20 ATHLETES TO WATCH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lance Armstrong,

United States

Cycling: Olympic storytellers are captivated by those who overcome steep odds, and Armstrong borders on a medical miracle. He won a road race at the world championships in 1993 but then endured three years of pain, which led to a diagnosis of testicular cancer in 1996. Mortality, not medals, became the issue, as Armstrong was given a 50 percent chance at recovery. He underwent surgery and three months of chemotherapy, and was declared free of cancer in late 1997.

Armstrong's recovery as a cancer survivor increased American interest in the grueling Tour de France, which he won in 1999 and again this year. The Texan will compete in the Games despite breaking a vertebra in his neck when hit by a car during a competition last month. He will turn 29 Monday.

Vince Carter,

United States

Basketball: Carter wasn't even on the original U.S. roster. The 1998-99 NBA Rookie of the Year was bypassed for Ray Allen, which led to some nasty meetings between the two shooting guards. In Carter's second season with the Toronto Raptors, he won the Slam-Dunk contest and finished fourth in the NBA scoring race. When Tom Gugliotta went down with a knee injury in March, coach Rudy Tomjanovich added Carter, who at 23 is the youngest man on the team.

Carter is only two seasons out of North Carolina, which he led to two Final Fours. He has been compared to Michael Jordan since he first set foot in Chapel Hill, and will be the NBA's international marketing star on Dream Team III.

Hicham El Guerrouj,

Morocco

Track and field: American presidents telephone the winning locker room at the Super Bowl and World Series. When El Guerrouj, then 21, tangled with Algerian rival Noureddine Morceli and tripped with one lap to go en route to a last-place finish in the 1,500 final in Atlanta four years ago, his distress in the bowels of the stadium was relieved by a cell-phone call from King Hassan II, the ruler of Morocco.

"There is no similarity to the El Guerrouj before that call and after," the 5-foot-9, 128-pound machine said. He has won the past two world championships and has lowered the 1,500 record to 3 minutes, 26 seconds and the mile mark to 3:43.13. El Guerrouj has the power and purpose to discard his challengers with a killer pace.

Cathy Freeman,

Australia

Track and field: Freeman is Australia's running hero, an Aborigine who is a symbol of national reconciliation. A national star for a decade, she draped herself in the Australian and Aboriginal flags after winning the 400-meter world championship in 1997. Yet, she has steadfastly maintained that her interests are wins -- not politics.

In the spring, Freeman retreated to Europe, enabling her to train and gain victories; back home, expectations mounted. She recently told Australian Women's Weekly, "I have to have a few obstacles to overcome -- and I don't really have to go looking for them, they somehow find me." Her fiercest Olympic competitor may be France's Marie-Jose Perec, reigning champion at 200 and 400.

Fu Mingxia,

China

Diving: Diving's diva is back. After retiring from the sport to study management at Qinghua University, 22-year-old Fu recently emerged with a new attitude and hairstyle, and a thirst to become the first diver to win five Olympic gold medals.

A product of China's Olympic machine, Fu was discovered by national coaches as a 9-year-old, endured relentless workouts and won a gold medal at 13 when she claimed the platform event at the 1992 Barcelona Games. She swept the platform and springboard events in Atlanta in 1996. This time, she is expected to concentrate on the springboard, competing against teammate Guo Jingjing. The pair will compete together in the synchronized springboard event.

Maurice Greene,

United States

Track and field: Greene didn't even get out of the quarterfinals of the 100-meter dash at the U.S. trials in 1996. Dumping his support system in his hometown of Kansas City, Kan., he moved to Los Angeles, where former 400 great John Smith was assembling a speed factory that mixes brash talk with survival-of-the-fittest workouts. Within a year, Greene was the world champion, and in June 1999 he lowered the world record to 9.79 seconds.

Greene won three gold medals at last year's world championships but went down with a minor injury in the 200 trials. Greene will anchor an American 400 relay that hopes to take down the world record of 37.40 set by Carl Lewis and company at the Olympics eight years ago.

Mia Hamm,

United States

Soccer: Hamm is the sport's Michael Jordan, the most recognizable women's player in the world and the leader of the reigning World Cup champion. Hamm, a forward who has scored a record 123 international goals in addition to her 104 assists in 207 games, will likely have to produce her brand of soccer magic if the U.S. team is to survive the retirement of Michelle Akers -- and a difficult draw -- to gain a place in the medal round.

