11 Must See Moments of the Rio Olympics — and how to watch them

Let the games begin … Two days early.

That’s right, the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, takes place on Friday night. But competition actually gets underway Wednesday with opening round matches in women’s “football,” aka soccer.

The powerhouse U.S. squad is in action on night one, a game you can watch live on cable channel NBCSN, or streaming on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.

In fact, over the next 18 days, NBC will offer some 6,755 hours of Olympics coverage spread across 11 TV channels, its web site and app. From archery to wrestling, you can watch live streaming coverage of every single competition pretty much from the first heat to the moment when the last place finisher crosses the line — plus everything in between. With one notable exception ( see No. 2 below).

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With so much available, it’s hard to know what to watch, when — and still manage to hold onto your job and/or family. That’s where we come in. These 11 Must See Olympic Moments point you toward what are likely to end up being some of the most dramatic, talked-about, or important for understanding what’s going on in a larger context events of Rio 2016.

Think identical triplet runners! An actual NFL player competing in a different, out-there Olympic sport!

Except for Wednesday’s opening soccer game, the 11 moments are listed more in order of mass appeal than chronology. The times given are for Atlanta and the Eastern Time Zone (Rio is one hour ahead). NBC has said it will primarily focus on a mix of live and taped coverage of gymnastics, swimming, track-and-field, and beach volleyball during its prime time coverage, which begins at 8 p.m. each night. But it has designated other networks for live coverage of other sports, which we’ve highlighted below And again, everything streams live on NBCOlympics.com, where you can also find a full schedule of events and coverage.

1. U.S. plays New Zealand in women’s soccer. 6 p.m., Wednesday. Yes, it’s just an opening round, Group Play match. But the perennially powerful Americans are on a mission to go where no men’s or women’s soccer team has gone before, by winning Olympic gold at the same time they’re the reigning World Cup champ. This is an early chance to catch Games Fever and also assess if the U.S. squad has let up at all since last summer’s 5-2 pasting of Japan in the World Cup final. (Six women’s soccer games in all will be played Wednesday, kicking off at noon (1 p.m. in Rio) with Sweden vs. South Africa. NBCSN, streaming.

2. Opening Ceremony. 7:30 p.m. Friday. Things actually get underway at 7 p.m. in Rio, but NBC will show it on an approximately one-hour delay; and it’s also the only event of the Olympics NBC won’t be streaming live as it happens in Rio (although you will be able to watch NBC’s stream of its coverage as it’s happening). Confused? Here’s NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus’s explanation: “We think it’s important to give context to the show. These Opening Ceremonies will be a celebration of Brazilian culture, of Rio, of the pageantry, of the excitement, of the flair this beautiful nation has. We think it’s important that we are able to put that in context for the viewer so that it’s not just a flash of color.” Translation: Expect them to do some editing and cutting for time and dramatic effect.

Here’s some of what we already know comes with built-in drama: What sort of welcome the Russian team gets, now that its ranks have been thinned by doping disqualifications; how early, exactly, the U.S. team marches in led by flag-bearer and most decorated Olympian in history, swimmer Michael Phelps (countries always enter in alphabetical order, and in the Portuguese language of Brazil, we’re “Estados Unidos,” which NBC reportedly fears could make us homers stop watching way too early); and, who’ll light the torch (one favorite: Pele, the beloved Brazilian soccer star). NBC, streaming.

3. Women’s gymnastics Team Final. 3 p.m., Aug. 9. The event that packs more drama and tension per competitor pound than anything else in the Olympics. The U.S. is odds-on favorite (in a sport where anything can happen) to defend the gold it won in 2012, led by individual all-around champ Gabby Douglas and floor exercise gold medalist Aly Raisman. Both are back on this year’s squad, though they’ll likely take a back seat to reigning three-time world all-around titleholder Simone Biles. This will be your first chance to see the 4-foot-9 dynamo Biles in what’s expected to be her Olympic coronation. Adding to the drama: Scores in the team event decide who advances to the individual all-around competition on Aug. 11, and only two per country are allowed. Will Douglas get to defend her 2012 gold, or will another U.S. gymnast snatch her slot? Note: The team qualifying rounds start at 8:45 a.m. on Sunday. True to its pledge, NBC will stream all the gymnastics live. But it you miss it or want to see more, “packaged” coverage will be the centerpiece of its prime time coverage on TV both nights. Streaming, taped coverage on NBC prime time

MORE: Why the Rio Olympics will flip over Simone Biles

4. Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters. 9:25 p.m., August 14. Talk about insane … er, Usain! The race that many consider the signature event of any Olympics looms even larger this time around as Bolt tries to pull off the unprecedented “Triple-Triple.” The Jamaican sprinter won gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100 meter relay in the previous two Olympics and now he’ll try to do it again. It all starts with the 100 preliminary rounds on Aug. 13. In the final, Bolt likely will be pressed by the U.S.’s Justin Gatlin, who beat him by one-one hundredth of a second at last year’s World Championships. (Related: The 200 meter competition begins Aug. 16 and the relay on Aug. 18). NBC, streaming

5. Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM final. 8:01 p.m. Aug. 11. It’s likely the final showdown between two 31-year-old swimming legends in the perfect test of an event that features one lap of each stroke in an all-out sprint. Phelps, who’s back for his fifth and last Games, will swim two other individual events here. But as the defending gold medalist from 2012, he really wants this one. Meanwhile, Locate is a five-time Olympic gold medalist who just happens to be the world record holder in this event. This is the only event he qualified for in Rio, so expect him to be mighty fresh. (Preliminary heats and semifinals take place throughout the day on Aug. 10). NBC, streaming

6. Women’s basketball gold medal game. 2:30 p.m. Aug. 20. We’re going out on a limb here and predicting that the U.S. squad not only will play in this game, they’ll also win it. After all, the Americans have won the gold in the last five Olympics, an unparalleled period of dominance that began in 1996 Games right here in Atlanta. Those were the so-called Women’s Games, when the U.S. also won team medals in soccer, softball and gymnastics. In a nice piece of symmetry, the first ever women’s Olympic gold medal in golf will be awarded earlier in the day in Rio (final round starts at 6:30 a.m. here) and the women’s volleyball final will be played later that night (starts at 9:15 p.m. here). Host nation (and volleyball mad) Brazil has beaten the U.S. in the gold medal game in the last two Olympics, so that could bring this day of must-see women’s events to a wild finish. NBC, streaming

7. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. 6:30 p.m. Thursday. This is the first of more than two weeks of newscasts that Holt and crew will broadcast live from Rio (technically, Copacabana Beach, through Aug. 19). With all the potential bad storylines swirling around these Games — Zika, polluted water at competition sites, security fears and more –the signature newscast of the official Olympics TV rightsholder arguably is in the best position to provide in-depth reporting on it amidst all the feel-good sports storylines. Thursday’s Nightly News will be an early, fascinating indicator of how Holt & Co. go about navigating that fine line. NBC

8. Kristi Castlin runs the 100-meter hurdles. Beginning 9 a.m. Aug. 16. Georgia-raised Castlin, 28, was the three-time state 100-meter hurdles champion as a student at Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville. She finished second in the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, back in July; but it’s her story off the track that’s just as inspiring. As detailed by AJC staff writer Alexis Stevens here, Castlin was only 12 when her father was murdered while he worked at a Cobb County hotel. It would be nearly 15 years before police broke the case and the killer was sent to prison. Meanwhile, Castlin was a freshman track star enrolled at Virgnia Tech when another student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide. She graduated with a degree in political science, moved to Los Angeles to train and made the team in her third trials. The hurdles preliminaries and finals are Aug. 16 - 17 and Castlin says she knows her father will be with her while she runs. NBCSN, NBC (beginning at 10 a.m.), streaming

MORE: The final hurdle: With tragic past behind, Castlin eyes Olympic medal

9. U.S. vs. Fiji in men’s rugby. 12:30 p.m. Aug. 10. What’s more surprising, that rugby’s back in the Olympics after a 92-year layoff? Or that Fiji actually has a team? First off, this is “Rugby Sevens,” a shorter and much more fast-paced version of the traditional 15-player team event that was last won by — ta-dah! — the United States at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. And Fiji and South Africa are the gold medal favorites, along with the famed New Zealand All-Blacks, to a lesser extent. Pool play actually begins on Aug. 9 (the U.S. has two games, at noon against Argentina and 5 p.m. against host nation Brazil). Pool play continues the next day, which is when the American squad gets to test its mettle against tiny Fiji. Here’s another wild fact that makes this must-watch: Current New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner plays on the U.S. team! Might his teammate, Tom Brady, whose supermodel wife Giselle Bundchen is from Brazil, show up to cheer him on? USA Network, streaming

10. Marathon swimming. 8 a.m., Aug. 15 (women) and 8 a.m., Aug. 16 (men). Yup, more swimming, but this is the grueling, “open water” competition. But that’s not why it’s so “must watch.” By now it’s hardly news that the waters around the Olympic and Paralympic sailing, rowing and open-water swimming venues are highly polluted. “Some 1,400 athletes at risk of getting violently ill in water competitions,” the AP reported last week on the results of its 16-month study, including a biomedical expert’s advice to Rio visitors: “Don’t put your head under water.” No one may find that a bigger obstacle than the 10K swimmers, whose events take place in the open waters around Fort Copacabana. A must-watch from both news and sports standpoints. It will be interesting to see if any of the swimmers alter their techniques in any way and to hear how the issue is addressed by announcers and in pre- and post-swim competitor interviews. Streaming

11. Identical triplets run the women’s marathon. 7:30 a.m. Aug. 14. Sure, the men’s marathon also is worth getting up early to watch. Going off exactly one week later (7:30 a.m., Aug. 21), that event actually offers a better chance for U.S. medals thanks to trials winner Galen Rupp and runner-up, Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist. The American women’s chances are less good, but how can anyone resist the story of Leila, Liina and Lily Luik? The 30-year-old blonde triplets from Estonia are pretty much impossible to tell apart when they’re standing still for a photo, let alone running. They’re highly likely to win medals, but, frankly, who cares? NBC, streaming