This year every 2020 Olympic hopeful, regardless of sport, faced an unexpected opponent: the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer Olympic years are special ones, even if you’re not usually a sports fan. The international energy and excitement around the two weeks that only come every four years is undeniably alluring. Make it five, and the suspense is all but terrible.
Part of the beauty of the Olympic Games is the recognition of athletes in lesser-known sports. How else would we know the names Michael Phelps, Simone Biles or Jackie Joyner? The Tokyo Olympics, whenever it happens, will usher in four brand new sports and hundreds of athletes trying to make their way into your household name short list. Below are a few of the wicked talented athletes who deserve your attention now, as they put in another year of work and waiting to hit the biggest stage of their careers.
Brooke Raboutou, 18, is the first American to ever qualify for sport climbing at the Olympics: partly because this is the first year for the event. Also partly because she’s a rock star in the world of climbing. Born to bout with boulders, Raboutou is the daughter of two world champion climbers and grew up in a climbing facility her mother owns in Boulder, Colo. She’s also well rounded in her sport, which will come into play at the Games. Sport Climbing will consist of an overall competition with scores combined from three events: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing. Each of these will test a different facet of the sport, and Raboutou has experience in all three. She qualified for the Olympics in August 2019 at the IFSC Climbing World Championships Combined in Hachioji, Japan.
Known on social media as the “Flamingo,” Grant Holloway, 21, has been turning heads since high school. The former four-start receiver turned down multiple football scholarships to pursue track and field at the University of Florida. He certainly didn’t lose out on accolades by taking the road less traveled. Holloway shattered a 40-year-old NCAA record for the 110-meter hurdles, crossing the finish line in less than 13 seconds. His eclipsed his own long list of college records and awards last summer with a gold medal at the 2019 World Championships in Doha. While the Olympic qualifiers won’t be held until June, Holloway is the clear favorite in his sport and hopes to bring the U.S. something they didn’t see in the 2016 Olympics: a medal in the 110 hurdles. Holloway is also one of many athletes getting creative with training season up in the air: he’s been posting Instagram videos of hurdling in the grass at his home.
Katherine “Kate” Nye broke into the Olympic weightlifting scene with ferocity last year as she swept gold in the snatch, clean and jerk and total at the Junior World Weightlifting Championships, the Pan American Weightlifting Championships and the World Championships where, at 20, she became the youngest woman ever to win Worlds. She also set a junior world record with her 112kg snatch. For the Olympics, Nye will move from her typical 71kg category to the Olympic-sanctioned 76kg category. With the IWF Junior World Championships canceled earlier this year due to concerns about COVID-19, and most qualifying events wiped off the calendar before the deadline of April 30, the IWF will be releasing adjusted qualifying standards soon.
You likely saw the now-iconic photo of Molly Seidel after the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta. Seidel stands agog with the American flag draped around her shoulders after her second place finish in her first-ever marathon. If you’re going to break into a sport, may as well start at the top, right? But Seidel, 25, is no stranger to elite running. She was a former collegiate standout at Notre Dame, winning NCAA championships in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meter races. She was sidelined for a bit to overcome physical injuries as well as mental struggles. Seidel qualified for the trials after winning a half marathon in 1:10:27 in December. She’ll head to the Olympics (eventually) with the two other qualifiers, both Kenyan-born and both also new to the Olympic marathon race.
If there’s a new event the United States could run away with, it’s skateboarding. With both park and street competitions debuting in Tokyo, X-Games standouts will have a whole new arena for showing off their tricks. Brighton Zeuner is one of them. She’ll turn 16 this summer, but she’s had her eye on qualifying since age 13 when she won her first X Games. She’s hitched her wagon to a star since then, often drawing comparisons to Olympic snowboarder, Shaun White. Qualifications for Tokyo are scheduled to be through the World Skateboarding Championships in May, which as of this writing are still on. Athletes can also qualify through the Olympic World Skateboarding Rankings as of June 1. Look for Zeuner to be a shoe-in and a standout in Tokyo.
On the men’s side, Nyjah Huston, 25, is another force to be reckoned with in the skateboarding world. Huston was the youngest X Games competitor ever at 10 and is the most decorated street skater in X Games history. If you’re familiar with the sport, this is all old news for you — the guy is on Tony Hawk’s videogame for heaven’s sake. Unlike Zeuner, Schaar will skate in the street side of the competition. In park skateboarding, skaters will make runs in what looks like a giant empty swimming pool. The street skateboarding competition includes rails and ramps. Huston should easily punch his ticket to Tokyo later this spring — if competitions go on as scheduled.
This will be the first Olympics in 20 years we won’t see Michael Phelps in the water. Enter from stage left: Andrew Wilson. The 26-year-old took a redshirt year from college swimming and narrowly missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. In the 2019 World Championships, Wilson swam with three Olympic veterans to grab silver in the 4×100 meter medley relay. Wilso will swim for his second shot at punching his ticket to the Games at the US Olympic Trials in Omaha – currently being rescheduled pending the new Olympic Games dates.
Many thought the 2016 Olympics in Rio were Vashti Cunningham’s year to win gold. The then-18-year-old set a junior world record earlier in 2016 that would have been good enough for gold on the big stage. Unfortunately, Cunningham bottomed out in Rio, barely getting close to her personal best. She had a bad day. Yes, this is a list of newbies and hopefuls, but for Cunningham, it seems like she never really got started. One bad jump and it’s over in seconds. At 22, she’s still young for her event. The gold medal winner was 37 that year. Cunningham has continued to medal at consecutive World Championships. Look for her to jump for her spot back at the Olympics in Tokyo.
While we wait for new dates in 2021, the IOC and Tokyo organizing committee are encouraging athletes to continue training as best they can. For many, this isn’t exactly ideal: Olympic-size swimming pools aren’t exactly plentiful in many areas of the world, for example. Most trials that have yet to occur will shift in accordance with the new Games dates, giving athletes, and the world, time to settle back into routines after the pandemic.
For now, there’s plenty of social distancing time to read up on these incredible athletes, find your favorites, watch competition re-runs — and maybe even pick up a sport yourself!
- Check out these Olympic hopeful athletes, especially in the new sports of rock climbing and skateboarding
- Athletes are getting creative as gyms and fitness facilities shut down in the wake of the coronavirus
- IOC has yet to release the new Tokyo Olympic Games dates as of this writing