Rare are the young swimmers who are as good as anybody in the world before they are old enough to have any right to be so. How can they be so good and so young, we ask? They stand out among their peers, flash brilliance and show us that age, really is, just a number. The mental strength needed to perform at the highest levels come to some athletes very early on. We have collected a few of the greatest.
Kyoko Iwasaki - One hit wonder
Japan’s Kyoko Iwasaki (born July 21, 1978) lays claim on being the youngest swimmer ever to win an Olympic title. In 1992, at the Barcelona Olympic Games, she won the 200 breaststroke Olympic gold in an Olympic record time of 2:26.65. She was 14 years and 6 days old at the time. It is her only medal in international competition besides a gold in the 1995 Summer Universiade. She would go on to swim at the next Olympics in 1996, but only finish 10th in the 200 breaststroke. Her Olympic flame shone brightly for only a moment and then went out. Her name lives on in the record books as the youngest swimmer ever to win Olympic gold.
Tom Gregory - A record never to be broken
What were you doing when you were 11 years-old? Well, Tom Gregory was covered in goose fat and about to become the youngest person ever (11years, 336 days old) to swim the English Channel. The channel swim is about 36 kilometers long on a good day. In September 1988 Tom set out from England and came ashore 11 hours and 54 minutes later on the French coast. It is an unbelievable accomplishment. Nowadays with adventure tourism becoming so popular and everyone seemingly swimming the English Channel, it might seem an easy thing to accomplish, but it remains one of the most difficult open water swims in the world.
Tom trained for four years prior to the Channel crossing. Let that sink in!
His record will never be broken, because shortly after his successful crossing, the Channel Swimming Association changed the rules to include a minimum age for solo swims. The Guinness Book Of Records puts it beautifully, “This record is for reference, and cannot be attempted, as there is now a minimum age of 16 years for swimming the English Channel.”
Karen Muir - The timid torpedo
Karen Muir, the South African swimming legend caused an uproar at the ASA National Junior Championships in the U.K. in 1965 by swimming a world record in the 110 yards backstroke. Remarkably, she did this is an age group race and was only there to build up some international swimming experience. Needless to say, she exploded onto the world stage. With this incredible swim she became the youngest swimmer in history to break a world record (and believed to be the youngest person in any sport to do the same in an official sense).
Karen was just 12 years, 10 months and 25 days old when she swam a 1:08.7 in the 110 yards backstroke. Muir went on to break 18 world records in her career as a swimmer and wasn’t a bad individual medley swimmer either, setting the world record in the 440 yards event. She retired from swimming at just the age of 16.
Remarkably she never won an Olympic title. She was part of a lost generation of South African athletes that never got to compete at the Olympic Games because of South Africa’s apartheid-induced banishment from the Olympics between 1964-1988.
Karen was shy, and they nicknamed her the ‘Timid Torpedo’ and was actually scared of the water. She began swimming to claim candy prizes on offer at the local swimming gala.
Here is a link to a delightful interview with her after her record-breaking swim.
Ian Thorpe - Thorpey
Ian Thorpe needs no introduction. He dominated swimming from 1999-2003. Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach, called Thorpe the “greatest middle-distance swimmer of all time…and the greatest relay swimmer I have ever seen.” There was a good chance that Thorpe might never have been a swimmer, since he suffered from a chlorine allergy in his adolescent years. He only swam his first race when he was 7 years old because of the allergy. Thankfully he grew out of that and became one of the greatest stars in swimming history.
At the age of 14, Thorpe became the youngest male ever to represent Australia, and his victory in the 400 freestyle at the 1998 Perth World Championships made him the youngest-ever individual male World Champion. After that victory, Thorpe dominated the 400 freestyle, winning this event at every Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific Swimming Championships until his break after the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
A boy who stormed and thrilled the swimming world from day one. He ushered in a new world of the super personality in the swimming sport. His rivalry with Grant Hackett, two years his senior did wonders for the sport in Australia. But really, he was a relay man and when asked about it he said this, “This is why relays are so important, because you can find more in yourself for someone else, than what you can ever find for yourself.” And asked about his competition, “There is water in every lane, so it’s OK.”
“Youth is wasted on the young,” Mark Twain was once quoted as saying, but not on these youngsters. They took their youth and used it to their full potential, doing things and breaking records they had no real right to do, but they did it fearlessly and we are so grateful for that.