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.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: Female Athletes Edition

They golf, they swim, they dive, and they play soccer.  This month's edition of pint-sized phenoms features some amazing young women performing some incredible feats. 1) The youngest of the bunch is 10-year-old Aisha Saini.  While on family vacation in Spain, the Scottish girl played in a soccer tournament.  Turns out some scouts from the famed Italian football club AC Milan were there and they were so impressed by her they invited her to play in a tournament.  As if that's not impressive enough, turns out she is the first girl to ever receive this honor.

2) Annaleise Carr also recently became a first-- she became the youngest swimmer to ever swim across Lake Ontario (that's 31.6 miles!).  At only 14, she completed the feat in 27 hours and she stayed in the water the whole time.  Her swim raised over $80,000 for a childhood cancer center.

3) Fifteen-year-old Lydia Ko has quickly become the most talked-about pint-sized phenom since Lexi Thompson.  Which makes sense since Ko broke Thompson's record; she is now the youngest champion at an LPGA tournament.

4)  The elder stateswoman of this group-- though only 16-- Gracia Leydon-Mahoney recently won the AT&T National Diving Championship.  She won the springboard competition but also did well diving from the platform.

These young women remind us that you don't have to participate in the most popular sports to succeed-- and you can win big at a young age these days.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: From Playtime to Professional Work

Perhaps it's time to start Carston's art career. In fact, I may be too late if I want him to compete with five-year-old "prodigy" Aelita Andre. Aelita started painting at 22 months. Her "Abstract Expressoinist" work sells for upwards of $10,000. But if you watch this video of her working (and it is clear based on her statements about watching the sun rise and painting for 24 hours that there is some work going on here) you'd be excused if you thought she was simply playing around in her tutu.

In some ways this might be every toddler and small child's dream: get as dirty as you want, take over a whole room of the house, and fling liquid and glitter about. She looks like she's having fun. If there is any phenom in this family it's clearly Aelita's parents who have some savvy marketing and sales skills.

Given the focus on early achievement and profits it's hard to imagine that Aelita would ever act as selflessly as Meghan Vogel. Vogel, a high school junior in Ohio, made headlines for helping a fellow competitor cross the finish line-- in front of her-- at the state track meet.

Just when you think youth sports have become too professionalized and focused on winning at all costs, a story like this comes along to remind you that they also are a site of life lessons and uplifting stories.

When genuine prodigies come along, like golfer Andy Zhang who made the cut to play in last week's U.S. Open at just 14, it's not as hard to celebrate them. Especially when their parents don't seem overly pushy; Zhang's father actually told him he shouldn't expect to make the cut and so shouldn't fly from Florida to California (note that in the linked New York Times article, the father of another pint-sized phenom, Lexi Thompson, is quoted). Zhang, who spent much of his childhood in China, now lives and trains in Bradenton (presumably at IMG Academies, which I've also written about before).  Seems like we'll be hearing much more from him in the future.

His talents are clearly immense enough to make him a professional at an early age (though not as early as Aelita Andre's).  We can only hope his love for playing the game helps give him an attitude as wonderful as Vogel's.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: A New Blog Series

Back in March I started a monthly feature on my blog: Shrinking and Pinking. This series focuses on female athletes, who often have to fight against the literally shrinking and pinking of their sports, uniforms, and professional lives/opportunities. The past few months a different definition of "shrinking" has been creeping into my posts-- child athletes. After 16-year-old Lexi Thompson's impressive, record-setting performance at an LPGA tournament, which has since earned her tour membership, I realized that women and kids deserved their own separate series.  Hence, the new Pint-Sized Phenoms. This month I focus on kids (all 18 and under), like Lexi Thompson, who have performed remarkable physical feats, usually in the context of organized sports.

