12 thrilling Olympic journeys we can’t wait to see unfold in Rio

These inspiring athletes and teams have us on the edge of our seats already: all face unique challenges, fierce competition, and potential glory.

Justin Gatlin, first place, celebrates with son Jace after the Men's 100m Final during the 2016 U.S. Olympic track & field team trials at Hayward Field on July 3, 2016. Patrick Smith | Getty Images

As Brazil makes final preparations to welcome more than 10,000 athletes from over 200 nations across the globe, the entire world turns its eyes to Rio to watch the stories of the 2016 Olympics games unfold. As anxious hopefuls vie for Gold and underdogs daydream of toppling the status quo, new and familiar names and faces emerge on the national stage, ready to take their inevitable place in history.

Here are 12 of the most compelling people and teams that we’re most looking forward to watching develop, as the 2016 Rio Olympic Games are set to begin on August 5, 2016:

Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky of the United States competes in a heat for the Women’s 400 Meter Freestyle during Day Two of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CenturyLink Center on June 27, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Katie Ledecky of the United States competes in the Women’s 400m Freestyle during the 2016 U.S. Olympic team swimming trials. Tom Pennington | Getty Images

As the reigning world champion in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle, 19-year-old swimming phenom Katie Ledecky is traveling to Rio with the substantial weight of expectation on her sturdy shoulders. Based on her unwavering performance over the last four years, it seems unlikely that the fierce, cool and calm Ledecky will disappoint. In the 800m, an event where she won Olympic Gold in 2012, Ledecky has been clocking in at more than 10 seconds faster than her nearest competitor throughout all of 2016. Expect to see her dominate every event she swims—and expect to see her do so with grace.

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the Men’s 100m Butterfly during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials

Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the Men’s 100m Butterfly during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials. Tom Pennington | Getty Images

While Katie Ledecky embodies the future of USA Swimming, Michael Phelps is suiting up for the last chapter in a storied career in the national pool. At 31-years-old, Phelps will be participating in an historic fifth Olympic games, making him the first American male swimmer to achieve such a noble feat. But Phelps has a difficult journey to Gold in these games, as he makes his bittersweet “last goodbye.” He is qualified to compete in the 200m butterfly, the 200m individual medley, and the 100m butterfly events and is likely to participate in at least one team relay. For Phelps, who has faced personal struggles, including embattled issues with alcohol, competing in a final Olympic games at this interval in his life comes with great reward—and great sacrifice. “With everything that’s happened, being able to come back—this was probably harder than any swim I’ve had in my life,” Phelps told the AFP news agency in early July.

U.S Women’s Soccer

United States Olympic soccer team brazil 2016

The United States team prior to the Women’s Group G first round match between the United States and New Zealand during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 3, 2016. Pedro Vilela | Getty Images

Hot off their 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup victory, Team USA is gearing up on the field to once again aim for women’s soccer Gold. They are armed and ready with veteran co-captain Carli Lloyd, who has scored the gold-medal-winning goal in the last two Olympic finals. Team USA has returned home with Olympic gold in 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012, and won silver in 2004, but all the world will be watching the American women with added interest on the soccer field this year. A win would make them the first team in history to win Gold in an Olympic Games in the year after winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Simone Biles

Simone Biles floor routine Rio Olympics 2016

Simone Biles at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Trials. Ezra Shaw | Getty Images

While gymnast Simone Biles is the most decorated female gymnast in World Championship Gymnastics history, at the age of 19 she has yet to compete in her first Olympics. Expectations are astoundingly high as Biles heads to Rio, and between her steady skill and difficulty of her routines, the individual Gold seems to be hers to lose. But for Biles, along with veterans Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and new Olympic teammates Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez, the larger hope is for the women’s gymnastics team to bring home team Olympic gold, as they have done only twice before, in 1996 and 2012.

All the sister acts

Courtney Hurley of the United State and teammate sister Kelley Hurley fencing Olympics

Courtney Hurley (R) of the United State teammate Kelley Hurley (L) celebrate winning the Bronze Medal Match 31-30 against Russia during the London 2012 Olympic Games. Hannah Peters |Getty Images

An unprecedented number of siblings are set to compete in the 2016 Olympic games, taking the notion of sibling rivalry to monumental heights. Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams will come together to dominate in an unstoppable doubles duo, as they did in 2000, 2008 and 2012. There are 288 rugby players competing in Rio, and an astounding 14 of them have a brother or sister contending in the Games too. Tune in to watch sisters Caroline, 32, and Carmen Marton, 30, from Australia, who will both represent their country in Taekwondo, and sisters Kelley and Courtney Hurley from the U.S., who are heading to Rio as part of the same fencing team.

Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin, Men’s 100 Meter Final during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on July 3, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon

Justin Gatlin, first place, celebrates after the Men’s 100m Final during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

An injured hamstring threatens to challenge Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in his quest for a third consecutive 100m Gold medal win in Rio; but perhaps the larger threat to that record is USA’s Justin Gatlin. Gatlin won Gold in the 100m sprint in 2004, and after years of doping allegations came back to win a bronze medal in the 2012 London games. At 34-years-old, Gatlin may be a track and field old-timer, but he seems to have returned to the national stage in peak physical shape, prompting some critics to wonder if this is the year that the “Lightning Bolt” finally loses his position as “World’s Fastest Man.”

Ibtihaj Muhammad

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad at the Fencers Club 2016

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad trains at the Fencers Club in New York City. Muhammad will be the first Muslim woman to represent the U.S. while wearing a hijab. Ezra Shaw | Getty Images

As the first American to compete in a hijab, the traditional headscarf often worn by Muslim women, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is working hard to defeat Islamophobia on the national stage. Muhammad, the number-two ranked female fencer in the U.S. and number eight in the world, is also working hard to defeat her opponents on the mat, where she hopes to finally silence those who make judgements about her ability—or her patriotism—based solely on her appearance or her religion.

Claressa Shields

Boxer Claressa Shields poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios

Boxer Claressa Shields poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot in Los Angeles. Harry How | Getty Images

In 2012, Claressa Shields became the first American woman to win a boxing Gold medal, and she’s now eagerly preparing to defend her middleweight title again in Rio. Shield’s tumultuous life is one right out of a Hollywood movie—indeed, in early 2016 Universal Pictures obtained the rights to portray her life story in an upcoming feature film. Shield’s father, Bo, was in prison from the time his daughter was two-years-old until after she turned nine. After his release, Bo Shields introduced Claressa, a Flint, Michigan native, to the sport of boxing … and the rest of the story is unfolding history, or rather, herstory. Now 19-year-old Claressa takes to the ring in Rio and aims to become the first U.S. boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.


Lydia Ko of New Zealand during the third round of the Marathon Classic at Highland Meadows Golf Club 2016

Lydia Ko of New Zealand putts for birdie during the Marathon Classic in Sylvania, Ohio. Gregory Shamus | Getty Images

Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, and while some of the most notable men in the sport are sitting out due to fears of the Zika virus, there will still be plenty of action on the greens. Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler top the list of scanty U.S. hopefuls for the men, but the list of LPGA players eager to compete for Gold was long from the start. Look for New Zealand’s Lydia Ko to lead the women’s field in Rio and for the next best in the rankings, including Canadian Brooke Henderson and American Lexi Thompson, to be trailing behind her.

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton

Ashton Eaton and Team Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton Decathlon and heptathlon Olympians

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton during the IAAF World Indoor Championships. Ian Walton | Getty Images for IAAF

You’ve probably never heard of ‘Track’s First Couple,’ but Team USA’s Ashton Eaton and Team Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who married in 2013, are both headed to compete for their respective countries and are easily in medal contention. Ashton Eaton claimed Gold in London in the Decathlon in 2012 and is the heavy favorite once again in the event; Theisen-Eaton will challenge for a medal in the heptathlon, a contest of seven different track and field events held over the span of two days. Eaton discussed the unique nature of his relationship with his wife at the Olympic trials, earlier this year. “We’re very focused right now. She’s a massive supporter of me and I’m a massive supporter of her. I think it does make the pursuit easier because we understand what it takes in our marriage—the success of our athletic dreams comes before everything … Luckily I understand her and she understands me.”

Oksana Chusovitina

Oksana Chusovitina of Germany Beam aparatus in the Women’s qualification Artistic Gymnastics World Championships Tokyo 2011

Oksana Chusovitina of Germany competes on the Beam in the Women’s qualification during the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships Tokyo 2011. Adam Pretty | Getty Images

Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan will be 41-years-old when she competes in her seventh Olympics in Rio, making her the oldest Olympic female gymnast in history. Expect to see her in potential medal contention on the vault, where she won an individual silver medal in Beijing. And expect to cheer for her winning attitude—that age is just a state of mind. “On the podium, everyone is the same whether you are 40 or 16. You have to go out and do your routine and your jumps. But it’s a pity there are no points for age,” Chusovitina told reporters in a press conference earlier in 2016.

The Refugee Team

Athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer Rio 2016 Olympic

Athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio on July 30. YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP | Getty Images

In October 2015, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced to the United Nations that the IOC would support a team of refugees to participate in the Rio 2016 games. From across the globe, the field was soon narrowed down to a group of 10 men and women displaced from their countries of origin. The refugee team will come together under the symbol of the Olympic flag and will compete in a myriad of events from track to judo to swimming. Bach believes that the team itself will serve as a beacon of optimism to refugees everywhere. “We’re convinced this refugee Olympic team can send a symbol of hope to all refugees in the world,” the IOC President said at a news conference earlier in 2016.

Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski is a freelance writer with a penchant for vintage fascinators, Ernest Hemingway stories and people who laugh big. She is a mom to four kids and two inspiring step-kids. She has lived her entire life just outside of Detroit.

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