Thanks to the Summer Olympics, gymnastics becomes one of the world’s most popular sports every four years. Gymnasts from all over the world steal millions of hearts as viewers worldwide hone in on every flip, twist and stumble.
With the 2016 Olympics approaching in Rio, gymnastics is once again close to the forefront of national attention. There’s still some competitions to go before rosters are finalized in the United States—the men hold Olympic Trials at the end of June and the women will hold trials at the start of July—but there have been gymnasts qualifying for spots all over the world.
Here are 10 gymnasts that will be worth keeping a close eye on in the lead-up to Rio.
Everyone who paid attention to the gymnastics competition in 2012 already knows Gabby Douglas, but she’s worth keeping an eye on again. She’s the rare gymnast who has stayed atop the sport after finding success in a previous Olympics.
Douglas won gold in the all-around during the London Games and continued training over the past four years in order to return to the 2016 Olympics. She’s remained one of the top gymnasts in the world and could become the first female since Czechoslovakia’s V?ra ?áslavská in 1964 and 1968 to win back-to-back all-around titles. Douglas finished second in the most recent World Championships in the all-around, behind teammate Simone Biles.
She’ll also be one of the leaders in the team competition, where the U.S. women will try to win gold for the second Olympics in a row, which would be the first for any country since Romania in 2000 and 2004.
It’s been 12 years since there was a Cuban gymnast in the Olympics. With his qualification for Rio, Manrique Larduet will be the first since 2004. Larduet qualified for Rio with a bronze medal on high bar at the most recent World Championships, a day after finishing with a silver in the all-around competition. At just 19 years old, he already has a chance to be the most successful Cuban gymnast ever.
Larduet will be a threat to finish on the podium for both all-around and high bar, which would give Cuba its first Olympic medal in gymnastics. The country has not had a long history of success in Olympic gymnastics and has only qualified a full team five times, none since 1980. The highest men’s all-around finish was 17th by Eric Lopez in 2000.
Danell Leyva could be one of a few members to make the men’s Olympic team who also made the team in 2012, but he’ll be the only one with an Olympic medal. During a London competition that was largely disappointing for the men’s gymnastics team, Leyva was the lone bright spot as he earned a bronze medal in the all-around.
There hasn’t been recent all-around success for Leyva internationally—he finished 17th at the most recent World Championships—but Leyva is still one of the best performers on parallel bars and high bar, where he finished second at Worlds.
Leyva also brings with him his stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez, who is known for his clapping, cheering and celebrating during and after Leyva’s routines.
At 40 years old, Oksana Chusovitina has become the oldest female gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games. She has already competed in six Olympics for three different countries—the Soviet Union, Germany and Uzbekistan. In Rio she will again compete for Uzbekistan, the country she’s represented in two separate stints—from 1993 to 2006 and 2013 to the current cycle.
Chusovitina is still a threat to medal on the vault, though she has not won an Olympic medal since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she received silver on vault. She placed fifth on the event in London and at the time was content leaving the sport with that finish. But she felt compelled to try again by testing for Rio, and she ultimately qualified. Should Chusovitina want to be the oldest gymnast to ever compete in the Olympics, she would need another two cycles to surpass 49-year-old Jan de Boer, who last competed in 1908.
In recent memory there’s been no faster rise towards stardom for a male gymnast in America than that of Donnell Whittenburg. In his first eligible year as a senior competitor (age 18+) in 2013, Whittenburg was named to the national team and was a part of the 2014 bronze medal winning team at World Championships. But his individual success did not really start until 2015 when he won silver on the floor, still rings and vault during the Pan American Games. He followed that up with a second place finish all-around in the 2015 U.S. Championships, where he also won event finals on rings, finished second on floor and third on vault.
He most recently finished second in the All-Round during the 2016 American Cup in March and was the top U.S. all-around finisher at the World Championships in eighth place. Whittenburg’s powerful style lends to a big skill approach—especially on the vault—that allows him to stand out from other competitors.
If there’s a gymnast who can challenge the U.S. women on the all-around podium, it could be China’s Shang Chunsong. Over the past few years China has been questioned about adhering to age requirements (gymnasts must be at least turning 16 in the year of the Olympics) and while Chunsong was not on the 2012 Olympic team when she was 16, her age was called into question the following year during World Championships as a 17-year-old and even this past October as a 19-year-old.
Whether her age was properly reported at the time, Chunsong is now well above the Olympic age requirement and a veteran of the Chinese squad. She has won the all-around for past two National Championships in China and finished fourth all-around in the most recent World Championships.
The story of Dipa Karmakar went viral earlier in the year after she became the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. While being the first athlete to represent a country in the Olympics is a great story, Karmakar’s inclusion in Rio won’t just be a “glad to be there” moment.
Karmakar has a realistic chance of making the podium during event finals on vault. She’s one of few women to ever attempt a vault officially known as the Produnova, after Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova. The vault is the hardest in the world for a female gymnast and consists of a front handspring entry with two front flips before landing.
The vault has a difficulty score of 7.0. For some reference, McKayla Maroney’s famous Amanar vault had a difficulty score of 6.5 in London and has been devalued to 6.3 in the latest Code of Points. Karmakar finished fifth on vault during the most recent World Championships and will look to bring home a medal from Rio.
Sam Mikulak was on the 2012 men’s team in London, but progressed into one of the best gymnasts in the country after his Olympic experience. His 2012 Olympic performance was disappointing because of an ankle injury suffered during the first day of competition that forced him to only compete on pommel horse on the second day.
Since then Mikulak has won four straight U.S. championships, including this past weekend. He’s the first male since Blaine Wilson won five straight from 1996 to 2000. Mikulak missed the most recent World Championships in October because of a partially-torn Achilles tendon, but he’s already returned to competition. He placed fourth in the all-around during the AT&T American Cup in March and looked healthy at P&G Championships at the start of June. He should be 100 percent heading into Olympic Trials at the end of the month.
Nicknamed “Superman,” Japan’s Kohei Uchimura is making a strong case to be the considered the best gymnast of all-time. Uchimura has dominated competition wherever he’s been, whether it’s in his home country— he’s won nine consecutive national titles in Japan —or against the rest of the world as a six-time World all-around champion.
Uchimura won the all-around during the 2012 Olympics in London after finishing with silver in 2008 behind China’s Yang Wei and Uchimura will be the overwhelming favorite to win the all-around again in 2016. While he’s been a dominant force in men’s gymnastics for nearly a decade, Uchimura will only be 27 years old in Rio.
At 15 years old, Simone Biles was too young to make the 2012 Olympic team in London. In the four years since, she’s done everything she can to prove she’ll be the best gymnast in the world heading into Rio. It’s an inarguable fact she’s done just that.
Biles has won three straight U.S Championships and is the first female gymnast to win three straight World Championships. Her 14 total medals in World competition are the most ever for an American gymnast. Should she win the all-around in Rio, as she’s favored to do, she would become the first American woman to win both World and Olympic all-around titles.
It’s also not out of the question for Biles to medal in every event in Rio, team and all-around competition included. At the most recent World Championships she won two individual events, floor exercise and balance beam, to go along with wins in the all-around and as a team. There’s little doubt Biles will be the most talked about gymnast during Rio and she’ll do more than enough on the arena floor to justify it.
Dan Pizzuta is a freelance writer and former Division I gymnast at Temple University.