From swimming to shooting, table tennis to track & field, and weight lifting to BMX racing, Team USA's athletes are out to break records and score medals at the London Games. Here are 12 athletes you'll want to keep an eye on – we guarantee you'll be watching them ascend to superstardom.
The fastest swimmer in America right now may not be Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte but a tattooed, half-black, half-Jewish grad student with Tourette's syndrome who has a history with hallucinogens, tobacco, fast motorcycles and rock & roll, and has more in common with Kurt Cobain than with anyone pictured on a Wheaties box. A more conventional athlete than the 31-year-old Anthony Ervin, who won a gold medal at the Sydney Games in 2000 and then walked away from the sport, would probably be looking at the London Olympics as the final act in a historic career. For Ervin, it's just another step in a puzzling and at times deeply troubled journey. "It's like déjà vu," Ervin says of qualifying for Team USA in the 50-meter freestyle event. "Except where once I was green, vain and ambitious, now I'm just grateful to be alive and bring joy to those I care about."
When he was 19 and stepped up to the blocks in Sydney, Ervin had already set a world record. But the buzz wasn't about his speed, it was about his race. Ervin's mother is Jewish and his father is black, and he found himself defined as the "first African-American swimmer to make the Olympic team." After he climbed out of the pool in Sydney, beaming from his gold-medal victory, the sportscaster Jim Gray approached Ervin and asked what it felt like to be the first swimmer of African-American descent to win gold. Ervin gave a stock answer and walked away. "I didn't know a thing about what it was like to be part of the black experience," Ervin says today. "But now I do. It's like winning gold and having a bunch of old white people ask you what it's like to be black. That is my black experience."
The following year, Ervin won both the 50m and 100m freestyle at the World Championships in Japan, proving he was still the fastest swimmer on earth. But he may also have been the laziest. "I had a reputation for extraordinary talent matched only by extraordinary sloth," he says.
Burnt out and disillusioned by the age of 22, Ervin quit. He auctioned off his Olympic gold, gave the proceeds to the UNICEF tsunami relief fund and moved to New York to join a rock band, spending the next few years on what was equal parts spiritual quest and bender. "When I gave it all up, I went into my chrysalis and did all my partying and self-actualizing in New York. I'd like to think that I'm emerging now as my moth. And I'm going to fly into the flames."
Read the full story: Gold Medal Swimmer Anthony Ervin Is Out to Reclaim His Title
Last February, Missy Franklin, a junior at Regis Jesuit High School, chose to swim at the Colorado state championship meet. It was a peculiar decision, considering that Franklin already held the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, and had won five medals at the world championships in Shanghai last summer. But she wanted to be a high-school swimmer, her mother said, because "these are her friends."
At 17, Franklin is a year older than Michael Phelps was when he turned pro, but so far has chosen to maintain her amateur status. In doing so, she's passed up six figures worth of prize money, not to mention lucrative sponsorship deals. It's a decision that has bewildered even her own family. "I don't think about money the same way my parents do," she recently said.
At virtually every Olympics, there is a young American athlete who emerges from relative obscurity to win medals and become a national darling. Franklin, with her infectious smile and adolescent charm, certainly seems a likely candidate to burst onto the scene, in London and beyond, if only because she appears so inherently normal: She is an obsessive Hunger Games fan, her favorite movie is The Sound of Music and her friends refer to her as Goober Face. She also happens to be genetically gifted: She stands six feet, four inches and has size 13 feet (her father has called them "built-in flippers") and is a versatile performer who has already been compared to Phelps and other American multiple gold medalists, like Amy Van Dyken.
Franklin first competed at the Olympic trials in 2008, when she was 13. Dozens of other swimming prodigies have come and gone without ever living up to their potential, but she's managed to hold up well amid the increased demands and attention. After a dominating performance at the Colorado state meet — at which she shattered both state and national records – she was asked if she'd be back again next year rather than turning pro. "I want to be (here) as many times as I can," she told reporters, though it is not difficult to imagine the events of this summer might change her mind.
