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9 Days To Go: How The Youth Olympics Helped These 9 Athletes Prepare For Rio

By Stuart Lieberman | July 27, 2016, 10:36 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Fencer Alex Massialas, rugby player Richelle Stephens and table tennis player Lily Zhang have each competed at a Youth Olympic Games.

Nine athletes with Youth Olympic Games experience will compete for Team USA at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games from Aug. 5-21, which is the same number of Youth Olympians who represented the U.S. at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Olympic Games combined.

Michael Hixon competes in men's 3-meter springboard diving at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games at Toa Patoh Swimming Complex on Aug. 22, 2010 in Singapore.

The Youth Olympic Games, for athletes ages 14-17, were established in 2007 as an initiative by former International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge with the aim of encouraging young people around the world to practice sport and adopt the Olympic values. The U.S. has won a total of 67 medals in all Youth Olympic Games from 2010 to 2016, fourth most of any nation, and that success has started transitioning to the Olympic Games stage.

Rio will be the second Olympic Games for U.S. women’s singles table tennis champion Lily Zhang, and she’ll be approaching these Games with much more ease.

Since the London 2012 Games, where she was just 16 and dazed by all the athletes, activities and media surrounding her, Zhang has learned to focus more on the competition.

Between Games, she took bronze in women’s singles at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. It was the first table tennis medal ever won by a U.S. athlete at either an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.

“In London, I had no idea what to expect. It was so overwhelming,” Zhang said.

“At the Youth Olympics, it was a very amazing experience to feel that I can do this and I can win a medal. Hopefully, that feeling can now translate to the Olympics.”

Alex Massialas is the No. 1-ranked men’s foil fencer in the world heading into Rio and launched his international career by winning individual silver and team bronze at the Singapore 2010 Youth Games.

Nicole Ahsinger competes on the trampoline during 2016 USA Gymnastics Championships at the Dunkin' Donuts Center on June 11, 2016 in Providence, R.I.

Participation in the Youth Olympic Games drastically helped Massialas – the youngest male athlete on Team USA at the London 2012 Games – become comfortable with an Olympic-style environment and better understand the Olympic culture early on in his career.

“The main benefit was just going through the experience of living in a village with a ton of other athletes,” Massialas said. “It’s a different feel from a lot of the other tournaments I’ve been to. I’m used to staying at hotels, so the Youth Olympics were the first time I was staying in some kind of athletes’ village with athletes from different sports and different countries.”

Diver Michael Hixon, who won 3-meter bronze at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics, is now well aware heading to Rio of all that the Olympic movement encompasses.

“One thing I learned from the Youth Olympics was how much bigger this is than just sport, and how much bigger this is than just going out there and competing,” Hixon said. “It was such an eye-opening experience to meet people from so many different countries, sports and backgrounds, and learn about different cultures.”

All three athletes said they are thankful for the increased exposure and awareness the Youth Olympic Games has garnered for their smaller sports.

“It’s really the coolest thing ever if you think about it – you’re trying to do as many tricks in the air as you can and then go in the water without making a splash at 32 miles per hour,” Hixon said of diving.

Katharine Holmes fences in the team epee gold medal final during the USA Fencing Division I National Championships at the Greater Richmond Convention Center on April 11, 2016 in Richmond, Va.

Zhang said the Youth Olympic Games have helped table tennis no longer be thought of as just a “basement sport,” while Massialas said they’ve helped showcase both the cerebral and athletic aspects to fencing, showcasing fencers as “basketball players with high IQs playing defense.”

Here’s a look at the other six Youth Olympians headed to Rio:

Nicole Ahsinger (trampoline gymnastics): The 18-year-old U.S. silver medalist finished fifth at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, qualifying after winning gold at the Junior Pan America Championships that year.

Katharine Holmes (fencing):  The epee athlete won bronze in the mixed team event and finished fourth individually at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. At 23, the Princeton neuroscience major will make her Olympic debut in Rio.

Nathan Schrimsher (modern pentathlon): Homeschooled growing up, Schrimsher went to the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games, where he finished 13th. The U.S. Army specialist was the first athlete of any sport to earn a place on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team by virtue of his bronze-medal finish at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.

Richelle Stephens (rugby): Four years after taking up rugby, Stephens took fourth in the sport at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, where she was also the U.S. flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony. She will be a part of rugby sevens’ Olympic debut in Rio.

Laura Zeng competes with the ribbon at the 2016 USA Gymnastics Championships on June 12, 2016 in Providence, R.I.

Shakur Stevenson (boxing): A gold medalist at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, Shakur is the oldest of nine siblings, and was the first American male to win junior and youth world titles as well as a Youth Olympic title. He holds a perfect 23-0 international record heading into his first Olympic Games with the potential to win Team USA’s first gold medal by a male boxer since 2004.

Laura Zeng (rhythmic gymnastics): She became the first U.S. rhythmic gymnast to win a medal at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games, taking bronze at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Zeng will make her Olympic debut in Rio after winning five golds at the 2015 Pan American Games and the highest finish ever by an American at the 2015 world championships.

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

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Lily Zhang

Table Tennis
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Alexander Massialas

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Michael Hixon

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Nicole Ahsinger

Trampoline Gymnastics
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Katharine Holmes

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Nathan Schrimsher

Modern Pentathlon
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Richelle Stephens

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Shakur Stevenson

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Laura Zeng