This wasn’t easy, ranking young athletes playing different sports at different times. I tried to emphasize the rarity of the athletic feat and degree of difficulty involved, but that failed to simplify the process. Nadia Comaneci, for instance, is one of several teenage female gymnasts to win Olympic gold medals. That should drop her on the list, but no other gymnast had a performance to match her run of perfect scores at the 1976 Olympic Games.
Then there’s the Josh Gibson conundrum. The Negro League superstar may have had the greatest teenage year in all of baseball history when he reportedly slugged 75 home runs in 1931. But imprecise record keeping muddies Gibson’s accomplishments. I believe he was sensational at nineteen and rank him high, but I’d rank him even higher if I knew for sure what he’d accomplished.
At any rate, here are fourteen of the greatest teenage athletes of all time:
1. Pelé. Age 17. Soccer player. 1958
The nickname Pelé (his real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento) “means nothing in any language but evokes images of genius and gentility in them all,” wrote Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated in 1999. At seventeen, Pelé scored Brazil’s only goal in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Wales, three goals in a 5-2 semifinal win over France, and two goals as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 for the first of the nation’s five World Cup championships.
2. Bob Mathias. Decathlete. Age 17. 1948
Urged to train for his first decathlon, Mathias told his high school track coach, “Sounds like fun. But just one question: What’s a decathlon?’” Five months later the 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pound Californian was sloshing down a dark, rainy track in London toward an Olympic gold medal. He defeated second-place finisher Ignace Heinrich of France to become the youngest athlete at the time to win an Olympic gold in track and field. Mathias repeated as Olympic decathlon champ in 1952, setting a new world record with 7,887 points and finishing more than 900 points ahead of the second-place finisher.
3. Nadia Comaneci. Gymnast. Age 14. 1976
Nicknamed “Little Miss Perfect,” the Romanian was indeed little (4 foot 11, 86 pounds) and frequently flawless at the Montreal Games. The first person to be awarded a perfect 10 score in an Olympic gymnastic event, she received seven 10s in all and won three gold medals at the Montreal Games. “On a scale of 1 to 10, she really deserves an 11 for what she has accomplished in relation to the scores of other gymnasts,” wrote Dave Anderson of The New York Times.
4. Steve Cauthen. Jockey. Age 16. 1977
A teenager dominated the horse racing world in 1977, riding a record 487 winners, earning a record $6.15 million, and becoming the only jockey named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. For his 1978 encore, Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated called Cauthen “a prodigy like none we have ever seen before.”
5. Tom Morris Jr. Golfer. Age 17. 1868
The Tiger Woods of his era, Tom Morris Jr. in 1868 recorded a hole-in-one on the eighth hole at the Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, the first ever in a major championship. and went on to win the British Open for the first of four times. In September of 1875, playing an exhibition golf match, Morris Jr. received news that his pregnant wife had gone into labor. By the time he reached her, both his wife and child had died in childbirth. Three months later, on Christmas Day, the golfer suffered a fatal lung hemorrhage. He was just 24 years old.
6. Josh Gibson. Age 19. 1931
Sorting fact from fiction is difficult with Gibson, the Negro League superstar whose power-hitting feats began as a rookie for the Homestead Grays in 1930. He hit two jaw-dropping home runs late that year, one that cleared the center field fence at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and one that traveled about 505 feet and may have cleared the Yankee Stadium roof. The Negro League Baseball Players Association website credits him with 75 home runs as a nineteen-year-old in 1931.
7. Maureen Connolly. Tennis player. Age 18. 1953
Known as “Little Mo,” Connolly’s other nickname, “Killer,” fit her better. Cheerful and engaging off the court, she confessed in 1957’s Forehand Drive to playing tennis with “a blazing, virulent, powerful, and consuming hate” of her opponents. This intensity carried Connolly to the first grand slam by a female tennis player in 1953. The San Diego native won the last nine Grand Slam tournaments she entered and received her third straight Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award. Seventeen days after winning her third straight Wimbledon title in 1954, Connolly was thrown from a horse and slammed against a cement truck, resulting in a broken fibula that ended her career at age nineteen.
8. Jim Ryun. Runner. Age 17. 1965
Racing in a group that included three-time Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell, Ryun established a then-record American mile time of 3:55.3. Ryun’s time remained a high school record until Alan Webb of Reston, Virgina, finally eclipsed it in 2001. ESPN.com in 2007 ranked the runner from Wichita (Kansas) East High School as the best high school athlete ever, ahead of second-place Tiger Woods (golf) and third-place LeBron James (basketball).
9. Lisa Leslie. Basketball player. Age 17. 1990
In her last home game at Morningside High (Inglewood, California), Leslie made 37-of-56 field goals, sunk 27 free throws, and scored 101 points — in just one half of a game against South Torrence. The 6-foot-5-inch center averaged 27 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots as a senior and led Morningside to back-to-back state championships before moving on to college at USC and a career in the WNBA, where she was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2001, 2004 and 2006.
10. Bob Feller. Baseball player. Age 17. 1936
At seventeen, Feller struck out an American League record (at the time) 17 batters in one game for the 1936 Cleveland Indians, tying the major record held by the Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean. Feller set a new record at age 19 with 18 strikeouts in one game. Three players share the current record of 20 strikeouts in one game.
11. Sonja Henie. Figure skater. Age 15. 1928
The difference between Henie and most other champion figure skaters is the Norwegian didn’t just grab a gold medal and fade away — she kept on winning. After her first gold-medal performance in 1928, Henie earned a second gold in the 1932 Winter Olympics, and a third in 1936. She also won 10 straight world championships from 1927 to 1936, conquered Hollywood from 1936 to 1948, and amassed a personal fortune that made her one of the world’s 10 richest women at the time of her death in 1969.
12. Jean Balukas. Pool player. Age 13. 1972
Described by Sports Illustrated as “a taciturn, shy, freckle-faced girl,” Balukas breezed through the 1972 women’s U.S. Open straight pool championship, defeating six opponents and taking home the tournament’s $1,500 prize. An all-around athlete who excelled in basketball, softball, bowling, and golf, Balukas would win seven consecutive U.S. Opens and be acclaimed by many as the greatest female pool player of all time.
13. Boris Becker. Tennis player. Age 17. 1985
Mixing a huge serve with a dive-on-the-grass fervor, Becker made history as the first 17-year-old, the first unseeded player, and the first German to win a Wimbledon men’s title. Becker, who referred to Centre Court as his “living room” repeated as Wimbledon champion in 1986 and won a third title in 1989.
14. Wilfred Benitez. Boxer Age 17. 1976
A split decision victory over Antonio Cervantes gave Benitez the World Boxing Association junior welterweight title and made him a hero in his native Puerto Rico, but a decade later a neurologist would diagnose him with a degenerative brain condition caused by the punches he took in the boxing ring. Benitez won the World Boxing Council’s welterweight championship in 1979 and the WBC’s light middleweight championship in 1981. He displayed signs of brain damage after retiring a week after his 32nd birthday and moved into a Puerto Rico nursing home. Those close to him said Benitez couldn’t remember people he’d known for years.