Meet Team USA’s youngest and oldest Winter Olympians
Making it to the Olympics is an incredible feat on its own, but doing so before you’re old enough to vote or after you’ve had kids is downright impressive.
There’s no age limit for taking part in the Olympic Games although each International Sports Federation sets its own rules. The average age of athletes representing Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea is 26.5, a standard age range for athletes competing at this level. But a handful have reached or held on to elite status in their respective disciplines years earlier or later than their peers.
Twenty-two years separate the youngest and oldest US Olympians competing in Pyeongchang: Figure skater Vincent Zhou is 17, and men’s hockey captain Brian Gionta is 39.
Vincent Zhou, born October 25, 2000
The 17-year-old figure skater will be the youngest athlete to represent Team USA in Pyeongchang.
Zhou’s skating career began at an impressively young age. He hit the ice for the first time when he was 3 years old and entered formal lessons when he was 5. The California native has been winning national and international titles since age 10. In 2017, he won the World Junior Championships and took home a silver medal at the 2017 US Figure Skating Championships.
Most notable during his competitions, Zhou became the youngest competitor to land a quadruple lutz in competition.
Shortly before being named to the Olympic team, Zhou transitioned from the junior level to senior. He shared with his fans the struggles and uncertainty that he was facing in an emotional Instagram post: “I am young, ambitious, hungry, and motivated. But most importantly, I am still learning.”
He added, “I am learning how to balance my training. I am learning about the danger of ambition. I am learning what it takes to succeed.”
When not defying gravity on the ice, Zhou is like most 17-year-olds; he told US Skating that he’s probably the funniest guy competing for Team USA and enjoys “a high-quality meme.”
Brian Gionta, born January 18, 1979
After the National Hockey League announced it would prohibit its players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, coaches and recruiters turned to NHL veteran Gionta to lead the team.
Boasting a career spanning over 15 years and 1,000-plus games, Gionta will be captain of the men’s team, a post he held multiple times in the NHL.
Off the ice, Gionta leads a life similar to those of his non-Olympic counterparts. He and his wife, Harvest, have three kids. The challenge of juggling fatherhood and maintaining performance in the rink surfaced during Gionta’s first Olympic appearance in Torino, Italy, in 2006, when his son Adam was just 6 months old.
In an interview with Team USA, Gionta spoke about how excited his kids are to watch Dad compete this year.
“My kids are pumped up,” he said. “Last time (in Torino), my oldest son had just been born. They haven’t been able to experience (the Olympics) like this. For them to be able to experience something like that? It would be a lifelong memory, that’s for sure.”
After the US Men’s Hockey roster was announced, fans took to social media to wish Gionta good luck and told him to “show those youngsters how it’s done.”
When it comes time to compete in Pyeongchang, age will be the last thing on Gionta’s mind; he hopes to bring home a medal after a 5-0 loss to Finland kept the 2014 US men off the podium in Sochi, Russia.
Who has the edge?
There are physiological reasons that cause performance to decline as athletes get older, but competitive advantages can be found on both ends of the age spectrum.
While prepping for the Pyeongchang Games, Gionta told CNN that his training routine is different than it was when he entered the NHL in 2001.
He now has “much more focus on mobility and doing exercises that limit impact and are built around maintaining strength without having as much impact,” he said.
“Age is an interesting aspect of elite sport, and the impact of age on sports performance can vary greatly, dependent upon many variables,” said Amber Donaldson, senior director of sports medicine clinics for the US Olympic Committee.
“Younger athletes have the advantage of faster physical recovery as well as an attitude of ‘nothing to lose,’ which allows them to leave it all on the field of play,” she said.
But as younger athletes tend to be more inexperienced, new struggles arise outside the arena.
“The younger athlete may struggle with the added pressure and distractions that accompany the Olympic stage,” she said, “and they want to make their mark in history while representing their country.”
That might explain why Gionta, the senior member on the US Men’s Ice Hockey team, will be captain. When it comes to age, the most significant advantage he sees is his ability to rely on his “experience and knowledge of being in big events and games.”