Despite the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic, athletes around the globe trained at home, dreaming of the gold. At long last, they’re headed to Tokyo.

After an unprecedented delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics will take place from July 23rd through August 8th. Legendary American swimmer Katie Ledecky and GOAT gymnast Simone Biles are expected to break barriers and records; new events like skateboarding, sport climbing, karate, and surfing promise to attract a younger crowd around the globe. Put simply: It’s going to be an historic year.

Here are just a handful of athletes worth watching.


1. Sky Brown, Skateboarding (Great Britain)

Sky Brown at Graystone Action Sports, Salford, UK
Twelve-year-old skateboard prodigy, Sky Brown, signed her first professional contract at the age of seven. Image by Associated Newspapers Ltd/?Shutterstock.

This 12-year-old skateboarding prodigy (who turns 13 on July 12) is Britain’s youngest summer Olympian in history. “A lot of people are going to watch it and I get to show that if this little girl can do it, you can do it too,” she told the BBC in 2019, in-between practicing her two passions — skateboarding and surfing.

Sky Brown at Graystone Action Sports
Sky Brown skateboarding at Graystone Action Sports in Salford, UK. Image by Associated Newspapers Ltd/?Shutterstock.

Brown suffered a terrible fall in spring 2020, fracturing her skull and breaking bones in her hand, but she was determined to heal and come back stronger than ever. “This will not stop me,” she said on Instagram. “I am going for gold in Tokyo 2021. I’m going to push boundaries for girls, with my skating and surfing.” She wasn’t lying.

Sky Brown Pushing Boundaries at Graystone Action Sports
Sky Brown makes a daring move while skateboarding at Graystone Action Sports. Image by Associated Newspapers Ltd/?Shutterstock.

2. Allyson Felix, Track (USA)

Allyson Felix in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials
Allyson Felix finishes second during a semi-final in the women’s 200-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, in Eugene, Oregon. Image by Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock.

After the challenging birth of her daughter in 2018—one that required an emergency C-section at thirty-two weeks—Allyson Felix returns for her fifth Olympic Games (and her first as a mother). The competition will also be her last.

Allyson Felix in the World Athletics Championships
Allyson Felix races in a women’s 4×400 meter relay heat at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Photo by Petr David Josek/AP/Shutterstock.
Allyson Felix in Belarus
American runner Allyson Felix on the track in Belarus at the Europe vs. USA athletic match. Image by Andrew Makedonski.

“I feel a mix of all emotions,” she said after qualifiying. “I’m real excited obviously to be going to Tokyo. There’s a part of me that’s sad because this has been my life for so long. This is my last time around. I feel sad for that, but also excited for what’s to come.”

Allyson Felix with Her Daughter
Allyson Felix celebrates after her second place finish in the women’s 400-meter run with her daughter Camryn at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, in Eugene, Oregon. Image by Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock.

3. Janja Garnbret, Sport Climbing (Slovenia)

Janja Garnbret at the Climbing Championships, Tokyo, Japan
Janja Garnbret competes in the women’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships in Tokyo. Image by Jae C Hong/?AP/?Shutterstock.

This Slovenian sport climber has dominated the sport for the last few years, making headlines in 2019 for winning all six bouldering events at the World Cup. Given that it’s her sport’s Olympic debut this year, she’s expected to make history once again.

Janja Garnbret Bouldering at the Climbing Championships, Tokyo, Japan
Janja Garnbret competes during the women’s combined bouldering final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships, in Tokyo. Image by Jae C Hong/?AP/?Shutterstock.

Even before becoming a global phenomenon, Garnbret had a passion for climbing. As a child, she climbed everything from trees to cabinets. As her goals reach new heights, she remains focused and devoted to the sport. “I climb because climbing is a moment where I fall in love with life,” she said recently. “When I am on the wall, nothing else matters.”

