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Ready For Rio: The Young Ones

By Karen Rosen | Aug. 15, 2014, 4:52 a.m. (ET)

Lily Zhang smiles during her women's singles table tennis match against Cornelia Molnar of Croatia at the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on July 28, 2012 in London.

Shakur Stevenson pulls no punches in the boxing ring or in expressing what he wants people to know about him. 

“Know that I’m coming and I’m hungry,” he said.

The 17-year-old light bantamweight considers the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, the appetizer and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games the main course.

Stevenson is one of 92 members of Team USA between the ages of 15 and 18 competing in 22 disciplines across 20 sports. Competition begins Friday.

They hope to parlay their experience as Youth Olympians into becoming full-fledged Olympians in 2016. Four athletes in the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games – Ariel Hsing in table tennis, Miranda Leek in archery, Alex Massialas in fencing and Savannah Vinsant in trampoline – went on to compete in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Five athletes from the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games graduated to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Stevenson has never been beaten in international competition and carries a 14-0 record into Nanjing. He is a two-time junior world champion and last year at age 16 was the first American fighter to be named AIBA Junior Boxer of the Year.

“After the first world championships, people started to notice me a lot more,” Stevenson said. “I train real hard and I fight real smart.”

Stevenson, whose mother liked the music of his namesake Tupac Shakur, began boxing at age 5.

“I don’t really know what I like about it,” he said. “I was born to do it.”

Stevenson remembers watching the London bouts two years ago, when Team USA was shut out of the medals.

“Some of the guys on that team were really good and it was weird to see them lose,” he said.

To restore some pride to the Team USA boxing squad, Stevenson knows what it will take.

“I want to win an Olympic gold medal,” he said.

While “YOG to Olympic Games” is the path sought by most athletes in Nanjing, 18-year-old table tennis player Lily Zhang made the journey in reverse. She competed in the 2012 London Olympic Games at age 16, making her the youngest player in the field. Zhang is ranked No. 16 in the world in the under-18 rankings and will compete in singles and mixed team events.

She told CCTV that she needs to “just go and play freely, don’t worry about winning or losing too much. I have to try to have a zero-zero mentality, feel like every ball is zero-zero. I’m not leading, I’m not down.”

Fencer Sabrina Massialas was also in London, but as a spectator cheering on her 18-year-old brother Alex.

“I was watching him fence and I saw how his dream started to become a reality,” Massialas said, “and it just made me think that it could really happen for me.”

Massialas, 17, also is the daughter of Olympic fencer Greg Massialas, who made Team USA in 1980, ‘84 and ‘88.

The only U.S. competitor in Nanjing in women’s foil, Massialas won the gold medal in the team event at the 2014 Cadet World Championships and is a two-time silver medalist at cadet worlds.

“I hear that it’s just like a mini-Olympics,” Massialas said of the Youth Olympic Games. “I heard all the stories from the Olympics and also from the Youth Olympics that my brother went to and I’m really excited to be able to experience it for myself.”

Stephanie Jenks will compete in three major events in two sports in a little over one month. In late July, she was 15th in the 3,000-meter run at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon. She then went home and packed her swim cap and bike in addition to her running shoes for Nanjing, where she is the only U.S. female in triathlon. Jenks, who competes Sunday on her 17th birthday, will then travel to Edmonton, Alberta, for the ITU Junior World Championships.

“I want to give both of them a shot,” Jenks said of her two sports, though she’s leaning toward choosing running down the road. “I don’t want to make the wrong decision and I don’t want to make a decision too early and end up regretting it.

“Whichever one I have the greater future in is probably the one I’ll pick.”

Gracia Leydon-Mahoney, 18, earned the only berth for a U.S. female diver after placing first in 3-meter springboard at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games Qualifier. Mahoney, who will also compete on 10-meter platform, has earned top-five finishes at five consecutive junior national diving championships.

Modern pentathlete Brendan Anderson, 18, planned to attend Boston College in the fall, but is delaying enrollment to concentrate on making the 2016 Olympic Team. He finished eighth at the 2014 Youth World Championship, just 5 seconds away from the bronze medal. Currently ranked No. 5 in men’s youth pentathlete world ranking, Anderson will travel from Nanjing to Warsaw, Poland, for UIPM Senior World Championships.

Stevenson isn’t the only promising young boxer. Darmani Rock, 18, the super heavyweight with the most fitting last name, is also the 2014 junior world and continental champion. He has fewer than 30 bouts under his belt, so the experience in Nanjing will be crucial on the road to Rio.

Martha Fabela, 18, won the middleweight title in her first major international competition, the 2014 Youth Continental Championships. She also won the bronze medal at junior worlds.

Lightweight Jajaira Gonzalez, 17, is also the junior continental champion and won the junior world title in 2013. She has a 12-match international winning streak and is known for her aggressive style and tremendous punch output.

Even though all of the YOG competitors have been on the international stage, it doesn’t mean they won’t get butterflies.

“Everybody gets nervous,” said Shakur Stevenson, “but once I get in the ring, it goes way.”

Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.

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