The grown-up pressures faced by teenage sports prodigies

Striving for their personal best can also exact a huge mental toll on these youngsters

Now may not be the best time to be singing the praises of any dazzling teenage sporting prodigy with the capacity, it seems, for the near-ridiculous. They always say if you’re good enough for this business then you’re old enough, even if that doesn’t necessarily ring true, and it’s not easy to avert our eyes when something so astonishing starts unfolding before us, for better or for worse.

It’s a rare thing to be sitting around this house on a Thursday morning watching figure skating from the Winter Olympics in Beijing, or from anywhere else for that matter. In the end the emotional and physical mayhem that was the women’s free skate final made for properly startling viewing, all touching on the near-ridiculous and mostly teenagers across the board, all dazzling prodigies in their own right, most breaking down in front of the judges and crying real tears, in triumph or despair.

How exactly 15-year-old Kamila Valieva ended up in the position she did, not just outside the medals in fourth, begs many questions, beginning with whether or not it's right for any 15-year-old to be exposed to such ruthless cruelties on the Olympic stage. Valieva's Russian team-mates, both aged 17, displayed contrasting levels of maturity, gold medal winner Anna Shcherbakova a rare picture of serenity, silver medal winner Alexandra Trusova swearing out loud she'd never step foot on ice ever again.

No one expects the IOC to ever make the Olympics over-18s only; what does need to be decided is whether under-18s should be somehow guarded against doping offences

God knows what Kaori Sakamoto, Japan’s 21-year-old bronze medal winner, must have made of them, the utter indignity of it all made worse when Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze promptly stepped in to ask Valieva why she’d “stopped fighting”.

Guarded

It's also rare to agree with anything that comes out of the mouth of IOC president Thomas Bach these days, but this was indeed "chilling". No one expects the IOC to ever make the Olympics over-18s only; what does need to be decided sooner and not later is whether under-18s should be somehow guarded against doping offences. If you're good enough for this business, etc.

Later on Thursday another once-dazzling teenage sporting prodigy came running across our screens, the now 21-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen, his first indoor race of the season in Liévin ending in his first senior world record, one more barrier broken by the young Norwegian to boot.

From the beginning of his teenage years, Ingebrigtsen has been promising big things, one after another delivering on them. At age 16, he was the youngest runner in his history to break four minutes for mile, and won the first of four consecutive European under-20 cross-country titles; at age 17, he ran a 3:52.28 mile, and won a European senior double over 1,500m/5,000m, a feat never before achieved by any man, woman or child in the 84 years of that championship history.

Last Saturday, and two months after his 17th birthday, Griggs became the first Irish teenager to break eight minutes for the 3,000m indoors

At age 19, Ingebrigtsen ran his first European senior record over 2,000m, improved his 1,500m best to 3:28.68, and may well have been a teenage Olympic champion too, had Tokyo not been postponed to 2021. Still, the wait did him no harm as Ingebrigtsen won gold there anyway, aged 20, improving the Olympic record to 3:28.32.

In Liévin on Thursday, he became the first runner to break 3:31 indoors, his 3:30.60 over a second faster than his previous indoor best. There were some who wondered might Ingebrigtsen start to burn out or fade once he reached his 20s, but so far at least there is no sign of that happening.

Rapid rise

Now, for better or for worse, it's somewhat inevitable that Nicholas Griggs is brought into this conversation, if only because his rapid rise up through the teenage ranks of middle distance running is already starting to mirror that of Ingebrigtsen. As running prodigies come he's still relatively unknown (although that's unlikely to last much longer), and if it sounds like a burden it's already resting easy on shoulders of the teenager from Newmills in east Tyrone.

Griggs broke a fresh barrier of his own not once but twice over the last week, two near-ridiculous improvements in five days to be exact. Last Saturday, running at the Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena (NIA) in Abbotstown, and two months after his 17th birthday, he became the first Irish teenager to break eight minutes for the 3,000m indoors, his Irish Under-20 record of 7:57.38 all the more impressive given he ran the second half of the race entirely alone.

In only his second-ever indoor race, it also took a full 10 seconds off his outdoor best. Then at Wednesday’s NIA Live meeting back at the same venue, Griggs again ran away with the 1,500m with considerable flair, clocking another Under-20 record of 3:43.71, breaking 3:50 for the first time, improving the previous indoor record of 3:44.85 set by Cian McPhillips in 2020.

As good as those times are they’re not entirely surprising. Griggs first made a name for himself last July, aged 16, when he won the 3,000m at the European Under-20 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, blitzing the field of runners, most of whom were two or three years his senior. In truth, few saw that result coming, although there were some warning signs, Griggs running 14:15.98 in his first go at 5,000m in Belfast in May, before winning the National Under-20 3,000m in June in 8:11.15.

Family tragedy

What set his Tallinn success further apart was that a month before there was an unimaginable family tragedy, his older brother and only sibling, Josh, killed at the age of 19 in a freak work accident.

By the end of last summer Griggs was already setting new goals. Barry Holmes, his coach at Mid Ulster AC, was turning 80, reckoned he’d taken him as far as he could, and with that Griggs linked up with Mark Kirk, a top 800m runner in his time and now coaching in Belfast. Though still 16, Griggs targeted an Under-20 medal at the European Cross-County in Abbotstown, only to run off-form on the day, finishing in 16th, still helping the team to win silver.

When we questioned him about that performance afterwards Griggs didn’t sulk and he certainly didn’t cry, pointing instead with near-ridiculous maturity at his own desire to go away and work a little harder and come back stronger the next day.

Griggs knows the deal: this time last year, McPhillips was being lauded as the next running prodigy, in part after clocking an Under-20 800m indoor record of 1:46.13, aged 18, and he too won a European Under-20 title last summer over 1,500m. That potential certainly hasn’t gone away, even though a series of minor injuries have stalled his progress.

Trace the trail and many of the success stories in Irish distance running history – although certain not all – began with teenage distance running prodigies: Ronnie Delany, John Treacy, Sonia O’Sullivan, Ciara Mageean. Griggs will still be a teenager come the Paris Olympics in 2024, and it’s not too soon to talk about him being there. If you’re good enough for this business, etc.

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