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)
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.
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.
2. Allyson Felix, Track (USA)
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.
“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.”
3. Janja Garnbret, Sport Climbing (Slovenia)
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.
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.”
4. Naomi Osaka, Tennis (Japan)
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.
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.”
5. Noah Lyles, Athletics (USA)
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.
“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.
6. Nyjah Huston, Skateboarding (USA)
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.
“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)
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.
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)
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.”
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.
9. Eliud Kipchoge, Athletics (Kenya)
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.
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.”
Cover image by Aflo/?Shutterstock.
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