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

Brady Ellison and Trey Hardee

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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. 

Holley Mangold

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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."

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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."

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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."

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