The Southerners Set to Rock the Summer Olympics

Ten stellar athletes from across the region to pull for in Tokyo

Photo: Associated Press and Thaddius Bedford

Clockwise from top left: Olympians Erriyon Knighton, Kayle Browning, A’ja Wilson, and Caeleb Dressel.

When the Olympics kick off this Friday, all eyes will be on twenty-four-year-old Simone Biles, who lives and trains in Spring, Texas. The high-profile gymnast and clear G.O.A.T. has won every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013 and amassed twenty-five world championship medals. But she’s just one athlete with Southern ties to watch these Games. Here are ten more worth tuning into, too: Each has proven to be a powerhouse in their sport, and will no doubt make Team USA—and the South—very proud.

A’ja Wilson
Women’s Basketball
The WNBA standout from Hopkins, South Carolina, has been tearing up the court since her high school days in Columbia, and now she’s aiming to do the same in Tokyo. At twenty-four, Wilson is one of the youngest players on the Team USA roster, but the former University of South Carolina and current Las Vegas Aces star is expected to be key as the Americans go for the gold. The U.S. women’s team has won it every year since 1996, so there’s a good shot Wilson will be adding Olympic medalist to her long list of accolades.

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Jessica Springsteen
Equestrian Jumping
Yes, Jessica is the daughter of that Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. But she’s also a legit show jumper. The 2014 Duke graduate trains in Wellington, Florida, and ranks fourteenth in the world. In Tokyo, the twenty-nine-year-old Springsteen will be riding a twelve-year-old Belgian Warmblood stallion named Don Juan van de Donkhoeve. Baby they were born…to jump.

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Kayle Browning
Trap Shooting
Growing up in Wooster, Arkansas, Browning started shooting with her dad—who was a competitive clays shooter—at age eight. By twelve, she made the All-American team. In 2019, she took home gold at the Olympic trials and secured her spot on the Tokyo roster. When she’s not training or flipping houses (she’s also a Realtor), Browning is an avid duck hunter who loves working with her dogs.

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Raven Saunders
Shot Put
When Saunders, a Charleston, South Carolina, native, competed in the Olympic trials in June, she wore a Hulk mask—a nod to the nickname she was given in high school. She not only set the all-time national high school girls’ record; Saunders also broke the South Carolina shot put record by eleven feet and won three NCAA titles with the University of Mississippi. Since finishing fifth in Rio, Saunders has been open about her struggles with mental health and the importance of therapy—proving herself to be a superhero inside and outside of the shot-put circle.

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Caeleb Dressel
When the Olympics were put on hold during the pandemic, Caeleb Dressel joined his father and siblings on their annual Appalachian Trail adventure, covering sixty miles of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee—a trip he typically had to miss out on due to his rigorous training. But the Florida native and University of Florida superstar has been back in the pool and appears ready to take home multiple medals in Tokyo. Dressel will swim up to seven events, including four relays (he swam with Michael Phelps on the 2016 team that took home gold). There’s a chance he’ll become only the third man to win three individual golds at one Games, joining Phelps and Mark Spitz.

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Noah Lyles
Track and Field
In 2016, at age eighteen, Lyles missed making Team USA by six-hundredths of a second. But this year the 2019 200-meter champion and Alexandria, Virginia, native, got his revenge with a world-leading 19.74 at the trials—and is Tokyo bound. With a personal best of 19.50, it’s possible he could have Usain Bolt’s world record of 19.19 in his sights.

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Erriyon Knighton
Track and Field
When Knighton was a freshman in high school in Tampa, Florida, his football coach encouraged him to start running with the track team in the off-season. Good call. The seventeen-year-old high school senior is now headed to Tokyo after finishing third in the men’s 200-meter finals at the trials (and having previously broken two of Usain Bolt’s youth records). He’ll be the youngest man to compete in track and field at the Olympics since 1964.

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Caroline Marks
Surfing will be an Olympic sport for the first time at the Tokyo games, and nineteen-year-old Marks will be one of just two female surfers representing the United States. Marks, who grew up in Melbourne Beach, Florida, got into surfing by age eight, when she decided she wanted to be able to hang with her wave-riding big brothers. And, although she trains all over the world these days, she still has a soft spot for the Sunshine State. “I think what’s so cool about growing up in Florida is that you don’t get jaded—you’re not surf-spoiled,” she told G&G last year. “When the waves are good, we really appreciate it, and I think that’s super important.”

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Jordan Windle
Platform Diving
Windle’s journey to the Olympics is an unlikely one. He was an orphan in Cambodia—suffering from malnutrition, scabies, parasites, and infections—before his father, Jerry, adopted him at eighteen months old. He grew up in Florida and began training with the Fort Lauderdale Diving program at age seven, after catching the attention of coaches at a summer camp. With the encouragement of his mentor—the Olympic diving legend Greg Louganis—Windle, now twenty-two, went on to win the 2019 NCAA title for the University of Texas and finished second in platform competition at the trials to secure his place on the Team USA roster.

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Morgan Stickney
Paralympic Swimming
At age fifteen, Stickney was a contender in the 1,500-meter freestyle (the one-mile swim), and ranked in the top twenty in the United States. But in 2018, the Cary, North Carolina, native had her first of multiple surgeries to amputate her legs below the knee—the result of a rare condition which caused her blood vessels to shrink and cut off the blood supply to her feet. Undeterred, she spent the pandemic relearning how to walk and swim. While she initially aimed to make the 2024 Paralympic squad, the extra year of training during the pandemic gave her time to make the 2021 team. Look for her swimming the 400-meter and 50-meter freestyle races in Tokyo.

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