They might not fit the standard definition of a team, but the 530 athletes who will compete for the U.S. in London are precisely that, not least because they reflect—in their stories and aspirations—the very best of America
WHAT MAKES them a team exactly? A team is a close-knit group of individuals working together toward a common goal, and at first sight the U.S. Olympic squad doesn't seem to fit that definition. Close-knit? With 530 athletes from 44 states competing in 25 sports, some members of Team USA will probably never meet. Diver Kelci Bryant, from Chatham, Ill., and boxer Rau'shee Warren, from Cincinnati, may never get to know each other in a meaningful way. Common goal? They don't even compete on common ground. While Michael Phelps and the other U.S. swimmers try to beat the rest of the world in the water, pole vaulters such as Jenn Suhr will go for gold in the air and sprinters such as Tyson Gay will try to win on England's terra firma.
Most of the U.S. athletes will live in the Olympic Village and take a lap together around the track at the opening and closing ceremonies while wearing matching red-white-and-blue outfits. That will make them neighbors—even friends, perhaps—but not teammates.
So what makes them a team? In part we do—those of us who view the U.S. Olympians as our representatives. As much as anything else, it is national pride that blankets them, bonds them, makes them feel like a true team. "We're all tight within our own groups, the track and field people, the gymnastics teams, the swimmers and divers and what have you," says sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross (page 94), the gold medal favorite in the 400 meters. "But when you hear that U-S-A! U-S-A! chant go up, it doesn't matter what sport it's for. You realize that all athletes on this team are trying in different ways to do the same thing: make America proud."
That unity of purpose transforms a group of individuals into a real unit, yet the beauty of an Olympic team is in its differences. It includes different body types and backgrounds, different personalities and styles of preparation. It is man and woman, teenage and middle age, pixie and behemoth. Although this might sound like every political speech you've ever heard, the team symbolizes the U.S. in all its diversity—of races, of ethnicities, of socioeconomic backgrounds, of skill sets. It is a quilt, disparate pieces stitched together to make a unified whole.
On what other unit could 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin and 52-year-old equestrian rider Rich Fellers—both first-time Olympians—be teammates? Or LeBron James, bred in Ohio, and women's archer Khatuna Lorig, born in the Republic of Georgia? Where else could men's archer Brady Ellison, who has been known to rise at 6 a.m. to go bow hunting for wild game, be on the same squad with synchronized swimmer Mary Killman, who has been known to rise at 6 a.m. to begin applying to her hair the gelatin that will keep every strand in place for competition?
Cyclist Dotsie Bausch is a former runway model and recovered anorexic who consumed only 30 calories a day during the depths of her illness more than a decade ago. "There were days when my entire intake consisted of a portion of a muffin," Bausch says. At the other end of the spectrum is 340-pound weightlifter Holly Mangold, younger sister of Jets center Nick Mangold, for whom eating has never been a complicated issue. "I don't avoid food," Holly says. "I embrace it." So different and yet teammates.
So this cross section of Americans will represent the U.S. against the world on foreign soil. That makes them sound something like a battalion heading off to war, but fortunately the stakes only feel like life and death—to the athletes, that is.
Better still, the outcome is usually clear. Part of the appeal of watching Team USA is seeing the U.S. measure itself against other countries in competitions that, unlike so many international conflicts, usually have an indisputable winner and loser. We can debate which kind of government is the best, which nation's health-care system gives the best service to its citizens, but with luck there will be no arguing which country's eight-man shell rows across the finish line first at Eton Dorney just outside London. You can cheer your lungs out for the U.S. if you like, know clearly whether its athletes have won and, best of all, know that no matter what the outcome, the only casualty will be the pride of the losers.
IN A way, an Olympic team is the reverse of most other squads, which usually have a relatively short preparation time—a training camp, a spring training—before a long season. For the athletes who will represent the Stars and Stripes in London, there have been at least four years of work (much more, in some cases) for the chance to spend 17 days as a member of Team USA. It is an enormous investment for such a brief opportunity to compete.
