The life of an Olympic athlete is a grueling one. Competitors must follow strict diets and rigid training schedules, all while maintaining a single-minded focus to become the very best at their sport. Failure can be heartbreaking, as seen from South Korean fencer Shin A-Lam’s controversial defeat on Day 3 of the London Summer Olympics. It’s all the more impressive when the athlete in question must also juggle homework and exams on top of four to five-hour practices. With the London Summer Olympics now in full swing, we take a look at 10 of the youngest Olympic champions of all time.
Depending on who you ask, Chinese gymnast He Kexin (pictured above) was either 14 or 16 when she competed at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Though the Chinese Olympic Committee listed her age as 16, some records suggested that she might have been under the age of eligibility. However, He and her teammates were cleared after an investigation by the International Federation of Gymnastics (IFG). She went on to win a gold medal on the uneven bars after a controversial tiebreaker with American gymnast Nastia Liukin. Stay tuned; He will be competing again this year at the London Olympics.
One of the early breakout moments of this year’s Olympics was 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte surging ahead of the pack to win the 100m breaststroke. This was her country’s first-ever Olympic gold, snatched from the US’ Rebecca Soni with just 0.08 seconds’ advance. Meilutyte, who moved to the UK three years ago with her father, also broke the European record in the heats – beating her personal best by two seconds. Look out for her in the swimming finals!
Barbara Pearl Jones
At age 15, Barbara Pearl Jones (later Slater) represented the US at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics in the 4 x 100m relay event with her teammates Mae Faggs, Janet Moreau, and Catherine Hardy. Faggs marshaled Team USA into taking gold despite having never worked together before, making Jones the youngest female Olympic gold medalist in track and field. She would repeat the feat at the 1960 Olympics in Rome before retiring; Jones now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
In July of 1992, a Chinese schoolgirl still shy of her fourteenth birthday shocked diving fans by capturing the gold medal in women’s platform diving. Hubei native Fu Mingxia’s closest competitor, Elena Microchina, lagged nearly 50 points behind. As The LA Times‘ Mike Penner noted, “Fu could have cannonballed her last dive and no one would have touched her.” At the ripe old age of 17, she retired to enroll at Tsinghua University, then returned to the pool to claim four more Olympic medals (three gold, one silver) before hanging up her swimsuit for good.
If you don’t count the anonymous coxswains (the guys who are in charge of steering a boat) who were at the 1900 Olympics, Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras is the youngest documented medalist and competitor in Olympic history at 10 years and 218 days. He won a bronze medal on home soil in the team parallel bars at the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. According to his Wikipedia page, Loundras went on to fight in both world wars and reached the rank of admiral in the Greek navy. Way to overachieve, Dimitrios.
For athletes 6-10, check out “10 Olympic Champions Under 16, Part 2.”
Photos (in order of appearance): China Daily, Robertas Dačkus, History.com, 163.com, Bleach Report