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Five athletes you'll fall in love with at the London Olympics

You do not know her yet. Soon, you will love her.

Right now, he is just another athlete in just another sport, a stranger who competes in familiar colors.

Soon, you will cheer his name.

The Olympics are like that. For three years, athletes you don't know compete in sports you don't care about somewhere on fields you never notice. Then the Olympics roll around, and the flags wave and the anthems sound and the lights turn on, and for 17 delicious days of discovery, you learn everything about them.

No, we are not talking about the celebrity Olympians. By now you are fully aware of Michael Phelps, who wants to win more gold medals and sell you more sandwiches. You know how you feel about Le­Bron James and Serena Williams and Roger Federer and Usain Bolt and Hope Solo and Kobe Bryant and the rest. Anymore, much of the Olympics is like an episode of The Love Boat: a lot of people come on board with their fame established.

Ah, but then there are the rest, the athletes who have been sweating for four years to try to make a lasting memory, the athletes who view the Olympics as the ultimate stage for their sport.

Even with the faceless ones, some athletes are more likely than others to wind up with their face on a Wheaties box. A shooter isn't likely to become the face of the Games. Nor is an archer or a judoka or an equestrian. Usually the breakout stars are runners, gymnasts or swimmers.

So who are you going to love? Let us fix you up.

Gabby Douglas, gymnastics

Let's face it. America loves gymnasts, whether they are Mary Lou Retton or Kerri Strug or Nadia Comaneci. This time everyone is going to love the beaming smile and oversized personality of the 4-foot-11 Douglas.

Have you seen her yet? It doesn't matter how you feel about gymnastics. Douglas will make you watch. She is all energy, twisting and bouncing like a sparkler stuck inside of a carbonated drink. The only thing between her and fame may be teammate Jordyn Wieber, who has some sparkle of her own.

Oscar Pistorius, track

Some athletes are so remarkable that their nationality no longer matters. Pistorius, the "Blade Runner," the Fastest Man on No Legs, is one of them.

Pistorius is the double-amputee runner from South Africa who runs on prosthetic blades. After years of fighting organizations that wanted to restrict Pistorius to the Paralympics, he has made it to the Olympics this time, in the 400 meters and 1,600 relay. It is an amazing sight to watch him run, and it figures to be as inspiring as any story in the Games.

Missy Franklin, swimming

Who doesn't like athletes who win a lot of medals? Who doesn't like athletes who have cool nicknames? From here, it seems like "Missy the Missile" is going to get to stardom before she gets to her senior year in high school.

She is 17, but already Franklin is poised out of the pool and explosive in it. Also, she is ambitious. She is down to swim seven events, the most any U.S. woman has attempted. In other words, those size 13 feet of hers — her flippers — are going to churn a lot of water.

Lolo Jones, track

Think of Tim Tebow in spikes. Jones is open enough to talk about faith and doubt and, yes, her much-advertised virginity. If the hurdler clears enough of the hurdles in front of her, she could become viewed as one of those throwback athletes from a purer time.

First, though, she has to win. And if she doesn't, the face of U.S. track might be taken over by Allyson Felix. After all, it's hard to beat a nickname like "Chicken Legs.''

Ashton Eaton, decathlon

When an athlete competes in 10 events, eventually you have to notice him. That's the case with decathletes, and that's the reason no one puts up much of an argument when the event's champion comes with the designation of World's Greatest Athlete.

After all, this was Dan O'Brien's event, and Daley Thompson's and Bruce Jenner's and Bob Mathias' and Jim Thorpe's. After Eaton set the event's world points record at the U.S. Olympic trials, it now seems to be Eaton's.

And here's a photo op: Can you imagine the image of Eaton in victory rushing to embrace his half-brother, Verice Bennett, a Marine who won a Silver Star in Afghanistan? Yeah, that would make the front page.

• There are others who will vie for your affection. Alex Morgan, the soccer player. Brittany Viola, the diver. Mary Killman, the synchronized swimmer. Because Americans love an upset, Tyson Gay could do himself a lot of good if he upset Usain Bolt in the 100.

Soon, it will be someone. Maybe a lot of someones. Odds are, you don't know them yet. Odds are, you will love them soon.

Gary Shelton heads to London this week to cover his 10th Olympic Games for the Times. Follow his experiences on our website at tampabay.com/londonolympics, on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton, through his photo feed #londongary on Instagram, and through his daily columns in the Times. And to watch his video talking about his Olympic experiences and predictions for this year's Games, go to tampabay.com/video

Five athletes you'll fall in love with at the London Olympics

07/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2012 10:33pm]

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