Maybe it’s the one-year delay. Maybe it’s the global pandemic that caused that delay and lends the Tokyo Olympics more significance than any in recent memory. Or perhaps it’s the fresh energy of new events. Regardless, now—finally—is the time to learn about the athletes and sports the whole world will soon be watching at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Game on.
Gold Standard Athletes to Watch at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics
1. Caeleb Dressel
Hometown: Green Cove Springs, FL
Michael Phelps is a tough act to follow, but Caeleb Dressel has fairly earned comparisons to the retired GSOAT (greatest swimmer of all time). While Phelps was soaking up the media glare, the decade younger Dressel was quietly carving his own place in the U.S. record books.
In 2012, he became the first swimmer younger than 16 to beat 20 seconds in the 200-yard freestyle relay, then broke a 100-yard freestyle under-16 record that had stood for 22 years. After bringing two relay golds home from Rio in 2016, he has only gotten faster. At the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, he won eight medals, and—gasp!—broke Phelps’ record in the 100-meter butterfly.
Unlike many top swimmers, Dressel wasn’t born in the water, playing football as a kid until he switched his focus to swimming. Even after taking a six-month break in high school, he was recruited by the storied swimming program at the University of Florida. Since 2019, he has been a marquee attraction in the splashy new International Swimming League, and broke world records in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter individual medley. Maybe the most valuable Olympics training came from a two-hour window during which he swam in five races, demonstrating crazy recovery ability. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had swimming in my life,” he said of the experience.
So, yes, he’s a legit gold-medal contender in seven events, provoking speculation over whether he could pull off the impossible and surpass Phelps’ eight golds in a single Olympics. “That’s not why I’m in this sport,” Dressel has politely protested. “It’s not to beat Michael.” But he could be facing a challenge left over from the Phelps era. Ryan Lochte, defying nature at 36, actually beat Dressel in the 200-meter individual medley in early March in San Antonio. Maybe Dressel’s head wasn’t in the pool, having just wed his high school swim club sweetheart.
We suspect he’ll wash away any cobwebs in time for Tokyo. For as Dressel himself has said, “The good thing about true perseverance is that it can’t be stopped by anything besides death.”
2. Nevin Harrison
Event: Sprint Canoe
How does Nevin Harrison feel about packing her bags for the Tokyo Olympics? “I’m really scared,” she readily admits. “The Olympics are such a big deal.” The 19-year-old has cause for some pre-Games jitters: The U.S. has never won gold in sprint canoe, a compellingly watchable event in which solo racers kneel in sleek, improbably skinny canoes and paddle as if being chased by rabid alligators. (Then, again, women have never before even been allowed to compete in the event, despite handling kayaks since 1948.) Plus, she managed to compete exactly one time during the international crapstorm that was 2020. “I’m worried about how much I’ve improved in my training—I know all the other athletes have improved,” she says.
Harrison twice now has postponed plans to study premed at the University of California, Berkeley, in order to maintain training. Impressively, she’s been on the water for only seven years. As a kid, she was a hopeful young runner until being diagnosed with serious hip dysplasia. Then a sailing camp counselor who also happened to be a former Team USA paddler suggested she give canoeing a try. Even though Harrison thought she was lousy, the counselor told her after that first paddle that she was going to be a world champion. “I laughed about it,” she says, “but then it drove me really hard. When I’m no good at something, I take that as a challenge.” Five years later, Harrison won at the Pan Am Games and then the 2019 world championships in Hungary, becoming Team USA’s first ever female sprint canoe world champion and punching her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
If you’re looking for a good omen before her race, watch for tears. For real—part of Harrison’s prerace ritual is to isolate, listen to calming music, and have what she calls her “signature cry.” “It’s an abrupt transition from my normal super-friendly self,” she says. “Right before the race, I definitely will cry. It just releases all the nerves. But once I’m on the water, my coach says I turn green like the Hulk and zone in.”
3. Noah Lyles
Hometown: Gainesville, FL
A lot of people can get really discouraged in losing,” says Noah Lyles. “But losing is a great teacher.” Not that he has learned that lesson very often. A high school track phenom who declined a college scholarship to turn pro, he has been racking up wins since 2018 when he busted the 19.7-second mark in the 200-meter dash at four competitions—a feat previously accomplished only by legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. This summer in Tokyo, he stands as good a chance as any of sweeping the 100-, 200-, and 4×100-meter races, another feat only ever logged by Bolt.
