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Whom to watch in this year's Summer Games

Jordyn Wieber

W hen the 2012 Olympics begin in London next Friday, the United States will be represented by 530 athletes, and more than half of them, from 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky to 54-year-old equestrian rider Karen O’Connor, will be women.

It’s the first time the female-athlete-to-male-athlete ratio will be tilted in that direction — a nice 40th-birthday present to Title IX, you could say — and a testament to the badassery of American gals.

In honor of this milestone, let’s take a look at some of the women you’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks. While this list could not include even close to everyone worth getting to know, consider it a starting block. Here are 12(ish) women to watch in the 2012 Summer Games.


Missy Franklin: Swimming (Freestyle, Backstroke, Team Relays)

Missy Franklin

I’m sorry for the lack of objectivity here, but I can’t think about Missy Franklin without mentally gushing. She’s a doll, she’s a gemstone; I want to somehow acquire a college-aged son just so he can marry her. She’s part 6-foot-plus aquatic machine and part chirpy and sappy teenage girl, one who cries at commercials (you and me both, pal) and cuddles with her parents and listens to Justin Bieber and is generally just a joy.

Her nickname, “Missy the Missile,” captures the range of her characteristics: It compares her to artillery, and yet sounds like the name of a friendly Saturday-morning cartoon. Franklin seems genuinely awestruck and thankful to have made the Olympic team, and she’s also expected to dominate at the Games. ESPN.com’s Wayne Drehs calls her “a once-in-a-generation talent,” and at 17, she has qualified for seven events — already a record, even before she’s taken her mark.

Even the normally buttoned-up Associated Press couldn’t help but get infected with Franklin fever. Witness this lede from a recent dispatch: “Missy Franklin is so excited about everything that comes with being an Olympian she was even thrilled to have her blood drawn.” They’re so cute at this age!

Franklin will join teammates like Allison Schmitt, buddy and training partner of Michael Phelps and model of Tysonian facial decoration, as well as other young newcomers like 17-year-old Lia Neal, who grew up in Brooklyn with a dad who performs a one-act show about Thelonious Monk and qualified for a freestyle relay position. Caitlin Leverenz will compete in two individual medleys, while Jessica Hardy, Rebecca Soni, and Dana Vollmer will also be among those swimming in multiple events.

Claressa Shields: Boxing (Middleweight)

London marks the first Olympics in which women’s boxing is a medal event, a deserved upgrade for a sport that has seen tremendous growth over the last couple of decades. Still, it is searching for an identity. Recognizable names such as Laila Ali and Freeda Foreman have retired, and USA Boxing is trying to figure out how to best position its product. That’s caused minor friction: A recent feature by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker told of a “knee-length split skirt” that was unveiled to 40 female boxers at the World Championships in 2010 before being boycotted by more than half of them.

But quickly emerging for the U.S. is a fascinating athlete in Claressa Shields, a 17-year-old from Flint, Michigan, who admired both her “underground scene” street fighter of a father as well as the stories he would tell her about the female Ali. She loved boxing, and when she was 11, she befriended a trainer at a nearby gym. Levy’s New Yorker profile contains this anecdote:

But [trainer Jason] Crutchfield may reap a substantial reward for his sacrifices. If Shields becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic medal, endorsement deals could follow, and possibly a career in the pros — for both of them. “I think she going to do it,” he said. “She is very competitive. And she compete with the boys every day. One time, she was in the corner boxing some kid, and I said ‘Get her!’ I said, ‘That’s a girl! That’s a girl!’ She said, ‘I’m a man!'” Crutchfield yelled, delighted. “I’m a man!

Gender aside, Shields’s background has the elements of a compelling story — the rough childhood, the singular focus, the doubters, the need to prove them wrong. For now, Shields’s story is also, like so many boxing tales, one of the unknown, of anticipation. It’s unclear exactly what we should expect from her at this point, but it’s also worth noting that the people around her are expecting a lot.

Kim Rhode: Shooting (Skeet)

Kimberly Rhode

Kim Rhode enters these Games as perhaps the most consistent American athlete no one has heard of. You have to go back to Barcelona in 1992 to find the last time a Summer Olympics took place that didn’t involve her. She’s a four-time medalist, having twice won gold (including as a 17-year-old in Atlanta) in addition to silver and bronze. This will be her fifth Olympics; she competed in double trap shooting in her first three appearances, but when that event was discontinued, she switched to skeet shooting.

