High School Superstar

7 years ago, Paly student Lily Zhang graduated as an Olympian. While being in the Olympics at such a young age was out of the ordinary a decade ago, the script has flipped now. The barrage of young athletes entering these competitions shows that a new era has dawned in the professional sports world: an era where young athletes are a force to be reckoned with.

High+School+Superstar

Madhu Ramkumar and Grace Li

In the months of late May to early June, a blanket of stress filled the air of Paly. With AP tests right around the corner, finals looming in the near future and sporting seasons entering their final playoff grinds, there was much to do for the typical student. However, sophomore Lily Zhang was dealing with a particularly unique task compared to her peers. In a month from the beginning of summer break, Zhang was set to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Among a pack of seasoned table tennis championships almost twice her age, 16 year old Zhang was the youngest competitor fighting for her shot at gold. 

Zhang’s journey to the Olympics started at a very young age. Since 2007, Zhang has competed in numerous state, national, and international competitions. In 2011, Zhang, along with her teammates Erica Wu and Ariel Hsiung, represented the United States at the Pan American Games. On top of winning a team bronze medal, Zhang won a bronze medal in the Women’s Singles event as well.

In 2012, she participated in the London Olympics. Though Zhang wasn’t able to medal in the competition, she came back to Palo Alto as the youngest player to ever compete in an Olympics Table Tennis Competition, and had quite a story to tell her peers.

Zhang’s national achievements in her niche sport might be rare, but she is not the only one who has achieved such success. Young athletes all around the world have competed at professional events, all while still experiencing the trials and tribulations of high school. 

When looking at the professional sporting world, the age of competitors is only getting younger and younger. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, snowboarder Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win a gold medal for snowboarding at the mere age of 17 years old. Landing record-breaking back to back 1080s, she dominated the halfpipe against competitors almost twice her age. Kim, Zhang, and many others represent a new era of sports, where age and seniority no longer determines winners from losers. 

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s impossible to see the astronomical amount of work it takes for these athletes to compete at this level. The especially difficult balancing act of school and sports is something unique to the teenage athlete’s experience. 

Hunter Salisbury is the perfect example of this phenomenon. From a young age, Salisbury committed herself to the niche sport of archery. She attended thousands of local, state, and national tournaments that were all over the world. As a result, Salisbury holds the title of a world silver medalist, and had the honor of representing her country on Team USA. She also continued her archery career in college at Michigan State University. 

Salisbury’s climb to the top required that she make a lot of sacrifices at a very young age. 

“I would wake up before school and practice, then I would go to school, practice at the local club, and come home and do homework while I ate dinner,” Salisbury said.

She also recalls the many social experiences that she had to lose due to her archery commitments. 

“I missed a lot of birthdays and friends parties, and friends from school never understood the commitment I had to make,” Salisbury said. 

Similar to Zhang, Salisbury’s national status had her paired against much older competitors for most of her professional career. 

“When I was young and not confident, I was always so nervous. After growing into the sport, it became more of an excitement and I felt like I was exactly where I belong,” Salisbury said.

When asked about the waves of teens entering professional competitions, Salisbury expressed her approval. 

When I was young and not confident, I was always so nervous. After growing into the sport, it became more of an excitement and I felt like I was exactly where I belong”

— Hunter Salisbury

“I think it’s great! Talent is talent, no matter what age. If people are discovering their given abilities that early, it just gives them that much more time in their life to enjoy their sport and give back to it.” 

Though Salisbury and many others appreciate young talent, there are also those who show cautious optimism. Lila Gorman, an archer similar to Gorman, believes it critical that young athletes stay focused. 

“I don’t think that the rise in younger athletes is inherently problematic, but I do think it’s important for young athletes to not lose sight of what’s important. People should not slack off on school unless they can be absolutely sure they can have a career in athletics,” Gorman said.

Gorman also notes that the extensive pressure put on athletes as young as 12 or 13 should be monitored. 

“Athletes should go over and understand the trade offs they are making when they commit to their sport, and kids that are too young should not have too much pressure placed on them,” Gorman said. 

I don’t think that the rise in younger athletes is inherently problematic, but I do think it’s important for young athletes to not lose sight of what’s important. People should not slack off on school unless they can be absolutely sure they can have a career in athletics”

— Lila Gorman

Though Zhang might have been one of the first athletes of her caliber to come out of Palo Alto, she is not the only one. In the years after her departure, Paly and other surrounding high schools have become a breeding ground for national champions. From more mainstream sports like the NFL or the NBA, to more niche sports like archery or ping pong, the trend is clear. Teenage national caliber athletes from Palo Alto and beyond are on the rise, and we have yet to scrape the surface of what these high school superstars can accomplish.