Interestingly, Lyles thinks of sprinting—maybe the purest burst of physical power in sports—as a psychological battle. “If I have a strong mindset, even when my body’s down, I can make it do something,” he says. “You can only train your body to a certain point, but you can always expand your mind.”
The psychological battle is one he knows well. On social media, he has shared his struggles with depression, which hit him surprisingly hard in the weeks after winning the 2019 world championships. “I was getting into that mindset of barely wanting to even train anymore,” he says. “It got to the point where I was just so deep, deep inside of myself, where I was basically just putting on a face.” Part of the issue was being away from family—not only are both of his parents former sprinters, but for years he’s been racing alongside his younger brother, Josephus.
With a push from his mom, he spoke with a therapist and got the antidepressants he needed. He and his brother moved in together, and while tracks were closed, trained on grass fields. When competition resumed, Lyles returned to form, notching wins against the world’s best at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix.
“I plan to keep on breaking the world record multiple times,” he says. “I think that would end the comparisons with Usain Bolt!”
So what does Bolt himself think? When asked who he felt was the sprinter to watch in Tokyo, he offered up one name: Noah Lyles.
4. Nyjah Huston
Hometown: Davis, CA
Event: Street Skateboard
He has 18 career X Games medals, his own Nike shoe, and a video game with Tony Hawk. But right now, Nyjah Huston, the world’s top-ranked male skateboarder, is just another hopeful gunning for gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
“That is definitely one of my ultimate goals in life,” he says. “But at the same time, I try not to think about it too much, because when it comes down to it, I approach all these contests the same.”
Born in California to a controlling Rastafarian father, Huston spent a childhood that consisted of little more than homeschool, a strict vegan diet, and, starting at age 4, intensive skateboarding. By age 7, he had his first sponsorship; at 11, he was competing in his first X Games. “I was just trying not to get run over,” he jokes. Then, in 2006, his father uprooted the family to a remote farm in Puerto Rico, where forced isolation and mismanagement of Huston’s career drove his mother and siblings to flee back to California.
After two years apart, Huston’s mother won custody and borrowed money for a hotel room so that he could compete in the first Street League Skateboarding competition, in Arizona in 2010. He won first place, along with $150,000. “That was the most important and best feeling I’ve ever had in a contest,” he says. “It saved our lives.” By 2013, Huston was the winningest skateboarder in history.
Skateboarding is different from most events that reward those who go faster, higher, stronger. It’s a technical competition where redefining what’s possible with a new trick can land you on the podium—or on your ass. “I heard [the course] is going to be a lot bigger than your normal X Games Street League course,” says Huston. “There are probably going to be plenty of options, and hopefully some big rails for your boy to get down on.”
To get to the Tokyo Olympics, however, Huston first had to qualify by earning enough points in the only U.S.-based qualifier, the Dew Tour in Des Moines, IA. “It comes down to who can deal with the nerves,” Huston said. But he didn’t let the nerves get to him; he won a silver medal and secured his place.
Spotlight Events to Watch at the Tokyo Olympics
1. Triathlon Mixed Relay
Rinse, ride, run. Repeat!
Past Olympic triathlons, in which athletes swim, bike, and run their way to glory and/or collapse, were slow-paced affairs that most of us skipped. But the new mixed relay will have us tuning back in. It features teams of two men and two women racing short, fast triathlons composed of a 300-meter swim, a 6.6-kilometer bike ride, and a 1-kilometer run. It’s an all-out cardio blast during which the slightest screw-up (e.g., not being able to pull on a bike shoe quickly after the swim) can mean the difference between gold and zilch.
Here’s how it will work in Tokyo: A female team member starts off with the hectic swim in iconic Tokyo Bay (battling through flying feet and elbows), then jumps on the bike for a twisty dash through streets likely to be wet and windy—the perfect recipe for spectacular crashes. Then the kilometer dash, 18 to 20 minutes after she first started, brings her back home to tag a male teammate who tackles the same course, followed by another female teammate, ending with the final man on the team.
The French, British, Australian, and American teams could all win, and Matt McElroy, the top USA male triathlete, believes the race will be tight. “It will be decided with a finishing kick,” he says. “The top teams are so evenly matched that the relay will come down to the last 200 meters of the final run.”
2. Mountain Biking
Zen and the art of bicycle crashes.