A former Outdoor Channel co-host and collector of both children’s books and classic cars (including one she built on her own), Rhode grew up the daughter of two avid shooters. One L.A. Times story tells of the time she was 10 and taken along on an African hunting trip by her dad. The guides declared her too young for the excursion — until her father set up a target and she “put three bullets through the bull’s-eye.”

Even now, she trains so hard that she goes through in one practice session what most marksmen might use in a month. Should she pick up her fifth piece of hardware in these Games, she’ll be the first American to medal in five straight Olympics in an individual sport. What’s scariest (other than her aim) is that she’s still in her prime.

Simona Amanar: Gymnastics (Vault)

OK, she’s not American, nor is she even competing in London. Still, former Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar will have no small influence on this year’s competition, particularly for the U.S. team. In the 2000 Games, Simona performed for the first time a twisting, laid-out vault with two and a half rotations that came to be known as “the Amanar.” These days, it is also known to be something of a litmus test.

One gymnastics blog called the Amanar “the vault du jour,” another a “must have” maneuver for London, and another “the vault that everyone in the world is chasing.”

The problem, writer Lindsey Green explains in that last post I linked to, is that the Amanar is also an “incredibly dangerous” move — and one that every gymnast on the U.S. team is preparing to pull off.

As two of Team USA’s gymnasts, 2011 world champions in the all-around (Jordyn Wieber) and vault (McKayla Maroney), demonstrate in this clip, one of the maneuver’s biggest challenges is its landing: It’s a little bit blind, and if you don’t hit it with your legs bent, you could do a number on your knees.

Green notes that at the Olympic trials, several gymnasts (including Wieber and Aly Raisman) landed awkwardly; a mishap in London could be disastrous — particularly considering that the U.S. gymnasts, with Olympic trials all-around winner Gabby Douglas in the center, were given the sometimes-haunted real estate of the Sports Illustrated cover this week. Hey, stressful vaulting is a Team USA thing, right?

Summer Sisters: Tennis, Swimming, Field Hockey, Sailing, Tae Kwon Do

Venus and Serena Williams require no introduction. But it should be noted that they aren’t the only pair of American sisters to be competing in London. Haley and Alyssa Anderson both qualified for the Olympics, Haley in the 10k open water category and Alyssa in the tamer 800 freestyle relay.

The U.S. field hockey team features Reinprecht sisters Katie, 22, and Julia, 21; the pair, who play offensive midfield and defense, respectively, took time off from Princeton to train and are part of a field hockey team that has been establishing a growing reputation in international play.

In water polo, sisters Jessica and Maggie Steffens are both on the American roster. The younger Maggie, 19, was declared by Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber to be “the future of USA women’s water polo.” Brother-sister duos Zach and Paige Railey (sailing) and Steven and Diana Lopez (tae kwon do) will also be on Team USA together. Another Lopez brother, Mark, won silver in 2008 but missed qualifying this time around.

Mariel Zagunis: Fencing (Individual Sabre)

Mariel Zagunis

Before Mariel Zagunis won a gold medal in the individual sabre in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, no American in the past century had won an Olympic fencing gold medal. (Making her win even more impressive was the fact that Zagunis hadn’t even initially qualified for Athens; she earned a backdoor berth as an alternate just weeks before the event.)

Four years later in Beijing she won gold again, as the United States swept the podium in the individual sabre. Zagunis, who of those three medalists is the only one who hasn’t since retired, also picked up a bronze in the team event that year. Now, as a consensus favorite in London, she’ll no longer be competing with the luxury of surprise.

Zagunis’s parents were Olympians themselves, having met while training with the U.S. rowing team. She enrolled at Notre Dame and won a national fencing championship there in 2006, but hasn’t yet graduated after having chosen to pull back from her class schedule to focus on training. The decision has paid off: It’s not every day you see a fencer splashed on a billboard in Times Square.

Ann Romney’s Horse, Rafalca: Equestrian (Dressage)

One of the teenagers traveling to London for her first Olympic Games is Rafalca, a 15-year-old mare partly owned by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, which will compete in dressage and provide editorial cartoonists with comedy gold.

It ought to surprise no one that Rafalca has already become politically charged. Romney supporters point out that Ann got involved in the sport in part as therapy for multiple sclerosis, while critics question whether the horse is just an oat-inhaling, prancing tax shelter.

Then there’s just the optics of it all: Of course the Romney family would own the kind of horse that flies private jets and trots out pirouettes! (You can argue all you want that “typical working-class” people are involved in dressage, but sports reverse snobbiness is a bipartisan tradition: Remember, John Kerry got called an elitist for windsurfing.)

