watch Brown in the women's park prelims on Tuesday, Aug. 3, and in the final later that day if she qualifies.    

Katie Grimes, Swimming

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    With Michael Phelps having hung up the goggles after winning 28 total medals for Team USA at the Olympics, including 23 gold, Katie Ledecky is indisputably America's biggest star in the pool. Ledecky already has five Olympic gold medals, and if she can win three more, she would tie Jenny Thompson (eight) for the most by an American woman in any sport.

    But the swimmer who Katie Ledecky is most excited to watch in the Tokyo Games is Katie Grimes, her 15-year-old teammate.

    In June's U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Grimes finished third in the 1,500-meter freestyle and second to Ledecky in the 800, punching her ticket to compete in the 800 in Tokyo. In doing so, the Las Vegas native became the youngest American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics since Amanda Beard, who did it in 1996 at 14.

    After her finish in the 1,500, Ledecky told Grimes, "You're the future," per Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. And then, after Grimes played runner-up to her in the 800, Ledecky said, "You're the now."

    If Grimes' charmed year is indeed the beginning of a successful Olympic swimming career, Americans could be cheering her on for years...and possibly right into the Los Angeles 2028 Games. Now is the time, however, to jump on the bandwagon. 

    The women's 800-meter freestyle event will begin Thursday, July 29.

Sunisa Lee, Gymnastics

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Like Katie Grimes in swimming, Sunisa Lee is an immensely talented gymnast in her own right who will be competing in Tokyo alongside one of the most celebrated American Olympians right now (or ever): Simone Biles. 

    But Lee's talent demands her to be regarded as much more than the woman who has a chance of earning silver to Biles' almost inevitable gold. The 18-year-old is a silver-medal favorite in the all-around competition (where, yes, Biles is expected to win gold); in fact, she even managed to snag a rare win over Biles in that competition in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. 

    But she is the favorite in uneven bars, where she can boast the world's most difficult routine. Her skills there have earned her two U.S. National Championship titles, as well as a third-place finish in the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. And she's set up to deliver the best performance of her young career in her Olympics debut; at the U.S. trials, she scored 15.300 on her bars routine, a meet and career high.

    Lee is Hmong, an ethnic group originating from isolated mountain villages of Southeast Asia. She is the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast, and her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota has the largest Hmong population among cities in the U.S.

    Lee's qualifying events will be on Sunday, July 25. You can tune in to the gymnastics team final on Tuesday, July 27.

Noah Lyles, Track and Field

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The 2016 Rio Olympics marked legendary sprinter Usain Bolt's last, while then-teenager Noah Lyles of Gainesville, Florida, hoped they would be his first.

    Lyles just barely missed out on qualifying for those Games, but with Bolt retired, the Tokyo Games will serve as a coming-out party for the young speedster. 

    Lyles, now 24, is ready to build his own legacy, and he started in earnest right after finishing in fourth in those 2016 Rio Olympic Trials. In the 19 outdoor 200-meter finals in which he's run since failing to qualify for those Games, he has lost only once. 

    Usain Bolt has been the only name attributed to the gold medal in the 200-meter, but now the title is up for grabs. Lyles will have to fend off U.S. teammate Kenny Bednarek and Canada's Andre De Grasse, but entering the Games, there's no question he's the favorite. The current 200-meter world champion clocked a blazing 19.74 seconds in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, which is world's fastest this season. 

    Lyles has also captured the hearts of fans on social media with his wide-ranging interests and personality. He walked the runway at Paris Fashion Week and released his first hip-hop album in April 2020. 

    The track and field events in Tokyo will begin Thursday, July 29.    

Caroline Marks, Surfing

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    Surfing is one of the sports debuting at the Tokyo Games this year, and one of the faces of the American team will be 19-year-old Caroline Marks, along with 28-year-old veteran Carissa Moore.

    Though she's still only a teenager, Marks is approaching veteran status herself. She was both the youngest woman to compete in a World Surf League event and the youngest to qualify for the women's Championship Tour. In her first year, she earned rookie of the year honors and finished her season with a No. 7 world ranking. 

    Since she caught her first wave around the age of three, the Florida native has been a natural on her board. Surfing wasn't always her main competitive sport; that would be horseback riding. But she continued surfing with older brothers Luke and Zach, and by 10 she had rededicated herself to the sport.

