From Phenoms to Medal Favorites, Meet 26 Women Athletes Ready to Shine at the Olympics
With the 2021 Olympics on the horizon and Olympic qualifications in full swing all over the world, we're having the best time tracking our favorite athletes and finding new up-and-comers to fall in love with. Simone Biles is leaning into her GOAT status, sporting more incredible skills than ever, and will be surrounded by talented new faces in the gymnastics competition. Tennis star Coco Gauff will become the youngest Olympic tennis player since 2000. In the pool, 18-year-old Torri Huske broke a nine-year-old American swimming record and looks poised for an upset in Tokyo. On the track, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad are vying for dominance in the 400-meter hurdles. And with four new sports to enjoy this year, this really is just the start of what should be a groundbreaking Games for women athletes.
We've waited longer than usual for this Olympic cycle, and it's going to be even sweeter to watch these athletes turn heads and smash records this summer in Tokyo. Ahead, meet just a few of the women athletes we're most excited to watch in the 2021 Olympics!
To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23 on NBC.
Sport: Track and field
Muhammad makes breaking the 400-meter hurdles world record look way too easy. It's a feat she's accomplished twice: once at the 2019 USA Track and Field (USATF) National Championships and then again, later that year, at the world championships. Muhammad will also be going into Tokyo as the defending Olympic champion, setting up for a showdown with Sydney McLaughlin, the 21-year-old who placed behind her in the world championships and has beaten her in Diamond League races in the past. Their showdown and Muhammad's unflappable dominance on the world stage are set to create a riveting race.
Does Biles even need an introduction at this point? The 24-year-old gymnast is making one more run at the Olympics and looking to cement her status as the greatest gymnast of all time, with five Olympic and 25 World Championship medals already under her belt. Her tricks get more stunning every year (she has three named after her, which means she was the first to perform them in competition), and their level of difficulty and the ease with which she executes them put her miles above the rest of the competition; she can fall during routines and still earn the highest score. She's one of the most recognizable and decorated athletes at the Games, so we'll be tuning in every time she's in the arena.
Moore has captured four world titles in her decorated career, the most recent coming in December 2019 after a heated three-way race with fellow Americans Caroline Marks and Lakey Peterson. She's heading to the Olympics as the top-ranked surfer in the world and in the middle of another successful season in the World Surf League Championship Tour. Surfing is expected to make a big splash at the Olympics, and Moore is a favorite with momentum on her side.
Sport: Skateboarding (street)
Bufoni, who was coming off an injury before skateboarding competitions were canceled last year, is an early favorite in the street discipline. She holds a record five X Games gold medals in street (tied with Elissa Steamer) and is currently in prime position, ranked fourth in the world.
Simone Manuel won a groundbreaking gold medal in 2016 and became a voice for Black representation and excellence in swimming. At the Olympic Trials, Manuel suffered a surprise loss in the 100-meter freestyle (the race she won in 2016), later revealing she had recently suffered from a bout of overtraining syndrome that required her to take three full weeks off. A few days later, Manuel secured her 2021 Olympic berth with a gritty and emotional victory in the 50-meter freestyle, her silver-medal event in Rio. Manuel is known for doing big things on the biggest stages, so you don't want to miss her in Tokyo.
Sport: Cross-country mountain biking
In 2019, Kate Courtney became the first American in 17 years to win the overall World Cup in cross-country mountain biking. In the process, she also stamped her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics, where she has a real chance to become the first American to medal since 2012. (No American has ever placed higher than third.) At 25, Kate is leading what some are calling a new, "golden age" of American cycling, and in a competitive field, she'll look to make good on that promise in Tokyo.
Tuliamuk surprised the running world when she won the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February, beating a strong field that included 2018 Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympian Des Linden and half-marathon American record holder Molly Huddle. Tuliamuk, who was born in Kenya and became a US citizen in 2016, is a 10-time national track and field champion in events including the 25K, 20K, and 5K. Her Olympic Trials victory represented an inspiring comeback from injuries that left her driving an Uber and crocheting hats that she'd sell online. With a powerful story and undeniable speed, Tuliamuk will be a formidable force to watch in Tokyo.
