Biggest Stars to Watch for in the 2024 Paris Olympics

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2021

Biggest Stars to Watch for in the 2024 Paris Olympics

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The 2021 Tokyo Olympics are in the books, and a new generation of Olympic superstars has introduced themselves to the world.

    There may no longer be Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps shattering records every time they step onto the track or jump into the pool, but young and hungry athletes have been waiting for their own moment to step into the limelight. 

    Multiple world and Olympic records were shattered in Tokyo. Sprinter Allyson Felix earned her record-11th medal to become the most decorated U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. American swimmer Caeleb Dressel broke his own world record in the 100-meter butterfly with his time of 49.45 seconds.

    In fact, American swimmers set multiple records at these Games. The U.S. men's 4x100-meter medley relay team of Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, Dressel and Zach Apple earned gold with a record time of 3:26.78.

    We may have seen some of these athletes' final Olympic performances, but others are just getting started. Let's take a look at the dominant athletes we enjoyed watching during the Tokyo Games who could return to our television screens in the 2024 Paris Games.

Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Entering the 2020 Olympics, Katie Ledecky was already occupying rarefied air in the sport of swimming. 

    Ledecky shocked when she won gold in the 800-meter freestyle by more than four seconds in the 2012 London Games, her first Olympics. She became a household name at the 2016 Rio Games, where she took three individual gold medals (200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle) and helped lead Team USA to a gold- and silver-medal finish in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, respectively. 

    However, her first event in Tokyo was a surprising disappointment; despite ranking first overall in the prelims of the 400-meter freestyle, she trailed Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus by over a half a second to fail to win an individual event at the Olympics for the first time. She then finished off the podium, in fifth, in the 200-meter freestyle. 

    But the world didn't need to worry about Ledecky's swimming prowess. In her next event, the 1,500-meter freestyle, she secured her first gold medal in Tokyo—finishing four seconds faster than U.S. teammate Erica Sullivan. In the 4x200 freestyle relay, the U.S. had fallen behind Australia and China by the time Ledecky entered the water. Her 1:53.76 split, the fastest in all the relay finals, allowed the U.S. to edge out Australia and finish in second. With her gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle to mark seventh overall, Ledecky sits behind Michael Phelps as the Olympic swimmer with the most individual gold medals. 

    Now 24, Ledecky has the distinction of being both the youngest and oldest swimmer to win the 800-meter freestyle, with her first win in 2012 coming at 15. She can bump up the record for oldest at 27 years old in the 2024 Paris Olympics, which Ledecky told People she's "definitely targeting."

    "You can ask me about 2028 in 2024, but I can say with pretty good confidence that I'm going through 2024," Ledecky said. "It's exciting."

    With at least two more individual gold medals in 2024, Ledecky can surpass American Jenny Thompson all-time Olympic record for gold medals among female swimmers.

Erriyon Knighton (Track and Field)

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    The fact that Erriyon Knighton is only 17 years old—the youngest Olympic male track athlete from the U.S. since 1964—means that Americans can look forward to seeing him compete at two, if not three, more Olympic cycles. 

    And if you watched Knighton at all during the Tokyo Games, you'll understand why that's so exciting. Knighton is one of the most exciting track and field athletes since Usain Bolt. That accolade is well-deserved; Knighton broke Bolt's under-18 record in the boys' 200 meters by two hundredths of a second in May. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, he broke Bolt's under-20 record in the semifinal of the 200 meters, then broke his own world record to qualify for Tokyo.

    But Knighton left Tokyo feeling that he had fallen short of his ultimate goal of earning a medal. He finished first in his 200-meter semifinal heat, but in the final, he finished in fourth place with a time of 19.93 seconds. Canada's Andre De Grasse's won gold in 19.62 seconds.

    "That was my goal from the start," Knighton said after the race, according to the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "Make the podium."

    In 2024, that would be a safe bet.