And so the debate rages on, with Rafalca increasingly becoming a hilariously controversial Joe the Plumber du jour. “At the event that clinched the [Olympics],” reported The New Yorker, “Ann Romney held up one of the foam fingers that the dressage federation had ordered to show that it could take a joke that Stephen Colbert had made about the sport’s elitism.”

I can’t believe we have like two more months of this stuff even after the closing ceremonies take place.

The Collective (Soccer, Basketball, Field Hockey, Water Polo)

It’s tough to single out individual athletes in the U.S.’s top two team sports — really, the soccer and basketball rosters are so stacked you could really just draw names at random.

Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan (now a starter!) … the list goes on; there’s only one newcomer to the team since the 2011 World Cup, and that’s Sydney Leroux, who according to Grant Wahl is “an electric 22-year-old forward who scored five goals in a single game at the Olympic qualifying tournament earlier this year.” I’ll take it! A brief scare involving Hope Solo and a positive drug test (a PMS medication had included a banned diuretic) ended with good news for the U.S. when she was let off with a warning.

As for the women’s basketball team, despite the last-minute organization of the roster (due to professional summer league schedules) the team is perhaps the most heavily favored of the Olympics. They’ve won four straight gold medals and return a mix of “young veterans” like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, stars like Candace Parker, and newcomers like Maya Moore. Coach Geno Auriemma, no stranger to utter dominance (or to many of the players on the roster), will run the bench.

The American women in a couple of other team sports, on the other hand, haven’t performed in quite the same way. In 2000 and 2004, the U.S. field hockey team couldn’t even qualify for the Olympics; in 2008 they made it to China, finishing in eighth place overall. Now they find themselves occupying the odd space between “just happy to be here” and “official dark horse candidate” — a surprise upset win over Argentina in the gold medal contest in last fall’s Pan American Games gave them their Olympic berth and a small side of heightened expectations. Team captain Lauren Crandall and goaltender Amy Swensen will anchor the team’s defense, while Katie O’Donnell is a top scoring threat.

Don’t let the women’s water polo world rankings fool you: While the women’s squad may be down in sixth place, Team USA is nevertheless a top gold medal contender. (They’ve won six of their last seven major international contests — with the only non-victory, on which the rankings happen to be based, coming in the 2011 World Championships.) In addition to the aforementioned Steffens sisters, Team USA standouts include Melissa Seidemann and goalie Betsey Armstrong. And for two members of the American squad, Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, London will mark their fourth Olympics — ever since the first U.S. teams were fielded in 2000. They’ve won silver twice and bronze once. Can they close out their careers with a gold?

Anna Tunnicliffe: Sailing (Match Racing)

Anna Tunnicliffe

There’s one thing Anna Tunnicliffe likes to make clear right off the bat: Ignore the way she speaks. Tunnicliffe may have a British accent, and she may say things like “my mom was pretty keen on it” (the “it” being “sailing naked for ESPN The Magazine). She may have spent the early years of her life in England. But, as far as the former college sailor of the year (and four-time national champion) is concerned, she’s an American through and through.

“I’m going to England, but I have an American passport,” she told USA Today. “I have to go through Customs in the American line.” She has some other USA-centric bona fides: Namely, she became the first American woman in two decades to win a gold medal in sailing when she won the Laser Radial class in Beijing in 2008. (Speaking of China, I enjoyed this story about her foreign-language tattoo.)

This year, Tunnicliffe is again a medal favorite, but she’s moved to the match racing event, trading her single-handed, one-sailed dinghy for a longer three-person keelboat crewed by Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi. It’s “like going from NASCAR to Indy racing,” Capozzi said of the move. The trio have had some promising results — at the World Championships in June, they finished second.

“I want the world to see sailing as an athletic sport,” Tunnicliffe told ESPN The Magazine, adding that the team did some “Navy SEAL training.”

“A lot of people think it’s a nice cruise around the bay, cocktail in hand, gentle wind, sunny conditions. But racing is physical and aggressive. And we go out rain or shine.”

Allyson Felix: Track and Field (Sprint)

The latest spotlighted American sprinter to be coached by track whisperer Bobby Kersee, Allyson Felix won Olympic gold in the 4×400 relay in Beijing in 2008. But she has yet to stand alone atop the podium, earning silver in the individual 200 meter as an 18-year-old in 2004 and repeating the second-place finish four years later. “I definitely go back to that moment of getting second all the time,” she told ESPN.com’s Bonnie Ford. “I don’t think I ever really got over it. I think that I don’t want to.”

