Athens 2004: Athletes to Watch
The Buzz: While at the University of Arizona, the 6'1" pitcher, now 23, led the Wildcats to the 2001 NCAA title and the record for consecutive wins (60). She went on to help the U.S. women's softball team capture the gold medal at the 2002 world championships and the 2003 Pan-American Games. Finch, one of PEOPLE's Most Beautiful of 2004, is engaged to minor-league baseball player Casey Daigle.
The Buzz: He turned pro at 16, and at last month's U.S. Olympic trials, the 6'4", 19-year-old world-record holder (in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley and 200-meter butterfly) became the first American to qualify for six individual events. In Athens he'll compete in five of those races and three relays, giving him the potential to win eight gold medals – which would eclipse the record seven Mark Spitz took home in 1972.
COURTNEY KUPETS, CARLY PATTERSON
The Buzz: Kupets, 18, and Patterson, 16, co-national all-around champs (Patterson came in second in the 2003 worlds), head an American team of six women charged with recapturing the gold that eluded the U.S. in 2000. Each has the potential to win the country's first all-around gold medal since Mary-Lou Retton did it in 1984.
The Buzz: Pappas, 27, last year became the first American since Dan O'Brien to win a world decathlon title, and he took the nationals with a meet record of 8,784 points, the second-highest total in U.S. history. Known for his reserved demeanor, Pappas, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Greece, is favored to win the gold in Athens.
The Buzz: The first woman to swim the 100-meter backstroke in under 60 seconds, Coughlin, 21, will compete in two individual races. This means the five-time record holder will save her energy for three team medleys and have a shot at five gold medals.
Sport: Track amp Field
The Buzz: The broken leg he suffered in a 2002 motorcycle accident compromised his performance, and Greene no longer holds the world record in the 100-meter dash – but last month, the 30-year-old 2000 gold medalist won that event at the U.S. Olympic trials. How confident is Greene? He has "GOAT" (for "Greatest of All Time") tattooed on his right arm.
The Buzz: Though he placed 10th in Sydney in 2000, the 32-year-old, 5'9", 344-lb. strongman is favored to bring back gold in the unlimited category – the first since 1956. Maybe that's because Hamman, the strongest man in the United States, was the first American to lift more than 400 kg. (881.85 lbs.) and presently holds every major American record in his weight class.
Sport: Tae Kwon Do
The Buzz: The 25-year-old two-time world champion won the United States's first tae kwon do featherweight gold in 2000 and is gearing up for a second (this time as a welterweight). He'll have several family members in Athens to cheer him on: brother Jean, 30, is his coach, and sister Diana, 20, is an Olympic alternate (brother Mark, 22, also performs tae kwon do but lost in the semis).
KERRI WALSH, MISTY MAY
Sport: Beach Volleyball
The Buzz: May, 27, and Walsh, 26, are the world's No. 1-ranked team with a 90-game winning streak to their credit. But a recent abdominal strain May suffered leaves an opening for rivals, such as fellow Americans Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs and Brazil's Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede.
The Buzz: Last year, Hamm, 21, became the first American man to win the world all-around title, and in June he won his third straight all-around national title. In Athens, the 5'6" athlete will be the only gymnast to do three release moves off the high bar. But Hamm is used to the spotlight – he and his gymnast brother, Morgan, also Athens-bound, made PEOPLE's 2004 list of 50 Hottest Bachelors.
Sport: Track amp Field
The Buzz: She has competed in the past four Olympics, but has yet to win an individual 100-meter hurdles medal (though she holds three other gold medals). Still, the 37-year-old four-time world champion hurdler, who was sidelined for more than two years in the early '90s due to the thyroid disorder Graves disease, is back for her fifth try after a first-place finish in the U.S. trials.
The Buzz: Last year, Jacobson became the first American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world in a fencing discipline, and now she has a shot at being the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic fencing medal. The 21-year-old athlete and Yale student will compete alongside her sister, Emily, 18.
The Buzz: After winning gold in Sydney in 2000 (by defeating three-time Russian gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin) and the 2001 world championship, Gardner, 33, suffered a series of setbacks: He lost a toe to frostbite after a snowmobile adventure went wrong in 2002, and suffered a dislocated wrist playing basketball in March. But the 6'2" Greco-Roman wrestler is poised to defend his title.
MIA HAMM, JULIE FOUDY, BRANDI CHASTAIN, JOY FAWCETT, KRISTINE LILLY
The Buzz: The teammates who took the World Cup twice and helped put women's soccer on the map by leading the U.S. to Olympic gold in 1996 and silver in 2000 (including, from left, Lilly, Chastain and Hamm) once again have a shot at the podium's top spot before the likely retirement of a few key players this year.