At the infamous 1939 Berlin Olympics, there was a little-known Danish swimmer called Inge Sorensen. She won a bronze medal in the 200m breaststroke at the tender age of 12 years and 24 days – the youngest female medalist in Olympic history. Sorensen gets extra points for refusing to hail Adolf Hitler on the podium; she later became a symbol of the anti-Nazi movement in her native Denmark. Dubbed “Little Lovely Inge” by the Danish media, Sorensen was greeted by 30,000 fans upon her return to Copenhagen. She died in Burlington, New Jersey at the age of 86.
At the same Olympics, American diver Marjorie Gestring beat out rival Katherine Rawls for the gold in the three-meter springboard event. She was 13 years old, not much older than Sorensen – to this day, still the youngest gold medalist in Olympic history. After her victory, Gestring continued to compete in US national championships, even as the 1940 Summer Olympics were canceled due to World War II. She died in 1992 and has since been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.
Even before getting to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it was a tough road for 14-year-old gymnast Dominique Moceanu. She was forced to sit out the Olympic trials due to a stress fracture, but successfully petitioned her way onto the team that would later dubbed the “Magnificent Seven." At the Olympics, Moceanu struggled on the vaults and balance beam, taking a particularly nasty fall in the latter. However, the Magnificent Seven rebounded to clinch Team USA’s first-ever gold medal in women’s gymnastics – a feat that took 16 years to repeat, thanks to this year’s spunky “Fierce Five.”
Though Tara Lipinski’s feat didn’t take place during the Summer Olympics, she has the distinction of being the youngest individual figure skating gold medalist in Winter Olympic history. During the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, the bubbly 15-year-old from Philadelphia skated her short program to music from the animated film Anastasia, followed by a free skate program that put her ahead of teammate and defending champion Michelle Kwan. How’s that for a fairy tale story? The clincher was Lipinski’s program – the most technically challenging in Olympic history. How challenging? Try “triple loop-triple loop combination jump, another triple-triple combination, and seven triple jumps total” challenging. (We don’t even know what that means, but it’s making us dizzy just reading it.) After the Olympics, Lipinski joined the professional figure skating circuit and performed in both Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice. She’s now a commentator for NBC’s Universal Sports.
No list of the youngest Olympians would be complete without Nadia Comaneci. At age 14, the Romanian gymnast made history at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with the first perfect 10 ever awarded in gymnastics. Her performance was so unprecedented that the scoreboard posted a “1.00,” momentarily confusing both athlete and spectators. Comaneci went on to achieve six more perfect 10s and nab three gold medals, becoming the youngest all-around gymnastics champion in Olympic history.
It’s now legally impossible to break Comaneci’s age record since the age limit was raised to 16. What’s more, the International Gymnastics Federation changed the scoring system in 1997; there is no longer a ceiling on scores. Comaneci herself, now 50 and living in Oklahoma City with her husband and son, has called for the return of the perfect 10 system to dispel confusing gymnastics scores.
To see athletes 1-5, check out our previous post, "10 Olympic Champions Under 16, Part 1."
Photos (in order of appearance): Danish Teak Classics, The Met, Getty Images, x_ships via Flickr, Dave Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons