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 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: Terrific Teens Edition

This group of outstanding teenagers might make you feel bad about yourself! They all have found ways to achieve in distinctive and varied ways-- from sports to extreme activities to academics-- at such a young age. Here are some impressive feats they accomplished in the past month or so (Note: I think it's important sometimes to focus on older "kids," for fear of building up hype for kids so young they can never live up to it, like Cody Paul, who was recently featured in a great follow-up in ESPN The Magazine). 1. Mikaela Shiffrin- At just 16 Shiffrin is making waves on the slopes.  Just before the new year she became the youngest female skier on a World Cup podium since 1978, placing third in the slalom.  She is also the youngest US national slalom champion. I'm guessing we'll hear her name a lot at the 2014 Olympics!

2. Laura Dekker- Dekker is another impressive (if controversial) 16-year-old girl. She just became the youngest person to circumnavigate the  globe alone.  Her record isn't officially recognized though because after some disastrous recent attempts (like Abby Sunderland, and her brother, Zac, both of whom I've written about before), neither the World Sailing Speed Record Council nor the Guinness Book of World Records will recognize those records to "discourage dangerous attempts."  Dekker's parents fought the Dutch government for the right to let their daughter pursue this goal (the government thought it was unsafe). No word on what her next record-breaking adventure will be.

3. Jordan Romero- Well, she won't be breaking the record for youngest person to summit the tallest peaks on all seven continents, because 15-year-old Jordan Romero just earned that honor. At just ten Romero scaled Kilimanjaro and he finished his feat on Antarctica. Currently a high school sophomore I'm guessing he is going to write one heck of a college admissions essay.

4. Sierra Mudra- 16-year-old Mudra also has a great story to tell on her college applications. When she was born she weighed under two pounds. Now a high school junior who has a slight case of cerebral palsy, Mudra hopes to become the first professional skateboarder with a disability.  Based on her story she recently attended The X Games and will soon appear on a billboard in Times Square.

5. Samantha Garvey- The big recent feel-good student story, of course, is that of Samantha Garvey, the 18-year-old high school senior named a semi-finalist in the Intel science competition for her research on mussels (not to be confused with the Seimens competition, which had Angela Zhang as its impressive winner). Garvey achieved this honor despite living in a homeless shelter (though in many ways her teacher, Rebecca Grella, is the real hero of the story).  Though she did not make the final cut of 40 to reach finalist status, Garvey now has an agent and even attended the State of the Union (where, coincidentally, my husband's research on how much a good teacher is worth was discussed by the President [See slide 36]).  Though her college essays are almost certainly completed, Garvey will have some impressive tales to tell for years to come...