Commentary

Top U.S. athletes to watch at Beijing Games

Updated: August 7, 2008, 9:45 AM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

Who will give the United States the best chance at gold? Here are the top American athletes to watch at the Beijing Olympics:

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
MN Chan/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant hopes to lead Team USA to a gold medal in Beijing after a third-place showing in Athens four years ago.

Michael Phelps
Sport: Swimming
Events: 100-meter and 200 butterfly, 200 freestyle, 200 and 400 individual medley, 400 free relay, 800 free relay and 400 medley relay
Main rival: Ryan Lochte
Breakdown: Greatest swimmer ever? How about greatest Olympian ever? Michael Phelps isn't just chasing Mark Spitz anymore; he's chasing every legendary Olympian, from Jesse Owens to Nadia Comaneci. Phelps will swim eight events (17 total races, including semis and prelims) with the chance to emerge by Games' end with more gold medals than anyone in history. (Ray Ewry, an American track star from the early 20th century, still holds the record with 10; Phelps has six.) Phelps will test his endurance in swimming his sport's "decathlon" -- the 400-meter individual medley, which requires all four strokes -- and he'll test his speed, with sprints like the 100 butterfly and the 4x100 free relay. Unless something tragic happens, these Olympics will be remembered for what Phelps does -- no matter what he does.

Dara Torres
Sport: Swimming
Events: 50 free, 400 free relay, 400 medley relay
Main rival: Libby Trickett, Australia
Breakdown: Torres will go down as either the most inspiring story of the Olympics or the most upsetting -- and probably nothing in between. She's inspiring because she's 41 -- nearly twice the age of most competitors -- and a super-buff mom who came out of retirement (and a shoulder operation) to make her fifth Olympic team and make a statement about what's possible in sport and in life. She is already the oldest gold medalist in swimming and oldest to make an Olympic swim team. But Torres' story is potentially upsetting because doping whispers follow her like ripples from her powerful freestyle stroke. At the U.S. trials, Torres beat fellow American Jessica Hardy, who tested positive for clenbuterol -- an asthma drug that was also used on Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown. Torres spoke about her own bout with asthma in 2000, but then said at this year's trials she was diagnosed 18 months ago. Torres hasn't failed a drug test and has been a pioneer in volunteering for a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency pilot testing program.

Kobe Bryant
Sport: Men's basketball
Main rival: Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Breakdown: Seems as if every game involving Kobe Bryant becomes a referendum on Kobe Bryant. Now, Kobe is a referendum on American basketball. Bryant is the greatest player in the world, for his offense and his defense, but his individual ability has not translated into a world title since Shaquille O'Neal left the Lakers. This summer, his leadership couldn't overwhelm the team play of the Boston Celtics, and now Bryant will lead a team of American stars against nations that employ the team-first style which left the U.S. with a disappointing bronze at the Athens Games in 2004 and another loss at the World Championships in 2006. Team USA can be forgiven for its lapse four years ago, but if a group of Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James -- coached by Mike Krzyzewski -- can't beat the world, what does that say about American basketball? And what does that say about Kobe?

[+] EnlargeShawn Johnson
Stew Milne/US PresswireWorld all-around champ Shawn Johnson will look to add an Olympic gold medal to her résumé.

Diana Taurasi
Sport: Women's basketball
Main rival: Lauren Jackson, Australia
Breakdown: Who's the greatest winner in sports? Maybe Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who has won at the Little League, high school, collegiate and professional levels. But coming up behind Tek is Taurasi, who led UConn to three national titles, completed a rags-to-riches turnaround for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and now may lead Team USA to another gold medal after being the youngest player on the first-place Athens team. But there is tension this time: The Americans lost to Russia at Worlds in 2006, and eventually watched the Aussies win gold. That broke a 50-game international winning streak. Was that loss a slipup, or the beginning of the same trend affecting the men?

