Olympics: 5 Athletes to Watch

Karen Rosen
Michael Phelps, Simone Bile

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports; Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Here are five Olympic competitors to watch during NBCUniversal's coverage of the Olympics in Rio.

Michael Phelps

Soobum Im/USA Today Sports

Michael Phelps

Hard to believe, but one title remained out of Michael Phelps’s reach until now.

After making his fifth Olympic team—the most for a U.S. male swimmer—Phelps was elected a team captain for the first time by his peers. The 31-year-old Baltimore native is looking forward to swimming up to six events in Rio, with his infant son, Boomer, and fiancée, Nicole Johnson, in the stands and his 2014 arrest for DUI and a rehab stint behind him.

“I’ve known Michael for 16 years, and I’ve never seen him happier,” says NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines. “He came up to the booth with us the first few days of [U.S. Olympic] Trials and just hung out during the whole finals, laughing and carrying on and real relaxed.”

After pushing his medal total to a record 22 (including 18 golds) four years ago, Phelps retired, later admitting he had been miserable preparing for London. “That’s not the way you want to end something that will be so much a part of his life and part of his legend,” Gaines says. “You want to go out enjoying it.”

Katie Ledecky

Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo

Katie Ledecky

If there’s one sure thing at the Rio Olympics, it’s Katie Ledecky winning the women’s 800-meter freestyle.Her best time this year is 11.46 seconds faster than her closest rival. Compare that to the men’s 1,500, where the gap is 5.5 seconds. Ledecky is also the gold-medal favorite in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles and will swim at least one relay.

Four years ago in London, she was the surprise winner of the 800 at age 15. Since then, Ledecky has churned to every freestyle world record from 400 to 1,500 meters (a non-Olympic event for women) and is a perfect 15-for-15 in major international races.

“She has an incredible feel for the water,” says NBC’s Gaines. “It’s something that you can’t measure, but that’s one of the things that made Michael [Phelps] so great.”

The 19-year-old Ledecky first met Phelps when she was 6 years old. She and her mom were spectators at the national championships and spotted Phelps in the parking lot. “I still have the autograph,” she says.

Even though she’s now the one signing them, Ledecky’s feet remain firmly on the ground—except when they’re in the water. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” she says. “I love the sport and I love pushing myself and seeing how fast I can go.”

Usain Bolt

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Usain Bolt

The Rio Olympics would be hamstrung without Usain Bolt. The track world held its breath when the speedster withdrew from the Jamaican Olympic Trials in early July because of a left hamstring tear.

But lightning could yet strike a third time. Bolt received medical exemptions to compete in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, events in which he holds the world records. He is also expected to anchor the Jamaican 4 x 100-meter relay squad.

“Bolt has defeated all comers,” NBC track and field analyst Ato Boldon says, “not once, but twice—which is rare—and if he were to do it three times in a row, that’s something that nobody else has ever done. That is the stuff of legend.”

Justin Gatlin of Team USA has come the closest to beating Bolt but faltered in the 100 at the 2015 World Championships and lost by .01. “You have a decent chance in the 100 against Bolt,” Boldon says. “You have no chance against Bolt in the 200. If he runs the worst race he’s ever run in a championship, and you run your best, you’re still going to be behind him.”

Simone Biles

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Simone Biles

Simone Biles remembers putting on her first national team jacket. “I felt like the bomb,” the gymnastics dynamo says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so cool.’ And every time I get a chance to represent the USA, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Team USA is thrilled to have her. The Texan is a three-time all-around world champion, and at the 2015 World Championships she also won gold medals in team, balance beam and floor exercise, plus a bronze in vault.

No wonder she’s the favorite to succeed defending all-around Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, lead the U.S. to its fifth straight team gold in world or Olympic competition and take home a pot of gold.

Biles’s exuberance knows no bounds, which makes her a good road roommate for Douglas. “We’re both just so loud and we have similar personalities, and I think that works well for both of us,” says Biles, 19. “How we compete is the same too. We can block everything out. We just have a lot of fun.”

Douglas, 20, who came back to the sport after a hiatus, doesn’t begrudge Biles her ascendancy. “We’re both so mature that we don’t feel like we need to be catty,” Douglas says. “There’s no ‘I hate you’ or ‘I’m better than you.’ That’s exhausting. You just go out and show your stuff and just shine.”

Carlin Isles

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Carlin Isles

Carlin Isles believes it will be love at first sight when rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut. (This version of the sport—which will be contested for both men and women—gets its name from the number of players on the field per team.) The sport last appeared in the Olympic Games in 1924 in its 15-man version. “It’s a fast-paced game, a tenacious game,” says Isles, the U.S. player known as “the fastest man in rugby.” He’s joined on Team USA by New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner, the only active NFL player competing in Rio.

Rugby has elements of football, soccer, wrestling and even cheerleading with “people picking each other up,” Isles says. “You’ll see people hitting each other, you’ll see people breaking long runs. Just how I fell in love with it, I’m telling you, you’ll fall in love with it.”

There will be a learning curve for American audiences. “The hardest thing for people to wrap their heads around when they’re new to rugby is someone gets tackled and they’re wondering, ‘Why is the game continuing?’” NBC analyst and former player Brian Hightower says. “The beauty of the game is that every tackle is just a new competition for the ball.”

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