Athletes Who Made History Before They Were Even Adults

People love sports, and they love the athletes who play. In 2021, nine of the top 10 most-watched television events were football games, and in 2022, the sports franchise industry generated over $43 billion in revenue — and that's just the US.  Three of the top 10 most-watched television events in history are associated with sports, all three garnering more viewers than John F. Kennedy's funeral and Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding. Three of the top five most-followed Instagram accounts are athletes, and Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most-followed people on Instagram, is also one of the most-followed people on Twitter.

To be a sports star is to have all eyes on you, and certainly no one knows that better than the sports stars who found fame and success when they were still kids. From setting records to breaking boundaries, here are some of the celebrated athletes who made sports history before they reached adulthood.

Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple axel

Some feats seem too great to achieve, but in 2022, a 17-year-old athlete proved that's not true. In October of that year, American figure skater Ilia Malinin made history by becoming the first person to land a quadruple axel at a lower-level event, per NBC Sports. Malinin's achievement landed him first place in the competition.

Per The Washington Post, the move is the most difficult of the six jumps in figure skating. Few skaters have attempted the jump, and in competition, only 10 in history have successfully landed it, putting Malinin in elite company. "I wasn't really sure if I would attempt it or not," he said. "It came over my mind. Everyone's watching. I have to go for this. I went for it, and I just landed it, and I was in shock." As well as the rest of the world.

In an interview for the Olympics website, the skater shared that he has his sights set on the 2026 Winter competition, which will take place in Italy. "I know how much hard work, how much effort you have to put in and how to manage everything. It definitely helps out to where I am [at] in my skating right now," he said.

Simone Biles' historic all-around win

Simone Biles is widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, and it was clear from the beginning of her career that she was a force. For one thing, she made history at age 16. Prior to her Olympic debut, Biles won the World all-around title, the first Black woman and seventh American woman to do so, per USA Gymnastics. Of course, her career did not end there, as Biles went on to win four gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic medals at the Rio and Tokyo games in 2016 and 2021, respectively.

Despite her immense talent, Biles's gymnastics career has likely come to an end. At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which were held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Biles shocked the world when she removed herself from competition, citing the twisties, a phenomenon gymnasts experience that leaves you disoriented while in the air and vulnerable to serious injury.

"My perspective has never changed so quickly from wanting to be on a podium to wanting to be able to go home, by myself, without any crutches," she told The Cut of her decision to withdraw. "At the end of the day, you can't have it all. And if you take care of your mental well-being first, the rest will fall into place," she added.

Michael Phelps headed to the Olympics at age 15

Michael Phelps has made history time and again, most notably as the most-decorated Olympian of all time with 28 total medals, 23 of which are gold. The incredible swimmer even made history before he was legally able to drive.

Phelps first participated in the Olympics at the 2000 Sydney games, and he became the youngest male to make the United States Olympic Swim Team in 68 years, at just 15 years old. Though he didn't medal, the experience prepared him for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he established himself as a major force in the aquatic world.

Phelps is clearly a driven person, and from the time he was young, he knew he wanted to make history as an athlete. As he told said in an interview for USA Swimming, he watched his sisters compete and it inspired his goals. "I want to do that. I want to be on those teams. I want to travel the world and ... I want to be an Olympic gold medalist. I want to break a world record, and I want to be a professional athlete" he said. Phelps broke far more than just one world record, and he still holds seven of them today, including the 100 m butterfly, the 200 m butterfly, and the 400 m individual medley.

Shawn Johnson won three Olympic medals at 16

Anyone familiar with gymnastics knows that it's actually quite common for gymnasts to peak in their career while they're young. As NBC Sports noted, at the 2021 Olympics, there were more non-teen than teen gymnasts competing for the first time since 1968. 

It's always impressive when a young athlete is so successful, especially on the world stage. And in 2008 at the Beijing Olympic Games, everyone's eyes were on Shawn Johnson, the American gymnast who trained in Des Moines, Iowa. Johnson's time at the Olympics was limited to the 2008 games, but she certainly made history. At just 16 years old, the athlete left with three Olympic medals, one of them being gold in the beams, making her the first American woman to win gold in that event since 1998.

It's been over 10 years since Johnson competed in the Olympics, and as she said on an episode of the "Olympic Channel Podcast," "It's definitely a pinch me moment for so many different reasons," she said. "It's a pinch me moment because I can't believe I was at the Olympics. I almost don't even remember being a gymnast, which is crazy."

LeBron James' many high school achievements

LeBron James is widely considered one of the best basketball players of all time, if not the best (that's a debate for another day). Whether or not you think he's the greatest ever, it's undeniable that he's talented, and that talent was clear from a young age.