Janja Garnbret at the IFSC Climbing World Championships, Hachioji, Japan
Janja Garnbret jumps after reaching the top at the women’s bouldering final at the IFSC Climbing World Championships in Hachioji, Tokyo. Garnbret won the women’s bouldering event. Image by FRANCK ROBICHON/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

4. Naomi Osaka, Tennis (Japan)

Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Australian Open
Naomi Osaka celebrates victory after her women’s singles second round match at the 2020 Australian Open. Image by James Gourley/?BPI/?Shutterstock.

This tennis champion will play for Japan, where she was born. “I think there’s no other place that I’d rather play my first Olympics,” Osaka told NHK in October.

Naomi Osaka at Fed Cup, Cartagena, Spain
Naomi Osaka playing for the Spain vs. Japan Fed Cup at the La Manga Club, in Cartagena, Spain. Image by AFP7/?Shutterstock.

She may have withdrawn from the French Open in May and passed on playing Wimbledon this year, but this tennis super star will make it to the Olympics.

“It would honestly mean the world to me to bring home a gold in Japan,” Osaka told BusinessInsider.com. “I think it would take some time to fully sink in, but to be able to win a gold on my country’s soil, knowing the youngest generation is watching—it makes me emotional to know I have the opportunity to make an entire generation inspired and an entire country proud.”

Naomi Osaka at the WTA Finals Tennis Tournament in Shenzhen, China
Naomi Osaka reacts as she plays against Petra Kvitova, of the Czech Republic, during their WTA Finals Tennis Tournament in Shenzhen, China’s Guangdong province. Image by Andy Wong/?AP/?Shutterstock.

5. Noah Lyles, Athletics (USA)

Noah Lyles at the Monaco IAAF Diamond League Athletics
Noah Lyles celebrates winning the 200m in the Monaco IAAF Diamond League Athletics in Stade Louis II, Monaco. Image by Nsjsport/?Shutterstock.

Known for his patterned socks, love of painting, and the “ICON” tattoo across his rib cage, this sprinter has his sights set on the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m titles. With an open space left by the recently retired Usain Bolt, Lyles has stepped up to become one of the biggest names in the sport, not only because of his breathtaking speed but also because of his fun-loving personality.

Noah Lyles Running the 200m Sprint
Noah Lyles is on his way to win the men’s 200m final at the IAAF World Athletics Championships 2019, at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Image by VALDRIN XHEMAJ/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.
Noah Lyles Wins the Gold Medal
Noah Lyles celebrates winning the gold medal in the men’s 200m final, at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Image by Nariman El-Mofty/?AP/?Shutterstock.

“Too many people get caught up in not having fun when they run,” he told The Washington Post last year. For him, it’s that sense of joy that lies at the heart of the sport, and he’s never forgotten it. Watching him in Tokyo will be worth it for the athletics, but also for the performance and energy he brings to the field.

Noah Lyles at the IAAF Diamond League Memorial Van Damme Meeting in Brussels, Belgium
Noah Lyles celebrates after winning the men’s 200m race at the Memorial Van Damme IAAF Diamond League international athletics meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Image by OLIVIER HOSLET/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

6. Nyjah Huston, Skateboarding (USA)

Nyjah Huston at the World Skateboarding Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Nyjah Huston in action during the “street” category of the World Skateboarding Championships at the Anhembi Parl, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Image by Sebastiao Moreira/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

This American street-skater, who happens to be the highest paid skater in the world, is set to make his sport’s Olympic debut one for the ages. He’s excited for skating to finally get its turn on the world’s stage, especially since it’s an accessible sport beloved by so many kids around the world.

Nyjah Huston at the Youth Olympic Games, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Nyjah Huston, the highest paid skateboarder in the world, performs alongside Leticia Bufoni BRA Professional street skateboarder, for an exhibition in the Urban Park. Image by Simon Bruty /?Shutterstock.

“Every day I’m inside, I swear I’m thinking about getting to Tokyo in 2021 and putting on those Team USA Nike jerseys,” he wrote for The Players’ Tribune last year. “I hope that we do right by our fans, by the people who helped get the sport to this point. And, I also hope there’s a little boy or girl watching at the park, or on TV, when the time comes.”


