With teenager Shane O’Donnell bursting into the public spotlight at the All-Ireland Hurling Final, Ciara Leacy looks at other teenage prodigies that have fulfilled their early promise
A hat-trick of goals in an All-Ireland Final truly is the stuff dreams are made of. As Clare buried Cork’s hopes of bringing the Liam McCarthy back to the banks of the River Lee, Shane O’Donnell from Ennis managed this incredible feat within the first 20 minutes of the game. He went on to score a total of 3-3 and bag the Man of the Match award. No a mean feat for a lad who didn’t even know he was starting until the day of the match.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about this story though is the fact that at 19-years-old, O’Donnell is the youngest player on the Clare team. A student in University College Cork, he was lining out for the Clare minor team only last year.
While most of us idle away our teenage years, O’Donnell is one of a select group of young people who spend their time at perhaps more worthwhile pursuits. Back in 1995, another nineteen year old made his name in the GAA, though in football instead of hurling. Jason Sherlock was the young star of that All-Ireland winning Dublin team, and remained the darling of Hill 16 until his retirement earlier this year.
Stellar performances are not limited to young GAA players however. In 2002, a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney scored a last minute screamer for Everton to beat Arsenal and end their 30 game unbeaten run. Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, described Rooney as “a special talent” and “a big prospect for English football.”
Perhaps more widely remembered are commentator Clive Tyldesley’s prophetic words, “Remember the name. Wayne Rooney.” Rooney, as we all know, would go on to become one of the best players of the last decade, winning the Premier League five times to date with Manchester United.
Usain Bolt is another teenage prodigy that rose to fulfill the hype surrounding his sporting prowess. Bolt is the most recognisable athlete of this generation and is fast becoming one of the of all time greats, ranking alongside true legends of sport such as Muhammed Ali and Pelé.
Before he dazzled us with his incredible performances in Beijing and London, however, the man widely dubbed ‘the Lightning Bolt’ was something of a prodigy in athletics. In 2002, at the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, a 15-year-old Bolt won the 200m gold medal, becoming the youngest male world junior champion in any event in the history of the competition.
A year later, he broke the world junior 200m record, an achievement he replicated the following year as he became the first teenager to run 200m in under 20 seconds. The rest, as they say, is history.
Michael Phelps is another household name, and one of only a handful of sportspeople who could convincingly lay claim to the title of greatest sports star of all time. The most decorated Olympic athlete in history, Phelps boasts 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold. He first came to prominence when he broke the world record in the 200m butterfly at the 2001 US Spring Nationals.
At 15 years of age, he was the youngest swimming world record holder ever. Later that year, he won the first of his many world titles. In 2003, he set an unprecedented five individual world records at the World Championships just weeks after celebrating his 18th birthday.
At the same London Olympic games where Phelps cemented his status as one of the greatest Olympians ever, Plymouth-born diver Tom Daley was the poster boy for Team Great Britain at the age of 18, but in reality his sporting career began long before he bagged the bronze medal in the 10m Platform Final in the Aquatics Centre in Stratford.
In 2007, aged just 13, he was allowed to compete in the Australian Youth Olympics despite the fact that the minimum age for competing was 15. Nevertheless, he took home the silver medal in the 10m Platform Synchronised event. A year later, he won his first European title and reached two finals in the Beijing Olympics. All this before he had even finished school.
In 2000, ten-year-old Michelle Wie shot to prominence when she became the youngest ever qualifier at the USGA Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. Although she was young at the time, her golf career had begun years beforehand when she first played golf at the age of four.
At 13, she became the youngest player in history to play in an LPGA tour event, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The following year, she became the first woman to shoot a below par round at a sanctioned men’s PGA event. In 2005, she finally turned professional at the tender age of 16 and since then has gone on to become an excellent golfer, becoming a regular on the LPGA tour.
Teenage success often comes at a high price, however. For many, it means an early end to the carefree days of childhood. For others, it signals something far more sinister. In 2012, 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China won two Olympic gold medals. Her win was shrouded in controversy however, with widespread allegations of mistreatment of athletes such as Ye by their coaches.
It was revealed after the games that Ye had been subject to a gruelling training regime in a state-sponsored school since the age of 11. She had been separated from her parents and only permitted to speak to them on the phone on Sundays. More chillingly, there have also been allegations of beatings of young children in many of these schools as they strive for Olympic glory. Is this the price that must be paid for sporting success?
Thankfully, this does not hold true for the majority of cases. For most teenagers, sport is a healthy outlet for them to develop crucial leadership and interpersonal skills, while at the same time improving both their mental and their physical heath.
From the legions of young people who seek sporting success, only a few will emerge as true champions. These incredible talents will serve as inspiration for the next generation of young athletes, and so the cycle continues.