23 Black Women to Watch in the 2016 Rio Olympics

As Team USA heads to the Rio games, Black female athletes are ready to dominate their sports. Many will break records, create memorable moments or simply inspire. We've selected some of the most extraordinary women, both American and from abroad, who are already doing just that.

Connie Aitcheson Aug, 04, 2016

1 of 19 Chris McGrath/Getty Images

When Neal was very young, her father would put her on his back in the swimming pool. She couldn't swim but would rise and descend based on his movements. Says the Brooklyn-born athlete, "It was cool to be able to just lie on my dad's back and, without any effort coming from me, be able to move through the water." Fifteen years later and Neal is only the second African-American woman to make an Olympic swim team and win a medal: She nabbed bronze as part of the 4x100 meters freestyle relay squad at the London Olympics in 2012. She's also a 19-time All-American and has won six national championships. For her second Olympics, the 21-year-old is excited at the prospect of seeing more African-Americans swim competitively: "I feel that [seeing me] will lead people to want to swim more and maybe even think, Oh, why haven't I ever thought of swimming as a sport? It makes it seem more doable."

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For the past 15 years, Felix has been a dominant figure on the track. The world has watched her excel in high school athletics and launch a professional career very few athletes can duplicate. She hopes to represent America at her fourth Olympics and get herself into the record books. At the ripe old age of 30, Felix is truly one of the most versatile and decorated sprinters. She has 13 World Outdoor Championship medals, nine of which are gold, including her win at last year's meet in the 400 meters; and six Olympic medals, of which four are gold. Now she is looking to triumph at both the 200- and 400-meter races in the same Olympics. Only three Olympians have ever achieved this feat. "Representing my country at the last three Summer Games was such an honor and an incredible feeling," says Felix. "I would love to experience that again."

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Back in 2012, the world watched with mouths agape as Douglas spun, flipped, twisted and flew through the air. By the summer in London, she became the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. She's also the first Black American ever to win the individual all-around in gymnastics at the games. The 20-year-old, who took two years off after London, heads to Rio hoping to make history once again. Should she defend her Olympic title, she would be the first gymnast to do so since Vera Cáslavská of the former Czechoslovakia in 1964 and 1968. On how she's getting her mind back in the Games, says Douglas, "I'm approaching it the same as I did before: I'm going to give it my all."


If there's anyone who can stop Douglas from making a successful title defense in what some consider the glamour sport of the Olympics, it's Biles. At 4 feet 9 inches, the 19-year-old does some of the most difficult moves in gymnastics. She's so fierce that there's even a move named after her, The Biles, which is a double layout with a half twist. The reigning world champion is the first gymnast to have won the all-around title at three consecutive World Championships and is the first African-American gymnast to be an all-around world champion. Among Biles's many titles are her 14 World Championship medals—ten of which are gold, an amazing achievement in any sport.

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There's a new look to the women's water polo team and it starts with their goalie. Johnson is the first African-American woman to make an Olympic water polo team. She learned to swim when her Jamaican mother bought a house in Miami with a pool and wanted Johnson and her siblings to be water safe. Now, at 21, Johnson is fearless in guarding the net. "I'm overwhelmed with the thought that I even have the chance to be a part of the team. We'll be carrying the torch for everyone who has come before us in this program," she says.

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It has been 16 years since an American woman qualified in the 75-kilogram (165-pound) weight class at an Olympics, but Arthur has plans to end the drought. At the World Championships last year, the 22-year-old finished eighth in the weight class. The combined weight of all her lifts was 244 kilograms (538 pounds), which is an American record. For Arthur, Rio will hold a special place: It will be her first Olympics, and she's the first weight lifter to make the grade for this year's Olympic team.

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"When you meet me, I'm very nice and conservative. But when I get in the ring, my attitude changes and I'm there to win," says McPherson, whose explosive round kicks and spin kicks won her a bronze medal in tae kwon do at the 2012 London Olympics. She's the highest-ranked American in the welterweight division and eighth in the world. "I'm excited for Rio," says the 25-year-old. "I definitely think I can get the medal. I'm truly grateful to make the team, but that's not the end point. The end point is to win the gold."

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Prescod (above left) has learned a lot since her first time at the Olympics, when she was eliminated in her first round. In fact, the next year, in Marseille, France, she became the first American woman ever to win a foil Grand Prix title. Now she's the second-highest foil fencer in the U.S. and the tenth in the world. "When I won the Grand Prix, something came together that made me beat all these people," says Prescod.

