Pint-Sized Phenoms: Amazing at 7 months & 17 years

Have you seen these amazing kids? Let's start with the youngest, at 7 months, Ryder Blair. While I understand why some would respond negatively (like he should be wearing a helmet, etc.), as a mom I understand being astonished by what your child can do. Check out this video of Ryder "waterskiiing!"

While Ryder got a lot of attention, a group of middle schoolers dominated kids and competition headlines in the US the past few weeks with the Scripps Spelling Bee, National Geographic Bee, and Raytheon MathCounts Competition all occurring within a few weeks of one another. In these contests 13-year-old Arvind Mahankai won along with 12-year-old Sathwick Karnik and 14-year-old Alec Sun.

Not to be forgotten are high schoolers, especially athletes. I found the stories of these three young women to be especially extraordinary. 15-year-old Charlotte Brown and 17-year-old Aria Ottmueller are legally blind, but that isn't stopping them from pursuing pole vaulting in their home states of Texas and Arizona.

Charlotte Brown pole vaulting by Rex C. Curry for the NYT

Another impressive 15-year-old I read about recently is Nancy Mulkey, also from Texas. At 6' 9" it might seem obvious that she would be a basketball player, but Mulkey has worked hard to improve her skills, earning her a spot on USA basketball's U16 team. I bet she could waterski and pole vault pretty well too-- though unclear that spelling and geography would be her thing.

This group of kids shows that no matter your interest, skill, or age, if you work hard you can distinguish yourself as a phenom in some way.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: Creating and Destroying While Setting Records

For the most part, Guan Tianlang, had a pretty good month. At 14 not only is he the youngest player *ever* to participate in the Masters, but he also was the only amateur to make the cut, earning him additional coverage (which thankfully wasn't overshadowed by the latest Tiger Woods scandal). While Tianlang did have to deal with a rare slow play penalty, the way he comported himself after earned him many accolades. Guan Tianging and Tiger Woods at Masters, Don Emmert Getty Images

Sports loves to focus on the "youngest-ever" and "first-ever" monikers, which makes sense given most athletic endeavors rely on statistics, records, and history to fill the space around the action. CNN put together this slideshow, based on Tianlang's success, which highlights our tendency to spotlight the youngest even if they aren't always the best (yet).

Chess, considered by many to be the most difficult mental sport, also loves its numbers, rankings, and history. Last month nine-year-old Awonder Liang broke yet another record, becoming the youngest ever chess master in American history. This was his third significant record, as at only 8 the Wisconsin boy was the youngest to defeat an International Master in a standard tournament game, and at 9 he defeated a Grand Master.

Awonder Liang, Post-Cresent photo by Ron Page

Funny to think about this young, sweet face destroying opponents over the chess board, right?

Another sweet face that doesn't betray the skill level of the child is that of seven-year-old Apoorva Mali. Apoorva's has been growing her fanbase worldwide after a recording of her performing a magic show in India last year (when she was only 6!) went viral.

Like many prodigies she was exposed to her activity early (in this case her parents are both magicians), but she clearly has a knack, even if she isn't Houdini quite yet.

Another girl with a special knack for her hobby is Sylvia Todd. Todd is the oldest Pint-Sized Phenom in this edition, but at 11 she's not even yet a teenager. Last week Todd participated in the White House's Science Fair where she had a robot paint an Obama doodle for him (it said, "Go STEM").

Sylvia Todd and Barack Obama, Stephen Crowley The New York Times

Todd is more well known for her YouTube science show, "Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show;" her 19 episodes have been seen by over 1.5 million already.  In her recent New York Times profile she is quoted as saying, "Ever since I was really young I liked destroying stuff. I’ve always been interested in making and doing things hands-on.”

I suspect on some level all of these pint-sized phenoms enjoy "destroying" an opponent, an object, expectations-- or those records. And, in the process, they are really creating.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: Golden Teenaged Dreams

Some people just really luck out in the name department. Sixteen-year-old Arielle Gold recently won a bronze in snowboarding at the X Games.

Arielle Gold by Christophe Karabeva for EPA

Seventeen-year-old Gracie Gold came in sixth at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships. But both will be aiming for gold at the 2014 Sochi Olymics.

Gracie Gold at 2013 World Championships by Tom Sczerbowski at USA Today-Sports

They won't be the only teenage stars gunning for gold in Sochi: seventeen-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin (who I've written about before) solidified her position as gold medal-favorite in Sochi when she won the world slalom title last month. [Another fun Pint-Sized Phenom update this month is that Caine Monroy, the nine-year-old cardboard arcade entrepreneur, inked a deal with William Morris!]

While fourteen-year-old racer Kaz Grala won't be able to compete in the Olympics, he is revving his engine for NASCAR, even though he is still quite young. Only an eighth grader he's expecting to go pro soon.

And because we don't want to forget non-athlete pint-sized phenoms, check out first grader Zora Ball. At seven, Zora is the youngest person to create "a full version of a mobile application video game." Perhaps Zora will challenge sixteen-year-old Lauren Marbe, who was just announced as having one of the highest IQs in the world.

Even without "Gold" in their names, it's clear that these pint-sized phenoms have golden futures. It's always amazing to keep track of such impressive kids in a variety of activities... Even if it is humbling!