Marlen Esparza, 22, a projected medal contender in the 112-pound flyweight class in the new Olympic sport of women's boxing, has been training for the Games for half of her life. Before she could fight opponents as a young woman, she had to fight stereotypes as a little girl. Though her father encouraged her two younger brothers to box and watched tapes with her of former champion Julio César Chàvez, Marlen had to beg her dad before he finally allowed her to put on the gloves herself.
She was 11 when she walked into Rudy Silva's gym in the Houston suburb of Pasadena and asked him to be her trainer. In a scene out of Million Dollar Baby, Silva told her he didn't train girls. It took Marlen days to persuade him to let her work out at his gym and several days more to get his permission to spar with his young male fighters. "I wanted her to quit," Silva says, "but after a while, some of my boys started quitting." Marlen stayed, and at 16 she won the first of her six national titles in the 106-pound light flyweight division. She was the first female U.S. fighter to qualify for London. "To be the first woman to earn an Olympic [boxing] spot is everything to me," Esparza says. "It feels like everything in my life has been building toward this."
Stories like Esparza's are what make Team USA a real team. The athletes' goals in London may not be the same, but the goal of getting to London was. Hundreds of paths led them to this point, and while the relentless television segments on their backstories may start to overwhelm you, each one of them is compelling in its own way.
Gymnast Danell Leyva's road to London, for instance, began in Cuba. His mother, María Gonàlez, a former gymnast on the Cuban national team, defected in 1993, spiriting Danell out of the country when he was just a year old. In Miami, Gonàlez reunited with Yin Alvarez, a former teammate. They eventually married and opened a gym, where Leyva, the reigning world champion on the parallel bars, began his road to the Olympics. "I am who I am because of my parents," he says. "They believed they could do crazy things, so I never thought I couldn't."
That's the kind of story that makes an Olympic squad different from the teams we usually follow. We want Team USA to win for us, so we can wave the flag, but we want it to succeed for the athletes as well because we understand what they have invested to make it this far. When most teams fail, their fans feel bad mostly for themselves. When Olympians fall short, we are not disappointed in them, we are disappointed for them.
Maybe the only exception to this is in men's basketball, where we expect a group of wealthy NBA stars to be dominant. If they bring home anything less than gold, they will have to answer for it. That's why the celebrity athletes, not just NBA players such as James and Kobe Bryant but also tennis players such as Serena Williams and Andy Roddick, always seem a bit out of place at the Games. Team USA isn't about the stars who compete in the Olympics, it's about the athletes who become stars as a result of competing in the Olympics.
INSTEAD OF global celebrities, most of Team USA's athletes are people we can imagine seeing at the mall or the grocery store, and some of their stories make us care even more about them. They have committed not just their bodies and minds to the Olympic effort, but also their hearts.
Open-water swimmer Alex Meyer is competing in memory of his friend Fran Crippen, who might have been on Team USA if not for his death in 2010 while swimming in a 10-kilometer World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates. The race was held in near-90¬∫ water, and an autopsy showed that Crippen succumbed to heat exhaustion. He had slipped beneath the surface without officials noticing, and Meyer was the first to realize his friend was nowhere in sight. "I felt the best way to honor him was to achieve the goal we both shared," says Meyer, who hopes to carry one of Crippen's swim caps with him onto the medal podium in London (and whose story will be featured on a new SI television show, which debuts on NBC Sports Network on July 24 at 9 p.m. ET).
Five years ago Kayla Harrison, a world champion in judo, was in an Ohio courtroom testifying that her former coach Daniel Doyle had abused her for three years when she was a teenager. Before Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Harrison's parents, sensing that their daughter needed a change of scenery, encouraged her to move to Boston, where she continued her judo training under Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jimmy Sr. The training center became her safe haven; the two Pedros offered emotional support as well as coaching, helping Harrison through her dark periods. "I thought about quitting every day for the first year and a half I was there," she says, "but they never gave up on me." Thanks in great measure to the Pedros (the younger of whom is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist), Harrison now has a chance to become the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in judo.