Athing Mu (Track and Field)

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    Heading into the Tokyo Games, the last time an American won the 800-meter event at the Olympics was when Madeline Manning did it in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Yes, 53 years ago

    But then 19-year-old Athing Mu entered the picture. 

    Mu had won silver in the 800 meters at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, and she earned gold in the event at the 2019 Pan American U-20 Championships. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, she finished first in the 800 meters, securing her place in Tokyo. Her time of 1:56.07 was the second-fastest in American history and leads the world. It set a new best at the Olympics Trials. 

    We've seen other American athletes absolutely dominate their field at the U.S. trials, only to come into Tokyo and fail to earn gold (or even fail to podium), as we saw with swimmers Lilly King and Katie Ledecky and Erriyon Knighton. But Mu carried her trials momentum all the way through to Tokyo. 

    Competing in her first Olympics, Mu took gold in the 800 meters and set a new American record with her time of 1:55.21. 

    What's more, Mu, who was named the indoor and outdoor NCAA National Women's Track Athlete of the Year in 2021, could have qualified for the Olympics in the 400 meters, too. 

    Mu's future is bright; NBC track and field analyst Ato Boldon called her the biggest prodigy since Allyson Felix. And at 19, we can hope to see her try and chase Felix's record of 11 Olympic medals at future Games, starting with Paris 2024. 

Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The U.S. managed to just barely stave off China for the final medal-count lead at the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, with 39 gold medals and 113 overall. And the Americans got a notable boost from all the hardware swimmer Caeleb Dressel earned before departing Tokyo.

    In these Games, Dressel has proved he's an elite swimmer whose achievements we can discuss on their own merit without always referencing Michael Phelps. He's taken over the mantle of our present great American male swimmer.

    The breadth of Dressel's success in Tokyo is nothing short of dominant. In the course of earning his five gold medals and setting two world and two Olympic records, he became the fourth American swimmer in history to earn that many golds in a single Olympics, joining Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and, of course, Phelps.

    Dressel's first gold medal came alongside U.S. teammates Blake Pieroni, Bowe Becker and Zach Apple in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay—the only race in which Dressel would not set a new record.

    Dressel's time of 47.02 in the 100-meter freestyle set an Olympic record, as did his time of 21.07 in the 50-meter freestyle. His gold-medal time of 49.45 in the 100-meter butterfly set a world record, as did he and teammates Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew and Apple in the 4x100-meter medley relay.

    The 24-year old would like the chance to continue breaking records and making history at the Paris Games, but he's not taking anything for granted.

    "I very much would like to make the team, but got to get put on the team first," Dressel said, per Emily DeCiccio of CNBC. "I'm no priority over anybody in U.S. swimming. I got to make the team first; then we can talk about Paris."

Sky Brown (Skateboarding)

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    Ben Curtis/Associated Press

    Sky Brown was one of a contingent of female teenage skateboarders to take the Olympics by storm this year. At 13 years old, she became the first-ever Olympic bronze medalist in women's park skateboarding, finishing behind 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi and 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki, both of Japan. 

    Indeed, with skateboarding, which made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, approved for the program in Paris, many of these same young skaters will be in contention to once again represent their countries. But Brown, whose mother is Japanese and father is British, elected to join Team Great Britain for Olympic competition (becoming Team GB's youngest-ever Olympian in the process). Because of that, Brown, who was ranked No. 3 in the world entering the Tokyo Games, has a much better chance of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Games. 

    Why is that? Well, only three skaters of each gender from each nation can qualify for park skateboarding at the Olympics. The next-highest-ranked Brit, Bombette Martin, was 27th in the world. On the other hand, five Japanese women were ranked in the world's top 10 ahead of Tokyo, which makes the likelihood of any of them qualifying for Paris harder to pin down. World No. 1 Misugu Okamoto didn't even finish on the podium. So when it comes to predicting which skateboarders have a good shot at qualifying again in three years' time, Brown is a safe bet. 

