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Top judokas to watch in Rio

Kayla Harrison
NBC Sports

Top judokas to watch in Rio

Five judo athletes you need to know before the Olympics start

With the 2016 Rio Games just days away, here are five athletes to keep an eye on when judo competition gets underway.

Majlinda Kelmendi, Kosovo

Day 2 (Sunday, Aug. 7)
Women's 52kg (114.5 lbs)

This will not be Majlinda Kelmendi's first Olympics as a competitor, but it will be her first Games representing her homeland of Kosovo. That's because Kosovo has struggled to gain international acceptance since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008. In December 2014, the IOC officially recognized Kosovo, allowing them to field an Olympic team for the first time ever.

Kelmendi will be one of eight athletes on that team, but Kosovo's goal of earning its first Olympic medal is likely to rest with her. The 25-year-old is ranked No. 2 in the world at 52kg.

Marti Malloy, United States

Day 3 (Monday, Aug. 8)
Women's 57kg (125.5 lbs)

30-year-old Marti Malloy is a legitimate medal contender for the U.S. in the 57kg weight class. She won bronze at the 2012 Games and is ranked No. 4 in the world at 57kg.

Who is… Marti Malloy

The judoka from Washington state has a second Olympic medal in her sights.

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Travis Stevens, United States

Day 4 (Tuesday, Aug. 9)
Men's 81kg (178.5 lbs)

Travis Stevens, 30, is heading to his third Olympics and hopes to finally break through for his first medal. He came close in 2012, but back-to-back losses in the semifinals and the Bronze Medal Match kept him off the podium. The 30-year-old is ranked No. 5 at 81kg and recently won gold at the World Masters tournament.

Kayla Harrison, United States

Day 6 (Thursday, Aug. 11)
Women's 78kg (172.5 lbs)

Kayla Harrison (pictured above) rose to prominence at the 2012 Games, where she became the first American ever to win a gold medal in judo. In the four years since, Harrison has come back from reconstructive surgery on her MCL to regain her status as world No. 1 in the 78kg weight class.

At 26 years old, Harrison has already stated that she intends for this to be her final Olympics. In Rio, it's very likely that her quest for back-to-back gold will have to run through Brazilian rival Mayra Aguiar. In 17 career head-to-head meetings between the two, Harrison holds a narrow 9-8 edge. A potential showdown in Rio will be one of the most highly anticipated judo matches of the Olympic Games.

Who is... Kayla Harrison

Learn about the American judoka seeking to defend her Olympic title in Rio.

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Teddy Riner, France

Day 7 (Friday, Aug. 12)
Men's 100+kg (200.5+ lbs)

Simply put, 27-year-old heavyweight Teddy Riner is the most dominant judoka in the world. His eight world titles are an all-time record, and he currently holds a winning streak that dates back to September 2010.

Riner, who was chosen to be France's flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony, is in search of his third Olympic medal, having won bronze in 2008 and gold in 2012. Anything short of gold in Rio would be a disappointment for the 6-foot-8 colossus. He may be tested, though, by several opponents he has never before faced, including Japan's Hisayoshi Harasawa and Romania's Daniel Natea.

Who is… Teddy Riner

The dominant French judoka known as "Teddy Bear" can add to his legacy with another Olympic gold medal.

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Honorable mentions

Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, two Congo-born judokas living in Brazil, will compete on the Refugee Olympic Team. … Team USA's Nick Delpopolo, who was expelled from the London Games after eating a pot brownie, hopes that success in Rio will redefine his career. … Two-time Olympic medalist Idalys Ortiz of Cuba is one of the top contenders in women's 78+kg. … Reigning Olympic champion Sarah Menezes competes on Day 1 and could secure Brazil's first medal of the Olympics.

Two judo athletes from Congo hope to make refugee Olympic team

The IOC is expected to name members of the Refugee Olympic Team on Friday.

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