Dorothy Poynton celebrated her 13th birthday on board the President Roosevelt, the ship carrying the 1928 U.S. Olympic Team to the Amsterdam Games. She won the silver medal in springboard diving 23 days later to become the youngest U.S. Olympic medalist, a record that still stands today.
As we salute Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at a dozen Olympic medalists from Team USA who were barely in their teens – ages 13 and 14 – when they stood on the podium. They make Katie Ledecky, who was 15 years, 139 days old when she won her first Olympic swimming gold medal in 2012, seem practically ancient.
The list of Team USA’s youngest female medalists features four divers, five swimmers, two gymnasts and an archer. While most Olympic sports have no age restrictions, in gymnastics the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 in 1981. In 1997, a new rule required gymnasts to be 16 years old or turn 16 within the calendar year to compete in senior-level events such as the Olympic Games.
1. Dorothy Poynton, Diving (13 years, 23 days)
Poynton’s first love was dancing, which indirectly led to a diving career that brought her four medals across three Olympic Games. According to “Their Day in the Sun – Women of the 1932 Olympics” by Doris H. Pieroth, the school board in Portland, Oregon, required Dorothy’s parents to hire a tutor if she wanted to dance in stage shows. The family moved to Los Angeles instead. Poynton’s father worked for the Ambassador Hotel, which hosted swimming and diving exhibitions at its pool. Dorothy appeared in dancing and diving shows, and was invited to join an athletic club. Besides her silver medal in Amsterdam, she won the gold medal in platform diving in 1932 and – after her marriage to Nelson Hill – defended her title 1936 as Dorothy Poynton Hill. She also added a bronze medal in springboard diving in Berlin in 1936.
2. Marjorie Gestring, Diving (13 years, 268 days)
While Poynton Hill was the veteran on the 1936 Berlin team at the ripe old age of 21, another 13-year-old stole the show on the 3-meter board. Gestring won the gold medal to lead a U.S. sweep, defeating teammates Katherine Rawls and Poynton Hill. Gestring became the youngest gold medalist in Olympic history, and still holds the record for a U.S. competitor. Short track speedskater Kim Yun-mi of South Korea broke her overall record in 1994 by winning a gold medal in the 3,000-meter relay at age 13 years, 85 days. U.S. swimmer Donna de Varona would have surpassed Gestring in 1960 if the rules today were in place then. De Varona swam in the preliminaries of the 4x100-meter freestyle at age 13 years, 129 days. Her teammates won the gold medal the next day, but at that time prelim swimmers did not receive the same medal as the swimmers in the final. Gestring never got another crack at an Olympic Games. Because of World War II, no Games were held in 1940 and 1944. At age 25, Gestring was unsuccessful in her attempt to make the 1948 U.S. team.
3. Lillian “Pokey” Watson, Swimming (14 years, 96 days)
Watson was just an infant when her father gave her a nickname that stuck. But she was far from pokey in the water. Watson won her first gold medal while swimming on the same relay team with de Varona – who was then 17 years old – at the Tokyo Games in 1964. Watson is still the youngest U.S. swimmer – male or female – to win an Olympic gold medal. She added another gold in 1968 in the debut of the women’s 200-meter backstroke at the Mexico City Games.
4. Aileen Riggin, Diving (14 years, 119 days)
Although women’s platform diving joined the Olympic program in 1912, women did not compete in the springboard event until 1920. There were only four entrants – all from the United States. According to “The Complete Book of the Olympics” by David Wallechinsky, Riggin was the smallest athlete at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, standing 4-foot-7 and weighing just 65 pounds. The competition was held in a moat full of muddy water and Riggin said she worried about “sticking in the mud at the bottom” and no one being able to find her. “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death,” she recalled. However, the only thing Riggin was stuck with was a gold medal. She won the silver medal in springboard diving four years later – when there were 17 competitors from seven countries – as well as the bronze in the 100-meter backstroke. Riggin later became one of the first female sportswriters in the United States.
5. Sylvia Ruuska, Swimming (14 years, 155 days)
Ruuska won two medals on consecutive days at the 1956 Games – silver in the 4x100 free relay and bronze the following day in the 400 free. Australia, led by the legendary Dawn Fraser, defeated the United States in the relay, but Team USA turned the tables four years later in Rome, with Ruuska swimming a leg in the preliminary round. In 1958 and 1959, Ruuska set world records in the 200 individual medley and 400 IM. The 400 IM was not an Olympic event until 1964, while the 200 did not join the program until 1968.
6. Helen Wainwright, Diving (14 years, 167 days)
Wainwright won the springboard silver medal behind Riggin in 1920, who was not quite two months younger. In 1924, Wainwright proved she had strength as well as grace, winning silver in the 400-meter freestyle. She remains the only woman to win silver medals in both swimming and diving.
7. Kerri Strug, Gymnastics (14 years, 252 days)
Before she vaulted on an injured ankle as a member of the Magnificent Seven, the iconic gold-medal-winning team at the Atlanta 1996 Games, Strug was the youngest gymnast on Team USA in Barcelona, Spain at the 1992 Games. The Soviet Union won the gold medal, followed by Romania and the United States. Disappointed that she did not make the all-around final, Strug returned four years later, where she qualified not only in the all-around, but also floor exercise and vault. Unfortunately, her ankle injury prevented her from competing in those events.
8. Carolyn Wood, Swimming (14 years, 260 days)
On Aug. 29, 1960, Wood placed fourth in the 100-meter freestyle at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, missing a medal by three-tenths of a second. The next day, she was the favorite in the 100-meter butterfly, but ran into some bad luck. Wood swallowed too much water during the race and actually stopped swimming. On Sept. 3, she swam the crucial third lap on the 400-meter freestyle relay, passing Australian swimmer Lorraine Crapp. Wood gave the lead to anchor Chris Von Saltza en route to a world record and gold medal. Wood also swam in prelims of the 4x100 medley, with her teammates eventually winning the gold medal in the final.
9. Amanda Beard, Swimming (14 years, 266 days)
Beard carried her teddy bear, Harold, to the starting blocks and even onto the medal stand at the Atlanta 1996 Games, a gesture that drew attention to her tender age. She went home with silver medals in her two individual events – the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke – and a gold medal thanks to swimming the breaststroke leg on the medley relay. After the Games, Beard adjusted to a 6-inch growth spurt and went on to make three more Olympic teams. She won a bronze medal in the 200 breaststroke at the 2000 Games, upgrading to the gold in Athens four years later. Beard also added two silver medals in 2004 for a total of seven medals. She was a team co-captain in 2008, but did not medal. At age 30, Beard fell short in her bid to qualify for her fifth straight Olympic team.
10. Denise Parker, Archery (14 years, 294 days)
Parker was the youngest archer to win an Olympic medal, teaming with Debra Ochs and Melanie Skillman to win the bronze medal in the inaugural women’s team event in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. South Korea captured the gold while runner-up Indonesia won the first Olympic medals in its country’s history by defeating the U.S. in a shoot-out, 72-67. Parker placed 21st in the individual competition. She competed in both individual and team events in 1992. After failing to make the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team, Parker got back on top to compete again in both events in 2000. She eventually moved to the highest level on the administrative side, becoming CEO of USA Archery in 2008.
11. Dominique Moceanu, Gymnastics (14 years, 297 days)
Because Moceanu would turn 15 in September, she was eligible to compete at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. The previous year, she was only 13 years old when she became the youngest gymnast to win the U.S. all-around title. That vaulted her into prominence and made her one of the most familiar faces of U.S. gymnastics. However, Moceanu missed the Olympic Trials with a stress fracture and was petitioned onto the U.S. squad based on her strong scores from U.S. nationals. She was the youngest member of the Magnificent Seven. Despite falling on both of her vaults in the team final in Atlanta, Moceanu helped the United States win its first women’s team gold medal. Moceanu was also fourth in floor exercise by 0.12 points, sixth in balance beam and ninth in all-around.
12. Claudia Kolb, Swimming (14 years, 298 days)
Kolb had only the fifth-best time in the preliminaries of the 200-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo 1964 Games. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, she had “a courageous effort in the final…With 25 meters to go she was in fourth place. Suddenly Claudia abandoned all caution, put her head down and sprinted like mad for 10 meters to swim into second place.” With the 200-meter individual medley a new Olympic event for women, Kolb won the gold medal at the Mexico City 1968 Games by 4.1 seconds, then took the 400 IM title by a whopping 13.7 seconds, winning, said the ISHOF, “with almost contemptuous ease.”
Honorable mention: Sue Pedersen is one of 24 female 15-year-olds who have won Olympic medals for the United States. On the day after her 15th birthday, she won a gold medal on the 4x100-meter medley team at the Mexico City 1968 Games. Had the Games been held in the usual months of July or August rather than in October, Pedersen would have been 14 during the Games. She also won silver medals in the 100 freestyle and 200 IM and another gold in the 4x100 freestyle.