Prior to his 18th birthday, James was racking up honor after honor on a national level. Per ESPN, James became the first sophomore ever to make the USA Today All-USA First Team, and went on to become the first junior to ever be named the Gatorade Player of the Year. What's more, when he was picked to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was still in high school, he was the first underclassman basketball player to be featured on front of the magazine. 

James considered dropping out of high school to pursue his professional career but instead chose to finish high school. He began with the NBA in 2003 where he was the first overall draft pick. And it wasn't just scouts who recognized James's talent. On a 2002 episode of "SportsCenter," fellow basketball icon Shaquille O'Neal said, "He's an all-around great player. He has it all, definitely. He's very athletic. He has a lot of poise, and he can do almost everything."

Roger Federer went pro at age 16

A living tennis legend, Roger Federer started his career early. After picking up the sport at the young age of 8, he began competing in junior tournaments. According to Bleacher Report, a 12-year-old Federer won the Swiss national junior championships in his age bracket, and a few years later he won the 18-and-under bracket. At age 16, Federer went pro. And then, he went on to win multiple Wimbledon titles and Grand Slam men's singles titles

In 2022 at age 41, Federer retired. He lost the final match of his career, which he played alongside another tennis great, Rafael Nadal. Despite the loss, Federer was still happy to be there and play. "It has been a wonderful day. I told the guys, 'I'm happy. I'm not sad' ... I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time and everything was the last time ... I am so happy I made it through and the match was great. I couldn't be happier. It's been wonderful," he told Jim Courier after the match.

Although his professional career is over, Federer will still be playing tennis. "I would like to keep doing exhibition matches, and I know that I saw the chance to fill stadiums," he said in an interview as reported by NBC Sports.

Pelé became the top scorer of the league at age 16

Edson Arantes do Nascimento is better known as Pelé, the Brazilian soccer superstar whose incredible talent was apparent when he was a kid. Per Biography, Pelé was part of a soccer team as a boy, and when his coach recognized his talent, he persuaded Pelé's family to let him try out for the Santos professional club.

At age 15, Pelé signed with Santos, and soon after he scored his first professional goal, per Biography. That same year he led the league in goals, and he quickly moved to the Brazilian national team. Pelé's career achievements include three FIFA world cups and the title of both Brazil's top goal scorer of all time as well as Santos's top goal scorer of all time.

For Pelé, soccer was always about playing soccer, not becoming a world-famous athlete. As he told the Harvard Business Review in 2014, "I never wanted to be a leader. But everybody knows my history. It came naturally. All the focus was on me. I just tried to pass on my best to the other players, to tell them what I thought was important in my life."

Mike Tyson won two Junior Olympic medals as a teen

While growing up in the Bronx, future boxing legend Mike Tyson was no stranger to getting in trouble with the law. In an effort to reform him, he was sent to a school in upstate New York, where a boxing coach recognized his talent and suggested he begin training.

It didn't take long for others to recognize his talent either, and soon Tyson was boxing in competition. And when he was a teenager, he competed in the Junior Olympics and won two gold medals. Perhaps his most impressive feat, he became the youngest heavyweight champ at age 20 in 1986.

After years in the ring, in 2005, Tyson retired. His final fight was against Kevin McBride, and he shared in a post-ring interview that he no longer had the capacity to fight. "I got the ability to stay in shape, but I don't got the fighting guts I don't think anymore ... I'm just sorry I let everyone down, I don't have this in my heart anymore," he said, as reported by Give Me Sport. "I'm looking at my opponents, I just don't have that ferocity, I'm not an animal anymore," he added.

Venus Williams was a U.S. Open finalist as a teen

Alongside her sister Serena Williams, Venus Williams became a tennis superstar at an early age. As noted by Britannica, Venus started playing tennis professionally when she was just 14 years old. Three years into her pro career, Venus entered the U.S. Open women's finals unseeded. Though she did not win, she happened to be the first unranked contestant to make it to the final round.

Venus has since retired from tennis, but she is still active in other aspects of her career. "King Richard," a biopic about Venus, Serena, and their father (and first tennis coach), Richard Williams), was released in 2021. Both women served as executive producers on the project.

The Williams sisters are enjoying a break from the sport. In 2022, the duo sat down with Harper's Bazaar for a joint interview and reflected on their careers. Venus shared, "From such a young age, all we've done is work. So I think for Serena and I to explore that freedom is surreal. We've never been free." Serena added, "We never planned to just only play tennis and just only be tennis players. We planned to do more."

