Teen Phenoms to Watch at the 2016 Summer Olympics

Beau Dure@duresportFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2016

Teen Phenoms to Watch at the 2016 Summer Olympics

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    Simone Biles wins gold. Get used to it.
    Simone Biles wins gold. Get used to it.ANDY BUCHANAN/Getty Images

    The USA is sending 555 athletes to the 2016 Olympics. Of those, 33 will be teenagers when the Games officially open Aug. 5.

    The only second-time Olympian in that group of 33 is Katie Ledecky, who won gold in the 800-meter freestyle in 2012 and has followed with nine world championships and world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500. The other name you’ll already know is gymnast Simone Biles, the three-time all-around world champion.

    Here are a few other athletes to watch from the USA and elsewhere who’ll be in Brazil before they hit the big 2-0, from oldest to youngest.

Umar Sadiq, Soccer (Feb. 2, 1997)

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    Umar Sadiq has already had some moments to celebrate at Roma.
    Umar Sadiq has already had some moments to celebrate at Roma.Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

    The Olympic men’s soccer tournament is a strange one. Each team is allowed to bring three "overage" players, but the rest must be Under-23 players—in other words, born after Jan. 1, 1993.

    Unsurprisingly, most of the players are 23, 22 or 21. You’ll see a handful of 20-year-olds but few teenagers.

    One exception is the Nigerian squad. Saturday Erimuya and Muenfuh Sincere are 18. Fellow defender Ndifreke Udo is 17, and midfielder Azubuike Okechukwu is 19.

    The player to watch is Umar Sadiq, a tall striker (6'3") who is already on Italian Serie A power AS Roma. He might not be there for long. According to Rome newspaper La Repubblica, via Four Four Two, English Premier League side Arsenal made a megamillion offer for him but couldn’t quite match Roma’s asking price.

Ginny Thrasher, Shooting (Feb. 28, 1997)

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    Ginny Thrasher's next targets will be in Rio.
    Ginny Thrasher's next targets will be in Rio.All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks (courtesy West Virginia University Sports Information)

    Shooting isn’t usually a sport for the young. Three of Ginny Thrasher’s fellow U.S. shooters are over 40.

    But Thrasher took a few big leaps in her development in the last 14 months. At the USA Shooting championships in June 2015, she won her first two junior titles and her first senior-level medals.

    The West Springfield High School (Virginia) alumna made history in March, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to sweep the individual women's rifle competitions. It's little wonder her West Virginia team won its fourth straight (18th overall) national team title.

    Then she went full bore into international competition. In early April, she dominated the USA Shooting three-position trials to earn a berth in Rio. (Through the complex qualification system for shooting, she also qualifies for the second event of air rifle.) Later in the month, she went to a World Cup competition in Rio. In May, she had career-best World Cup finishes—fourth in three-position and seventh in air riflein Munich.

    Not bad for someone whose family told John Marshall of the Associated Press she only took up the sport seriously after a hunting trip a few years ago. She originally wanted to be a figure skater but told Joon Lee of the Washington Post she was "never very good at it."

Brooke Henderson, Golf (Sept. 10, 1997)

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    Brooke Henderson is one of the youngest golfers to lift such major hardware.
    Brooke Henderson is one of the youngest golfers to lift such major hardware.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Golf is another sport that frequently belongs to the older crowd, but if you look at the women's world rankings today, you’ll see 19-year-old Lydia Ko of New Zealand in the top spot. The top American (fourth overall) is 21-year-old Lexi Thompson.

    Gaining quickly on Ko is Canadian Brooke Henderson, who is 18 years old. She came back from a three-shot deficit in June and beat Ko in a playoff to win her first major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

    Henderson, now ranked second in the world, honed her competitive fire in a more typical Canadian activity— playing goalie on the hockey ice.

    "As a goalie, you are there for your team, and that’s a lot of pressure," Henderson said, per Steve DiMeglio of USA Today. "Just like in golf, bad things happen, and you just have to keep fighting and fighting."

Vashti Cunningham, Track and Field (Jan. 18, 1998)

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    Vashti Cunningham has quickly leaped into medal contention.
    Vashti Cunningham has quickly leaped into medal contention.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Vashti Cunningham’s father, Randall Cunningham, is better known for his arm than for his jumping ability. He played 16 seasons as an NFL quarterback.

    But he was also an accomplished high jumper in high school, and now he coaches his kids in the demanding test of explosiveness and technique. Randall II is an All-American at Southern Cal.

    Vashti Cunningham will be skipping college to go pro. She’s not getting bad advice. She’s already the World Indoor champion. Only two women have jumped higher than her mark of 1.99 meters (6’6 ¼") this year. (One of them is U.S. teammate Chaunte Lowe, who jumped 2.01/6'7" to win the Olympic trials and make her fourth Olympic team.)

    Cunningham will be at a serious disadvantage in Olympic experience against Lowe, Croatia's Blanka Vlasic and Spain’s Ruth Beitia. But with the Russian competitors out of the picture, a medal is within reach this year. In future years? The sky is literally the limit.

Jessie Fleming, Soccer (March 11, 1998)

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    Jessie Fleming knows where she's going with the ball at her feet.
    Jessie Fleming knows where she's going with the ball at her feet.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    It seems almost unfair that UCLA's women's soccer team will eventually include Mallory Pugh (see next slide) and Jessie Fleming.