Few events test athletes’ skill, daring, and endurance the way that mountain biking does. Over a 2.5-mile offroad course in Izu City, about 75 miles south of Tokyo, some 35 international riders will jockey for position on narrow ribbons of singletrack and doubletrack, weaving around trees, over rocks and bridges, and through bermed dirt turns.
Beginning with a mass start, riders—including Nino Schurter of Switzerland, a legend who’s going for his fourth medal in as many Olympics, and Belgian phenom Mathieu van der Poel—will churn out six to eight laps (final distance is not yet determined) over a track that’s been manicured to look like a Japanese garden—but is anything but Zen. “It’s one of the more technical courses I’ve ever ridden,” says Christopher Blevins, a member of the U.S. team. “It has incredibly steep climbs and rocky descents, and if it rains, which it often does during the summer in Japan, it will be chaos.”
Even if the skies don’t open up, and temps stay below scorching, riders still have to worry if their ultra-light bikes can survive the long ascents, a boulder field, and 8-foot drops. “It’s common that somebody gets a flat, especially on a course like the one in Japan,” says Blevins. “You’d almost rather crash than have a mechanical problem, because if you get a flat, that’s probably going to take you out of medal contention.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of these guys?
The men’s basketball tournament is a foregone conclusion, right? America’s Dream Team, comprising NBA giants LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant, will dominate to gold-medal victory. Not so fast. As basketball becomes more international, Spain, Serbia, France, and Australia are all fielding squads that pose at least a threat to America’s on-court supremacy.
Many have forgotten that 2004’s Team USA—a team that both King James and 15-time NBA All-Star Tim Duncan played on—was only able to scrape up bronze. (Gold went to Argentina!) And two years ago, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, the Americans were ejected by France in the quarterfinals.
In Tokyo, more than 25 percent of all competitors will be NBA players, and guys like Rudy Gobert, a 7’1″ center from France who plays for the Utah Jazz and is considered the best defender in the world, as well as Spain’s Gasol brothers, both of whom have played on teams that have won NBA titles, could send Team USA home early. Then, again, it’s not like the Dream Team is an underdog.
Welcome to the Cool Kid Games at the Tokyo Olympics
The newest Olympic sports roll with a certain X Games factor.
Venue: Ariake Urban Sports Park
Know this: Five Olympics since its cold-weather cousin, snowboarding, debuted, skateboarding drops in with attitude intact. Expect USA, Brazil, and Japan to battle in both events: “Street” emphasizes freestyle use of stairs, handrails, curbs, and other grindables, while “park” plunges into deep bowls. USA’s Nyjah Huston is the male street skater to beat, and cameras will love Brazilian glam punk Leticia Bufoni.
Final push: Will winners match their facial piercings to their medals?
2. Sport Climbing
Venue: Aomi Urban Sports Park
Know this: Don’t expect helicopter shots of mountain faces. Olympic climbers use man-made walls to defy physics in made-for-TV bursts. Single-discipline specialists need not apply; competitors must master speed, bouldering, and lead climbs. On the women’s side, six-time champ Janja Garnbret of Slovenia will be hard to dethrone.
Final push: When American hope Nathaniel Coleman’s feet are on terra firma, he looks like he should be coding a video game. On a wall, he’s freaking Spider-Man.
Venue: Tsurigasaki Beach on Japan’s Pacific coast, home to sweet swells
Know this: The mellowest of board sports meets the intensity of the Olympics, and we’ll admit to being stereotypically stoked. Expect barrels, turns, and aerials intended to nail criteria, including speed, innovation, and “commitment” (not bailing on a gnarly wave).
Final push: No surprise that American John Florence and Aussie Stephanie Gilmore are among the big threats, but keep an eye on the surging Brazilians and host country hero Igarashi Kanoa.
Make Room in Your Binge for These Oddly Compelling Tokyo Olympics Events
1. Race Walking
For an extra-wacky viewing experience, DVR a race and watch it in fast forward. Trust us.
The Euro-popular incarnation is like rugby played on a basketball court with hockey goals. So, yeah, they smack into each other a lot.
If these athlete-acrobats somersaulted any higher, they’d need a retractable roof. Yet another reason to hate your parents for denying you a backyard trampoline.
The Tokyo Olympics will begin Friday, July 23, with the opening ceremony at 8 p.m. local time in Japan and 7 a.m. ET in the U.S.
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