Wayne Gretzky signed a major contract at 17

Wayne Gretzky is widely regarded as one of the greatest hockey players of all time, and like many great athletes, his talent was apparent from a young age. When he was a teenager, scouts recognized Gretzky's abilities on the ice and tried recruiting him for the World Hockey Association. At age 17, he signed a $1.75 million contract with the Indianapolis Racers, per the Toronto Sun.

Gretzky, who eventually went on to join the Hockey Hall of Fame, wasn't with the Racers for long as the team dissolved, according to his website. His contract was purchased by the Edmonton Oilers, a team in the National Hockey League. The NHL later retired Gretzky's jersey league-wide, the first time ever doing so.

Gretzky's been retired for well over 20 years, but he's still involved in the game, and he recognizes young talent when he sees it. In 2016, the hockey all-star commented on another young Oilers talent, then-19-year-old Connor McDavid. "I don't think there's any question that Connor's the best 19-year-old hockey player I've ever seen, and I saw (Mark) Messier. I saw (Mario) Lemieux. I saw (Guy) Lafleur. This kid is special," he told reporters, per Sportsnet.

Katie Ledecky won a gold Olympic medal at age 15

Two-thirds of the athletes competing at the 2021 Olympics were in their 20s, according to The Washington Post. When Katie Ledecky swam in her first games, she was 15.

Ledecky's involvement in the sport began when she was much younger than 15, but her Olympic career began in 2012 when she traveled with the team to London, England, and won her first gold medal, per Biography. She returned for the following games and left with five more medals — four gold and one silver. The swimmer competed once again in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, and she brought home more gold and silver hardware. A year after the Olympic games, Ledecky broke another world record, one of several that she holds.

As Ledecky told CNN at the Tokyo games, "(The medals) just represent a lot of hard work, not just for me, but for my family, my friends, my coaches, my teammates, just everyone that's been a part of this journey, not just the past five years, but my whole swimming career. And it's an amazing feeling to be bringing home two golds and two silvers here and competing in my third Olympics. That's something I never would have imagined when I first started swimming."

Ken Griffey Jr. made history alongside his dad

Ken Griffey Jr. was destined to play baseball, and the nation could see that while he was still in high school. In 1987, when he was just 17 years old, the baseball player not only graduated but was the first overall pick in the MLB draft. Scooped up by the Seattle Mariners, he started with the minor league team the Bellingham Mariners. Two years later, Griffey Jr. made his major league debut.

When Ken Griffey Jr. began playing professionally, his father, Ken Griffey Sr., was on the Cincinnati Reds. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Griffey Jr. is the first kid of an existing MLB player to be the top pick in the MLB draft. What's more, they were the first father-son duo to play in the league at the same time, and when Griffey Sr. was traded to the Mariners, they also became the first father-son duo to be part of the same roster. 

Griffey Jr. went on to play a stellar career, and in 2016, he was elected into the Hall of Fame with 99% of the vote, the highest of any player in history at the time. In his induction speech, Griffey Jr. said, "I got to put on the same uniform as my dad and run around in the same outfield ... I had a chance to play meaningful games day in and day out. What else can you ask for as a player?"

Tiger Woods was the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champ

As an unbelievably talented golfer, Tiger Woods's career and personal life have been highly publicized since he was a teenager. At 15 years old, Woods was the youngest United States Junior Amateur champion at the time, and he has since continued to prove his talent.

Unfortunately, Woods has also suffered a variety of injuries throughout his career. While some have only added to his legacy — like winning the U.S. Open with a torn ACL and two stress fractures — others have been worse for his career, like the 2021 car accident that put his ability to walk at risk.

While recovering from a separate injury, the golfer sat down with Time in 2015 and shared some of his reflections after a life on the course. "Anyone I've ever talked to who has had procedures like I've had, they say the same thing: you don't know ... It's tough as athletes, when you just don't know. The most important thing, though, is that I get to have a life with my kids. That's more important than golf. I've come to realize that now," he said.

Michelle Wie West started competing at age 10

Michelle Wie West began playing golf when she was just four years old. Six years later, she was competing in the USGA Women's Amateur Public Links Championship — the youngest to do so. Wie West's list of accomplishments is nearly unparalleled, and she's still an active golfer today.

Adults could see her golfing talent when she was a kid, but so could Wie West. The athlete took to the "GOLF's Subpar" podcast to share some of her experience as a young golfer. "I hit the ball, like, 250, 275, and quickly realized that other 10-year-old girls weren't doing that ... I beat my dad when I was seven," she said.

Naturally, Wie West was compared to the boys she competed against, but as she noted, she didn't let that deter her from playing. "In my mind at that time, I was like, 'Wait, you can't tell me that I can't do this just because I'm a girl.'" Later in her career, Wie West went on to compete against men, too.