  • At 16 Zach Veach is on track to become a champion race car driver. Last year he finished fifth in the USF2000 National Championship, which is the feeder system for IndyCar. He's only been driving since he was 12 (all the more remarkable when most of his competitors have been driving go-karts since they were four), and has only legally been able to drive on the roads for the past eight months. Of course it's a particularly sad moment for racing, with the death of Dan Wheldon, but I'm sure racers like Zach give many hope for the future. If you're interested in learning more about the kiddie race car circuit, I recommend the 2009 documentary Racing Dreams.

  • Another impressive 16-year-old is Sami Stoner. Sami is a cross country runner in Ohio. She also happens to be legally blind. Sami is the first athlete to be cleared to use a guide dog by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Read more of her inspirational story here.

  • Like Sami Stoner, 15-year-old Doug Wells is an inspirational blind athlete. And he recently pitched a no hitter on the baseball diamond! In addition to playing baseball Doug also plays basketball and football.

  • Speaking of football, three pint-sized football players have been in the news of late.
  1. Demias Jimerson is quite the pint-sized phenom. At only 11-years-old he made national news this fall when he was told that he was too good of a football player. His Arkansas school has a rule that stops a player from scoring more than three touchdowns if his team is ahead by at least 14 points. His story brought up issues of limiting talented children versus allowing others the opportunity to enjoy physical fitness. Will be interesting to see what this young man accomplishes both on and off the field as he develops.  Perhaps he can "play up" on a another team so he can continue to develop his talents and others can enjoy a sporting activity with those who have similar skill sets.
  2. The New York Times article on 18-year-old Brianna Amat (the joint winning field-goal kicking and homecoming queen) definitely made the rounds. In case you missed it, click here to read about this Michigander who experienced two major events in her young life within an hour.
  3. In an anti-phenom moment, another Ohio athlete, a 16-year-old football player, exhibited one of the worst cases of poor sportsmanship in recent memory. This young man placed a metal tack in his glove which he used to poke his opponents during the after-game handshakes. But, get this: not only did his team win, he didn't even play in the game (he had been benched due to eligibility concerns). I'm hoping he has been benched indefinitely, especially after 20 fellow high school football players had to endure Tetanus shots as a result of the incident.
  • To end on a more positive note, last month 17-year-old Kristen Kelliher broke a record. She became the youngest female (at 17 years, 4 months, and 13 days) to climb the highest point in each of the 48 contiguous states. Kelliher broke this 'highpointing" record (previously 18 years and 4 days) in her home state of Vermont.  She soon hopes to break the record for all 50 states, with climbs planned for Hawaii and Alaska (the most dangerous).  A few quotes from Kristin in yesterday's Boston Globe article on her accomplishment reveal the mindset of a pint-sized phenom: "I've wanted to do this since I was 9... I'm kind of competitive. Ok, a lot."

Shrinking and Pinking: Milestones and Menstruation

It's been an interesting month for female athletes. Yesterday 16-year-old Lexi Thompson (who I have previously featured in a Shrinking and Pinking post in which I named her a "star of the future," which was clearly spot-on!) became the youngest ever winner of an LPGA event. While she's not old enough to join the LPGA tour (you have to be 18 to do that), she does get in the record books and take home a $195,000 pay check.  Her father served as the caddy for this homeschooled high schooler-- and golf clearly runs in their family. Her eldest brother plays on the PGA tour, another brother plays for Louisiana State, and her mother played junior golf in South Florida.

Not surprisingly, golf is pretty competitive in their household. The New York Times reports: "Nicholas [the eldest] was the catalyst; his brother and sister grew up alternately emulating him and competing against him in high-stakes backyard chipping and putting contests. The loser would have to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash or perform some other hated chore."

I love the novelty of putting for chores, so I don't mind reading about those contests.  But it is striking to me that the article gives just as much space to covering Lexi's looks as it does to these backyard contests: "Thompson, blond and nearly 6 feet tall, could be a cover girl for Golf magazine or Glamour. This weekend she received marriage proposals on the course and on Twitter. She is young and attractive and American, making her a coveted commodity on a tour that has been dominated in recent years by foreign-born players and that has struggled to maintain sponsorships and a full schedule."  Even in the context of such a significant milestone, looks still matter in a pink athletic world.

