Anyone who has been watching NBC’s evening coverage of the London Olympics is probably familiar with the triumphs of the United States’ swimmers and gymnasts.
The casual Olympics fan probably knows about the undefeated beach volleyball tandem of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings and the exploits of the USA men’s basketball and women’s soccer teams.
But the 2012 Summer Olympics program includes 26 sports in 39 disciplines, many of which don’t make the cut for NBC Primetime and don’t garner headlines on major news websites.
Some of these less glamorous events have featured some inspired performances by American athletes—American athletes who most likely won’t show up on Wheaties boxes, Sports Illustrated covers, or AT&T commercials in the coming weeks.
So if you haven’t had a chance to watch much live coverage during the day on cable or the Internet, or if you haven’t been following the games incessantly on Twitter, here are some incredible American athletes you may have missed.
Note: I have focused on American athletes because a) this is an American website with a mostly American audience and because b) it would be impossible to cover all of the great unheralded Olympic performances involving athletes from every nation and do them all justice.
Kristin Armstrong, Cycling
Cyclist Kristin Armstrong followed up a respectable 8th-place finish in the women’s road race in 2004 in Athens with a gold medal in the women’s time trial in 2008 in Beijing. Then she retired so that she could start a family.
After her son, Lucas, was born in 2010, Armstrong (no relation to Lance) decided to come out of retirement and train for London. But her unretirement hasn’t been easy.
During the first stage of New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila in April, the 38-year-old Armstrong game down with food poisoning. In May she crashed during a race near her home in Boise, Idaho and broke her collarbone.
But she had made a commitment to ride in London, and she honored that commitment.
Wednesday she became the oldest ever cyclist to win an Olympic time trial, winning by more than 15 seconds over Germany’s Judith Arndt. She celebrated on the medal stand with her 22-month-old son.
Vincent Hancock, Shooting
Like Armstrong, Vincent Hancock won gold in Beijing. And like Armstrong’s gold medal, Hancock’s gold medal didn’t end up being a ticket to Gatorade or Subway commercials or household-name status.
So what do you do when you win an Olympic gold medal and most of your fellow Americans don’t even notice? You do what Armstrong did and win another one.
Hancock was only 19 when he won gold in the men’s skeet in Beijing. Now 23, he has the rare distinction of being a two-time Olympic gold medalist. And he won his second gold medal in impressive fashion.
In the qualification round, Hancock broke the Olympic record he set in Beijing by hitting 123 of 125 possible targets. He broke his own Olympic record again in the final, hitting 148 of 150 targets. (Hancock also holds the world records for men’s skeet qualification and final—125 and 150, respectively.)
Hancock, a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning in Georgia and a father of two, also has two world championships on his résumé (and likely a long career ahead of him).
Kayla Harrison, Judo
The United States has had limited success in judo at the Olympics. Prior to yesterday, the United States had won 10 judo medals since the sport was introduced in 1964: 3 silver and 7 bronze. 0 gold.
So the USA doesn’t win many judo medals, and we’ve never won gold. But we rarely send a judoka as skilled as 2010 world champion Kayla Harrison.
Harrison, who hails from Ohio, took up judo when she was six years old, at the urging of her mother, who was also a judoka. Harrison won two age-group national championships by the time she was 15, but these early triumphs came under the tutelage of a coach who had been sexually abusing her.
Harrison’s former coach went to jail, and she headed to Boston to train with two-time American bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro.
Harrison came to London as one of the world’s best in the women’s 78 kg division. She came up big in the single-day tournament, shutting out all but one of her opponents on her way to the USA’s first ever gold medal in judo.
Ariel Hsing, Table Tennis
I told you to keep an eye on Ariel Hsing.
No American has ever won an Olympic medal in table tennis. And no one expected 16-year-old Ariel Hsing, who came to London ranked 115th in the world and seeded #46 out of the 70 players in the women’s draw, to contend for a medal.
So it was a surprise when Hsing advanced to the second round and upset Luxembourg’s Ni Xialian, the #19 seed, in six games (11-9, 10-12, 11-9, 11-5, 10-12, 12-10).
Beating Xialian earned Hsing the right to play #2 seed Li Xiaoxia of China, a former world #1.
Xiaoxia beat Hsing easily in the first game, 11-4. But Hsing, with close friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffet looking on, rallied to win game 2, 11-9. Xiaoxia took the third game, but Hsing won game 4 to even the match at 2-2.
Xiaoxia won the final two games, and the match, but Hsing kept it close, losing by scores of 11-8 and 11-9. Xiaoxia went on to win gold in women’s singles.
Normally there wouldn’t be much reason to get excited about someone losing in the round of 32 of a table tennis tournament. But when the player in question is a 16-year-old from a country with no Olympic table tennis tradition who—after winning two matches to get there—took two games against the eventual gold medalist (and one of the best players of the world), there’s plenty to get excited about.
Earlier this week, Grantland’s Jay Caspian King wrote an open letter to Hsing, begging her to train for Rio 2016 and not to follow through on her plan to cut back on the sport to focus on her studies. Hsing’s parents have required her to maintain straight A’s or drop her table tennis career.
Maggie Steffens, Water Polo
If you haven’t been paying attention to the water polo competitions in this year’s games, you might want to start.
The American men are 3-0 so far in group play and are looking to improve on the silver medal they won in Beijing. The women’s team—also reigning silver medalists—has a 19-year-old phenom named Maggie Steffens on its roster.
Steffens, who watched her older sister (and current teammate) Jessica win silver four years ago, scored an Olympic record-tying 7 goals in her debut. To put that in perspective, the Russian team that sits atop the Group B standings has yet to score more than 7 total points in a game.
Maggie Steffans went IN in Water Polo scoring 7 goals of US 14 vs Hungary! Go USA!
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) July 30, 2012
The United States needed every one of Steffens’ goals to sneak by Hungary, 14-13, on Sunday. Steffens had one goal and one assist in a tie against Spain on Wednesday.
She and Team USA are back in the water again today against China. Win or lose, the Americans will advance to the medal round. An American win and Spanish loss, or a USA win by a large enough margin to surpass Spain in goal differential, will clinch first place in Group A and a spot in the semifinals.
What has been your favorite Olympics performance that has flown under the national radar?