A gold medal at 13, 3 gold medals at the same event at 20, making history at only 23 years old, these young athletes are showing that you’re never too young to make history.
The Olympics is considered the pinnacle of athletic excellence. Every four years, athletes from around the world compete in a variety of sports to win a coveted medal. Only the best of the best manage to win an Olympic medal, which is why it is such an honor for any athlete to do so. This is why when an Olympian manages to win a medal at a young age, that is considered a major achievement.
In the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, over 2/3 of the athletes competing are in their 20s, with the youngest of them being 12-year-old Hend Zaza, a Syrian table tennis player. The Tokyo Olympics has seen quite a few young athletes win an Olympic medal and break records, make history, or chalk athletic feats in the process. We spotlight some of these young athletes who bring the term youthful excellence to a whole new level.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were home to many firsts such as how it was the first time skateboarding was an official sport at the Olympics. The women’s skateboarding street course was dominated by young women and they were led by Momiji Nishiya. The 13-year-old Japanese skater became the first person in history to win a gold medal at skateboarding. She also is the second youngest person ever to win a gold medal. (That distinction goes to U.S. diver Marjorie Gestring who won the springboard competition in 1936. She was 62 days younger than Momiji when she won the gold.)
Joining Momiji on the podium is her fellow Japanese skater, Funa Nakayama. She took home the bronze medal in the women’s street competition. At 16 years old, she is actually the oldest athlete to have won a medal at the women’s street competition.
Rayssa Leal took the internet by storm when she competed in the first-ever women’s skateboarding street course event. But this isn’t the first time the Brazilian went viral. Back in 2015, a video of her skateboarding while dressed in a fairy costume went viral. At the time, she was seven years old and the costume was made by her grandmother for a school play. She took home the silver medal during her Olympics debut, and she just so happens to be 13 years old.
The Japanese love to skateboard, which is why it’s not surprising to see Japanese athletes clean up at the inaugural skateboarding events in the Tokyo Olympics. 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi became the first-ever gold medal winner of the Olympic skateboarding park competition.
Joining Sakura on the podium is 12 (yes, you read that right) year old Japanese skater Kokona Hiraki as she won the silver medal in the park event. She was in contention to be the youngest ever athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics, but her silver medal win still makes her one of the youngest athletes to win a medal in history and the youngest athlete to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
13-year-old Sky Brown was seen as another contender to take home the gold medal, but settled for the bronze. She represented the United Kingdom in the skateboarding park event and is the youngest professional skateboarder in the world. Fun fact: Sky won the first season of Dancing with the Stars: Juniors.
Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus had an amazing debut in her first-ever Olympics. The 20-year-old bagged four medals: two gold, one silver, and one bronze. Most impressively, she defeated swimming legend and world record holder Katie Ledecky in the women’s 400-meter freestyle by less than a second. Ledecky actually led in the first two laps, until she caught up with her to clinch the win (to the joy of her coach). She also set an Olympic record of 1:53.50 in the 200-meter freestyle final and defeated Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey to claim the gold.
Lydia Jacoby just being part of team USA was history-making in itself. The 17-year-old swimmer is the first-ever Alaskan to be part of Team USA in the Olympics. But her history-making wouldn’t stop there. She won the gold medal at the women’s 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:04:95, defeating her teammate Lily King and South African Tatjana Schoenmaker. Her win made it the first gold medal won by an American woman in swimming at the Tokyo Olympics. She also won a silver medal in the 4×100 meter medley relay.
When Simon Biles decided to step down from most of her competitions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Sunisa Lee stepped up and took her place in the floor exercise. And step up she did, winning the gold medal at the event, which made her the first-ever Hmong American to win a gold medal at the Olympics and the first Hmong American to participate at the Olympics. The historic win caused the 18-year-old’s family back in Minnesota to celebrate in joy and the governor of Minnesota even named June 20, 2021, Sunisa Lee Day. She also has a silver in team and a bronze in uneven bars. So, what’s next for this talented young athlete? College, as she is set to start her freshman year at Auburn University, on August 11.
This 22-year-od Brazilian gymnast made history at the Tokyo Olympics when she won a silver medal at the all-around competition final. The win made her the first-ever female Brazilian gymnast to win a medal at the Olympics. She made history again when she got the gold at vault, making her the first Olympic champion in Brazilian women’s artistic gymnastics history.
