A dozen Team USA athletes to watch at the Rio Olympics

American swimmer Michael Phelps will be trying to add to his 18 gold medals when he competes in the Rio Olympics.
American swimmer Michael Phelps will be trying to add to his 18 gold medals when he competes in the Rio Olympics. The Associated Press

Every four years a darling (or darlings) emerges from among the U.S. talent delegation sent across the world.

And make no mistake about it, U.S. commerce will be quick to snatch up any and all who show any commercial appeal to put on a Wheaties cereal box or a can of Coke.

It all starts, though, with success in Rio.

Here are 12 athletes to watch as the Summer Olympics begin Friday with the Opening Ceremony.

Simone Biles, gymnastics

4-8, 105 pounds, Spring, Texas

The three-time defending world champion heads to her first Olympics having already been tagged the greatest ever in her sport. She has won four consecutive U.S. all-around titles and her 14 world medals are the most in U.S. history.

Ashton Eaton, decathlon

6-1, 185 pounds, Eugene, Ore.

The 28-year-old Eaton is expected to become the first back-to-back decathlon champion in more than 30 years, when Britain’s Daley Thompson won in Moscow and Los Angeles. The last American to go back-to-back: Bob Mathias in 1948 and ’52.

Boris Berian, 800 meters

6-0, 160 pounds, Big Bear Lake, Calif.

Berian dropped out of college because he didn’t like school for a career flipping burgers at McDonald’s, leaving his mother convinced his destiny was as a layabout. But the local track club sniffed him out and made him live up to his world-class caliber.

Jordan Burroughs, wrestling

5-9, 163 pounds, Lincoln, Neb.

The 28-year-old Burroughs, originally from New Jersey, is the face of American freestyle wrestling as he seeks his second Olympic gold medal. Burroughs, a former wrestler at Nebraska who has won three World Championships, won an American-record 69 consecutive matches to start his career on the senior level during 2011-14.

Vashti Cunningham, high jumper

6-1, Las Vegas

Cunningham, the tall and long-limbed daughter of former NFL QB Randall Cunningham, is a freak, tied for the highest jump internationally this year at 6-6  1/4 . Oh, and she’s just 18 years old. “I like to compare her to the Usain Bolt of high jump. He started out doing things that nobody had ever done before,” Chaunté Lowe, the American record holder, told the Washington Post.

Allyson Felix, sprinter

5-6, 125 pounds, Santa Clarita, Calif.

Felix, a six-time Olympic medalist and first U.S. track athlete since Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 to win three gold medals in one Olympic games, won the women’s 400 at the trials in 49.68, the best time in the world this year. That despite a bad right ankle, which hindered the 30-year-old’s 200 in a fourth-place finish.

Justin Gatlin, sprinter

6-1, 180 pounds, Orlando, Fla.

At 34 Gatlin is an aging sprinter, but he’s not turning into a tortoise after coming off two of the best years of his career, capped by winning times of 9.80 in the 100 and 19.75 in the 200 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The story in 2016 is his continued rivalry with Usain Bolt.

Gwen Jorgensen, triathlon

5-10, 130 pounds, St. Paul, Minn.

While in college, officials of USA Triathlon called Jorgensen, a University of Wisconsin swimmer, suggesting she try the triathlon. She resisted, instead going to work as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Try it as a hobby, they said. “And, boy, was I glad I tried triathlon!” the 30-year-old told Forbes, which interviewed the world’s fastest triathlete. A flat tire on the bike likely cost her a medal in London.

Katie Ledecky, swimming

6-0, Bethesda, Md.

At 19, she is considered the most dominant female swimmer on earth, with 11 world records. She has four gold medals dancing in her head as dives into Rio’s pool, vying for gold in the 200, 400, 800 free and the 800 relay.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, fencing

5-7, 150 pounds, Maplewood, N.J.

In her first Olympic experience, Muhammad might well turn heads with her ability, but observers will first notice that she will be the first U.S. athlete to compete at an Olympic Games in a hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women. “I’m just your basic Hijabi Zorro,” she joked to ESPN.

Michael Phelps, swimming

6-4, Tempe, Ariz.

The most decorated U.S. Olympian — 22 medals, including 18 gold — retired after 2012, then whipped his personal demons only to decide to come back for a fifth — and what he vows will be his last — Olympiad at age 31.

Serena Williams, tennis

5-9, 155 pounds, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

With 22 Grand Slam singles titles, Williams is perhaps the most dominant woman’s player ever, and she’s expected to go through her competition in what might best be described as “Whipping the World in Far Less than 80 Days.”