Just two months after her 16th birthday, gymnast Laurie Hernandez will be competing in the Rio Olympics as a part of Team USA. It seems incredible that someone who isn't even old enough to drive a car is eligible for the world's highest level of athletic competition, but youth is an asset in gymnastics, and the youngest Olympic gymnasts are an inspiration to children, proving that kids can do just about anything if they work hard enough (except drive a car).
Professional gymnasts are traditionally very young, and in fact USA Gymnastics recommends starting kids in classes as young as 20 months. The oldest member of Team USA this year, Aly Raisman, is only 22 years old, still practically a kid herself. But according to the University of Minnesota, 16 is actually the average age for U.S. women's gymnastics Olympians. The fact is that gymnasts often train up to 30 hours a week, according to Ontario's Globe and Mail, and the older an athlete is, the more taxing that training is on their body. Today's gymnasts are actually older than they used to be; the International Federation of Gymnastics didn't impose the age limit of 16 until 1997. As such, there have been a lot of very young competitors over the years.
Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras was only 10 years old when he won a bronze medal in the 1896 Athens Olympics, according to The New Zealand Herald. That probably makes him the youngest Olympian, period, although there is a legend that a 7-year-old French boy helped a Dutch rowing team take home the gold in 1900. According to NBC, the unnamed boy was probably closer to 12 or 14, so Loundras' record is most likely safe.
Italy's Luigina Giavotti competed in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam when she was only 11, helping her team win the silver medal, according to Sports-Reference.com.
Romanian Nadia Comăneci was only 14 when she competed in the 1976 Montréal Olympics. She was the first person in Olympic history to score a perfect 10, according to USA Today. She went on to score six more while competing in Montréal, winning three gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. Four years later in Moscow, she won two more gold medals, and two more silver.
At 14, Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of Team USA to compete at the 1996 Atlanta games. She didn't medal individually, but her team won the gold. Her career was derailed by a knee injury in 2000, according to Biography.com, and she retired at age 19.
During 2012's London Olympics at age 16, Gabby Douglas won gold medals for both team and individual gymnastics, becoming the first American to ever win both, and the first woman of color to win the gold for individual. Mattel even created a Barbie doll in her likeness. At 20, Douglas is now the second-oldest member of Team USA, and will compete alongside Laurie Hernandez on Sunday.