A graduate of North Carolina who is married to a Marine Corps pilot, she is the recipient of numerous sporting honors and was acclaimed by People magazine in 1997 as one of the 50 most beautiful people.

Cheryl Haworth,

United States

Weightlifting: There are dozens of new Olympic events for women, and none points out the change in the perception of female athletes like weightlifting. The first international star on the women's side could be Haworth, a 17-year-old from Savannah, Ga., who trains so impressively that a local high school football coach has steered his players away from her gym to avoid embarrassing them.

Haworth's total at last year's world championships was good for a third-place tie, and she could become the first American to medal in weightlifting since the boycott-weakened field of 1984. Haworth is 5 feet 9, weighs 304 pounds and her coach says she can run 40 yards in five seconds.

Michael Johnson,

United States

Track and field: He has ceded the title of MWO -- Most Watched Olympian -- to Marion Jones, but Johnson still has history to write in track and field. The Texan was at the peak of his powers in Atlanta four years ago, when he became the first sprinter to successfully negotiate the 200-400 double at the Olympics. Along the way, Johnson destroyed the world record in the 200, dropping it to 19.32 seconds. Only one other man has ever run under 19.70.

A hamstring twinge at the U.S. trials in July will keep Johnson -- who will turn 33 today -- out of the 200 in Sydney, so he will focus on becoming the first repeat Olympic champion in the 400 and bettering his world mark of 43.18.

Alexander Karelin,

Russia

Wrestling: Wrestling's King Kong hails from Siberia, weighs nearly 300 pounds and hasn't lost a major bout since 1987, winning nine Greco-Roman super-heavyweight titles and three Olympic gold medals. His signature move is the reverse body slam, a stupendous maneuver in which he hoists competitors who weigh as much as refrigerators and slams them to the mat.

Raised in Novosibirsk, Karelin has a rigorous training regimen that has included running in knee-high Siberian snow while carrying logs. He enjoys classical music and reading and fights against the stereotype that sports stars are "thick." To capture Shakespeare's nuances, Karelin learned English.

Svetlana Khorkina,

Russia

Gymnastics: At 21 years old and 5 feet 4 1/2 , Khorkina is a woman among gymnastics pixies as she seeks to become the oldest Olympic all-around champion since 1968. Earlier this year, she re-emerged as a tumbling force by winning four gold medals at the European championships.

Khorkina first entered a gym as a 4-year-old and began serious training two years later. She won the gold in her specialty -- uneven bars -- at the 1996 Atlanta Games and claimed the 1997 world championship all-around prize, exploits that inspired leaders of her hometown of Belgorod to name a street in her honor. Modeling could be in her post-career plans. She already has posed for the Russian edition of Playboy.

Lenny Krayzelburg,

United States

Swimming: Krayzelburg will face a hostile crowd at the 17,500-seat International Aquatic Centre, but it will be nothing compared to the prejudice he encountered in his native land. Krayzelburg was a gifted but unsure 14-year-old in 1989, when his parents fled anti-Semitism in Ukraine, immigrating to Los Angeles.

He attended the University of Southern California, where head Olympic men's coach Mark Schubert polished his progression into the fastest backstroker ever. He broke the world 100 and 200 backstroke records last summer. Krayzelburg was one of the first world-class swimmers to be laser-fitted by Speedo for one of its revolutionary full-body suits, and is one of the surest American bets for gold in swimming.

Tegla Loroupe,

Kenya

Track and field: Born in a maize field, toughened by chores and transformed into a racer during daily runs to school, Loroupe is the world-record holder in the women's marathon. She is also a symbol of female aspiration in a patriarchal society, gaining an education and launching a career over the objections of her father, who wanted her to fulfill traditional roles of farm labor and marriage.

Standing 4 feet 11 and weighing less than 90 pounds, the elfin Loroupe has won seven of 14 marathons, including two in New York. Sydney's hilly course, the uncertain weather and the small field could cause her difficulties, especially if it's a blustery day. She is poised for a remarkable double, entering the 10,000 meters, which has preliminary rounds three days after the marathon.