The Brooklyn native, 23, started fencing at 9 years old. Her single mother signed up Prescod and her sister for classes at the foundation of Peter Westbrook, a five-time Olympian and an Olympic bronze medalist. "It was to keep us occupied," says Prescod. "My mom wanted us to be involved in something very positive and productive."

She has certainly been that. Last year Prescod won an individual medal at the Senior World Championships, the first for an African-American woman. "Just doing that [winning the Grand Prix] gave me confidence that I can beat anyone in the world," she says. "It's in me to figure it out and put these things together to make it happen." Prescod, a Columbia University grad, goes to Rio—along with her fencing teammate Ibtihaj Muhammad (read Muhammad's inspiring story on page 66)—with renewed assurance.

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In 2012, at the London Olympics, Shields made history when she became the first American woman to win a gold medal in boxing. The then 17-year-old returned from the Games and achieved another goal: She became the first in her family to graduate from high school. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, Shields, now 21, lived a hard life and suffered abuse but never gave up hope. "Faith is one of the things I always held on to," she says. "When I felt like I had nobody, I always felt like I had God in my corner."

Shields started boxing at age 11, after her father introduced her to the sport. Having successfully defended her world champion title in May, she has a career record of 74–1 in the middleweight division. When she arrives in Rio, she will be ready to fight for another gold medal. Should she win, Shields would be the first American boxer, man or woman, to garner gold in successive Olympics. "I put my body through so much pain and through so much hard work," she says. "I've had to do this not only for me, but for my city, for my family and for my country."

10 of 19 Steve Dykes/AP Photo

Very few women can jump farther than 7 meters (roughly 23 feet). Reese, 29 (above), has done it several times. The record books easily show how she has dominated the long jump. Between 2009 and 2013, she won the event at the World Outdoor Championships three times and twice at the World Indoor Championships. And, in 2012, Reese scored Olympic gold. Having recovered from an injury she sustained in 2013, she's now back in full form.

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As a sophomore at Stanford, Manuel, 20, has already broken the American and NCAA records in the 100-yard freestyle in swimming. At her first NCAA Championships, she anchored her team to a 400-yard freestyle relay win—and a new American and NCAA record.

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Eight days after her debut at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships this past March, Cunningham, 18, won the high jump at 1.96 meters (6 feet 4 inches) and became the youngest person ever to win a title at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.

13 of 19 Sipa USA/AP PHOTO: Mark Ralston

The dynamic duo may be back, with defending champs Venus, 36, and Serena, 34, gunning for a third consecutive gold in doubles competition. While Serena looks to retain her singles title, it will be Venus's fifth Olympic appearance.

14 of 19 Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images; Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images; Jennifer Pottheisern/BAE via Getty Images

The team members, led by cocaptain Tamika Catchings, 37 (in red), almost guarantee the gold medal. They have earned a record seven Olympic golds, one silver and one bronze. The team's record going into Rio is 58–3, which includes a 41-game winning streak.

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She was our own superwoman two years ago, when she ran the 800 meters at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships eight months pregnant. Now Montaño, 30, a six-time national champion, hopes to go to Rio and get a medal at that distance.

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A sensation in London as she captured gold in the heptathlon in front of her home crowd, Ennis-Hill took time off to have a child and came back last year, winning the event at the World Championships. If the 30-year-old defends her gold medal, she would be only the second athlete to do that after Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the U.S. in 1988 and 1992. However, Ennis-Hill will be challenged by her compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

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It's hard to imagine how someone 5 feet 2 inches tall can vault over a bar that's 16 feet high, but that's just what Cuba's Silva is able to do. Don't sleep on her for a medal, if not gold.

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Her victory at the London Games meant Fraser-Pryce, 29, had won consecutive Olympic 100-meter races. She heads to Rio to tear up the history books and snag a third 100-meter title, which would make her the first woman ever to do so. But her stiffest competition might just be her countrywoman and training partner Elaine Thompson.

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The Dibaba sisters are national heroes in Ethiopia. Tirunesh, 31, has two Olympic gold medals at 10,000 meters and one at 5,000 meters. But she took time off to give birth to her son. Meanwhile, Genzebe, 25, came out of big sister's shadow and broke a 22-year-old record in the 1,500 meters. Tirunesh goes to Rio eyeing a three-peat at 10,000 meters. Genzebe also wants to bring glory to the family and win in the 1,500.


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