Jordan Chiles has been on a heck of a run recently, and it vaulted her right onto the Olympic team. Chiles, 20, came in second overall at this year's GK US Classic behind Simone Biles, grabbed an all-around bronze medal at the US Championships behind Biles and Sunisa Lee, and finished it up with another third-place all-around finish at the Olympic Trials, prompting an emotional reaction we're still tearing up about. Chiles has already gone viral for some of her incredible floor routines (set to music from Wonder Woman and Spider-Man!), and we can't wait to see how she does in Tokyo.
Zeuner won X Games gold at age 13 (the youngest ever), is currently ranked third in the world, and was named to the very first US Skateboarding Team in March 2019. The 16-year-old skates park, one of two Olympic disciplines, which takes place in a hollowed-out bowl and is judged based on the height, power, and creativity skaters can put into their tricks. Zeuner has said that making the Olympics is her goal, and the competition could be a breakout moment for the skater, who's already helping to lead a new wave of female skaters.
Ledecky is known for smashing records by jaw-dropping intervals and leaving her competitors far in her wake, and we're expecting more of the same at the 2021 Olympics. An illness at the 2019 World Championships left Ledecky with fewer medals than usual, but she pushed through and still came out of the competition with one world title and two silvers. In competitions since, she's looked as dominant as ever, and the fact that she's had a whole extra year to train and is making good use of it should strike some fear into the hearts of her competitors.
Sport: Track and field
At the 2019 World Championships, both McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad were so far ahead of the 400-meter hurdles field, they were practically running another race. McLaughlin finished second with a personal best time, the third fastest in history, but was clearly hungry for more. She'll get her chance at the Olympics this year, which promises to be another showdown between these two up-and-coming track stars.
The entire USWNT could be on this list after the team's inspiring World Cup win in 2019, but Horan in particular will be coming into the Olympics with something to prove. Considered one of the best midfielders in the world, Horan was nonetheless left off the starting lineup for most of the World Cup thanks to the US's deep pool of talent at midfield. She has already been playing more under new USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski and netted her first pro hat trick during the Olympic qualifying tournament, so we're expecting her combination of ambition and talent to lead to big results in Tokyo. (FYI: the USWNT have already secured their Olympic spot.)
It'll be surfing's first year in the Olympics, and expectations are high, especially for living legends like Gilmore. A seven-time world champion (tied with Layne Beachley for the most women's titles of all time), Gilmore was the first surfer to win a world title in her rookie season, back in 2007. Now 33, she continues to dominate pro surfing and finished the 2020 season ranked No. 4 in the world, the top-ranked Australian going into Tokyo. Watching the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as a 12-year-old caused Gilmore to fall in love with the idea of going to the Olympics, she told POPSUGAR in February. "I never thought I'd get the chance as a surfer, but here we are, and it's like a dream come true." Gilmore beat the eventual world champion, Carissa Moore, at the last competition of 2019, and she's a fierce competitor who could make a major play for gold.
Sport: Track and field
The most decorated track and field athlete of all time will return for her fifth Olympics, and to say we're excited is an understatement. Felix, who runs the 400-meter and 4x400-meter relay, has had a roller coaster four years since Rio. In 2018, she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, after undergoing an emergency C-section. She went through a protracted sponsorship battle with Nike and eventually returned for an inspiring performance at the 2019 world championships that saw her break a medal record she once held with Usain Bolt. Another year of preparation will likely make Felix an even more fearsome competitor as she looks to add to her collection of Olympic medals (she already has nine).
Torri Huske officially burst onto the scene at the 2021 Olympic Trials. The swimmer broke a nine-year-old American record in the women's 100-meter butterfly, then turned around and broke it again the very next night, clinching her spot at the 2021 Olympics. In the process, Huske also threw down the event's fastest time in the world this year, making her a serious medal contender in Tokyo.
Softball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and Rachel Garcia, a pitcher and first baseman fresh off a dominant career at UCLA, is one of the new faces to watch. In 2019, the 24-year-old batted .343 and pitched her way to a 29-1 record and a 1.14 ERA, the seventh best in the country. Garcia's talents led UCLA to a national title and earned her the title of USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. USA Softball has already qualified for the Olympics, and Garcia's debut (alongside veteran pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman) is on our must-watch list.
