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Five breakout athletes to watch at the Tokyo Olympics

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Caroline Marks – Surfing

For this 19-year-old, Florida-born surfer, the Tokyo Olympics have arrived at the zenith of her ascent up the ranks of the pro surfing world. Growing up with four brothers and a sister, Caroline had plenty of built-in competition and self-proclaimed critics to push her on the waves at the beach across from her family home. At age ten, the then-barrel racing horse lover decided surfing was her biggest passion and told her dad she wanted to start competing. Three years (and a west coast relocation) later, Marks became the youngest surfer to ever qualify for a World Surf League Championship Tour event. 

In 2018, during her first full season on tour, she earned Rookie of the Year and an impressive seventh place overall finish in the championship. And in 2019, in only her second year on tour, not only did she qualify to represent Team USA for the Olympics, but she finished the season in an astounding second place overall, just behind fellow USA surfer and four-time World Champion Carissa Moore. The goofy-footed Marks, now touted as the future of women’s surfing, will have the opportunity to capitalize on that heavy hype when the global spotlight shines on surfing for the first time this summer.

Sha’Carri Richardson – Track and Field, 100m

Sha’Carri Richardson is all the content the running world needs and more. Not only has she exploded onto the scene as the newest hope of ending the USA’s gold medal drought in the 100M, but she has a boldness in her presence both on and off the track that can draw in casual fans by the truck load. And much of her story has yet to be told. She has shared publicly that her mom left when she was very young and that she later attempted suicide as a teen, but the details of her troubled upbringing in Dallas, Texas are largely untold. What is well-documented is her jaw-dropping speed on the track. 

After winning several age-group state titles in school, Richardson broke onto the national scene when she took first place in the 100M at the 2016 AAU Junior Olympics. The following year, she was a member of the gold medal winning 4x100M team at the Pan American U20 Championships. But the most notable day of her career came at the end of her freshman year at LSU during the NCAA National Championships. In the 100M final Richardson ran a 10.75, setting a new U-20 world record with the fastest NCAA time in the event in 30 years. Less than an hour later, she set another U-20 world record in the 200M, sending her name on a trending spree and catching the deserving attention of pro sponsors. Four days later, she declared for the professional circuit and left her college career behind. With a solid but shortened first pro season in 2019 and a non-existent 2020 season, everyone is anxious to see how Richardson compares to the world’s best. Having already clocked a mind blowing 10.72 in the 100M this spring and winning the 100m race at the Olympic trials, Richardson’s career is primed to explode at the Tokyo Olympics.

Regan Smith – Swimming (100M Backstroke, 200M Fly)

When the first day of 2020 arrived, Regan Smith was a senior in high school who woke up with Tokyo very much on her mind. In a sport like swimming, where the Olympics happen to fall in your development and timeline is monumental. And for Smith, it was looking pretty perfect. In 2019, at just 17 years of age, she set new world records in both the 100M and 200M backstroke, with the latter still standing today. 

Luckily for Smith, an extra year of training seems to have paid off. While she fell just short of qualifying in the 200M backstroke, she managed to make the Olympics team for both the 100M and the 200M butterfly, her third strongest event.

“I think I was a lot more in my head about it last year, whereas this year we’ve all had plenty of time to get a grip on things mentally,” Smith told NBC Sports in early 2021. “Instead of being worried about how quickly they’re coming up, I’m really just trying to be excited and be like it’s finally go-time and treat it like that instead of treating it like it’s some big scary thing, because it’s not. It should be exciting.” 

The excitement in Tokyo might be even bigger due to the postponement, as the young Aussie swimmer Kaylee McKeown recently notched a 100M backstroke time just .06 seconds shy of Smith’s record. If all goes to plan in Tokyo, these two could give the fans some thrilling finishes come July.

Katie Lou Samuelson – 3×3 Basketball

The post-pandemic world is looking bright for Katie Lou Samuelson. Back in February, the third year WNBA player was traded from the Dallas Wings to the Seattle Storm in exchange for the first overall draft pick of 2021. The news of the trade furrowed many brows, as Samuelson’s first two seasons in the league have been largely underwhelming. She spent her rookie season with the Chicago Sky before being traded to Dallas for 2020, and was averaging just 3.7 points per game prior to her trade.

The long-range sharp-shooter from UCONN may have had difficulty finding her footing at the pro level. But things seemed to shift while playing overseas in Spain with Perfumerias Avenida. Playing alongside her older sister Karlie for the first time since high school, Samuelson averaged 15.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and was named to the All-EuroLeague team. 

As she explained last month to the Connecticut Post, “I was really given a lot of freedom on my overseas team to develop back into where I feel comfortable, strong, confident in myself and my game. I think that really was the main difference for me, just seeing myself having success.” 

That confidence carried over into Samuelson’s efforts with Team USA’s 3×3 squad. Alongside Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum, Samuelson helped the team qualify for the inaugural Olympics tournament in Tokyo. All four players were subsequently named to the Olympics squad. After struggling to make her name in the WNBA, Samuelson (who’s still just 24 years old) could be hitting her stride at just the right time.

Hannah Roberts – BMX Freestyle

Another sport making its Olympic debut this summer is BMX Freestyle. While other forms of women’s cycling have been part of the games for decades, this skate park style, course-based sport is catching fire among young women across the US. The woman leading that charge at the moment is 19-year-old Michigan native Hannah Roberts. 

Following in the footsteps of an older cousin who rode in the upper ranks on the men’s side, Roberts took up the sport at nine and at seventeen became the first-ever BMX Freestyle World Champion in 2017. After a third-place finish to the season in 2018, Roberts reclaimed the top pedestal again in 2019 and was the first American to qualify for Tokyo in the event. The year-long postponement definitely had its challenges.

“Being already qualified was a blessing and a curse,” she told Fox Sports, “I started putting more pressure on myself because I felt like I had something to prove since my spot was already solidified and we had to wait another year, which kind of put me in a weird position where riding wasn’t as fun … because I was weighing myself down with all the pressure.” 

To offset the performance pressure, Roberts shifted her focus to her personal life and mental health. She got engaged, married, and purchased a new home with her wife. For someone not yet twenty, she’s making big moves and is approaching the upcoming competition with a healthy combination of excitement and humility. 

“I’m just excited to see what everybody else is doing, and I know there are a few riders I’m riding with that are just going to go and kill it. They are going to definitely hold their own, and I have to go hold my own.”