Published July 18, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – A great thing about the Olympics is they never fail to produce lasting memories for those who participate in them, or even those who decide to saddle up on the couch in their homeland's colors and watch.
Athletes from smaller countries rise to upset better-known counterparts, participants who have trained their whole life for the moment shake off injury after injury to go on, and country unification becomes an overlaying theme.
With the 2012 London Games fast approaching, here are some athletes who could grab the headlines.
RYAN LOCHTE - USA (SWIMMING)
Swimming dominated the talk in Beijing thanks to Michael Phelps' record eight gold medals and the United States should collect another bevy of hardware in London.
Phelps is set to swim in a total of seven races in London -- one fewer than his program four years ago -- as he chases former Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's record of 18 career Olympic medals.
Phelps grabbed five individual medals in China, but has decided to drop out of the 200-meter freestyle in London. He faces stiff competition in two others thanks to the presence of Ryan Lochte.
Some would argue that Lochte has become the most dominating swimmer in the sport since the end of the Beijing Games, where he captured a pair of gold medals. He was part of the winning 800-meter freestyle relay and set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke.
Since then, Lochte has picked up six gold medals at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships and another five at the 2011 FINA World Championships.
Lochte and Phelps went head-to-head four times in finals at U.S. trails and Phelps bested his rival in three of the races. The lone event that Lochte came out on top in was the 400-meter individual medley.
The two could do battle again in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley, but swimming fans across the globe were denied a potential third showdown due to Phelps' withdraw from the 200-meter freestyle, an event he edged Lochte out in at the trails.
Still, London could serve as a passing of the torch for the U.S. team.
"I'm used to racing against him," Lochte said at trials. "I've been doing it for eight years now. He's one of the toughest competitors out there. The past four years I've gone a lot faster, and I know what my body can handle. And I know this meet was just, I guess, stepping stones for what I really want to do in London."
YOHAN BLAKE - JAMAICA (TRACK & FIELD)
Yohan Blake has been building his stock ever since the Jamaican set a national junior record for the 100 meters in 2007.
Sure, he hit a bit of a bump when prior to the 2009 World Championships he tested positive for the stimulant 4-Methyl-2-hexanamine, a drug that was not on the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list but still ended with Blake and other sprinters who tested positive getting a three-month ban.
It has all been downhill with speed in a good way for the 22-year-old since. He won gold at the 2011 World Championships in the 100 meters after three-time Beijing gold-medal winner Usain Bolt was disqualified for a false start.
Bolt was the first runner since American Carl Lewis in 1984 to win the 100- and 200-meter races in the same Summer Games, but Blake silenced the critics who said he couldn't beat him head-to-head when he bested his training partner in both the 100 and 200 at the recent Jamaican Olympic Trails.
Blake's time of 9.75 in the 100 meters made him the fourth fastest man ever in the event and was .11 seconds quicker than Bolt.
MISSY FRANKLIN - USA (SWIMMING)
Seven events might represent a down Olympics for Phelps, but it has never been done by an American female swimmer. However, 17-year-old Missy Franklin is set to change that in London and could to become a household name in the process.
Awesomely known as "Missy the Missile," Franklin is set to make a giant splash in her Olympic debut. She will race four individual events and another three relays while stepping in for better-known names such as Dara Torres and Amanda Beard as the face of American female swimming.
After winning five medals, including three gold, at the 2011 FINA World Championships, where Phelps called her "a stud," Franklin won the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic Trails and also finished second in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle.
"I am so thrilled to be able to compete in seven events, definitely my biggest dream," said Franklin at the trails. "I never thought I would be able to accomplish it, but the fact that it's done, it's made it the hard work worth it, and I'm thrilled with seeing what's going to happen this summer."
Look for Franklin's breakout event to be the 100-meter backstroke, where she set a new American record at the trails.
LUCIANA AYMAR - ARGENTINA (FIELD HOCKEY)
Luciana Aymar is no stranger to fans of field hockey, but the 2012 Olympics could be her swan song after making her debut with the Argentine national team back in 1998.
Aymar's accolades are plentiful: seven-time World Hockey Player of the Year, three Olympic medals and a nickname in "La Maga" that translates to "The Magician."
Still, one thing has eluded her grasp -- Olympic gold. The closest she came was silver in 2000, but Argentina only managed to bronze in the next two Games.
The top prize hasn't been as elusive on other stages. Aymar has won gold at the Pan American Games on the junior team and has also done so at the World Cup, Champions Trophy and Pan American Games with the national club. She would love to go out on top in London.
Aymar isn't afraid to speak her mind either. She voiced his disappointment to Ole, an Argentine national daily sports newspaper, that teammate and goalie Belen Succi will miss the Games after getting pregnant, saying the expectant mother "could have waited three months."
KATHERINE GRAINGER & ANNA WATKINS - GREAT BRITAIN (ROWING)
There will be a lot of pressure on Great Britain's athletes to medal on home turf and there probably isn't a duo likelier to do so than rowers Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins.
Grainger is already a three-time Olympic medalist, but all three have been silver. The gold drought should end this summer seeing as Grainger and Watkins haven't lost in double sculls since becoming partners in 2010. That includes three golds during the 2012 World Cup season and back-to-back titles at the 2010 and 2011 World Rowing Championships.
"It's been an incredible honor and privilege to be part of the past three Olympic Games and as wonderful as they have all been there is a sense that the upcoming home games will be on a different scale to anything we've ever seen before," acknowledged Grainger.
The 36-year-old Grainger and Watkins, 29, were named the 2010 World Rowing Female Crew of the Year and are coached by three-time Olympic silver medallist Paul Thompson.
JORDYN WIEBER - USA (GYMNASTICS)
It's hard to believe we're almost 20 years removed from when a collection known as the "Magnificent Seven" gave the United States its first ever gold medal in women's all-around team competition. The likes of Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Dominique Dawes all left Atlanta as stars in 1996 because of it, even landing on the covers of Wheaties boxes to match the accomplishment of such athletes as Michael Jordan, Chris Evert and Tiger Woods.
Americans always seem to get behind their gymnasts, but Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin aren't around for London, so it will be a new group that captures the nation's attention.
At the forefront should be Jordyn Wieber, the 17-year-old reigning world all- around champion. She will battle teammate Gabby Douglas and the usual powerhouse countries at the event in London and could also make an impact in the floor exercise, where she won a silver medal at the recent Visa Championships.
The United States has never won a gold in women's floor exercise, but did see Johnson and Liukin nab silver and bronze, respectively, in Beijing.
Wieber could do them one better in London.
OSCAR PISTORIUS - SOUTH AFRICA (TRACK & FIELD)
No matter where he finishes in the 400-meter race in London, Oscar Pistorius is sure to become an inspiration to anyone who watches him race.
Pistorius was born without the fibula bone in each leg and underwent double amputation below his knees at 11 months old. Already an established runner at the Paralympic Games thanks to the use of Flex-Foot Cheetahs, winning three golds in Beijing, Pistorius was included on the 1,600-meter relay race team before being added to the 400. That will make him the first man ever to compete in both the Summer and Paralympic Games.
"Today is truly one of the proudest days of my life," Pistorius said in a statement on his website after being named to the team. "To have been selected to represent Team South Africa at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the individual 400m and the 4x400m relay is a real honor and I am so pleased that years of hard work, determination and sacrifice have all come together."
Given the nickname "Blade Runner," Pistorius has also had to overcome a shattered knee sustained while playing rugby as a 16 year old as well as serious head and facial injuries stemming from a boat accident in February of 2009.
Kind of makes you feel guilty sitting on the couch watching the games, doesn't it?