Rio Paralympics: The stars of 2016

Story highlights

  • Paralympics runs from Sept 7-18
  • Some athletes competed in Rio Olympics
  • Stars include US female Iraq War veteran

(CNN)From Iraq War vets turned triathletes to teenage sprinters battling cerebral palsy, this month's Paralympics will showcase the sporting talent and courage of more than 4,000 athletes.

Here's our guide to some of the stars tipped to light up the Rio 2016 Games.

    Daniel Dias -- Swimming

    Daniel Dias is a hot favorite for gold at his home Paralympics.
    They call him Brazil's answer to Michael Phelps.
    The swimmer is the nation's most successful sportsman of the last decade. At the 2008 Games in Beijing he won nine medals -- more than any other athlete -- and at London 2012 he added six more Paralympic golds and set four world records.
    The 28-year-old home hero is super-cool about comparisons with Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals in his trophy cabinet.
    "You have to remember I'm a lot better looking," Dias once joked with British newspaper The Independent.
    Dad-of-two Dias will be the danger man and the darling of the pool, and when he goes for gold the Aquatics Center will be the ONLY place to be in Brazil.

    Melissa Stockwell -- Triathlon

    US para-triathlete Melissa Stockwell is an Iraq War veteran.
    After becoming the first female American soldier to lose a limb in active combat during the Iraq War, Melissa Stockwell now has her sights on becoming a first Paralympic triathlon champion.
    The former US Army first lieutenant is among the favorites in the PT2 class as the sport makes its debut in Rio.
    The 36-year-old, who gave birth to son Dallas in 2014, made her Paralympic debut in 2008 as a swimmer and carried the flag at the Beijing closing ceremony.
    "I am a mother, I am a veteran and I am a lover of life," says Stockwell, who is now intent on writing another chapter in her story at the Games.
    In the men's competition, Fernando Aranha has taken a rather unusual route to Rio. The Brazilian competed in cross-country skiing at the Winter Paralympics two years ago in Sochi as a tune up for the triathlon.
    "I visualized using the ski poles as swimming because the pulling movement is similar," he explained.
    To win triathlon honors, athletes of both genders must swim 750 meters, cycle for 20 kilometers and then take on a 5-kilometer run, where they are allowed to use wheelchairs.

    Alex Zanardi -- Cycling

    Former F1 and CART racing driver Alex Zanardi is hand cycling champion.
    "I'm like a good Italian red wine that gets better with age," says F1-driver-turned-Paralympic-champion Alex Zanardi.
    He may turn 50 this year but the irrepressible Italian is out to defend his road race and time trial titles in hand cycling's H4 class in Rio.
    Zanardi had established himself as one of the most popular racing drivers before a devastating CART crash in Germany 15 years ago meant both his legs were amputated at the knee. Doctors treating him said he should never have survived.
    The Italian continued to race in modified touring cars before switching to hand cycling in 2011, and a new passion was born.
    Zanardi proved his vintage is still intact by winning the road race and time trial titles at the 2015 World Championships in the build-up to Rio.

    Zahra Nemati -- Archery

    Iran's Zahra Nemati competed in the Rio Olympics archery competition in August.
    It's been a busy Brazilian summer for Zahra Nemati, whose first job in Rio was leading out Iran's Olympic team as flag-bearer.
    Nemati's "dream-come-true Olympics" may have ended at the round of 64 stage but, no matter, she has a title to defend at the Paralympics.
    The 31-year-old is the reigning women's recurve champion in the W1/W2 class for athletes competing in a wheelchair and is also in the team event. Her recurve gold in London made her Iran's first female Paralympic or Olympic champion.
    Nemati, who held a black belt in taekwondo before suffering severe spinal injuries in a car crash, is also a United Nations ambassador for women in sport. Her message? "Never surrender to your disabilities."
    Table tennis star Natalia Partyka.
    Poland's star table tennis player Natalia Partyka is also doubling up in Rio. She contested the team event at the Olympics but is the hot favorite to defend her singles title at the Paralympics.
    Fact fans might like to know that Hungarian fencer Pal Szekeres is the first and only athlete to have won medals at both the Olympics and Paralympic Games.

