Every four years a darling (or darlings) emerges from among the United States’ talent delegation sent across the world.
And make no mistake, U.S. commerce will snatch up any and all who show commercial appeal to put on a Wheaties cereal box or a can of Coke.
It all starts, though, with success in Rio.
Here are 12 athletes to watch as the Summer Olympics begin Friday with the Opening Ceremony.
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The 28-year-old is expected to become the first back-to-back decathlon champion in more than 30 years, when Britain’s Daley Thompson won in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984). The last American to go back-to-back: Bob Mathias in 1948 and ’52.
Big Bear Lake, Calif.
Berian dropped out of college because he didn’t like school, so he took up a career flipping burgers at McDonald’s, leaving his mother convinced his destiny was as a layabout. But the local track club sniffed him out and made him live up to his world-class caliber.
The 28-year-old, originally from New Jersey, is the face of American freestyle wrestling as he seeks his second Olympic gold medal. Burroughs, a two-time collegiate champion at Nebraska, has won three world championships and started his international career with a U.S.-record 69 consecutive victories from 2011-14.
Las Vegas, Nev.
Cunningham, the tall and long-limbed daughter of former NFL QB Randall Cunningham, is a freak, tied for the highest jump internationally this year at 6 feet, 6 1/4 inches. Oh, and she’s 18. “I like to compare her to the Usain Bolt of high jump. He started out doing things that nobody had ever done before,” Chaunté Lowe, the American record holder, told the Washington Post.
The London Games all-around champion as a 16-year-old beat back injuries and the distractions of coaching changes to earn one the last spots on this year’s U.S. gymnastics team.
Santa Clarita, Calif.
The six-time Olympic medalist is the first U.S. track athlete since Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games. She won the women’s 400 meters at the Olympic trials in 49.68 seconds, the best time in the world this year. That despite a bad right ankle, which hindered the 30-year-old’s trials performance in a fourth-place finish in the 200.
At 34, an aging sprinter, but he’s not turning into a tortoise after coming off two of the best years of his career, capped by winning times of 9.80 in the 100 and 19.75 in the 200 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The story in 2016 is his continued rivalry with Usain Bolt, world record holder in the 100 and 200.
St. Paul, Minn.
While in college, officials of USA Triathlon called the University of Wisconsin swimmer, suggesting she try the triathlon. She resisted, instead going to work as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Try it as a hobby, they said. “And, boy, was I glad I tried triathlon!” the 30-year-old told Forbes magazine, which interviewed the world’s fastest triathlete. A flat tire on the bike likely cost her a medal in London.
At 19, she is considered the most dominant female swimmer on earth. She is a nine-time world champion and the world record holder in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle. She will have four gold medals dancing in her head as she dives into Rio’s pool, vying for gold in the 200, 400, 800 free and the 4x200 relay.
In her first Olympic experience, Muhammad might well turn heads with her ability, but observers will first notice that she will be the first U.S. athlete to compete at an Olympic Games in a hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women. “I’m just your basic Hijabi Zorro,” she joked to ESPN.
This guy might have a future. The most decorated U.S. Olympian — 22 medals, including 18 gold — retired after 2012, then whipped his personal demons only to decide to come back for a fifth, and what he vows will be his last, Olympiad at age 31.
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
With 22 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams is perhaps the most dominant woman’s player ever, and she’s expected to go through her competition in what might best be described as “Whipping the World in Far Less than 80 Days.”