Now, after setting a new personal best in the 200 meters at the trials in Portland, Eugene, Oregon, and a bizarre third-place-by-default qualification in the 100 meters, she has a chance to compete in two of the biggest individual events in London.

Felix has lost the 200 Olympic gold twice to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown, though in recent competition she’s run the faster time. Her 21.69 finish at the trials on June 30 was five-hundredths of a second faster than Campbell-Brown’s top mark, set in Beijing in 2008. Joining Felix in qualifying were Carmelita Jeter and Sanya Richards-Ross (who is married to Super Bowl–winning former New York Giant Aaron Ross; now a Jacksonville Jaguar, he’ll miss a few days of training camp in order to cheer on his wife).

The 100 meters didn’t exactly end so definitively. Felix finished in a dead heat with Jeneba Tarmoh in the final at trials, an outcome that wasn’t covered in the USA Track and Field bylaws. The two runners (who are both coached by Kersee) agreed to settle it with a one-on-one run-off — until, at the last moment, Tarmoh decided to forfeit. (Justin Gatlin’s mud wrestling idea sadly never came to fruition.) And so Felix earned the third and last spot behind Jeter and Tianna Madison.

As Grantland’s Louisa Thomas writes, a trio of American hurdlers are also worth eyeing closely. And marathon runners Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, about whom I wrote last November, have qualified for the Games, where they will be joined by Desiree Davila.

Holley Mangold: Weightlifting (75+)

Holley Mangold

She isn’t really expected to medal at these Olympics, but then again, she hadn’t really been expected to even make the team in the first place. Twenty-two-year-old Holley Mangold had been considered an athlete to keep an eye on for 2016, but according to ESPN.com’s Wayne Drehs she unexpectedly increased her numbers by upward of 70 pounds in the past year, qualifying for London at the trials in May.

Mangold, who chows down at Chipotle, hauls pulled pork at City Barbecue, and at 5-foot-8, 350 pounds once appeared on an episode of MTV’s True Life called “I’m the Big Girl,” clean-and-jerked roughly 320 pounds and snatched another 240 at the trials, placing her second behind Sarah Robles in an overlooked sport that the New York Times calls “our Jamaican bobsled team.”

If you don’t watch MTV and you’re wondering why on earth the name of a female superheavyweight-class lifter sounds so darn familiar, though, it’s because her brother, Nick, is a center for the Jets. We first heard from her approximately five and a half years ago, when she suited up as guard and became the first female in her Ohio prep division to appear in a football game in a role other than kicker.

“As it turns out,” Greg Garber wrote at the time, “football isn’t even Holley’s best sport.” He was right.

Day Jobs and Moonlighters

Khatuna Lorig (Archery)
Evelyn Stevens (Cycling)

With the success of the Hunger Games franchise, archery is totally having its Quidditch moment right now.

Which is why Khatuna Lorig is quite possibly more widely known as the coach who helped turn actress Jennifer Lawrence into archer Katniss Everdeen — instead of being recognized as a lifelong competitor who first won bronze 20 years ago.

Lorig, now 38, will be competing in her fifth Games, and her second as a U.S. citizen. Previously she had represented the unified Soviet Union (1992) and, later, her native Georgia (1996, 2000) before finishing fifth for the U.S. in Beijing in 2008. But that’s not even the most notable thing about her. The most notable thing about her would be her favorite TV show: Gene Simmons Family Jewels. I want to read an entire profile of her that focuses only on this.

If Lorig has taken on some additional freelance work lately, another American, Evelyn Stevens, finally quit her day job. Like so many other Ivy League athletes, Evelyn Stevens, a tennis player at Dartmouth, ended up on Wall Street after graduation. She worked first for Lehman Brothers, and then for a smaller mezzanine shop — and then last month she quit her job to focus on riding her bike.

Stevens’s ascent in the cycling world has been as shockingly fast as her actual climbs. She only began riding about four years ago, but as soon as she got on a bike, things just made sense. She’s already started to beat some of the sport’s top competitors at their own games, as she did in April when she became the first American to win the steep Fleche Wallone race in Belgium.

As the Wall Street Journal‘s Reed Albergotti beautifully puts it: “The truth is that Ms. Stevens is one in a million: She was lucky enough to stumble into the exact pursuit she was born for.”

If that’s not what we love most about the Olympics, then I don’t know what is.

Filed Under: Girls, Katie Baker, People, TV

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes