A Brief History
On March 22, 1997, figure skater Tara Lipinski, age 14, became the youngest skater ever to win a World Championship. (Okay, she was actually 14 years and 9 months old for you nitpickers.) Prior to her history making performance at the World competition, Tara had won the United States National Championship and in 1998 would go on to win the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympic Games. Lipinski is only 1 of many young athletes who have excelled beyond their seemingly tender years, and today we list 10 such young athletic stars that strike us as particularly worth noting. Many teens have made their way into the Major Leagues of baseball and have competed as Olympic athletes, but some sports have limited the age of professionals to a minimum of 18 years old, making really, really young stars impossible. Some young athletes have even lied about their age in order to compete at a higher level. So many are worth mentioning! As always, feel free to mention other notable people that should be on this list.
Breaking News! In March of 2020, news agencies reported an 11 year old girl qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the sport of table tennis (aka, ping pong). This remarkable athlete is Hend Zaza of Syria.
1. Tara Lipiniski, World Champion Ice Skater, age 14.
Of Polish heritage (you may have guessed from her last name), Lipinski was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1982. Her early childhood was in New Jersey before her family moved to Texas, and then to Detroit where she could better train for figure skating. She actually started her ice skating career at the age of 6, though even before then became a roller-skater. In addition to her 1997 National and World Titles, Lipinski won the coveted Gold Medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as well as the 1996-1997 Grand Prix Gold Medal (Ladies’ Singles) in Hamilton, Ontario, and the 1997-1998 Grand Prix Gold Medal at Munich (Ladies’ Singles). After having to withdraw from the 1998 World Championships due to an infection occurred from having molars extracted, Lipinski turned professional. (See our article “10 Major Accomplishments by Young People” for more youthful achievements.)
2. Joe Nuxhall, Major League Baseball Pitcher, age 15.
In 1944, while most American able bodied men were in the military service during World War II, this teen aged prodigy made his major league debut as a left handed pitcher at the tender age of 15, the youngest major leaguer ever. Joe was no flash in the pan as his career with the Cincinnati Reds lasted until 1966, although interrupted by stops in Kansas City and Los Angeles. Along the way he managed to set the team record for pitching appearances (pitching in 484 games) and compiled a record of 135 wins and 115 1osses with an ERA of .390. Joe’s career in the major leagues lasted only the one game in 1944, until he worked his way back up to the “Big Show” in 1952. After his retirement as a player in 1966, Nuxhall went into broadcasting, a second career that lasted until his death in 2007 at the age of 79. Nuxhall was a product of Hamilton, Ohio. Joe Nuxhall was a 2 time National League All Star and is an inductee to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
(Special Mention: Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, who made his debut with the Tribe in 1936 at the age of 17. Feller went on to a terrific major league career, a career with 4 of his best years taken out of the middle by his voluntary service in the US Navy during the war, serving aboard the battleship USS Alabama. Feller ended his career with a then record 3 no-hitters and a still record 12 1-hitters. In fact, the next nearest pitcher on the list since 1900 has only 6 1-hitters! Who knows what Feller may have done in his prime had he not been interrupted by war service.)
3. Marjorie Gestring, Olympic Gold Medal Diver, age 13.
A product of the Golden State (California), Gestring was born in 1922, and before she even turned 14 she had won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics in the 3 meter diving competition. At that time, Marjorie was the youngest Olympian ever to win a Gold Medal, and remains the second youngest to this date. Gestring added 3 National titles to her trove of awards, and in 1940, with World War II in progress, the US Olympic Committee awarded her an Olympic Gold Medal even though the Games were not held that year due to the war. Attempting a competitive comeback in 1948, Marjorie failed to make the US Olympic team. South Korean speed skater
Special Mention: Kim Yun-mi broke Gestring’s age record at the 1994 Winter Olympics when she took the Gold Medal in the 3000 meter relay, a feat she repeated at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
4. Nadia Comăneci, Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast, age 14.
Born in Onești, Romania in 1961, Nadia took the 1976 Summer Olympics and the world by storm by winning 3 Olympic Gold Medals in Gymnastics before she had turned 15 years old. Not only that, Nadia became the first ever Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10 at an Olympic competition. For good measure she came back at the 1980 Olympic Games and won 2 additional Olympic Gold Medals. In all, Nadia earned 9 Olympic Medals, and won the hearts of millions of people across the world, greatly enhancing the popularity of the sport of gymnastics. Her official retirement ceremony took place in Bucharest in 1984. Nadia has lived in the United States since 1989, with her husband, US Olympic gymnast Bart Connor.
Special Mention: Prior to Nadia’s groundbreaking performance in 1976, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut was the darling of the gymnastics world when she won 3 Olympic Gold Medals in ladies Gymnastics in 1972 (Team, Balance Beam, and Floor) at the age of 17.
5. Betty Robinson, Olympic Gold Medal 100 meter Dash, age 16.
The 1928 Summer Olympic Games in Amsterdam would be the debut of the Women’s 100 Meter Dash competition, and a 16 year old girl from Riverdale, Illinois (born 1911) would become the first ever female Olympic 100 Meter Dash Gold Medalist. She also won a Silver Medal at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 in the Women’s 4 X 100 meter relay, and won another Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, again in the 4 X 100 meter relay. Amazingly, Betty’s first ever race was in March of 1928, and at her second race ever she tied the 100 Meter Dash world record for women! Her Olympic Gold Medal 100 meter dash was only her 3rd race in competition, and she again tied the Women’s World Record in that event. She attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. A victim in a serious plane crash in 1931, Betty was reportedly taken to the coroner’s office where a startled coroner found the injured girl was still alive, but later information proved that story to be mistaken. Unable to walk normally for the next 2 years, she of course missed out on the 1932 Olympics, but made her comeback in 1936 to earn that second Gold Medal. She went on a long life, dying in 1999 at the age of 87.
6. Lexi Thompson, Women’s US Open Golf Qualifier, age 12.
Not surprisingly still an amateur golfer at the age of 12, Lexi became the youngest ever golfer to qualify for the Women’s US Open golf tournament in 2007, and remember, although she was an amateur, she was competing against the best professionals and amateurs in the world for a spot on tournament roster! Lexi turned professional in 2010 at the age of 15, and in 2011 she became the youngest ever winner of a professional women’s golf tournament LPGA) at the age of 16. Thompson also became the youngest winner of a Ladies European golf tournament event in 2011, and at the age of 19 won her first major tournament, the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship, at the time the second youngest female major tournament winner. She is still playing golf at the advanced age of 24! Lexi is a native of Coral Springs, Florida, and stands 6 feet tall.
7. Bob Mathias, Olympic Gold Medal Decathlon, age 17.
Born in Tulare, California in 1930, Mathias became the “World’s Greatest Athlete” by winning the 1948 Olympic Decathlon at the London Olympics at the age of 17, an incredible feat. Bob matched his remarkable performance of 1948 by winning the 1952 Olympic Gold Medal in Decathlon at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Bob’s 1952 performance was so dominating that he set a World Record in the Decathlon for margin of victory. Mathias later served for 8 years as a US Representative to Congress from California and held other government service jobs. He died of cancer at the age of 76 in 2006. Mathias attended Stanford University and even played 2 years of college football.
8. Wilfred Benítez, World Champion Boxer (Junior Welterweight Division), age 17.
Boxing is a brutal, very brutal sport. People get killed from injuries incurred in the boxing ring every so often, so the feat of becoming a World Champion boxer at the age of 17 (apologies to Stevie Nicks) is remarkable. Born in Puerto Rico in 1958, Wilfred turned professional at the incredibly young age of 15! Benitez piled up 25 wins and 0 losses by the time in 1976 when he got his first shot at the Welterweight title, facing champion Antonio Cervantes. A 15 round battle ensued, and at the end Benitez became the youngest ever professional boxing champion. He went on to a stellar career, marked by notable bouts with Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran. His career record stood at 53 wins, 8 losses, and 1 draw when he retired in 1990. His nickname was “El Radar.”
9. Mike Tyson, World Champion Boxer (Heavyweight Division), age 20.
Iron Mike Tyson has had a checkered life in and outside the ring, marred by allegations of domestic violence, possible juvenile felonies, and biting a chunk of ear out of Evander Holyfield during a Championship bout! Still, what he accomplished by gaining the Heavyweight Boxing Championship at the age of 20 in 1986 against Champ Trevor Berbick is truly amazing. Tyson had amassed 27 professional victories in the ring in 1985 and 1986 prior to winning the Heavyweight Belt, a daunting number of professional fights in only a little more than one year! An arrest for rape in 1991 resulted in a conviction for that crime in 1992, and a 3 year stretch in prison during what should have been the prime of his career. Tyson is forever branded by the US Federal Government as a “Sex Offender.”
10. Al Kaline, American League Batting Champion, age 20.
Kaline joined the Detroit Tigers at the age of 18 in 1953, bypassing the minor league development phase. In his third year of major league baseball, he stunned the American League by winning the Batting Championship with a batting average of .340, becoming the youngest player to win a major league batting title. Not since Ty Cobb in 1907 had a 20 year old won a batting title in the major leagues, though Kaline edged out Cobb in age. Al Kaline went on to a stellar career, posting a .297 lifetime batting average, smacking 3007 hits, and slamming 399 home runs while appearing in 18 All Star Games and winning 10 Gold Glove Awards.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite young athletic star? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gelman, Steve. Young baseball Champions. Norton, 1966.
Gelman, Steve. Young Olympic Champions. Grosset & Dunlap, 1974.
Sugar, Bert Randolph. Boxing’s Greatest Fighters. Gpq , 2006.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Klaus Zaugg of Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut saluting the audience at an exhibition in Milan, Italy, is in the public domain in the United States because it meets three requirements:
- it was first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days),
- it was first published before 1 March 1989 without copyright notice or before 1964 without copyright renewal or before the source country established copyright relations with the United States,
- it was in the public domain in its home country on the URAA date (January 1, 1996 for most countries).
The country of origin of this photograph is Italy. It is in the public domain there because its copyright term has expired. According to Law for the Protection of Copyright and Neighbouring Rights n.633, 22 April 1941 and later revisions, images of people or of aspects, elements and facts of natural or social life, obtained with photographic process or with an analogue one, including reproductions of figurative art and film frames of film stocks (Art. 87) are protected for a period of 20 years from creation (Art. 92). This provision shall not apply to photographs of writings, documents, business papers, material objects, technical drawings and similar products (Art. 87). Italian law makes an important distinction between “works of photographic art” and “simple photographs” (Art. 2, § 7). Photographs that are “intellectual work with creative characteristics” are protected for 70 years after the author’s death (Art. 32 bis), whereas simple photographs are protected for a period of 20 years from creation.