Tyson Gay
Sport: Track and field
Events: 100, 400 relay
Main rival: Usain Bolt, Jamaica
Breakdown: The "World's Fastest Man" has morphed from a title into a punch line in the wake of doping scandals involving Americans Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin, but Gay might restore credibility to the American sprinting tradition. He ran a 9.77 in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. trials in Oregon in July -- matching Montgomery's tainted mark -- and then ran a wind-aided 9.68 the next day, setting a world record. Gay strained his hamstring and fell during qualifying for the 200, but that will only shine a brighter light on the Olympics' marquee event.

Shawn Johnson
Sport: Gymnastics
Main rival: Nastia Liukin, USA
Breakdown: Johnson is straight out of central casting. She's an Iowa teen with two loving parents and straight A's at her high school. She visits an animal shelter on her lunch break, and her greatest vice is shopping. The term "pixie" is a cliché, but let's just say Johnson's smile is about as wide as her 4-foot-8 body is long. Sound anything like Hayden Panettiere? But this real-life hero has a lot of force in that frame. Gymnastics fans will become very familiar with her torque, as her double-twist has become a staple of her floor routine and uneven bars dismount. She was perfect in her all-around at last year's worlds, and if Phelps falters, the Wheaties box may go to the 16-year-old from the heartland.

[+] EnlargeTreanor Walsh
AP Photo/Miguel VillagranMisty May-Treanor, left, and Kerry Walsh have won 96 straight matches heading into the Olympics.

Laura Wilkinson
Sport: Diving
Event: 10-meter platform
Main rival: Wang Xin, China
Breakdown: Divers are supposed to have up-and-down careers, but get this: Wilkinson came from eighth to win gold in the 2000 Sydney Games while wearing a kayak shoe over her broken foot. Then she placed out of the medal stand in Athens. Now she's back again as the American front-runner after beating 15-year-old Haley Ishimatsu at the U.S. trials. She's still the only American woman to win a platform gold since 1964. But the host Chinese are heavy favorites in diving: They won six golds in Athens, while no other nation won more than one.

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh
Sport: Beach volleyball
Main rival: Tian Jia and Wang Jie, China
Breakdown: Have there ever been two people who represent their sport like this pair? Can anyone name a single beach volleyball player -- man or woman -- besides Misty and Kerri? Can anyone imagine them apart? (The two faced each other in high school, and Misty teamed with Holly McPeak in Sydney, finishing fifth.) And maybe the biggest question is: Can anyone imagine them losing? The duo has won 17 straight tournaments and 96 straight matches -- both records -- including gold in Athens, where they did not lose a set. Still, the Chinese have roared to within shouting distance of the American duo, and Misty and Kerri might actually sweat in Beijing for reasons other than the heat.

Allyson Felix
Sport: Track and field
Events: 200 meters
Main rival: Muna Lee, USA
Breakdown: Felix makes Shawn Johnson seem nefarious by comparison. Her father's a minister and her mom's an elementary school teacher. She finished up school at the University of Southern California after turning pro. Her smile is so glowing and unyielding, it's a wonder she doesn't sprint with a grin (though she does in the latest issue of The New York Times' Play Magazine). But like Johnson, Felix has strength of stride and purpose. She's a runaway favorite in the 200 meters and has a clear shot at two more relay golds. Oh, and she can leg-press 700 pounds. Nothing adorable about that.

Taylor Phinney
Sport: Cycling
Events: 4-kilometer individual pursuit
Main rival: Bradley Wiggins, Great Britain
Breakdown: The velodrome is always a cool sight, but Beijing may bring a chance to see the next Lance Armstrong. Phinney has a story ready-made for television. His mom, Connie, was an Olympic speedskater at age 14 and a road-race gold medalist in 1984. His dad, Davis, was the first American to win a Tour de France road stage, and he's a cycling bronze medalist. But Davis Phinney was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and now he has a pacemaker in his brain to help control movements that keep him unable to fully rest at night. Taylor, or "Mini Phinney," took up cycling and, at 17, won the first track race he ever entered, at the U.S. national championships last year. Armstrong already knows who Taylor is, and so will millions more in a matter of days.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.

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ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.