Lydia Ko, 15, makes history with win Sunday
Last Sunday, a woman on the eve of her 63rd birthday was battling jellyfish, weather and exhaustion as she tried, valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully, to swim from Cuba to Florida.
This Sunday, a 15-year-old girl became the youngest winner of an LPGA tournament.
What are we to make of these extremes? Perhaps just this: When it comes to accomplishment, age is often an arbitrary arbiter. Swimmer Diana Nyad and golfer Lydia Ko could tell you that.
There always have been outliers in human achievement on either end of the age spectrum. Some folks begin composing music when they're 8, others publish their first best-seller when they're 88.
However, we tend to think of athletic achievements as having a little stricter parameters because of the age at which most human beings reach their physical peaks and how long they are able to sustain them.
But athletics also has its outliers, and Ko is just the latest example. Continuing what's been an overall brilliant year for her, she didn't just win the Canadian Women's Open on Sunday, but did so by 3 strokes. Ko, who turned 15 years old in April, is the youngest champ the LPGA tour has had, besting American Lexi Thompson, who was 16 when she won her first LPGA title in September.
(Thompson, incidentally, broke a long-standing record when she won; the previous youngest LPGA winner before her was Marlene Hagge at 18 in 1952.)
Ko, when still 14, became the youngest winner of any professional women's golf event in January at the New South Wales Open. She was topped when a younger 14-year-old, Brooke Henderson, won a Canadian women's tour event in June.
All this should let the world's 13-year-old girls know they need to get it in gear, right?
Ko was born in South Korea but moved with her family to New Zealand when she was 6. She is the first amateur since JoAnne Carner in 1969 to win an LPGA title.
The player who finished second to Ko on Sunday, Inbee Park, holds the record for the youngest player to win the U.S. Women's Open. Park was a relatively ancient-sounding 19 when she took that championship in 2008.
So is it time for a joke? Like, "Sure, we knew the LPGA had traveling day care for its players' children ... but is the tour soon going to need it for some of its players as well?"
Technically, the age requirement to be a member of the LPGA Tour is 18. But players successfully have petitioned to gain membership before then, based on their results and presumptive readiness for tour life.
Thompson was initially denied early membership when she first petitioned in December 2010, two months shy of her 16th birthday. However, the LPGA also changed its rules to allow non-members to enter Monday qualifying for events, which gave Thompson and others like her an additional avenue to tournament entry besides sponsor exceptions.
After she won her LPGA title in 2011, Thompson's second petition for early entry was granted, so she has been a full member on tour all this year. Maybe Ko is not that far behind. Along with her two victories in pro events in 2012, Ko also won the U.S. Women's Amateur earlier this month in Cleveland. An event that had a 10-year-old qualifier, Latanna Stone. Yes, 10.
Ko has said, to this point, she's just getting experience and has not thought much about turning pro. But that's clearly the path she's on. And with her results, we should expect it sooner rather than later.
Is this alarming? After all, the bespectacled Ko looks more like a spelling bee contestant than an LPGA winner, her appearance still closer to little kid than to grown-up. Does the LPGA have to worry about becoming inundated with winners too young to drive their courtesy cars?
Anyone who has followed the tour will acknowledge that it's become more commonplace, especially in the past decade, for younger players to turn pro and have success. The winners of the three women's majors thus far in 2012 are all 25 or younger. The top-ranked player on tour, despite struggles in 2012, is 23-year-old Yani Tseng.
You could cite a lot of potential reasons for the youth brigade. There's the rise of golf "academies," much like those that several years ago started producing tennis prodigies. There have been changes in golf equipment and technology that have helped young players mature faster.
Plus, there's the fact that teens follow what other teens do: Seeing peers make the transition to the big leagues is bound to accelerate the thought process for young players throughout athletics.
Indeed, youth prevails at times now in virtually every sport. The top pick in June's NBA draft was 19-year-old Anthony Davis; teen phenoms have become commonplace in that league.
The Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper was a baseball All-Star this season at 19. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby made his NHL debut in 2005 at 18.
As for women's golf, while what Ko did Sunday made history, there are other past youthful standouts that go back a ways. Consider Beverly Klass, who is still the youngest to play in a U.S. Women's Open: She did so at age 10½ in 1968, before there was qualifying for that tournament.
In 2000, twins Aree and Naree Wongluekiet -- who now go by the last name Song -- accepted invitations to the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the season. That same year, Michelle Wie, who is one of Ko's idols, was 10 when she became the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Women's Amateur Pub Links championship.
In 2001, Morgan Pressel, at 12, became the youngest to get into the U.S. Women's Open via qualifying. In 2007, Thompson was an even younger 12 -- by about eight months -- when she qualified for the Women's Open. Consider this: Thompson is 17 yet already has played in the Women's Open six times. She tied for 14th this year.
For that matter, it doesn't happen just in women's golf. In June, 14-year-old Andy Zhang became the youngest to participate in the U.S. Open, making it into the field as an alternate after qualifying.
When a youngster is getting national/global acclaim for sports, music, acting or anything else, there tends to be at least some trepidation among adults about whether it's in the kids' best interest. We wonder: Do they give up too much to reach such heights? Are they pushed too hard? Is there a price to pay emotionally and psychologically for great success so soon in life in any endeavor? The bottom line is there are no universal answers.
There are horror stories like that of Klass, who wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2000: "Like so many child prodigies, I had no balance in my life and no grip on my identity. I knew Beverly the golfer, but not Beverly the person. Mommy and Daddy loved me when I performed well, but when I did poorly, Daddy didn't like me, to the point of yelling abusively on the course and whipping me with a belt until my back bled."
As awful as that is, it's just one story, and an extreme one. Some athletes navigate their early success with little, if any, damage to their psyches. Some crash and burn, like tennis player Jennifer Capriati, but then resurrect their careers when they're older and wiser.
Some age gracefully; some fade into oblivion. Ko is just getting started, and we don't know how high a perch she'll reach or how long she'll stay there.
Because for every cautionary tale urging youngsters and parents to cherish so-called ordinary childhoods, there is also the undeniable urge among the gifted to "Seize the moment!"
In fact, in some sports -- women's gymnastics comes readily to mind -- the clock begins ticking about the time the athletes start losing their baby teeth.
Gabby Douglas, one of the biggest American stars of the London Games, is 16. She entered the sport at age 6 and spent countless hours training for years to reach the summit that she did in the Olympics.
With women's elite gymnastics being much more the domain of ultraflexible girls in their midteens than fully developed adults, Douglas pretty much had to follow that blueprint to become Olympic all-around champion. It's highly unlikely she'll have a realistic chance to repeat that in four more years.
Another young American star at the Summer Games, 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin, could have at least a couple more Olympics in her, because her sport provides a longer shelf life for its athletes.
Nonetheless, like Ko, Douglas and Franklin someday will look back on their teen years as hectic, demanding and very regimented. That doesn't mean they won't also view them quite fondly and be glad they did it. Some people really are ready at a young age to go wherever their talents can take them. Or at the very least, they are as ready as anyone can be.
Others aren't, but the problem is we often can't tell in real time. And even if we could, would that mean we should stop the equivalent of a comet shooting through the sky?
Ko is in the sport that realistically lends itself to having the longest competitive career. Will she still be playing golf tournaments when she's 35? How about 25? We don't know. At least right now, she seems to be a very happy 15-year-old.
And there are surely some outwardly gracious but inwardly aggravated LPGA pros thinking, "Darn kids these days." Heck, some of them might be teenagers themselves.