One of the great things about the Olympics is that so much can change in four years. Take wrestler Rulon Gardner, the giant Wyoming farm boy who returned from Sydney with a gold medal he never expected to win--and heads to Athens missing a pinky toe he surely never expected to lose. Or fencer Keeth Smart, who carried his saber on the subway as a kid in Brooklyn, N.Y. An also-ran in 2000, he's now poised to end the United States' 20-year medal drought. Not all of the Americans on these pages are locks for gold, but they're all terrific stories. Which brings up another great thing about the Olympics: these are just the ones we already know about. In a matter of days, there will be a lot more.
No one would have faulted Thompson if, at 31, she had decided to call it quits. She'd already been to three Olympics and collected more medals--10, eight of them gold--than any other American woman in history. And her second career was going swell: she was a student at Columbia Medical School. A star athlete and a doctor? It's enough to make you, well, sick. But Thompson thought her resume was missing one thing: an individual gold. (Her eight all came in relays.) To get it, she'll need a big swim in the 100m fly or 50m freestyle, but just go ahead and try not rooting for her.
FYI: One more medal and she'll set an overall American record.
After he stunned Russia's three-time Olympic champion Aleksandr Karelin by a 1-0 score in Sydney's "Miracle on the Mat," the heavyweight wrestler celebrated his gold medal with a cartwheel. It was just about the last move Gardner executed safely. Since then he has dislocated his wrist playing basketball, flown over the handlebars of his motorcycle when he stopped short to avoid a car and lost a toe to frostbite after a snowmobile accident. But the 31-year-old 260-pounder has rebounded just in time for Athens. Last month he won his first international title in three years.
FYI: He plans to bury the toe, which is kept in formaldehyde in his fridge.
A brand-new sport for women usually means a medals windfall for America. Five-foot, 102-pound Patricia Miranda hopes to grab the first gold in women's wrestling, the only new Olympic competition in Athens. At Stanford, she wrestled on the men's team, taking daily beatings in practice from her bigger, stronger teammates. That helped produce a wrestler many regard as the toughest on the U.S. team--of either gender. At the 2003 World Championships, Miranda lost the gold by a point to the Ukrainian world champ. "I cried, it was so painful," she says. "But it was a kick in the a-- to help me win in Athens."
FYI: Eli bookworms beware: Miranda is headed to Yale Law School.
Athens will be the swan song for superstar Hamm and her soccer sisters who captivated America one memorable World Cup summer. But that '99 triumph also marked the end of U.S. dominance in the sport. America is neither defending Olympic nor World Cup champion. The U.S. team lost the 2000 Olympic match in the finals to Norway. And in the 2003 World Cup, in the United States once more, it got booted 3-0 in the semifinals by Germany, which went on to win the tourney. Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain--the thirtysomethings whose tenure on the national team began in the 1980s--remain starters, along with the World Cup hero, goalkeeper Briana Scurry. "We set out at every tournament to win," says Hamm, 32, regarded as the greatest player in the history of the women's game. "You want to go out on a high note."
FYI: While the seniors are the heart and soul of this team, the scoring spark may come from two young Olympic rookies--Abby Wambach, 24, and Heather O'Reilly, 19.
MISTY MAY AND KERRI WALSH
If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you might recall a certain Visa commercial featuring two bikini-clad babes pounding a volleyball on an icy beach. The ad turned May, 25, and Walsh, 24, into celebrities seven months ahead of schedule. But to stay in that stratosphere, the duo will have to regain their recent unbeatable form. Until May suffered a painful abdominal strain early this summer that she's just now getting over, she and Walsh had won 90 straight matches and were the runaway favorites for gold in Athens. If May (a former college player of the year at Long Beach State), who's known on the circuit as a warrior, is being candid about the extent of her recovery, they still are.
FYI: In her childhood, May's babysitter was volleyball icon Karch Kiraly.
Track And Field
America has a tradition of standout milers. But like so much at this Athens Games, it is an ancient tradition. No American has won an Olympic medal in the 1500 meters (the "metric mile") since Kansas Congressman Jim Ryun captured silver back in 1968. But in 2001 Webb shattered Ryun's high-school record that had stood for 36 years. Now, after two disappointing seasons, Webb, 21, has won four major races while posting the second fastest time in the world. Is he ready for the Olympics, with its multiple heats and complex, tactical races? At the U.S. Olympic trials last month, Webb simply sprinted away from the pack midway through the race. "That was one of the hardest, strongest moves I've ever seen," said Charlie Gruber, who took second place. Says Webb: "One thing I learned this year is, good things happen when you go for it."
FYI: After one year at U Michigan, Webb returned to his high-school coach in Virginia.
On "this week in baseball," Finch pitches to--and whiffs--guys like St. Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols. She set an NCAA record for straight wins, with 60. Her bio says she's traveled to 34 states. And that's exactly what you tell your wife when asked about your newfound passion for women's softball. Truth is, Finch is only part of why Team USA's pitching staff is so mesmerizing. In the run to Athens, where a gold threepeat is expected, the rotation, anchored by vet Lisa Fernandez, was 53-0. Finch's 0.27 ERA? Downright bloated next to Cat Osterman's Bluto-like 0.00. But chin up, Jennie: all eyes will still be focused on you.
FYI: The pitching circle is now three feet farther from home plate to give batters a better chance.
The last time an American won an Olympic medal in fencing was 20 years ago: a bronze by Peter Westbrook in Los Angeles. Smart, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., is the nation's best hope for ending the drought--and he might not need to settle for third place. In March 2003 Smart became the first American to be ranked No. 1 in the world, and he earned that ranking in a familiar place: Athens. When he arrives back in town, though, a pair of past Olympic champions in the individual saber will be waiting to foil his plans--1996 winner Stanislav Pozdniakov of Russia and 2000 winner Mihai Cova-liu of Romania. En garde!
FYI: Smart's little sister, Erinn, is also bound for Athens.