    With her infectious laugh and bubbly personality, Brown also proved to be a breakout star of these Games. As the world fell in love with skateboarding in the Olympics, Brown's return to television screens in 2024 will be welcomed by many. 

Suni Lee (Gymnastics)

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Suni Lee's Tokyo Olympics story will go down as one of the most emotionally rewarding in memory. The 18-year-old breakout star had a difficult road to Tokyo. In 2019, her father, John, fell off a ladder and was initially paralyzed from the chest down. It was right before Lee was set to compete in the national championships in Kansas City, and she contemplated not competing. But her father urged her to go, and she placed second after Simone Biles. 

    In 2020, Lee was out of competition for more than four months as she recovered from a broken bone in her foot and from an Achilles tendon injury. She returned to competition in February and began the final stretch of her journey to qualify for Tokyo. 

    At the U.S. Olympic Trials, Lee's one-day all-around score of 58.166 on the second day of competition was higher than Simone Biles', the first time in 2013 anyone had accomplished that feat. She qualified for Tokyo and came in as the silver-medal favorite in the all-around competition and the gold-medal favorite on the uneven bars.

    Then, of course, Biles withdrew from the all-around final, and we all saw what happened next. Lee was a revelation, hitting all four of her routines and recording the highest uneven bars score of the event. She became the first Asian American gymnast to win an all-around gold medal and followed it up with a bronze in the uneven bars. With Biles absent from the team final, Lee helped lead the U.S. women to a silver-medal finish. 

    Lee is primed to be the next great American gymnastics superstar... if she wants. She hasn't confirmed she'll attempt to compete at the Paris Olympics, choosing to focus right now on heading to college at Auburn university. 

    "I have given thought to Paris. We'll have to see, though, because... I don't know, it just seems like a lot of time to continue elite gymnastics," Lee said, according to Olympics.com. "But yeah, it's definitely something that I'm thinking about."

Lydia Jacoby (Swimming)

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    Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    At just 17, swimmer Lydia Jacoby is an American hero for her shocking gold-medal finish in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Games, in which she beat heavy favorite and fellow American Lilly King. It was the United States' first gold medal in swimming at the Games; now, it counts as one of Team USA's 11 gold medals in swimming and 30 overall. 

    But for however much Jacoby is adored by the American public for her success in Tokyo, she has risen to legendary status in her native state of Alaska. Jacoby was the first swimmer from Alaska to qualify for an Olympics, and so of course she became the first Alaskan to win an Olympic medal in swimming, too. She added a silver to her cache as well when she and teammates Regan Smith, Torri Huske and Abbey Weitzeil finished second in the 4x100 meter medley relay. 

    At a Games where family and friends weren't able to cheer Olympians on in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, the video of Jacoby’s friends and family back home in Seward watching her swim her way to the gold medal was one of the Olympics' most heartwarming moments. 

    Jacoby wasn't sure she'd even qualify for the team in these Games, and now she has emerged one of their biggest stars. While the 17-year-old hasn't confirmed she'll attempt to return for the Paris Olympics in three years, she shouldn't have to worry again about a spot on the team being available for her.

Sydney McLaughlin (Track and Field)

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    Sydney McLaughlin is still celebrating her gold medal in the women's 400-meter hurdles with a world-record time of 51.46. As she should; she broke her own world record she set at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. At 21, she also became the youngest-ever medalist in the event.

    But when she's ready to think ahead, she can contemplate setting another record in the Paris 2024 Games. 

    At Tokyo, it was American Dalilah Muhammad, defending 400-meter Olympic champion, who was looking to become the first woman to repeat in consecutive Olympics. But Muhammad couldn't best McLaughlin, earning silver with her time of 51.58. 

    McLaughlin didn't have the chance to earn a medal in the event at the 2016 Olympics, as she failed to qualify for the final. Now, that's a goal she can work toward over the next three years.

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