Growing up in the Bronx, the fifth son of a sanitation crew supervisor, John Orozco took his fair share of abuse for choosing gymnastics over something more macho like boxing or football. Even the garbage men who worked for his dad made fun of him, calling him a "fag in a leotard." Orozco ignored them, and the homophobic jocks at high school who called him the same and worse, because he had never really chosen gymnastics. From the time he was a boy, when his father put him on the roof of their small cottage on the Bronx River and told him to jump down into his arms, Orozco had felt a strong pull towards the gym – to test the limits of his body against the force of gravity. Besides, his father had more or less chosen the sport for him one morning on his garbage route, finding a flier attached to a lamppost advertising a free lesson at a gym in nearby Westchester County. John's dad drove him the 25 miles in their rickety mini-van only to learn that the class was already full. "We've come all this way," his father pled. "Can't you just give him a chance?"
By the time the first lesson was over, the coach had changed his mind. Not only had a space in his gym suddenly opened up for the nine-year-old, he'd waive tuition too.
"John is one of the most naturally gifted gymnasts I've ever seen," says Tim Daggett, an Olympic gold medalist who will call gymnastics for NBC in London. "Even at an elite level, when you learn a new technique it can sometimes take a year to learn it. I've seen John pick up something in an hour, in a few turns."
That natural gift propelled Orozco to three consecutive junior national all-around titles until he tore his Achilles tendon in 2010 during a dismount at a tournament in Connecticut. The prolonged rehab forced Orozco to develop the one thing Daggett says he lacked early on: a killer work ethic. While he waited for his tendon to heal Orozco turned his worst event – the pommel horse – into one of his best.
Orozco rarely sees the Bronx these days; he spends most of his time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, which has been its own kind of education. When he first got to the mostly white and largely conservative city, a fellow gymnast asked him where he was from. Before he could answer, someone answered for him: "He's from Africa or something." On another occasion, a teammate offered him chocolate cake, and when John politely declined, his teammate asked, "What, you don't eat your own kind?"
Now that Orozco is the reigning national all around champion, he's rarely taunted – about his race or anything else. The kids who once called him gay now try to message him on Facebook, and Orozco dreams of one day opening a gym in the Bronx to encourage more minority kids to give gymnastics a shot. "I hope to show people that just because a sport isn't as socially accepted, it doesn't mean they shouldn't do it," he says.
Daggett says Orozco is one of six gymnasts around the world with a good shot at an all around medal, and that he has a long shot of taking the gold. "Kohei Uchimura of Japan might be the best gymnast of all time, so it would take a miracle for John to do that," Daggett says. "But John is a gymnast who absolutely rises to the occasion, so anything's possible. And if that happens, watch out. He's got the sort of charisma and personality that he could really make gymnastics take off."
If you thought table tennis is a non-contact sport, you're sadly mistaken. Just ask Ariel Hsing, one of the top U.S. table tennis players who will be representing her country in the Olympics. "I was at a local tournament, and the tables were very close together. There was another girl on the table next to me, and when she hit the ball, her follow-through was kind of large, and she ended up hitting my forehead with her racquet. I started to bleed really bad – I had to go the hospital and get four stitches."
But when the U.S. table tennis team arrives in London, large follow-throughs will be the least of their worries, especially considering competing against an exceptional China team (that won four gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing). Just ask two-time U.S. table tennis Olympian Sean O'Neill, who will be calling the games on television. "At one point, they asked China when they were going to beat the U.S. in basketball, and they said, 'At the same time you can beat us in table tennis.'"
Despite making fans out of such notables as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (whom Hsing refers to as "Uncle Warren" and "Uncle Bill"), table tennis in the U.S. appears to still have a ways to go to match other countries, according to another current U.S. table tennis Olympian, Timothy Wang. "The U.S., everybody has to balance both school and table tennis. In other countries where table tennis is dominant – China, Korea, Japan – they start out really young and they have a much better system. But I feel like we're producing a lot of really good players, regardless."
From his past experience at the 1988 games (the first year table tennis was an Olympic event) and the 1992 games, O'Neill offers this bit of advice to the U.S. table tennis team. "You just want to get a win under your belt. I know from experience – it's so nerve-racking when you're out there, because you just keep thinking about the enormity of the event."