Pint-Sized Phenoms: The Bonus Edition of Extraordinary 9-Year-Olds

Last week it was the teens, but this week it's a group of nine-year-olds who are so special they had to get their own post. Their varied interests show how kids can find a passion and love in many different areas. 1) Quvenzhané Wallis- Wallis is the youngest nominee for Best Actress at the Academy Awards ever. She beats the previous nominee by about four years. 2013 National Board Of Review Awards - Inside Arrivals

What's even more amazing is that she was only 5 when she auditioned for the role in "Beasts of the Southern Wild!"

2) Sophia Lucia- Lucia has been wowing at dance competitions for years, but she's going national now that she's been appearing on Lifetime's Dance Moms. Lucia actually holds the world record for most pirouettes: 54! Don't believe me? Watch this video:

It doesn't seem like she'll remain a regular with the Abby Lee Dance Company-- and frankly, the way things seem to be going there that is for the best. I do hope she manages to squeeze in some studying so that she knows 6*9=54 once she can't turn that many times (Lucia is homeschooling she can focus on dance).

3) MMA fighters- Tim Keown's ESPN The Magazine article on the youth MMA competitive circuit for kids 5 to 15-- known as Pankration-- was a fascinating look at the development of formal competition for kids. I found this to be the most fascinating inside into this world in which, as describe,  a 9-year-old boy can sit upon a 9-year-old girl in competition:

Every Little Leaguer -- and his parents -- wonders if he can make the big leagues. But in youth MMA, the vibe is different. A professional career doesn't seem as distant. The path seems                      

                                                     more direct, the pool of participants far smaller.

4) The Long brothers- All of these championships and records pale in comparison to the achievements-- both athletic and human-- of nine-year-old Conner Long. Conner's younger brother, Cayden, is seven, and he has cerebral palsy. Cayden can't walk or talk, but he does get to compete in triathlons thanks to his brother pushing and pulling him in the water and on land. Both completed the Iron Kids Triathlon this year, and even though they finished last (Conner after all was competing WITH his brother) they won big, being honored as the 2012 SportsKids of the Year by SI Kids. I dare you to watch this video and not be moved:

I can only hope that my Carston grows up to be like Conner and Cayden. They are true phenoms and brothers and I applaud their parents for raising two such phenomenal young men.

Pint-Sized Teen Athlete Phenoms

When I was 16 I was thinking about college, driving, and my AP exams. The 16- and 17-year-olds I describe below seem similar-- but they are also thinking about medals, championships, and endorsement deals. Tennis is used to having young phenoms, though there has been a bit of a decline in recent years.  But an exciting crop of American girls is surging, embodied in Sloane Stephens-- the 19-year-old American who just beat Serena Willliams in the Australian Open.  Joining her is Taylor Townsend, who at 16 is the first American to hold the No. 1 year-end world ranking for junior girls since 1982. She's already been the subject of controversy after the USTA accused her of being out of shape for the US Open (she says she's in shape and it's just baby fat-- and this brought up a lot of issues about criticizing the appearance of female athletes, especially young ones) and she went pro this month. It will be interesting to see how her career develops, particularly alongside that of 17-year-0ld Madison Keys, who already has gone pro.  It appears Keys and Townsend are Florida classmates, though at the moment Keys is most-often compared to Stephens. With Twitter, agents, and the press in the mix for all three already we can surely expect a show in the next few years among these teen tennis phenoms.

Winter sports has its fair share of female teen stars as well. I wrote about Mikaela Shiffrin almost a year ago and predicted we'd be hearing her name a lot more in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Games.  Well I was right: Shiffrin was just featured in ESPN The Magazine's Next issue.  (In many ways her story is similar to golf pint-sized phenom Lexi Thompson, also profiled along with her in the Next issue.) A few days later a long, thoughtful profile of her also appeared in The New York Times. But my favorite quote from her so far is in the ESPN piece when she explained why she wasn't there to get her World Cup Rookie of the Year Award: "I didn't know it was an award, so I was completely unaware. The party where it was awarded was at a bar and I wasn't allowed in. Also, I was exhausted."

Someone who could probably relate to Shiffrin's exhaustion is 16-year-old Emery Lehman. Lehman (somewhat unusually he's the only adolescent boy featured in this post about athletes) is a speed skater and at the end of last month he won his first national title in the 5000 meters.

Emery Lehman by J.Geil

I predict we'll be hearing his name more as the Sochi games approach.

The biggest teen athlete phenom from the last Olympics-- Missy Franklin-- is still in the news. This time it's not for beating the best in the world, it's just for beating those who live nearby her. Franklin, who decided to forego millions in endorsements to keep her eligibility to swim in both college (which she'll be doing soon at Berkeley) and in high school. But many of the high schoolers, and their parents, who have to compete against her in Colorado don't like that the phenom races against them, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

What can I say about these terrible poor sports? Well, honestly, Madeleine Davies over at Jezebel said it best:

"It's really frustrating when Missy kind of shines above everything," said Bonnie Brandon, who before graduating last spring was Colorado's greatest-ever female high-school swimmer next to Franklin. "She's No. 1 in the world, and No. 1 in the state, and then I'm No. 2 in the state.…It's just hard being in close proximity," said Brandon, now a University of Arizona swimming star.

Why do you keep eating those sour grapes, girl?

I'm guessing a lot of teen athlete phenoms deal with sour grapes, but people should know better than to criticize a thoughtful 17-year-old for trying to help her friends and teammates in the national press.