By Karen Price | Jan. 11, 2020, 4:36 p.m. (ET)
Chloe Kim is pictured celebrating her gold medals at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 (L) and Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 (R).

 

Diver Michael Hixon was just 16 years old and a sophomore in high school when he competed in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

It was 2010 and the event was the first of its kind, a chance for top athletes ages 15 through 18 from around the world to come together, compete and get a taste of what might await them down the road while also incorporating the opportunity to learn about Olympic values, other cultures and how to better themselves as athletes and emerging adults.

Hixon won a bronze medal that year in 3-meter springboard. Six years later he made his Olympic debut in Rio, winning silver in the synchronized 3-meter event alongside Sam Dorman.

“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 told TeamUSA.org prior to the Rio Games. “It was such an eye-opening experience to meet people from so many different countries, sports and backgrounds, and learn about different cultures.”

Hixon wasn’t the only 2010 Youth Olympian representative from the U.S. to go on to represent the nation in the Olympic Games. In fact, seven members of that inaugural U.S. Youth Olympic Team can now call themselves Olympians.

Table tennis player Ariel Hsing was one of four to make the jump right away in 2012, along with archer Miranda Leek and trampoline gymnast Savannah Vinsant. London also marked the debut for fencer Alexander Massialas. Now a two-time Olympian and two-time medalist, Massialas recently helped the U.S. men’s foil team clinch a berth in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in November, and not long after in December the team extended its world cup medal streak to 13.

In 2016, pentathlete Nathan Schrimsher added his name to that list when he competed in Rio alongside fencer Katharine Holmes, who in 2018 was part of the first U.S. women’s epee team to win a world title.

The Youth Olympic Games class of 2010 was the start of something special for young U.S. athletes, who continue to use the competition as a springboard to the sport’s biggest stage.

Heading into this year’s Winter Youth Olympic Games, which began Jan. 9 in Lausanne, Switzerland, more than 300 athletes have competed for the U.S. in sports ranging from archery to wrestling and 29 have gone on to compete at the Olympic Games. That number will only grow as Youth Olympians, such as track and field standout and current 200-meter world champion Noah Lyles, prepare to make their debuts in 2020.

The first winter edition of the Youth Olympic Games took place in 2012 in Innsbruck, Austria, and four members of that team are now two-time Olympians for the U.S.

Snowboarder Arielle Gold was just 15 when she won silver medals in both slopestyle and halfpipe in Innsbruck. Two years later she became the youngest member of the U.S. snowboarding team competing in Sochi in 2014. She returned to the Olympics in 2018 and won the bronze medal in halfpipe to put two Americans on the podium (more on the other one later). Freestyle skier Aaron Blunck was a Youth Olympic bronze medalist in halfpipe in 2012, and he followed that up with back-to-back Olympic appearances, finishing seventh both in 2014 and 2018, then winning the world title in 2019. Luger Summer Britcher and biathlete Sean Doherty also went from the 2012 Youth Olympic Games to consecutive Olympic appearances in 2014 and 2018.

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In total, 16 members of Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 were Youth Olympians, either in 2012 or 2016. The biggest name is undoubtedly Chloe Kim, who was 15 years old when she went into the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, as the favorite to win the halfpipe competition. Not only did she follow through on that but she also won gold in the slopestyle event to sweep the snowboarding events and set the stage for the dominance to come.

Two years later she made her highly anticipated Olympic debut competing in halfpipe, and her near-perfect score of 98.25 on her last run not only solidified the gold medal but was also the highest score ever in the event in Olympic competition. Kim’s taking this season off from competition to focus on her freshman year at Princeton University, but her on-snow career is far from over.

Other notable athletes to make the jump include Laura Zeng, who in 2014 became the first U.S. rhythmic gymnast to win a medal at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. Two years later she competed on the bigger stage in Rio. Lily Zhang had a similar story, though her 2014 Youth Olympic bronze medal in table tennis — the first Olympic medal in the sport for Team USA — came sandwiched between Olympic appearances in 2012 and 2016.

Another member of the U.S. table tennis family took a unique path between the two events.

At 16 years old, table tennis phenom Kanak Jha was the youngest member of the U.S. team of of 558 athletes competing at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. When he qualified, he became the first athlete born in the 2000s to make a U.S. Olympic team.

It wasn’t until two years later that he made his Youth Olympic Games debut, competing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2018. There Jha became the first American man in history to win a medal in table tennis at either the Olympics or Youth Olympics when he claimed the bronze medal. This past summer he became the first man to win four consecutive men’s table tennis national titles.

This year, 99 athletes are representing the U.S. in Lausanne in the 13-day competition featuring eight sports, 16 disciplines and 81 medal events with 1,880 competitors from 79 nations. Among them are undoubtedly some of the Olympic stars of the future. Follow the competition at TeamUSA.org/Lausanne2020 and you’ll be able to say you saw it coming back way back when.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.