While there are many great stories about the late bloomer who never picked up a football, tennis racket, or baseball and went on to glory (Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team), there are just as many about the child phenom who started his or her sport when he or she was just learning how to balance. If you’re the proud parent of a toddler athlete, you’ll enjoy this list of famous athletes who got their start early.
1. Kobe Bryant — At age 3, Kobe Bryant told his mother he was going to play professional basketball, and that’s exactly what he did. He entered the NBA directly out of high school, where he had earned distinction by setting scoring records and playing all five positions. In the NBA, he has been selected to the All-Star team every year since his first year in the league: 18 times.
2. Gabby Douglas — Known by her nickname, the “Flying Squirrel,” Douglas won Virginia’s Level 4 All-Around Gymnastics title at the age of 8. At age 16, she won All-Around Olympic gold in London, England. She was a member of the gold-winning teams at both the 2012 and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
3. Missy Franklin — After competing in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials at the age of 13, Franklin made the team and won four swimming Olympic gold medals at age 17. In total, she has won 27 medals in international competition, spanning the Olympics, the World Championships, and the Pan Pacific Championships.
4. Wayne Gretzky — “The Great One” of hockey first skated on ice before he was 3 years old. At age 16, he set his league’s single-scoring season record and was playing professional hockey by age 17.
5. Tara Lipinski — Lipinski’s graceful, elegant style as a figure skater earned her a ladies’ single gold medal in 1998, besting then-favorite Michelle Kwan. She was so talented that she won every competition she entered during her professional career and was the youngest skater to win the World Professional Figure Skating Championships.
6. Carly Patterson — Patterson was just 6 years old when she started performing gymnastic feats around her home. Her skills and practice paid off when, at age 16, she won the Women’s All-Around Olympic gold medal.
7. Alex Rodriguez — A-Rod was the first high school player ever to try out for the U.S. national team. While he left the team due to contract negotiation problems, he didn’t have a bad fallback option: the Seattle Mariners drafted him at age 17 to play professional baseball.
8. Shaun White — “The Flying Tomato” obtained his first snowboarding sponsorship at age 7. Since that time, he’s gone on to win three Olympic gold medals and countless X-Games gold medals.
9. Michelle Wie — Wie swung her first golf club at age 4. Fast-forward six years to age 10 and see Wie qualify for the USGA Amateur Championships before going on to begin competing professionally at age 16.
10. Tiger Woods — A golfer from age 2, Woods famously appeared on television at age 3 where he putted against Bob Hope. He continued to earn accolades for his skills, including being the then-youngest person to win the U.S. Junior Amateur Championships at age 15. As a professional, he’s won PGA Player of the Year 11 times.
11. Serena Williams — Serena Williams picked up her first tennis racket at age 4, and the rest is, as they say, history. She made her professional debut at age 14 and at age 32 was the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world.
12. Venus Williams — The year-older sister to Serena Williams, Venus Williams also started playing from a young age and was undefeated with 63 wins on the United States Tennis Association’s junior tour.
While it’s natural to hope your toddler athlete joins this list, the truth is that toddlers develop differently. Some develop motor skills, or coordination of arms and legs, early in toddlerhood, while others may learn to throw and kick a ball between 18 and 24 months.
However, there are other intrinsic factors that can determine athletic success, namely motivation. While kids may show early promise for a sport, they must not get burned out at an early age to play it. Also, young athletes ages 5 to 12 years old are more vulnerable to injuries of the upper extremities, such as the arms and shoulders.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Child sports phenoms include Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Gabby Douglas.
- Toddler athletes are more at risk for upper extremity injuries—such as a broken arm—compared to older athletes.
- Just because your toddler isn’t following in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant doesn’t mean he’s developing slowly.