6 U.S. Athletes to Watch Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics (PHOTOS)

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2018 FIG Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Day Eight
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Simone Biles

No athlete will be in a brighter spotlight than Biles, the Texan who hopes to become the first woman in over 50 years to repeat as the Olympics’ all-around gymnastics champion.

“Simone will have that [Michael] Phelps factor [in this year’s games],” says Tirico, name-checking swimming’s all-time great, who broke the record for most golds won in a single Olympics when he took home eight from Beijing in 2008. “She will be that lead athlete: You want to make sure you’re near a TV when she’s competing.”

Biles’ résumé is a study in otherworldly skill. She holds the records for most U.S. all-around titles (six) and most medals won at the World Championships (25). She even has four moves named after her — two tumbling elements for floor exercise, a vault, and a beam dismount.

“There’s nothing not to admire about Simone,” adds Tirico of the 22-year-old, who’s expected to add to her four golds and one bronze from the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, where she was also Team USA’s closing ceremony flag bearer. “There’s a wow factor in everything she does. We just hope we get to see more of that in Tokyo.”


Katie Ledecky

Four golds and a silver in Rio, where she shaved two seconds off her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle, plus a host of titles in the ensuing years, had already made Ledecky the prohibitive freestyle-stroke favorite heading toward the Games. But it was netting a gold and two silvers at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea — despite dealing with a mysterious illness — that proved how formidable the 22-year-old from Maryland may be in Tokyo, even in a crowded pool of international rivals.

“Katie looked like a guaranteed rubber-stamp gold medal until the Worlds, where she did not compete nearly at the level that we’re used to,” says Tirico. “I think that’s inspiration for Katie Ledecky. The neat thing about being great is that it inspires others, and the competition has ratcheted up.”

But challenges from Australia’s Ariarne Titmus and Italy’s Simona Quadarella, Tirico insists, “will only push Katie to another level when she gets to Tokyo. And that [extra] pressure is terrific. It’ll add to the drama.”

IAAF World Athletics Championships 2019 - Day Five - Khalifa International Stadium
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Noah Lyles

Tokyo could be when the fleet-footed 22-year-old Lyles is elevated to star status, especially with one lightning-fast icon missing from the blocks.

“This is an Olympics without Usain Bolt for the first time in a decade and a half,” Tirico explains, speaking of the legendary Jamaican world record holder at 100 and 200 meters. “[That means] it’s really an open opportunity for American sprinters to step into that void.”

But why the Virginia-raised Lyles, who seems set on running at least the 200 and some relays? “Noah doesn’t lack for confidence, but he’s also given us the results,” Tirico says, citing Lyles’ convincing win in the 200 at the 2019 World Championships. His teammate Christian Coleman could run away with sprinting’s signature “world’s fastest human” title in the 100, but expect that Lyles smile to be front and center, given that he seems to be peaking at the right time.

“Noah will be coming off a great year, which lays a great foundation, both with your results and your presence on the big stage,” Tirico explains. “He’s got this magnetic personality and [real] flair. If he wins, he’ll let you know he won.”

Team USA Portraits For Tokyo 2020
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Jordan Burroughs

No one has been counting the 1,450-and-some-odd days from the Rio Games to Tokyo with more determination than New Jersey–bred Burroughs. The freestyle wrestler triumphed in London’s 74 kg. (163 lbs.) weight class in 2012, only to finish ninth four years later. Now he’s pining for renewed glory.

“Isn’t that the joy of the Olympics? [You have] the chance to be great [again], but you gotta wait for that next cycle,” Tirico says. Now a more mature 31, “Jordan is very inspired to close the deal,” Tirico adds. His 2019 season suggests he may be in top fighting form.

World Athletics Championships in Qatar
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Vashti Cunningham

That’s no ordinary sports dad in the Las Vegas native’s corner, trying to will her to high-jump gold after a disappointing finish in Rio in 2016. It’s her coach: legendary former NFL QB Randall Cunningham, who, Tirico notes, has his daughter, 21, following the same training and weight regimen he did in the pros. The result: a bronze at the 2019 Worlds and a spot among track and field’s great hopefuls, with redemption in her sights and her father in her ear.

“He is her coach, dad and pastor all in one,” says Tirico. “It was interesting to hear her be so effusive about how much Randall is present in her life.”


Caeleb Dressel

With six golds and two silvers at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, you’d think it would be smooth sailing for Dressel come the Games. But the weight of expectations may be as powerful as the competition for swimming’s current freestyle master and 100-meter butterfly world record holder.

“Caeleb strikes me as one of the most intriguing stories because what do they always talk about in sports? Don’t be the guy to follow the guy,” says Tirico, knowing Dressel swims in the lengthy shadow of Phelps, who has more Olympic gold medals (23) than anyone in history and held the aforementioned 100-meter butterfly record for a full decade. Still, the 23-year-old Floridian with the buoyant attitude has built momentum in a way that has Tirico sold: “I think he’s ready to take on that burden.”

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The holiday season is over, but TV has some new gifts you’ll never want to return. Settle in for 12 months of fan-favorite stars (Fran Drescher, Edie Falco), inspiring physical feats (the Olympics), new streaming services, and another must-see season of Outlander.

We’re only months away from the start of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, and NBC, longtime home of Olympics coverage, is busy training for a record-breaking performance. After July 24’s opening ceremony, NBC and its sister networks will provide viewers with roughly 7,000 hours of action in sports both flashy (gymnastics, track and field, swimming) and eclectic (dressage and Greco-Roman wrestling, anyone?).

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Mike Tirico, who is limbering up to return as NBC’s primetime host for the 19-day all-world event, previews six U.S. athletes to watch.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Friday, July 24, 7:30/6:30c, NBC

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