And lastly, if a match can be arranged, does Hsing feel she possesses the skill to beat the greatest table tennis player that ever lived, Forrest Gump? "I think I can beat Tom Hanks, but I don't know about Forrest Gump. He looks pretty intense in that movie."
If they handed out a medal for Most Overexposed Olympic Team Member, Trey Hardee would be trading elbows with Lolo Jones in the sprint for gold. The 28-year-old two-time defending world champion in the decathlon seemed to be on the cover of a different magazine every week leading up to London – in most cases, wearing no shirt. "I bet I only have my shirt off for one shot," Hardee says between workouts in his hometown of Austin. "But that's the one shot that makes it in." On the minus side, he says, it's getting a little embarrassing. On the plus side, "In 20 years, I'll have proof that one day I was in shape."
Hardee is the latest in a long string of great American decathletes, including the likes of Bruce Jenner, who won gold in 1976 before going on to be a successful stepfather to an army of Kardashians. Hardee isn't sure why Americans are so good at the peculiar discipline that requires you to run fast, jump high and throw various objects far. "It's the competitive nature of Americans – that Cold War, Rocky mentality that America is better than anyone."
The sum total of being the best at 10 sports carried out over two grueling days means that if Hardee wins the gold, he will be branded "the best athlete on Earth." The mellow Texan tries to downplay the hype: "It's gonna be another track meet. The same decathlon I've been doing for 10 years. The only difference is, more people watch."
Like most Olympians, Brady Ellison's story begins with a dream. Unlike most Olympians, it also begins with an impaled pig. "I didn't kill my first animal with a bow until I was probably 14," says the 23-year-old archer. "It was a javelina. It's also called the collared pig. Actually, it's more of a rodent." Almost a decade since that fateful encounter, Ellison is the number-one-ranked archer on the planet and a favorite to win gold in London. And his signature down-home-hunter look – beat-up baseball cap, cowboy boots, big ol' belt buckle, rangy backwoods beard – has given an obscure sport its first iconic athlete. "I'm more of a cowboy-type country than redneck-type country," he says. "Although I've been called a redneck and a hick." His father bought him his first bow and arrow at around age six, and Ellison developed his love of shooting while spending summers on his grandfather's Arizona cattle ranch: "bow hunting, bow fishing – everything I do involves the outdoors." That background was well-suited to competitive archery, which he compares to golf in being as much about patience and mental dexterity as physical prowess; training for the Olympics involves monotonous 12-hour sessions where he'll shoot at least 400 arrows. "There are times when you're just at the point where you think, 'It would be nice to go hunting,' " he says.
"Extremely dangerous" was the description of Claressa Shields that the fifth-grade teacher wrote on the report to the principal. A fight had broken out. A boy had teased Shields, and she had unloaded punches on him. Not coincidentally, fifth grade was also the year Shields took up boxing. She'd had enough of feeling invisible and being bullied. She wanted to fight back. Today, Shields, 17, is a high school junior and the best amateur middleweight boxer in the country. She's the youngest member of the United States' inaugural Olympic women's boxing team and one of the most talented fighters of any gender, anywhere.
"Sometimes I feel like I can box like Joe Louis, sometimes I feel like I can box like Sugar Ray Robinson," Shields says. "But usually I box like Tommy Hearns. I use a long jab and a stiff right hand."
Hearns is a good match. He's from Detroit. Shields is from Flint, a bombed-out city with the highest rate of violent crime in the country. And her background is one of those gritty ones the wise old men of boxing like to think produce champions. Shields' father was in and out of jail, her mother unemployed. She doesn't live with either of them. Instead, she lives with her coach. Maybe it's true that the travails of her childhood combined to make Shields so tough a fighter. "I don't fold," she says. "I love when somebody gets in the ring and thinks they're going to beat me and I know for a fact that I'm going to prove them wrong."
Corey Cogdell, the first American woman to medal in trapshooting – a sport in which competitors blast clay targets arcing across the sky – was raised in the wilds of Alaska, where her dad taught her to shoot at the age of three. She hunted and butchered her first rabbit at six. That's the sort of backstory that makes dating tough. "Men like the idea of going shooting with me, but once we get out there it's not so fun anymore," says the 25-year-old. "It takes cojones to be with me."
