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Celebrating Team USA’s Top 18 Moments At The 2018 Youth Olympic Games

By Paul D. Bowker | Dec. 23, 2018, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

Fireworks over the stage at the closing ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games 2018 Buenos Aires on Oct. 18, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


The Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 created history and memories. The third summer Youth Games marked the first one held outside of Asia. For the first time in any Youth Olympic Games or Olympic Games, the Opening Ceremony took to city streets. The Games featured innovations and inspirational moments, including a Team USA fencer sharing a weapon with an opponent, a U.S. wrestler raising the arm of an opponent and a medal bridging the gap between a diver and her granduncle Olympian of long ago.

Here are Team USA’s top 18 moments from the 2018 Youth Olympic Games:

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Opening Ceremony Takes It To The Streets

Forget the stadium. In a historic move that hadn’t been seen at an Olympic Games or Youth Olympic Games, the Opening Ceremony in Buenos Aires was held on the Avenida Nuevo de Julio and was open to all members of the public in a grand celebration. The ceremony was attended by more than 200,000 people and included the Obelisco de Buenos Aires being used as a giant projection screen for a Youth Olympic Games that featured 4,000 athletes. Rugby player Alex Cleary was the flag bearer for Team USA.

Women’s 3x3 Basketball Team Wins Another Gold
Aliyah Boston, Sam Brunelle, Paige Bueckers and Hailey Van Lith continued the legacy of American domination in women’s basketball. The group swept through the 3x3 women’s basketball tournament to claim a second consecutive Youth Olympic Games gold medal. They won every game they played and finished the job with an 18-4 win over France in the gold-medal game. “Gold is our standard, so every time we go to play in anything, that’s what we’re going to get. We decided to keep that rolling,” said Brunelle, a Notre Dame recruit.

Diver O’Neil Follows In Great-uncle’s Footsteps
Ninety-four years after her great-uncle won Olympic gold, Bridget O’Neil won a bronze medal in the women’s 3-meter diving competition in Buenos Aires. Now that’ll be something to talk about at the family dinner table around the holidays. Her great uncle, John O’Neil, was a rugby player and won gold medals with Team USA in 1920 and 1924. “It is really cool to have two medalists in the family,” she said. “I guess it is a tradition I can help to carry on.”

Kanak Jha Scores First Table Tennis By U.S. Man
Kanak Jha is changing the game of table tennis for Team USA. At age 16, he was the youngest member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in Rio. Fast forward to 2018, and he became the first American man to medal in the sport at the Youth Olympic Games or Olympic Games. He won a bronze medal in Buenos Aires. Jha and Lily Zhang, a bronze medalist at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, are the only Americans to compete in the Youth Olympic Games after having already competed in the Olympic Games.

Fencer Tieu Opens Games With Sportsmanship
The first U.S. medal winner of these Games was May Tieu in fencing. But that’s not what really captured the attention on the opening day of the Youth Olympic Games. Tieu loaned one of her weapons to an opponent from Togo because she didn’t have one. “This was like a Youth Olympics moment,” said Greg Massialas, head coach of the 2018 U.S. Youth Olympic Fencing Team. Tieu went on to defeat that athlete, Grace Senyo, en route to winning a bronze medal in women’s foil. She overcame Anabella Acurero Gonzalez of Venezuela in overtime in the bronze-medal match.

Basketball Players Dunk And Shoot For Medals
In all its innovations, basketball’s dunking contest for men and shootout for women were big fan favorites at Urban Park in Buenos Aires, which was also host to BMX, sport climbing and break dancing competitions. “It was crazy,” said Paige Bueckers, one of two Americans in the shootout. “There was a lot of people. My arms were shaking the whole time I was shooting.” Bueckers finished fourth in the shooting contest, as did Carson McCorkle in the dunking contest.

First Weightlifting Medal Scored With Dad Coaching

Peyton Brown made Team USA history with her dad standing nearby. She won a bronze medal in the weightlifting competition, becoming the first American weightlifter to medal at the Youth Olympic Games. Her dad, David, is her personal coach and was also the team leader for the U.S. weightlifting team. Her snatch of 80 kg. brought her total weight to 186 kg., clinching a medal and improving her own American youth record. “I’m just speechless,” Brown said after the competition.

After Four Near-Misses, Briones Wins Gymnastics Gold
For gymnast Brandon Briones, the fifth time was the charm. Competing in his fifth final, Briones won a gold medal in the vault with an average score of 14.099. He had finished no worse than fifth place in four other finals, but off the podium each time. In fact, had he scored a cumulative 0.776 points higher, he would already have four medals in hand. “It feels so gratifying to finally get a medal,” he said.

Cowles Goes From Video Game To Historic Gold
For archery gold medalist Trenton Cowles, it all began with a video game. Cowles won the gold medal in men’s recurve in Buenos Aires, marking the best finish for an American in the Olympic Games or Youth Olympic Games since 1996. His passion for the sport began with his experiences on a Wii video game. He also won a Youth Olympic Games bronze medal in the mixed international team competition.

