Olympics: Who is NEXT?
Ryan BaileyWhen Ryan Bailey went up against Jamaican legend Usain Bolt during the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay at the 2012 Olympics, he was hardly blown away. The two received their batons at nearly the same moment, and although Bolt grabbed a quick lead, Bailey pushed him to the finish, not allowing the Jamaican any time to gloat the way he so enjoys. The silver medal capped a strong Olympic debut for Bailey, who also placed fifth in the 100 final with a personal-best time of 9.88 seconds. That time was third among Americans, but the two compatriots ahead of him, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, figure to be slowing down. Both are 30, making the 23-year-old Bailey the best American hope at running down the Jamaicans. -- Jon Ackerman
Sarah HendricksonLast season marked the first time women's ski jumping had World Cup status -- and the winter was dominated by 18-year-old Sarah Hendrickson. The Salt Lake City native became the first woman to win a World Cup ski jumping event, then went on to collect eight more victories, giving her the sport's first crystal globe, awarded to the season champion in every International Ski Federation discipline. Coaches say Hendrickson's emergence was due in large part to her attending a winter sports school that let out before competition season, meaning she didn't bring her studies on the road. But Hendrickson finished high school altogether this fall, meaning she can focus year-round on her craft. And now that women's ski jumping has won approval to be included in the 2014 Olympic Games, we can expect to see a lot more of Hendrickson. -- Jon Ackerman
Taylor PhinneyJust after he matched the best finish for American men at the Olympic road race since 1996, Taylor Phinney was already unsatisfied with his result. Fourth, he said, is "the worst place you can imagine at the Games." His disappointment is expected for a phenom whose parents are both Olympic cycling medalists. But back up a moment. Although London was his second Olympics, Phinney is still just 22; he didn't even start racing until he was 15. Despite his talent, he freely admitted that a medal in London was always a reach. "My specialty has been shorter time trials," the lanky (6-foot-4) Phinney said. The London time trial course, however, was 44 kilometers. He likens the change to "transforming from a miler to a marathoner." To do that, Phinney broke normal training convention and sequestered himself at home in Boulder, Colo., for two months with a team of coaches. Although it didn't result in a medal, Phinney says his personal growth surprised him. "I think even if the Rio Olympics were next year, the amount of confidence I have would be so much higher," he said. -- Joe Lindsey
Mikaela ShiffrinWhen you are the hottest young ski racer in the U.S., comparisons to America's best skier ever are inevitable. Even the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association can't resist, praising 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin on its website for having "the work ethic and passion of Lindsey Vonn." The comparisons, however premature, aren't unfounded. Shiffrin finished eighth in just her fourth World Cup start. Four races later, she notched her first podium. By comparison, Vonn made more than 40 World Cup starts before she recorded a top 10 -- or a podium. "I think she has the same potential in G.S. [giant slalom] as in slalom," says Roland Pfeifer, women's tech coach for the U.S. ski team. "But also she likes downhill and super-G, and her goal for the future is to be a four-event skier." The ski team has been measured in its approach to Shiffrin, focusing on slalom and G.S. before throwing her into speed events. So far it has paid off. In the first slalom of the new World Cup season, Shiffrin was third yet again. -- Derek Taylor
Summer RossNo sport is better suited for the Summer Games than beach volleyball, and when the 2016 Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro, the face of the U.S. beach team could be Summer Ross. Ross, who turns 20 in December, recently turned pro to make the Rio Games more of a realistic goal. And if the way she torched the junior levels is any indication, multiple Olympics will be in her future. In 2010, she became the first athlete to win both the under-19 and under-21 world championships in the same season, and she captured the first-ever AVCA collegiate sand volleyball national pairs championship in April. If an established pro is willing to commit to the youngster for a run at Rio, Ross could fill a void left by Misty May-Treanor, who retired after winning in London. -- Jon Ackerman
Every year since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has recognized an elite group of emerging athletes to watch in the year ahead -- athletes we call NEXT. They are competitors not only on the cusp of stardom, but on the verge of transcending their sports. NEXT is what happens when the hype is real.