Female Chinese gymnast Guan Chenchen may have only competed in one event during the Tokyo Olympics, but she wiped the competition. The 16-year-old is the youngest member among the gymnast in team China. She posted the highest score in qualifications for the balance beam where she eventually won the gold medal in the same event. In doing so, she defeated Simon Biles who took home the bronze.
At just 24 years old, Simon Biles is not just a legend in the world of gymnastics, but in modern sports history. Going into the Olympics, she was expected to dominate most, if not all of her events. But she announced that she was backing out of most of her competitions citing mental health reasons. Her decision started an important discussion about the role mental health plays in sports and the dangers of pursuing excellence while neglecting your own health, which is in itself an inspiring effort.
20-year-old South Korean archer An San has had a whirlwind of a month. She won three gold medals in archery during the Tokyo Olympics, one in individual, one in team, and one in mixed team. In doing so, she became the first archer in history to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. But despite her history-making success, she was harassed online by anti-feminist trolls because she had short hair, was a fan of MAMAMOO, and went to Gwangju Women’s University, a women’s only college, and demanded that her medals be taken away from her. Though it seems An San hasn’t let the criticism get to her—nor should it.
At first glance, Turkey’s Mete Gazoz might seem like an unassuming guy. But in fact, the 22-year-old is one of the best male archers in the world. He first competed in the Olympics during the 2016 Rio Olympics where he failed to win a medal. In the Tokyo Olympics, he rebounded and won a gold medal in the men’s individual event, making it the first time Turkey won a medal in archery, and the first time to win gold.
Carlo Paalam’s story is that of rags to riches. Growing up in Cagayan de Oro, he was a scavenger with his dad, going to landfills to find anything they could sell. He won his first boxing match when he was seven years old and used the prize money to buy rice for his family. He was eventually scouted before joining the national team. Now, the 23-year-old won a silver medal at his very first Olympics and is the youngest athlete on Team Philippines to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Another history-maker on this list, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn won the gold medal in the women’s 100-meter hurdles. Doing so made the 24-year-old the first Puerto Rican in history to win a gold medal in athletics and just the second gold medal for Puerto Rico (the first being Monica Puig’s gold in tennis in Rio 2016). She posted a time of 12.37 seconds in the finals, which couldn’t break the Olympic record of 12.26 seconds (that she set by the way during the semi-finals).
19-year-old American track and field athlete Athing Mu won the gold medal during the women’s 800-meter event. Her win made it the first time that an American woman won the gold at the same event in more than 50 years (the last time being the 1968 Mexico Olympics). Considering that this is her first-ever Olympics, she has a bright future ahead of her.
Raven Saunders got people talking online with her eye-catching and unique face masks. But the most notable thing she did was when she was on the podium. The 25-year-old American athlete won a silver medal in shot put, reaching a distance of 19.79 meters. When she was on the podium, she held up her hands to form an X. Her action was one of the few times an athlete protested during the Tokyo Olympics. “If you are BLACK, LGBTQIA+, or mentally Struggling, this one is for you,” she said in a caption explaining why she did the gesture.
21-year-old Japanese-American athlete Kanoa Igarashi was one of the first people to participate in surfing during its debut in the Tokyo Olympics. Representing team Japan, Kanoa has been surfing professionally since he was 13 years old. The beach that the event was held in, Tsurigasaki beach, had a special meaning to him because that was the same beach that his father surfed at. He took home the silver medal in the men’s shortboard event and managed to steal a few hearts with his silver hair.
While EJ Obiena couldn’t win a medal during pole vault, the event at least introduced 21-year-old record-holding Swedish athlete Mondo Duplantis to more people. He took home the gold medal and posted a score of 6.02 meters on his first attempt, which nearly beat his own world record. He currently is the only male pole vaulter to go above 6 meters in 2021.
You may have come across a viral picture of an athlete who had a blue arrow on his head that made him look like Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender on social media. That athlete is 26-year-old Dutch Olympian Kiran Badloe. He competed in and won the gold in windsurfing and explained that the haircut was to help him feel like Aang and use the wind to his advantage. “I hope the spirit of this great warrior gives me the power to sail well this week and use the wind in my favor.”