Grace Stark Wins Gold, Carries Flag
One win is pretty good. Two wins are even better. Grace Stark won a gold medal in the women’s 100-meter hurdles by winning both stages of the competition with times of 12.83 and 13.31 seconds. The track format in the Youth Olympic Games called for athletes to run their event twice, with the combined times added up to determine final placement. Stark won both stages. “It feels great to get first in both races,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, it’s a little weird. I knew you had some leeway if you lose, but I never want to go into a race thinking if I lose then I could still win.” So, it was a win-win for this Youth Olympian who was later chosen as the Closing Ceremony flag bearer.

Wrestling Gold And Respect For Host Country
If Team USA wrestler Robert Howard broke the hearts of Argentinians when he defeated hometown star Hernan David Almendra in the men’s 55 kg. gold-medal match, then he lifted their hearts afterward. He lifted his opponent’s hand in a joint and tear-filled celebration following the match in Buenos Aires. While this was going on, Argentina’s home fans sang football, or soccer, songs. “I was just giving them what they wanted –their champion,” Howard said. “I brought him to tears. I don’t know if they were happy tears or sad tears, but it was a moment I’ll never forget and I don’t think that he’ll forget it anytime soon, either.”

Golfers Team Up For Silver
One of the world’s biggest individual sports became a team game for Team USA golfers Lucy Li and Akshay Bhatia. The two combined to win a silver medal in the mixed team event. The tournament consisted of three consecutive days of competition, and a strong score of 137 on the final day boosted them from third to second place. Bhatia also won the individual silver medal. Another bonus for Bhatia? He learned a little Chinese from Li along the way. “He’s been working on this for two weeks,” she said. “If his golf game is a 10, his Chinese would be a 2.”

A First U.S. Olympic Change-Maker

Team USA Youth Olympians had a “real life” example living among them and cheering for them at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. Ty Walker, a 2014 slopestyle snowboarding Olympian, was selected as a Team USA Young Change-Maker. In the past, United States Olympic Committee or national governing body staff members served in the role. Walker resided in the Youth Olympic Village, served as a role model, attended competitions to cheer for Team USA and helped to get Youth Olympians engaged in the Learn & Share program.

U.S. Youth Olympians Engage With Local Youth
U.S. and Argentinian cultures came together when a group of U.S. Youth Olympians and coaches went into the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barracas to talk sports and, of course, Lionel Messi. In the event hosted by U.S. Ambassador Edward C. Prado and a local official, the Americans also put on a wrestling exhibition. Meanwhile, the school children showed the Americans how to play field hockey and soccer. “I think it was a really cool experience for the kids, it for sure was a really cool experience for me,” said triathlete Drew Shellenberger.

Women’s Wrestler Earns Team USA’s First Gold

After winning a cadet world title in July, Emily Shilson made history by winning Team USA’s first gold medal in Buenos Aires, which also happened to be the country’s first Youth Olympic Games gold medal in wrestling (though men’s gold medalist Robert Howard would join her a day later). Shilson won after cruising through the women’s 43 kg. weight class and winning the title match against India’s Simran Simran by an 11-6 score. 

Fracture Doesn’t Slow Anastasija Zolotic

Anastasija Zolotic wasn’t going to let something like a fractured hand keep her from fulfilling her Youth Olympic dream. Zolotic fractured her right hand in her first bout, but still fought through the tournament and wound up winning a silver medal. “When there is a match in front of you, you have to fight, there is no stopping,” she said. “Broken hand, broken foot, it doesn’t matter. You just have to keep fighting because it’s not over until it’s over.” Incredibly, Zolotic lost her championship bout to Russia’s Elizaveta Ryadninskaya by just one point.

Legends Tony Hawk, Steve Smith Visit Village
Tony Hawk, a skateboarding legend whose sport will join the Olympic program in 2020, and Steve Smith, a 2000 Olympic basketball gold medalist, will never forget the day they toured the Youth Olympic Village and chatted with athletes. Athletes, volunteers and staff members quickly rushed up for photos and conversation. Hawk is a nine-time X Games champion and the face of skateboarding. He had never been in an Olympic Village because skateboarding had never been an Olympic sport; it makes its debut in 2020. Smith couldn’t go to the Olympic Village in 2000 because of security concerns.

6 Americans Serve As Athlete Role Models
Olympic hopeful Josh Levin made Buenos Aires his second Youth Olympic experience. Four years after participating in the innovative Sports Lab at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014, Levin, a competitive climber, was among six American athletes picked by the International Olympic Committee to serve as an Athlete Role Model. The athletes met with Youth Olympians and participated in Chat with Champions events. There were 54 Athlete Role Models in Buenos Aires. Joining Levin were Team USA athletes Clarissa Chun, an Olympic bronze medalist in wrestling; Daryl Homer, an Olympic silver medalist in fencing; Danell Leyva, a three-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics; Morghan King, a 2016 Olympian in weightlifting; and Moy Rivas, a sport dancer (which made its debut at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games).

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta.He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.