Sport: Cycling (track and road race)
Dygert is doing some incredible things on the bike. She broke an individual pursuit world record twice at last year's World Championships and has already secured her spot at Tokyo in road racing after winning the world title in road time trial. A six-time world champion, Dygert is at the top of the field in her events, and she's known for giving her all-out effort in every race, sometimes to the point of collapsing at the finish line. We're predicting this dominant cyclist will take Tokyo by storm.
Naomi Osaka made headlines in 2019 when she renounced her American citizenship, allowing her to compete for Japan in the Olympics. (A dual US-Japanese citizen, Osaka was required under Japan's Nationality Law to choose one before she turned 22 last October.) It'll be her first Olympic Games, and she'll be playing in her home country, looking to become the first Japanese woman to take home an Olympic medal in tennis, so expect exciting matches and major attention from fans. With fierce competition, including Coco Gauff on Team USA, it'll be a tournament to watch.
At 17, Nevin Harrison became the first American to bring home a world championship medal in a sprint canoe event, nabbing gold in the 200m in 2019. Some quick background: canoe and kayak are the two "paddling" sports. Women's canoe will be making its debut in 2021, and since no American woman has ever won a kayak medal, Harrison has a good chance of being the first American woman to win a medal in any paddling event. Harrison also has four national titles and a gold from the Pan-American Games — not bad for a former sprinter who only started paddling after an injury ended her running career.
At UCLA, Francis was an NCAA cochampion on the balance beam and a six-time All-American. After training for and then missing out on two Olympic berths, first in 2012 and again in 2016, Francis has officially qualified for an individual spot and will be the second gymnast to represent Jamaica at the Olympics. With an inspirational story and graceful, perfect-10-worthy routines (she earned two 10s at UCLA), Francis will be one to keep your eye on.
Sport: Skateboarding (park)
Country: Great Britain
After winning UK skate nationals, this 12-year-old phenom has officially qualified for Tokyo. Had the Tokyo Olympics kicked off in 2020 with Brown qualifying, she would have been the youngest Olympian to represent Great Britain in the Summer Games. While she's a year older in 2021, we're still expecting her to be a spark plug in the bowl (the sunken concrete course in which park skaters compete) and an exciting story to watch at the Games. FYI: Brown was the first female skater to land a 720 (two full circles), so get ready for some big tricks!
Sunisa Lee was already touted as a rising star for US Gymnastics even before her performance at the 2019 World Championships. There, she bagged a bronze on the uneven bars and a silver on floor, bested only by the GOAT herself, Simone Biles. In 2020, she nabbed an all-around silver at the national championships. It's a solid foundation heading into the Olympic Trials, where Lee will be competing against a stacked American field for one of four coveted slots.
In just her second season on the top-tier World Surf League Championship Tour (CT), Caroline Marks finished 2019 as the No. 2 surfer in the world. Marks's incredible year of surfing, which included two contest wins, also secured her spot on Team USA for the Olympics (a lifelong dream of hers), and she's followed it up with another big CT victory in 2021. The 19-year-old's explosive style makes her a serious contender for Olympic gold.
Swimmer Regan Smith made major waves (sorry, we had to) when she broke two world records at the 2019 FINA World Championships, one of which belonged to Missy Franklin. The backstroke specialist is just 19 and recently clinched her first Olympic berth in the 100-meter backstroke, then followed up with a win in the 200-meter butterfly, so we'll see her in both events in Tokyo and possibly some relays as well.
Coco Gauff grabbed headlines when she beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019 and, months later, secured her first WTA Singles title. Currently ranked 24th in the world, Gauff recently secured an Olympic qualifying spot in Tokyo, which will make the 17-year-old the youngest Olympic tennis player since 2000.
Sport: Sport Climbing
In August 2019, Brooke Raboutou became the first American to qualify for the Olympics in sport climbing, a sport that combines three disciplines of rock climbing: lead climbing, speed climbing, and bouldering. Raboutou already has several world titles under her belt and comes from a family of climbers (her mom won four consecutive World Cup titles), and she'll need all of that experience and grit to compete for Olympic gold. One of Brooke's primary goals at the Games, though: to grow her sport in front of a global audience.