Movers & Shakers

By: Callin Naddy

Without a doubt, one of my favorite parts of the Olympics is the underdog. More specifically, it’s seeing the underdog prove that maybe they shouldn’t have been the underdog.

Every year, more than a few “Olympic hopefuls” and ‘should-be-happy-to-be-there’s turn into Olympic medalists. They pull off the upset, running (or jumping or throwing) the best race of their lives on the big stage. It’s a consistent part of sport and one of the reasons that the Olympics is so meaningful: Theoretically, anyone could be a medalist.

And in Tokyo, more than a few underdogs took their opportunity to shine.

Photo by Shuji Kajiyama / AP

Molly Seidel
Probably the best-known underdog medalist in America right now is Molly Seidel. In only her third marathon ever (remember: she qualified for Tokyo in her first ever), Seidel stuck her nose “where it didn’t belong.” As it turns out, she did belong, becoming only the third American woman marathoner to win an Olympic medal! Seidel ran super gutsy for bronze and has hopefully celebrated with some beer by now.

Photo by Jean Catuffe / Getty Images

Lamont Marcell Jacobs
There’s no denying 2021 has been a great year for Italy, and that trend continued in Olympic sprinting. The men’s 100-meter race was relatively wide-open heading into the Games and even more so when favorite Trayvon Bromell failed to advance from semis. Lamont Marcell Jacobs took advantage of the field, sprinting to Italy’s first ever medal in the event in a 9.80 PR. Gold—and in his first world championship level sprint final no less.

Photo courtesy of Tanaka’s World Athletics page

Nozomi Tanaka
Not every underdog actually ends up on the medal stand. Japan’s 21-year-old Nozomi Tanaka set national records and broke 4:00 twice in the 1500 (with 3:59.19 being her best result). She was the first Japanese athlete to make a track final at the 2020 Games and way outperformed her ranking, coming in as 24th overall and leaving as the 8th best female 1500er in the world.

Photo by Martin Meissner / AP

Grant Fisher
Like Tanaka, America’s Grant Fisher did not end up on the medal stand after either of his races, but he still put together a better-than-expected-Games. In his first professional meet on international soil, Fisher recorded a solid 5th place and top American finish in the 10K. A couple days later, running on a strained calf, he finished 9th in the 5K finals. Two solid efforts for the American youngster.

Photo by Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

Chunyu Wang
No one would blame you if you hadn’t heard of Chunyu Wang before the Olympics. And no one would blame you if you still don’t recognize the name. But it would be remiss to not talk about her accomplishments in Tokyo. The 26-year-old Chinese runner was the surprise of the women’s 800 field, the first Chinese athlete to ever make the finals in the event. Her 1:59.14 PR in the semifinals made her only the 28th fastest person in the world this year, but she finished fifth overall with a new PR of 1:57.00.

Photo by Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

Italy 4x100
There’s no denying 2021 has been a great year for Italy, and that trend continued in Olympic sprinting. If this sounds like déjà vu, it’s because it is. In addition to Jacobs’ underdog 100-meter win, the Italian men collected the 4x100 gold, outlining Great Britain at the line. It was the country’s first ever gold in the event and about as unexpected as Jacobs’ earlier win.