A few weeks ago it was more significant when several markers and milestones did not fall in the world of women's athletics.  Not one women's world record was broken at the Track and Field World Championships held in Daegu, South Korea. (My husband, a serious runner and track fan, got me hooked on the meets this year.) Women's records, and looks, remain an issue in this sport as well. I found this article on the lack of records in women's track fascinating.   The author argues that women's records should be expunged because of suspected doping violations (suspected based on other cases, almost improbable performances, and, yes, women's looks).  "Looks" in general remain an issue in women's track-- take the case of Caster Semenya-- but even she has not broken any world records.

Also not breaking any world records, but opening up an important discussion after her performance at Worlds, is Lauren Fleshman. Fleshman is a middle and long distance runner from the United States who finished seventh in in the 5000m at Worlds (my husband, showing an unexpected gossip-y side, informed me that when he was running college track/cross country Fleshman was the "hot running girl from Stanford").

Fleshman maintains a great website/blog and after the meet posted her thoughts on her performance.  The most interesting part to me was the following comment at the end of her post:

"If you are a dude, be warned that the following paragraph contains feminine stuff:

The race fell on the absolute worst day of the month for my cycle, and I can’t help but wonder how I would have felt had that not been the case (I get 4 pounds heavier and sluggish at that time of the month). But maybe defending world champ Linet Masai is saying the same thing about her 6th place finish. Maybe the young Dibaba that I passed at the line had the flu. Defar had stomach problems. Molly Huddle had an injured foot. Our fastest American, Shalane, wasn’t even in the race. I guess that’s what championships are all about, and have always been about: unknowns and variables and who toes the line on the day. That spirit of championships will never change, and I wouldn’t change it if I could.  But I would like to change my cycle next time, please. Or at least learn how to lesson the side-effects of bloating and water retention.  Tips from other women with experience in this area would be appreciated!  Thanks!"

The comments section is filled with interesting suggestions and tips that likely could help other female athletes. It also reminded me of a great piece from The New York Times on female athletes' menstrual cycles, which appeared earlier this summer.  The Times article discusses several different studies on the effect of the menstrual cycle, and female hormones, on athletic performance. While it's not all bad, it's clear there is a reason that women in the 1980s supposedly took male hormones, and not female hormones, to improve their athletic outcomes.

While female athletes do need to negotiate the realities of their bodies, more gender lines are being crossed than ever before. In a show of some hometown love, Therea Scruton, a senior at Framingham High School, recently joined the boys' football team. Congrats and good luck to Theresa! (Though, of course, my favorite female high school football player remains college classmate Anna Lakovitch, who was a kicker for her Florida team. She now owns what looks to be an amazing restaurant, Ollie Irene, in Mountain Brook, Alabama, which you should check out if you are in the area!)

UPDATE: The day after I posted this blog, news broke that the international federation for track and field (the IAAF) had changed the rules for women's marathon world records. Essentially a woman can no longer set a record in a race run with men (presumably because the set pace will be faster). Well, ok, maybe... But that also means that they are changing the existing records on the books. So the "new" world record for a female marathoner is now slower than it was before, because the fastest was set in a race with men. I know sport has become increasingly numericized, and I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing.  But this decision makes it harder both for fans to follow the sport and for athletes to promote and support themselves (for instance, if you can say you are the world's fastest woman at X, you will likely get more and better endorsements). This sort of promotion is especially important for women, I think, as men tend to get a lot of the attention. Yesterday The New York Times posted a story on this (head-scratching) decision near the top of their website, so I'd expect to hear more about this, especially in the lead-up to next summer's Olympics. The first line is especially powerful: "Now added to the list of banned performance-enhancing substances for female distance runners: men. "