Every Olympics has its breakout athletes, many of whom turn out to be long-term forces in the sport. You may remember some, like Katie Ledecky and Ashton Eaton at the 2012 Games or Andre de Grasse and Ashleigh Johnson in 2016.
Below, we break down the breakout stars from the Tokyo Olympics. These aren’t just big-name athletes who happened to be making their Olympics debuts, but ones who flew under-the-radar, outside of the national spotlight in the years leading up to these Games.
Although she was already one of the top gymnasts in the world in the years directly before the Tokyo Games, Suni Lee put together a string of stunning performances at just the right time to capture a medal of each color in Tokyo. The biggest of them all was the gold in the individual all-around, stepping up to continue the trend of American wins in the event when Simone Biles withdrew.
In addition to her excellent gymnastics, Lee’s endearing reactions and relatable interviews – plus the harrowing family circumstances she overcame in the last two years – captured viewers’ hearts. Lee, who will begin her freshman year at Auburn this fall, gained over 1 million follows on Instagram during the Games.
Lamont Marcell Jacobs
Perhaps no victory at these games was deemed more improbable than that of Italian sprinter Lamont Marcell Jacobs, who won the first Olympic 100-meter dash of the post-Usain Bolt era.
Jacobs, 26, was a long jumper as recently as three years ago. He had never broken 10 seconds in the race before 2021 – he ran a 9.80 to win in Tokyo.
But Lamont’s breakout Games didn’t stop there. He won his second gold medal in Tokyo as the third leg of Italy’s 4x100 relay, which shocked the field, edging Great Britain by .01.
In her first major international competition, Chinese diver Quan Hongchan was perfect. Quan turned 14 in March and was the youngest athlete representing China in Tokyo, but showed the poise of a veteran when she earned perfect scores on two straight dives (and nearly, on a third).
Quan scored 466.20 overall to obliterate the previous Olympic record of 447.70 and become the fourth consecutive Chinese woman to win gold on the 10-meter platform. The 4-foot, 8-inch star took up the sport as a way to contribute to her mother's medical bills.
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, Lilly King vs. Yuliya Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke was supposed to be one of the marquee matchups. Then it became clear that Efimova wasn't at her best and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker emerged as the latest challenger. Come the final, out of practically nowhere, it was instead 17-year-old American Lydia Jacoby who got her hand to the wall first for the gold.
Jacoby, swimming in her first international meet, later got the nod in both the mixed and women’s 4x100 medley relays – swimming the former with her goggles in her mouth – posting repeat strong performances in both. She is the first swimmer from Alaska to ever make an Olympic team.
Rumors of America’s demise in men’s distance swimming were officially quashed when unassuming University of Florida student Bobby Finke blazed home in the final 50 of the 800-meter freestyle, pulling off an improbable comeback to win gold over 2019 world champion Gregorio Paltrinieri.
But then he did it again, and in a longer event – the 1500. And even faster. Along the way he again overtook Paltrinieri, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the event, as well as 2019 world champion Florian Wellbrock.
Finke’s final laps made him an instant internet sensation who seemingly has the talent to carry the torch in his discipline for years to come.
Anastasija Zolotic was always expected to emerge as a star, but perhaps not until the Paris 2024 Games. In Tokyo, the 18-year-old went ahead and became the first American woman to win an Olympic taekwondo gold medal, upsetting the No. 2 and 5 seeds in the process.
Zolotic’s biggest win before these Olympics was at the 2019 Pan American Games.
Boston Red Sox prospect Triston Casas was nothing short for sensational for the United States’ baseball team in Tokyo. Through the first five games, the 21-year-old first baseman —the youngest player on the roster – hammered three home runs. Though the Americans eventually fell to Japan in the gold medal matchup, Alvarez put together a .960 OPS through the Olympic run, tallying eight RBIs on five hits.
It’s still unlikely he’ll get called up to play for the Red Sox any time soon, however, even after his Olympic performance.
Named after wrestling icon Dan Gable, American super heavyweight wrestler Gable Dan Steveson has lived up to expectations, and secured his biggest accomplishment yet in Tokyo.
In the men's freestyle super heavyweight final, he stunned Georgia's three-time world champion Geno Petriashvili with a two-point move as time expired in what Steveson later called "the match of the century."
"With little to no international senior experience,” Steveson said after defeating Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur in the semifinals. “It's crazy that a young cat like me can come in here and shock the world so quick.”
Molly Seidel ran just the third marathon of her life in Tokyo — but she made it count. The 27-year-old took bronze, becoming the first American woman to medal in the marathon since 2004.
"I wanted to go and be that person who, when you're racing, they're all saying, 'Who the hell is this girl?'" Seidel said after the race, practically defining what it means to be a "breakout star." "I just wanted to stick my nose in where it didn't belong and get after it. The Olympics only happens every four years, you might as well take your shot."
Seidel took second at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020. She made her marathon debut the prior October in London.
Richard Torrez Jr.
Richard Torrez took home the silver in men's boxing's super heavyweight division, falling to Uzbekistan's Bakhodir Jalolov, who at 6-foot-7 made even Torrez look small. And the pair had history: at the 2019 AIBA World Championship, Jalolov handed Torrez the first knockout of his career, and he had to be stretchered out of the ring.
Torrez was American super heavyweight to make it to the Olympic gold medal bout since 1988. The 21-year-old is a third-generation boxer, coached by his father, a 1984 Olympic Trials quarterfinalist.