    When she turned pro at 13, Marks and her family relocated to California, where she began home schooling so she could focus on her training. The international travel to events and single-minded focus on her sport meant Marks missed out on some of the traditional rites of a teenager—homecoming, prom—but it's all been in service of her goals, including the Olympics. 

    "I'm living my dream. I don't have any FOMO," Marks told me in April.  "I know I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."

    Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, about 100km away from the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, will play host to the Olympic surfing events. The women's heats begin Saturday at 9:20 p.m. ET (10:20 a.m. Sunday in Tokyo), and given the unpredictable nature of wind and waves, the surfing events could run through the final reserve day of Sunday, August 1.    

Sydney McLaughlin, Track and Field

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin couldn't be entering the Tokyo Olympics on a higher note. 

    The 21-year-old from New Brunswick, New Jersey, didn't just qualify for the U.S. Olympic team at the Olympic Trials in June. She shattered the previous world record for the 400-meter hurdles by 0.26 seconds with her time of 51.90 seconds.

    She beat fellow American hurdler Dalilah Muhammad by 0.52 seconds, setting up an epic rematch in Tokyo. In fact, the world record McLaughlin broke in Eugene, Oregon, last month was set by Muhammad two years ago at the world championships—where McLaughlin finished second with the then-second-fastest time ever.

    Now, McLaughlin has essentially been installed as the gold-medal favorite, with Muhammad tabbed to win silver. 

    This is McLaughlin's second Olympic appearance, but she was eliminated in the semifinals in the 2016 Rio Games. If she earns a medal of any color, she will be the youngest woman to ever medal in the 400-meter hurdles. Only one American woman has ever won gold in the event. You guessed it: Dalilah Muhammad in 2016. 

    Watch McLaughlin and Muhammad potentially duke it out for Olympic gold on August 3.    

Heimana Reynolds, Skateboarding

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    Andre Penner/Associated Press

    Even if he doesn't make the podium in his event, men's skateboarding park, America and the world will love skateboarder Heimana Reynolds. 

    The 22-year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii, is charismatic and effusive, seemingly always sporting a wide smile under his flowing hair. The Flyin' Hawaiian is known for skating shirtless—something he won't be able to do at the Olympics, as he must wear attire from the USA Skateboarding's Nike SB-designed kit. But Reynolds will still bring that laidback island style to his skating. 

    The 2019 park skateboarding world champion comes into Tokyo ranked No. 1 in the world in men's park and is the gold medal favorite heading into the Games. 

    Reynolds' close childhood friend growing up in Hawaii, Jordyn Barratt, is competing in park as well on the U.S. women's team. In Honolulu, he helps his parents run the family skate school and skate shop, Proper Rideshop, which includes the only indoor skatepark on Oahu.

    It both serves as his own training facility to hone his skills, including his signature frontside invert, a handplant trick (keep an eye out for it in Tokyo), as well as to coach up the next generation of skaters who want to follow in his footsteps.

    Watch Reynolds in the men's park preliminaries and, if he advances, final on Wednesday, August 4.     

Hannah Roberts, BMX Freestyle

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    While BMX racing has been part of the Olympic program since the Beijing 2008 Games, its freestyle component is new this year. Alongside skateboarding and surfing, adding this action sports mainstay to the program was an effort by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attract a younger audience in the Olympics. 

    When BMX freestyle was voted into the program, the sport's infrastructure around the world expanded rapidly. This especially benefited female riders, who, in the past, were not given the same sponsorship and endorsement opportunities as their male counterparts. Even now, some BMX contests don't offer prize parity between male and female contestants; X Games still does not have a women's BMX freestyle contest. 

    Hannah Roberts' star was already plenty high before BMX freestyle ever entered the Olympics, but now she is on the cusp of emerging as the face of the sport in the U.S. and quite possibly its first-ever female gold medalist. 

    Roberts was the first American BMX freestyle athlete to qualify for the Olympics, in February 2020; she had accumulated so many points in the world rankings that it was mathematically impossible for her not to. The Buchanan, Michigan, native who now resides in North Carolina is fresh off her third world title in June. 

    Roberts has progressed the sport, becoming the first woman to land a 360 tailwhip in competition. She'll look to add some new tricks to her runs at the Games, as well. "I have a few big flip whips and a front flip I want to do at the Olympics if I can figure out where to do them," she told me in May. 

    The women's BMX freestyle event will begin on Friday, July 30.    

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