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.

Shrinking and Pinking: More Girls, More Sports, More Changes

Compared to the past few months, October brought less female athlete news-- but as students returned to school and Olympic-caliber athletes returned to training, there's no doubt that women in sports were hard at work.  And, in many cases, they are working hard in new contexts. 1) In Massachusetts female high school golfers now have the chance to compete in a more rigorous state-level tournament, as the state's athletic association voted to add sectional tournaments.  This is a great sign that golfing is growing for girls.

2) Lolo Jones, the American hurdler who often gets more attention than wins, has just be named to the US bobsled team.

She's not the only one in the running to be a two-sport Olympian (summer and fall), as gold medal sprinter Tianna Madison also made the team as a push athlete (the people who run and literally push the bobsled before hopping in and letting others steer down the mountain). It will be interesting to see if they both make it to the 2014 Games!

I wonder if there is this same type of crossover in male bobsledding?

3) Legendary women's basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, of UConn's storied program made headlines this week when he suggested that the rim should be lowered in the women's game. His reasoning? It would help increase the audience for women's basketball because it would mean a faster game, more dunks, and better layups.  He also suggested changing the size of the basketball and a few other timing rule changes.  Through the article I learned that the net in women's volleyball is lower (mainly because of the average height difference between men and women)-- which shows he was right that I had no idea!

I have mixed feelings about different rules for men's and women's games, but changing the equipment to reflect the realities of known physical differences between men and women (like height) seems reasonable. In the end it's just great to see more females doing a variety of competitive sports.

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. "