Teenagers prepare for the Olympic spotlight

‘I forget I’m just 16’: Sydney is America’s youngest track and field Olympian since 1972. © PA

In little more than a fortnight, athletes from around the world will gather in Rio for sport’s highest honour: the Olympic Games. And some of those athletes will still be in their teens.

Becky Downie was 16 when she competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Four years later, she received a devastating phone call: she had missed out on a spot on Britain’s gymnastics team for London 2012. Her sister Ellie was just 12, and watched with confusion as Becky cried ‘for a good month’. In the end, the family cheered her up with a gift: a tiny ginger kitten called Rio.

Rio is now four-years-old, and his namesake is approaching fast. Meanwhile, Becky is back on Team GB — and this time 16-year-old Ellie will be joining her.

The preparations are gruelling. Every day the sisters wake up at their parents’ home in Nottinghamshire, drive 45 minutes to the gym, and train for five to six hours. They repeat their high-flying routines over and over, improving minuscule details each time. Finally they return home to soothe their aching muscles. ‘I get it now,’ says Ellie. ‘I’d be gutted if I thought I wasn’t going to go to Rio.’

But hers will not be the only young face at the 2016 games. The American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin will celebrate her 17th birthday just days before the opening ceremony. The 17-year-old Georgia Coates, from Leeds, has been juggling her swimming training with her AS Levels. And the Chinese diver Si Yajie won her first gold medal at the 2013 World Aquatics Championships when she was just 14.

The young athletes have all shown an incredible dedication to their sport, all while dealing with the everyday pressures of being a teenager.

Some have been training for this for almost their whole life; 17-year-old Rebekah Tilney started lifting weights in her father’s garage when she was just five.

As Rio 2016 approaches, the pressure on these young people is enormous. Rebekah faces funding cuts if she does not make the top eight at Rio. Sydney was so nervous at her qualifying race that she had a ‘nervous breakdown’. And when Becky did not make the London 2012 team, she says it felt ‘like when someone dies... nothing would make me happy.’

Going for gold

As impressive as these young people’s achievements are, few envy the lifestyle that comes with them. Olympic athletes must give up all their free time, stick to strict diets, and experience crushing disappointment if something goes wrong. Shouldn’t they be enjoying their teenage years instead?

But for the athletes, there is simply no contest. Choosing to focus on one single goal does not take away their freedom; it gives them the opportunity to go through some of the most amazing, rewarding experiences in the world. Even failure has its upsides: the rejection in 2012 ‘made me the person I am today,’ says Becky. We should all be inspired by their success.

You Decide

  1. Would you give up your everyday freedoms to be an Olympian?
  2. What makes someone so successful so young: talent, luck, or dedication?


  1. Read one of the profiles under Become An Expert. Choose the most important lesson to be learnt from the teenager’s experience so far.
  2. At London 2012, young British athletes were given the chance to light the Olympic torch in the final moments of the opening ceremony. Research a little about Brazil’s history and culture, and then design a sequence for the ceremony at Rio 2016.

Some People Say...

“Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose... what is best for me.”

Paulo Coelho

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t care about sport. Can I learn anything from this?
Of course! You don’t have to be an Olympian to have ambitious goals. Whatever it is you’re passionate about, the key is to keep practising. The author Malcolm Gladwell once said it takes 10,000 hours to master something. This may not be a scientific fact — but it does remind us that success does not happen overnight.
I love sport. Could I be at the Olympics one day?
Maybe, but not without a lot of hard work. Check out the Youth Sport Trust for advice on how to get started, and keep an eye out for any local sports clubs or competitions. But remember, even if you don’t make it to the top of your sport, it does not mean failure — you will still get all the benefits of exercise, from happiness endorphins to reducing the risk of disease.

Word Watch

London 2012
The Olympic Games held in the UK that year. Becky made the reserve list for the team gymnastics, but did not get to compete. The team eventually finished sixth. Both sisters have made this year’s team, which also includes 16-year-old Amy Tinkler.
Team GB
The athletes competing for Great Britain at the Olympic Games.
Becky has one of the most difficult routines in the world on the uneven bars, winning her gold at the Women’s European Gymnastics Championships last month. Ellie is particularly gifted at the vault, and won four medals at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.
Opening ceremony
This will take place on Friday, August 5th. The main events will begin the next day.
Funding cuts
UK Sport reduced funding for British weightlifting in 2014 — so Rebekah’s local butcher offered her as much free meat as she could eat in a rather unconventional sponsorship. Her funding will go back up if she reaches the top eight at Rio. But she is ‘not sure what will happen’ if she doesn’t.


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