Dave Nilsson,

Australia

Baseball: In a cricket-obsessed country, Nilsson has emerged as Australia's baseball star. Last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, Nilsson hit 21 home runs and was an All-Star catcher. He played this season for Japan's Chunichi Dragons, was released last month and agreed last week to a deal with the New York Yankees.

At the 1956 Melbourne Games, a demonstration baseball game drew more than 100,000 spectators. The sport has come into its own in recent years here, with Australia winning the gold medal at the 1999 Intercontinental Cup. Fans are likely to pack the Olympic stands again for a captivating tournament that features U.S. minor-leaguers managed by Tom Lasorda and a Cuba powerhouse led by Omar Linares.

Steve Redgrave,

Great Britain

Rowing: "If anyone sees me near a boat, they can shoot me," Redgrave said after making the 1996 Games the fourth straight at which he won a gold medal. Now, he's back, bidding for an unprecedented fifth straight gold as a member of Britain's coxless fours team, which includes his longtime racing partner, Matthew Pinsent, a double gold medalist.

Born and bred in the Thames River town of Marlow, Redgrave left school at 16 to row full time. For Redgrave, now 38, rowing isn't just a passion, it's a job that helps him support his family. Injuries, age and the onset of diabetes have failed to slow him. "There are no athletes anywhere in the world who compete in an endurance sport with diabetes," he said. "So, it's a matter of finding my own way."

Dot Richardson,

United States

Softball: Four years ago in Atlanta, Richardson achieved national stardom when she led the U.S. team to the gold medal and slammed the first hit and first home run of the competition. Then, the shortstop, who has won just about every award the sport offered, couldn't even make the national team as the Americans sought to rebuild for Sydney.

Now, at 38, she's back, moving to second base and fulfilling a secondary role. Lisa Fernandez, who threw five straight no-hitters, is the leader now and will be called upon to pitch the Americans to the gold medal. But Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon with an outgoing personality, will likely remain the team's soul.

Felix Savon,

Cuba

Boxing: Unimpressed by money, fame and a shot at the world heavyweight championship, the soft-spoken, hard-hitting Savon remains the heart of Cuba's dominant Olympic boxing program. He has won two straight golds at 201 pounds and aims for a third in the same weight class, attempting to match a feat accomplished by the country's greatest amateur, Teofilo Stevenson.

To gain the third gold, Savon will likely have to face American Michael Bennett, who served a seven-year prison sentence for armed robbery, righted his life and gained the 1999 world championship. Savon was supposed to meet Bennett in that final but withdrew to protest an earlier decision against a teammate.

Jenny Thompson,

United States

Swimming: She has undressed for several magazine photo shoots, and critics contend that something is also missing from Thompson's resume. The 27-year-old from Massachusetts by way of Stanford will swim five events for the United States, and she could become the first Olympian to own 10 gold medals. The catch is that the five in her trophy case were all earned in relays.

Thompson took the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly at the U.S. trials. Last year in Sydney, she bettered one of the longest-standing world records, the 100 fly mark established by Mary T. Meagher in 1981, but that record has since fallen.

Ian Thorpe,

Australia

Swimming: Australia's "Thorpedo" is the humble hometown hero expected to produce a bounty of golds in the freestyle events, where he holds world records at 200 and 400 meters. The 17-year-old with size 17 feet uses his long limbs to pull away from rivals with amazing grace and speed. Not bad for someone who was initially allergic to chlorine -- and was once dubbed a backstroke specialist.

Out of the pool, Thorpe handles fame with evident ease as he carries a nation's sporting dreams while endorsing everything from a bank to milk. Thorpe said a cancer survivor was his Olympic inspiration and donated to charity a sizable check earned for setting the first world record at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre.

Blaine Wilson,

United States

Gymnastics: With a pierced tongue, four tattoos and an aggressive tumbling style, five-time U.S. champion Wilson is bidding to become the first American man to claim an Olympic all-around medal since Peter Vidmar won a silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. His best event is the rings, and his fiery style is expected to lead the American men in their pursuit of a team medal.

Named after Dallas Cowboys lineman Blaine Nye and baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Blaine Carew Wilson has been participating in gymnastics since he was 4 years old. He has tirelessly climbed to the top of the sport while also pursuing a degree in psychology at Ohio State.

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