Home Culture Culture Lists

Olympics 2012: Team USA’s Athletes Gunning for London Gold

Brady Ellison and Trey Hardee

Art Streiber/Nick Laham/Getty Images /Justin Kosman/Red Bull Content Pool

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. 

Trey Hardee

Justin Kosman/Red Bull Content Pool

Most Likely to Be Voted ‘Best Athlete on Earth’: Decathlete Trey Hardee

 

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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Brady Ellison

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Favorite Cowboy: Archer Brady Ellison

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.

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Claressa Shields

Jed Conklin/AP Photo

The Toughest Teenager in America: Boxer Claressa Shields

"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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Corey Cogdell

Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Wilderness Heroine: Shooter Corey Cogdell

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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Holley Mangold

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Comedic Champ: Weightlifter Holley Mangold

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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Arielle Martin

Courtesy of USA Cycling

Comeback Kid: BMX Racer Arielle Martin

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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Jerome Singleton

Victoria Will/AP

Speed Demon: Paralympian Jerome Singleton

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."

RELATED
The Top 10 Moments in Team USA's History

Show Comments