It is easy to root for athletes such as these, both because of their individual stories and because of the larger unit of which they are a part. Team USA doesn't hold a monopoly on sacrifice and commitment, of course. Athletes from all over the world have traveled equally arduous roads to get to London, and the challenge for U.S. fans, as always, is to avoid jingoism. But you don't have to apologize if you feel a connection to the U.S. team. They are trying to make you proud even as you cheer for them to fulfill their own dreams. A group of athletes and their fans all want success, as much for each other as for themselves. You know what that's called? A team.
At 29, Natalie Coughlin qualified for London in only one event: the 4 √ó 100-meter freestyle relay. But if the U.S. team makes the podium, Coughlin, who has 11 medals from the '04 and '08 Games, will tie Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated female Olympians in U.S. history.
With his bronze medal in the flyweight division at the worlds last October in Azerbaijan, Rau'shee Warren, a 25-year-old Cincinnati native, became the first U.S. boxer to qualify for three Olympic teams. In 2004, as a light flyweight and the youngest fighter in Athens, he failed to medal. He won gold as a flyweight at the '07 worlds and entered the Beijing Games as the favorite, but he lost a controversial decision in his first bout and came home with nothing. The father of two heads to London hoping that the third time is the charm.
The reigning two-time Olympic champions are still smarting over the excruciating penalty-kick shootout loss to Japan in last year's World Cup final. Veterans of that team—including (clockwise from far left) midfielder Carli Lloyd, forward Alex Morgan and midfielders Heather O'Reilly and Lauren Cheney—are bent on redemption in London.
WOMEN'S TRACK AND FIELD
The U.S. will take a pair of strong medal favorites to London in hurdler Lashinda Demus (above, left) and long jumper Brittney Reese. Demus, 29, the world champion in the 400-meter hurdles, missed the Beijing Games after giving birth to twin boys the year before. Reese, 25—who collects Air Jordans in her free time—finished fourth in the long jump in 2008 but has won gold at each of the last two outdoor world championships.
A three-time All-America at Purdue, David Boudia won the individual 10-meter platform silver at last year's worlds, becoming the first U.S. diver to medal in the event since Greg Louganis in 1986. Boudia, 23, won the 10-meter at the Olympic trials last month; runner-up Nick McCrory will be his 10-meter synchro partner in London.
The U.S. team will send a pair of world champions to the mat. Clarissa Chun (above, left), a 30-year-old native of Hawaii, finished fifth in the 105 ½-pound division in Beijing and won a world title later in 2008. Two-time NCAA champ Jordan Burroughs, a 24-year-old who wrestled for Nebraska, won the 163-pound title in his first trip to the worlds last year and is a gold medal favorite in London.
Bernard Lagat, the American-record holder at three distances (1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters), heads to his fourth Olympics in search of his first gold medal. A native Kenyan who became a U.S. citizen in 2005, Lagat, 37, ran second to Galen Rupp in the 5,000 at the Olympic trials.
Brady Ellison, a shaggy-haired 23-year-old bow hunter from Glendale, Ariz., failed to win a medal in Beijing, but he has been the world's No. 1--ranked archer in men's recurve since 2010—and is the first American to win three straight World Cups. South Korea has dominated international archery competitions for years, but in London, Ellison could become Team USA's first men's individual gold medalist in the sport since 1996.
WOMEN'S FIELD HOCKEY
At the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, the underdog U.S. stunned world No. 1 Argentina to win its first international gold medal. In London, led by captain Lauren Crandall (left, top), 27, and striker Katie O'Donnell, 23, Team USA will attempt to reach the Olympic podium for the first time since a bronze medal finish in 1984.
Nathan Adrian won gold as a member of the 4 √ó 100 freestyle relay team in Beijing. Now, after his victory in the 100-meter free at the Olympic trials, the 23-year-old has his sights set on an individual medal.
Photographs by MICHAEL O'NEILL