By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The 2016 Rio Olympics features no shortage of star power, with Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Neymar set to take center stage. But, among the ten thousand athletes in this year’s Games, there are those who, though not quite household names, bring to the 2016 Games accolades and stories equally as compelling as their more famous brethren. Here, in no particular order, are some of those remarkable athletes.
Chris Froome, Cycling
British cyclist Chris Froome, the 2013 and 2015 Tour De France champion, is aiming to become the first cyclist in history to win the trifecta of the Tour de France, the Olympic road race, and the Olympic time trial in the same year. No cyclist has ever even won both the Olympic road race and time trial, not to mention the Tour.
The closest any cyclist has come to this triple victory was in 2012, when compatriot Sir Bradley Wiggins won both the Tour and Olympic time trial. If Froome does him one better, it will be one of the greatest sporting feats of all time. At time of writing, Froome is leading at stage seventeen in the 2016 Tour de France.
Larissa Franca, Beach Volleyball
As the all-time leader in beach volleyball titles with 57 International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) career gold medals, Brazilian Larissa Franca is considered one of the best beach volleyball players of all time. But, the one glaring omission on her impressive resume, the Olympic gold medal.
After retiring in 2012, Franca returned in 2014 with a new partner, Talita Antunes. Together, they won a record-breaking 61-straight matches culminating in gold at the 2015 World Tour. Now, in front of the hometown fans at Copacabana beach, Franca looks to finally win the Olympic gold medal that has long eluded her.
Boris Berian, Athletics (Track and Field)
Just two years ago, American Boris Berian, was a college dropout flipping burgers at a McDonald’s in California. Fast forward fourteen months and today Berrian is the world champion in the 800-meters, winning gold at the World Championships in March, and is one of the favorites to add another 800-meter medal in Rio.
Mo Farah, Athletics (Track and Field)
In the 2012 London Olympics, Mo Farah won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in his home country Olympics, one of the greatest performances ever by a distance runner. In Rio, Farah, who emigrated to the U.K. from Somalia when he was eight, will attempt to become the first runner in over forty years to repeat as champion in both distances.
Aston Eaton and Brianne Thiessen, Athletics (Track and Field)
One of the best athletes in the world, American Aston Eaton is the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder in the decathlon. Entering the Rio Olympics, he is favored to become the first two-time decathlon gold medalist since Daley Thompson of Great Britain in 1992.
Eaton’s wife, Canadian Brianne Thiessen, is also a returning Olympian and is currently the top-ranked heptathlete in the world. With Eaton and Thiessen both favored to win gold, they have the chance to become the first married couple in history to win gold medals at the same Olympics for different countries.
Kohei Uchimura, Gymnastics
It’s easy to see why in his native Japan, gymnast Kohei Uchimura, is known as Superman. Only 27 years old, Uchimura is regarded by some to be the greatest male gymnast of all time. He has won six straight world all-around titles, twice as many as any other gymnast.
Following his gold medal performance in the 2012 London Games, Superman is looking to defend his all-around title to become the first man to repeat as all-around champion since his compatriot, Sawao Kato, accomplished the feat in 1972.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, Fencing
Despite winning five consecutive world championship fencing medals, American Ibtihaj Muhammad will make headlines in Rio, but not just for her considerable fencing skills. She will be the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Games in a hijab, a headscarf sometimes worn by Muslim women. Earlier this year, TIME Magazine named her one its 100 Most Influential People of 2016 for her positive impact on the Muslim American community.
Nate Ebner, Rugby
Rugby is making its return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence, with a shorter, faster version, Rugby Sevens. And with traditional heavyweights like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and defending world champions Fiji in the mix, the U.S. has enlisted New England Patriots running back Nate Ebner to boost the team’s chances for a medal. The former Super Bowl champion is no stranger to the sport. Before his NFL career, Ebner, at 17, was the youngest player ever on the U.S. National Rugby Sevens team.
Yusra Mardini and the Refugee Olympic team
For the first time in Olympic history, a squad of ten athletes will walk the opening ceremony, not under the flag of any one particular country, but under the Olympic flag as the Refugee Olympic team. This inspirational group of athletes includes two judokas (judo practitioners) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, two swimmers from Syria, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five runners from South Sudan.
Beyond being great athletes, all of the individuals on the Refugee team represent courage and determination in the most difficult of circumstances. One such athlete is swimmer Yusra Mardini from Syria. Last year, Mardini and her sister fled their war-torn country, attempting a treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean in a small boat with eighteen other refugees.
Shortly into their journey, the boat’s engine lost power and began taking on water. Mardini, her sister, and the only other person able to swim immediately jumped into the water and pushed the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos, a journey that took three hours.