    The Canadian midfielder has been playing at the highest international level since she was 15, a few months before she captained the Canadian team at the 2014 Under-17 Women’s World Cup. The next year, she played two games in the big show itself, coming onto the field as a substitute to help Canada take a 1-0 win over China at the World Cup. Then she started as Canada clinched first place in Group A with a 1-1 draw over the Netherlands.

    Fleming actually has a younger teammate, 17-year-old Deanne Rose, who started and scored a crucial goal for Canada in a 3-1 win over Costa Rica that clinched her team’s Olympic berth. She also played in the 2016 Algarve Cup, including a late stint as a substitute in Canada’s 2-1 win over Brazil in the final.

Mallory Pugh, Soccer (April 29, 1998)

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    From Mia Hamm to Alex Morgan, the U.S. women’s soccer team has a proud history of precocious players. That trend died out a bit in recent years, and the 2015 World Cup champions were, to put it charitably, an "experienced" squad.

    But a few players have worked their way onto the national team in the past year—a couple of veterans of the NWSL and European play but also a high schooler from Colorado named Mallory Pugh. She was due to start her college career at UCLA this fall, but her parents told Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post she’ll defer her enrollment because she’ll be busy playing in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup and perhaps the U.S. national team’s traditional "victory tour" if it strikes gold in Rio.

    Pugh isn’t just going to sit on the bench. With only 18 players on the Olympic squad and several—most worryingly Megan Rapinoe—coming back from injuries, this team will need everyone to play. And she has taken a prominent role running the wing for the USA in 2016, including a scorching run and precise shot against Costa Rica.

Sydney McLaughlin, Track and Field (Aug. 7, 1999)

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    Many New Jersey hurdlers are hoping Sydney McLaughlin goes pro. Soon.
    Many New Jersey hurdlers are hoping Sydney McLaughlin goes pro. Soon.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Maybe she’s just too young to feel pressure. After making the U.S. team in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, one of the deepest events at the trials, she said her mind was on "finishing the race, you know, and going and eating a cheeseburger." (See the video.)

    Making that team wasn’t easy. Five of the top seven performers in this event this year are U.S. hurdlers. It’s a bit more difficult than winning the New Jersey state final, which McLaughlin did by nearly seven seconds. No wonder the House of Run podcast mused about her opposition being a little scared of what she might do next year.

    McLaughlin will turn 17 during the Games. The USOC says that will make her the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since 1972, a mere 27 years before she was born.

Laurie Hernandez, Gymnastics (June 9, 2000)

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    Don't worry. Laurie Hernandez stuck the landing.
    Don't worry. Laurie Hernandez stuck the landing.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Women’s gymnastics, at least in the USA, tends to be a young person’s sport in general. On this year’s Olympic team, the oldest gymnast is 22-year-old Aly Raisman. She and Gabby Douglas (20) are going to their second Olympics. We’ve already mentioned Biles, one of two 19-year-olds on the team along with Madison Kocian, a specialist on uneven bars.

    The fifth team member, Laurie Hernandez, is nearly three years younger than Kocian. She’s the second-youngest U.S. Olympian in any sport in 2016.

    And she’s a contender—as long as she doesn't hit herself in the eye while singing. She has only competed at the senior level for a few months, but she finished second in the all-around at the Olympic trials. As a reminder: That's second place to Simone Biles. And Hernandez won the balance beam, so don't count on Biles winning everything in Rio.

Kanak Jha, Table Tennis (June 19, 2000)

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    It's safe to say Kanak Jha would win your local school's intramural tournament.
    It's safe to say Kanak Jha would win your local school's intramural tournament.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    The youngest Olympian on Team USA is a 16-year-old who already has a couple of years playing internationally. He’s also a legit threat to be the first American table tennis player to win an Olympic medal—a long shot this year, perhaps, but maybe down the roadin a sport China has long dominated.

    Table tennis’ governing body says Kanak Jha is the youngest player ever to compete in the annual World Cup, which he did at age 14. Also in 2014, he was a semifinalist in the World Cadet Challenge, for players born in 1999 or later.

    He’s not only the youngest of the 555 athletes on Team USA but also the youngest male Olympian in table tennis history. 

    He’s from Milpitas, California, and he still attends Milpitas High School—sort of. He does his classes online while training at a club in Sweden, per Michelle R. Martinelli in a special for USA Today.

Ren Qian, Diving (Feb. 20, 2001)

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    Silver medalist at the World Championships at 14. Gold at 15?
    Silver medalist at the World Championships at 14. Gold at 15?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Good luck making Ren Qian’s 16th birthday special. She celebrated her 15th in February by winning the 10-meter platform at the Diving World Cup in Rio, and it wasn’t close.

    When she was 14, she was a close second in the World Championships, leading the prelims and the semifinals by a wide margin but coming up a few points behind North Korea’s Kim Kuk-hyang in the final.

    Since winning in Rio in February, she was beaten once in World Series competition, losing by 2.5 points to fellow Chinese teen Si Yajie in Beijing. She skipped the second World Series stop in Dubai, then came back with one dominating win and one close one in the last two meets to ensure that she’ll enter the Olympics as a solid favorite for gold.