Who's going to make the headlines for Team U.S.A. in London? Who's stories are going to be the ones told most often? Whose competitions are going to make for the most must-see viewing? Here's 10 prime candidates.
Michael Phelps, men's swimming. Look at Phelps from one angle, and this is what you see: a swimmer past his supernova prime who's retiring after the London Games at the age of 26, who's admitted to struggling with his "passion" for the sport, whose only decision regarding what events he'll swim is that he won't swim as many as he did last go-round, whose recent results have been underwhelming, whose rivals -- teammate Ryan Lochte, most notably --seem to have caught up to him. In short, you see a swimmer poised for disappointment.
Look from another angle, and you see this simple fact: that by winning three medals of any color in London, Phelps will finish his career with more medals than any other athlete in Olympic history--summer or winter, any country, any sport, any gender. (Phelps already holds the record for most career gold medals, with 14.) Is it even possible to be a disappointment when you're busy writing your name into the history books as the most decorated Olympian who ever lived? And who's to say that with Phelps' old ruthless competitiveness fully engaged again, he doesn't have one last multi-golden turn in the spotlight left in him?
The truth is that when we look at Michael Phelps -- after the usual four years of looking places other than the international swimming circuit -- we don't honestly know what we're looking at. And that's why we're not going to take our eyes off of him for a second this summer.
Abby Wambach, women's soccer. Wambach may never quite be the media darling Mia Hamm was, but that's OK--she's better, boasting the U.S. national side's record goals-per-game rate (a ridiculous .75 goals per appearance) and delivering a goal in last year's World Cup more iconic than any Hamm ever scored. And hey, like Hamm, Wambach now even has her own Gatorade commercial. But there's one thing Hamm has that Wambach doesn't--a second Olympic gold medal, thanks to the broken leg that kept Wambach off of the U.S. roster in Beijing. If Wambach can score another bushel of goals and help the USWNT claim the championship that ultimately eluded them at the World Cup, she'll only cement herself as the greatest striker the U.S. women have ever had.
Kevin Durant, men's basketball. It goes without saying that Durant needs no introduction to even the most casual of basketball fans. But unlike fellow teammates LeBron and Kobe, he might still need one to certain Olympics fans for whom only the absolute brightest of hoops stars are household names. If Durant can reprise his MVP performance from the U.S.A.'s gold medal run at the 2010 world championships, though -- and do so in much friendlier time slots than the U.S.A.'s little-seen 2008 Beijing triumph received -- he could take a big step towards elevating himself into the kind of megawatt status previously reserved for the heroes of Dream Teams past.
Jordyn Wieber, women's gymnastics. Few sports allow its competitors to vault themselves into the American consciousness like women's gymnastics (if you'll pardon the pun), and no one is poised to rise any higher at London than reigning world all-around champion Wieber. The 16-year-old from DeWitt, Mich. has taken the sport by storm in the past year, not only claiming the 2011 world title and the 2011 American all-around championship but leading Team U.S.A. to the team gold at worlds as well. The reigning world champion has failed to win all-around gold in any of the last three summer games, but Wieber's dominant form -- she just won her second American Cup championship in March -- suggests that the good folks at Wheaties should already be paying attention.
Brady Ellison, men's archery. Archery lies at nearly the complete opposite end of the glamour spectrum compared to gymnastics, but that might not make any difference where Ellison is concerned. A charismatic hunting enthusiast from rural Arizona whose archery training began nearly at birth, Ellison has seen his story already draw a fair amount of media attention (see example one here, example two here) that might seem out of place if he didn't also happen to be the No. 1-ranked archer in the world, and the favorite for the gold medal. Yes, you'll likely see plenty of Ellison's television-friendly Olympic rings tattoo, cowboy hat, and goatee ... but that's because you may very well also see him atop the medal podium.
Carmelita Jeter, women's track. Lolo Jones has been making bigger waves away from the track, but on it, there may be no American woman with a better shot at individual gold than Jeter, current holder of the title "world's fastest woman." The 32-year-old California native capped two years of dominance in the 100 meters with a gold medal performance at the 2011 World Championships, and added a sliver in the 200 to boot. Though Jamaican rival Veronica Campbell-Brown and American relay teammate Alyson Felix will have much to say about it, a double-gold performance isn't out of the question.
Dwight Phillips, men's long jump. The U.S. men's track team has seen better days--it claimed just one individual gold medal at the 2011 world championships, and even that one (Jason Richardson's in the 110-meter hurdles) was a result of a disqualification. But things are different in the "field" half of track and field, with the Americans sporting serious contenders in the high jump, triple jump, decathlon, shotput and the long jump, where Phillips will attempt to win his second career gold medal after placing first in Athens in 2004. Phillips isn't embarking on some of kind of late-career comeback, though; he's also the holder of four world championships golds, the most recent coming just last year, and owns the best career jump (8.74 meters, from 2009) of any active long jumper. Another Olympic gold would place Phillips on of the shortlist of the greatest American track and field athletes of his generation.
Diana Taurasi, women's basketball. Hey, so, yeah, Diana Taurasi. Remember her? Maybe the best women's basketball player on the planet? Arguably the greatest guard in women's basketball history? The two-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time NCAA champion, two-time WNBA champion and winner of more individual awards than we could possibly list in this space? The leader of a team that's as big a lock for gold as any at the Games? Who won't draw the attention they deserve because they're that big a lock in large part because she's that good? Her? We should probably all bother to remember.
Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, men's beach volleyball. Yes, we know that the American beach volleyball team with the highest Q rating in London -- particularly, ahem, among viewers with a Y chromosome -- will no doubt be Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, as they aim for a third straight Olympic gold medal. But for much of 2012, the U.S. team with the best form and best-looking of bringing back the gold has been Rogers and Dalhausser, currently the No. 1-ranked team on the FIVB tour. And like May-Treanor and Walsh, Rogers and Dalhausser won't lack for big-match experience--they, too, will be defending a gold medal won in Beijing. Toss in what might be the fashion statement of the games, and you get the volleyball team we're most looking forward to watching, in tank- or bikini tops.
Brenda Villa, women's water polo. In all three previous Olympic women's water polo tournaments, the U.S. has advanced to the medal rounds. In all three, they've come up agonizingly short of gold, taking bronze once and silver twice--the second of those coming in a gutting 9-8 loss to an underdog Netherlands squad in the 2008 final. In all three, veteran attacker and U.S. captain Villa has been in the pool, and she'll be there again in London, along with fellow four-time Olympian Heather Petri. The U.S. is currently ranked sixth in the world after a disappointing showing at the 2011 world championships, but before that had won its previous six international tournaments and just doubled up current world No. 1 Greece 8-4. After more than a decade of disappointment, Villa and Petri are going to get their one, final shot at gold redemption--and whether you're a water polo fan or not, it's going to make for emotional viewing.