    Jason Smyth -- Athletics

    Ireland's Jason Smyth won gold in the men's 200m T13 final at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
    Anything Usain Bolt can do, Jason Smyth can do too.
    The Irishman is the fastest Paralympian on earth and, just like the Jamaican, he is going for a remarkable sprint clean-sweep in Rio.
    Smyth, who is legally blind and runs in the T13 class for visually-impaired athletes, aims to add the 100 and 200-meter titles to those he won in Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
    The 29-year-old -- the same age as Bolt was in Rio by the way -- holds the world record of 10.43 seconds over 100m but reckons he can go faster in Brazil.
    "Absolutely I feel like there is potential to run quicker -- I intend to," Smyth told the International Paralympic Committee.
    There's only one snag. Smyth recently became a dad to daughter Evie and says he is now a lot more tired!

    Chuck Aoki -- Wheelchair rugby

    Paralympic wheelchair rugby player Chuck Aoki is a teacher off the sports field.
    A special invitation winged its way to American Chuck Aoki after London 2012 -- a request to join Barack Obama at the White House.
    Aoki earned the honor of fist-bumping with the President after winning wheelchair rugby bronze with his US teammates in London, and the plan is to do better in Rio.
    "The Paralympics are our Everest, Super Bowl and World Cup all rolled into one," Aoki says.
    The 25-year-old is rated as one of the best players in the world, despite having his head buried in books to graduate as a teacher from the University of Minneapolis last year.
    The US is on track for gold, leading the world rankings ahead of defending champion Australia and Japan. The Americans open their campaign against France in the prelims.

    Markus Rehm -- Athletics

    Markus Rehm has jumped 8.40m -- a distance able-bodied long jumpers rarely exceed.
    You've heard of "Blade Runner" -- now let us introduce the "Blade Jumper."
    German long jumper Markus Rehm is so good that his personal best of 8.40 meters would have been good enough to deny American Jeff Henderson Olympic gold by two centimeters.
    Rehm, a single-leg amputee who uses a carbon-fiber prosthesis, almost got the chance to compete against Henderson and co. but ultimately had to abandon his bid.
    Track and field's governing body the IAAF said it could not prove his blade didn't give him an advantage, particularly when it came to launching his leap.
    The 28-year-old is still working with the IAAF to alter the ruling so he can compete with able-bodied jumpers at the 2017 world championships in London.
    Rehm set his mega benchmark of 8.40m at the 2015 IPC world championships in Doha, Qatar. How far can he go as he aims to defend his F44 long jump crown at the Paralympics?

    Isis Holt -- Athletics

    Aussie teenager Isis Holt won the women's 200m T35 final at the IPC world championships last year.
    She's just 15 years old but Isis Holt is already a pocket rocket dominating her sport.
    The Australian only took up Paralympic sprinting in 2014 but the following year she won 100 and 200-meter gold at the world championships in world record time.
    A delight to watch on track, the teenager says she doesn't actually remember watching athletics during London 2012 -- well, she was just 11.
    Holt races in the T35 class for athletes with cerebral palsy and will renew her rivalry with Great Britain's Maria Lyle, another talented teenager making her Paralympic debut in Rio.

    Sherif Othman -- Powerlifting

    Egypt's Sherif Othman won powerlifting gold in the men's -56 kg at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
    When it comes to a heavyweight in powerlifting, there is only one real contender -- Sherif Othman.
    The Egyptian is a double Paralympic gold medalist in the 56 kg class but has moved up to 59 kg ahead of the Rio Games -- much to the chagrin of some his rivals.
    Othman announced his arrival in the division by immediately setting a new world record of 210.5 kg in February this year.
    British rival Ali Jawad has high praise for Othman, calling him the "Usain Bolt" of powerlifting. "If you look at the best benchers who've ever lived -- able-bodied or disabled -- he is probably the best out of all of them," Jawad said.