In a world full of experienced, veteran competitors, it is both surprising and impressive that some of the most standout, dominating athletes of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were teenagers. Young athletes from all around the world met and exceeded all expectations in their respective sports, breaking records, making headlines, and winning medals.
Here are five teenage Olympians who truly thrived in these unusual Tokyo Games!
Sunisa Lee, U.S.A.
Of course Sunisa Lee would be number one on this list! The first Hmong-American to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, Lee won gold in the individual all-around at the age of 18. When Simone Biles, the most recent individual all-around champion, withdrew from the competition, all eyes immediately were on Lee.
Excelling on bars in particular, Lee performed masterfully and beautifully in every event to scrape a 57.433 win against Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who earned a total of 57.298 points. She joins Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles as the sixth American gymnast to accomplish this impressive feat.
Lee has been through a lot of emotional and physical challenges to get where she is today; she has battled injuries, she has lost two close family members to Covid-19, and she struggled with a terrible accident that left her father paralyzed. Despite all these hurdles, Lee has excelled at these Olympic Games, so far winning one gold medal and one silver for women’s team all-around.
Her performance has been truly inspiring in an exciting and historic moment of representation for the Hmong community.
Momiji Nishiya, Japan
13-year old Momiji Nishiya from Japan made history when she won gold in the very first Olympic women’s skateboarding street event, becoming one of the youngest gold medalists ever, and Japan’s youngest gold medalist. The silver and bronze medal winners for this event were also teenagers, with Brazil’s Rayssa Leal at 13 and Funa Nakayama at 16.
Nishiya’s win, which followed Japan’s Yuto Horigome gold medal win in the men’s event, cemented Japan’s place in the Olympic skateboarding world as the current dominating country.
Lydia Jacoby, U.S.A.
Lydia Jacoby, a 17-year-old swimmer from Alaska, shocked the sports world when she defeated her teammate, reigning champion, and heavy favorite Lilly King and won the gold medal for the 100-meter breaststroke. The Washington Post called her surprise win “the most stirring upset of the Olympics.” Jacoby told press afterwards that she knew she could win a medal, but she was shocked to win gold. The surprise was certainly evident in Jacoby’s face as she realized she had won the event. Lilly King and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, who won bronze and silver respectively, were all smiles after the event, embracing Jacoby joyously.
Jacoby is the first Alaskan to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, and she is also the first Alaskan swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. In her hometown of Seward, the entire community joined together to witness and celebrate Jacoby’s historic performance at the Olympics.
Ahmed Hafnaoui, Tunisia
Nobody expected Ahmed Hafnaoui, the lane 8, ranked 16 underdog, to win the men’s 400 meter freestyle final. The 18-year-old from Tunisia defeated heavy favorites Jack McLoughlin (Australia,) and Kieran Smith (U.S.A.,) who won silver and bronze respectively. Hafnaoui seemed shocked at his own standout performance, immediately taking off his goggles and letting out a joyous scream of excitement and disbelief.
This race is certainly one of the most memorable and most heartwarming to watch in these Olympics; the joy Hafnaoui feels in his upset win is so clear and so beautiful to witness.
Kim Je-Deok, South Korea
South Korean archer Kim Je-Deok is only 17, and he has already won two gold medals in Tokyo. He earned his first gold in the mixed team competition, and earned a second during the men’s team match. Je-Deok made his international debut only this year, in his win in the 2021 Asia Cup, which was only a month before the Olympics. Though his performance has been impressive, the fact that the young archer is also the only caregiver for his ailing father is even more incredible.
The Olympics certainly have not seen the last of Kim Je-Deok, a young man who has cemented South Korea’s place as an archery powerhouse.