7. Teddy Riner, Judo (France)

Teddy Riner at the Judo World Championships
Teddy Riner at the Judo World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Image by Tibor Illyes/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

This gold medalist (2012 and 2016) and ten-time world champion discovered judo at age five. Riner was immediately drawn to the spirit and beauty of the sport. Now, his eyes are set on bringing home his third Olympic heavyweight judo gold medal, something no one has done before.

Teddy Riner at the Judo Paris Grand Slam 2020, France
Teddy Riner (right) in action with Richard Sipocz of Hungary (left) during the +100 kg Men’s Round 1, during the Paris Grand Slam judo tournament, in Paris. Image by CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

Riner’s lost his first match in ten years last year, following 154 consecutive victories, which means he’s just about as close to invincible as you can get — and Tokyo marks an important moment in both the history of the sport and his career.

“I remember when I was younger, I used to come here to face the best judokas,” he told the Olympic Channel in 2019. “Today, I am amongst the best and I know that I am a marked man and that other judokas want to take my place.”


8. Stephanie Gilmore, Surfing (Australia)

Stephanie Gilmore at the World Surfing Championship
Stephanie Gilmore (former world champion) at the World Surfing Championship at Praia Super Tubos, in Peniche, Portugal. Image by CARLOS BARROSO/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

This seven-time world champion surfer will make Olympic history in Tokyo, something she’s dreamed of since watching the Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman take home the gold in 2000. “I knew when I fell in love with surfing, at 12, I wouldn’t have a chance at the Olympics, which kind of crushed me,” she told Rolling Stone Australia last year. “But it’s finally happening.”

Stephanie Gilmore at the Corona Bali Protected, Gianyar, Indonesia
Stephanie Gilmore in action during the women’s finals of the Corona Bali Protected surfing event, as part of the 2019 World Surf League in Keramas, Bali, Indonesia. Image by MADE NAGI/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

As a feminist and advocate for women in sports, Gilmore has helped bring about a sea of change in pay equality within surfing, making her an inspiration to generations of young athletes. When she hits the beaches in Chiba, she’ll have her eye on the gold. “I don’t wear too much jewelry, but that’d be a nice necklace to have,” she told POPSUGAR this winter.

Stephanie Gilmore Competing at the World Surfing Championship
Stephanie Gilmore at the World Surfing Championship, that takes place at Praia Super Tubos, in Peniche, Portugal. Image by CARLOS BARROSO/?EPA-EFE/?Shutterstock.

9. Eliud Kipchoge, Athletics (Kenya)

Eliud Kipchoge and His Wife Grace Sugutt
Eliud Kipchoge is hugged by his wife Grace Sugutt after he breaks the historic two hour barrier for a marathon. Image by Jed Leicester for The INEOS 1:59 Challenge/?Shutterstock.

In 2019, this Kenyan runner became the first man to run a sub-two hour marathon in Vienna, stopping traffic at home in Nairobi and sparking celebrations around the world. In Tokyo, he’ll have the opportunity to defend his title. If he does, he’ll be the third person in history to win the Olympic marathon twice.

Eliud Kipchoge Wins the Gold Medal
Eliud Kipchoge (center) poses with his gold medal on the podium after winning the men’s marathon race of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Athletics Track and Field Events, at the Sambodromo in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Image by Sergei Ilnitsky/?EPA/?Shutterstock.

Kipchoge recently spoke about the healing power of sports, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. “Marathons are like life, we have flat courses, downhill, and hilly courses,” he said. “Now we are on a hilly course, this is the hardest of times. And like in a marathon, that’s when you are struggling to go up the hill.”

Eliud Kipchoge Wins the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Day in Brazil
Eliud Kipchoge crosses the finish line to win the men’s marathon at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image by Petr David Josek/?AP/?Shutterstock.

Cover image by Aflo/?Shutterstock.

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