Any kid who straps on a pair of skates or picks up a basketball at a neighbourhood playground has dreams of ultimate glory. A very rare few show elite skill level in their early years and even fewer are able to develop their prodigious talent to the maximum, hitting the Olympic or professional ranks.
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Here's a list of the 10 Greatest Sports Prodigies of All-Time. Slideshow text follows for mobile readers.
1. Wayne Gretzky
The Great One was a phenom in Brantford, Ontario, scoring 378 goals in one season as a 10-year-old in minor hockey. His prodigiousness led to national notoriety in Canada before he was a teenager. He set scoring records in his rookie season at the major junior level. In 1978, Gretzky signed a $1.75-million contract with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association when he was 17 years old. His NHL career began in 1979 and Gretzky went on to become professional hockey's all-time leading scorer, as well as a four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers.
2. Venus and Serena Williams
The Williams' sisters dominated the tennis world for the first decade of the 21st century. Elder sister Venus showed signs of greatness early on, picking up the game when she was just four. She held a 63-0 record in the United States Tennis Association's youth tour as a 12-year-old. Meanwhile, Serena compiled a 46-3 record in the same youth tour's under-10 division, placing tops among girls ranked in Florida. The Williams sisters have gone on to win numerous Grand Slam and Olympic titles — both individually and as doubles partners — during their spectacular professional careers. (And, yes, their inclusion as a single entry actually makes this a top 11 list.)
3. Tiger Woods
When he was still in diapers, Woods was golfing on national television, competing at two in a putting contest against comedian Bob Hope. He was featured on "That's Incredible!" when he was five and continued his remarkable ascent, becoming the world's No. 1 golfer and the most recognizable athlete on the planet. He has won 14 major championships, including four Masters' titles. His life and career have not been the same since the 2009 revelation of multiple affairs. That scandal cost him his marriage and endorsements, and landed him in a rehabilitation clinic for sexual addiction. On the golf course, he has struggled to regain the stupendous form of his youth.
4. Magic Johnson
A gifted basketball player, Earvin Johnson earned the nickname "Magic" because of his unreal feats at Lansing High School. He re-invented the point guard position, which was most often manned by the smaller players on the court. But Johnson was 6-foot-9 and could pass and dribble with a level of skill never before seen from someone his size. He went on to win an NCAA national title at Michigan State University and was the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. With Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers won five NBA titles and he was named the league's MVP three times.
5. Michael Owen
Owen established himself as one of the most promising young players in the game from the day he stepped onto a soccer field. He was playing against 11 year olds when he was just eight. The top teams in the English Premier League were courting Owen from the time he was 12. When he made a decision on a club, Owen chose Liverpool over Manchester United and Chelsea. As a 16-year-old, he recorded multiple hat tricks in the FA Youth Cup in 1995-96 as he led Liverpool to its first title in the tournament. A member of the English national team, Owen was named the Best Young Player at the 1998 World Cup.
6. Michael Phelps
The Baltimore Bullet reached the Olympics at 15 years of age. Although he did not win a medal for Team USA at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, Phelps did become the youngest man to break the 200-metre butterfly world record in the 2001 World Aquatic Championships. Records continued to fall and the past three Olympics will be known as the Phelps Era. His 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold, are more than anyone in history.
7. LeBron James
King James excelled in basketball and football while at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. His skills on the court are what caused chatter among professional scouts and sports media, however. He was the first sophomore to be recognized by USA Today, which annually names an All-USA First Team of high school basketball players. James went straight from high school to the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him first overall in the 2003 draft. He won Rookie of the Year honours and led the Cavaliers to respectability. Last year, he won an NBA title as a member of the Miami Heat.
8. Tara Lipinski
Lipinski won gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics, shocking Michelle Kwan, the favourite to win the women's figure-skating title in Nagano, Japan. Lipinski was just 15 when she accomplished the feat, which culminated a meteoric rise through the ranks of the sport. She won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at age 14, relying on her foundation as a champion roller skater from Philadelphia.
9. Chris Drury
Before he became an NHL champion with the Colorado Avalanche, Drury was an accomplished baseball player. He pitched a complete game and batted in two runs as he led the United States to a victory over Taiwan in the 1989 Little League World Series. In the same year, he won a U.S. championship with his pee wee hockey team. Drury went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top American college hockey player while at Boston University before embarking on an all-star career in the NHL.
10. Dwight Gooden
Armed with a blazing fastball and devastating curveball, Gooden overwhelmed high school opponents and blew away Major League Baseball scouts, who were enamoured with the phenom. Gooden made his major-league debut at age 19 with the New York Mets, earning Rookie of the Year honours in 1984. The next year he took home the National League Cy Young Award and in 1986 helped lead the Mets to a World Series title. Gooden, however, could not hold on to the promise of his prodigious talents. Drugs and legal issues tormented him during and after his 14-year career.
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