Here's what would happen in a just world after the Olympics are over: Weightlifter Holley Mangold would no longer be known as the kid sister of New York Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold. Instead, Nick would be known, at least until the opening week of the NFL season, as the older brother of Holley, the biggest, brassiest personality on the American Olympic team.
At five feet eight and 340 pounds, Holley, who competes in the superheavyweight division, is also, literally, one of the biggest athletes in London. "I wanted to be in the Olympics for gymnastics," she says. "But that didn't really pan out." What makes Mangold so compelling isn't merely her size or that she has seemingly zero hang-ups about it. "I love my body," she says. "I think it's perfect." It's not her strength – she benched 315 pounds and squatted 525 pounds in high school, where she played football and became the first woman to start in an Ohio state championship game. Rather, it's her sense of humor, honed in part because she's been teased so much about her weight. Her genre of comedy? What else but self-deprecating fat jokes? "I'm a superheavyweight for a reason," says Mangold, 22. "I don't like to avoid food. I like to embrace it. God gave me this body. He sent it to me. I signed for it."
Mangold has always been the biggest, funniest, most self-assured girl in the room. Now, she's also a contender to win a medal. At trials, she hit a 242-pound snatch and a 320-pound clean-and-jerk for a personal best of 562, which earned her one of only two spots on the women's team: "It's hopefully paving the way for more women to realize they don't have to be crazy-manly and crazy-feminine. They can be a mixture of both." OK, truly admirable, but what's the deal with the belt weightlifters wear? "It keeps your stomach out of the way."
You would hope that no Olympian needs extra motivation to win medals, but BMX racer Arielle Martin, 27, has some just in case. Four years ago, she was ranked eighth in the world and needed only to finish a world-championship race a few weeks before Beijing in order to clinch a spot. And she was comfortably in second place when she came in to a jump too fast, overshot the landing and crashed. "It came down to one race, one lap, and I blew it," Martin says. Her crash caused the U.S. team to drop out of the top four in the world rankings, which meant it could send only one racer instead of two, and that racer was her close friend Jill Kintner. "It was pretty devastating," Martin says. "I was top eight in the world and didn't make the Olympics." She had to reset her goals and prepare to wait four long years. "The day after Beijing it felt like it would be a lifetime away until London," she says. But she rededicated herself to racing. Two months after the Olympics, she won a World Cup series race. "And now I'm just days away from being there."
The difference between the two best amputee sprinters in the world becomes obvious as soon as the gun sounds. Jerome Singleton, compact and muscular, erupts from the blocks and quickly separates from the 100m field in Beijing. Far behind him, moving in such slow motion that he looks like he's operating at a different frame rate, is the "Blade Runner," Oscar Pistorius, the world record holder at this distance.
At 50 meters, however, something changes. Pistorius revs dramatically up to speed and begins to pass other runners, his two prosthetic limbs cycling into a smooth blur. Singleton, whose right foot was amputated when he was 18 months old, has only one blade, which gives him an advantage at the start but adds a hitch to his stride that worsens as he nears the finish. Pistorius reels him in and wins, barely.
It was a different story at the world championships last year, when Singleton held off an onrushing Pistorius by the slimmest of margins to hand the South African his first defeat in a Paralympic 100m in seven years and set up one of the best mano-a-mano duels in London this summer, a showdown that Singleton describes in epic terms.
"Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. Oscar Pistorius has Jerome Singleton," he says, before reconsidering. "Maybe it's like Jerome Singleton has Oscar Pistorius because I'm the world champion."
Even if Singleton doesn't beat the man he calls his "twin brother," he's already accomplished as much as any athlete at the Games. At 25, he holds bachelor's degrees in mathematics, applied physics and industrial engineering and has interned at NASA and CERN. He intends to start a biomechanics Ph.D program when he's done competing in 2013 or 2014.
"I really want to focus on running and walking limbs," says Singleton, who hopes to create a standardized method for aligning artificial limbs that will reduce wear and tear on people's joints, especially those of athletes. "I didn't really become entirely comfortable and accept myself totally until I became part of the Paralympic movement," he says. "That's why it means so much to me."