Now that you've gotten to know the 2015 SportsKid of the Year, it's time to meet a few more outstanding sportskids. Our 2015 finalists excel on rocks, trails, mats, and ice. What makes these talented athletes tick? Meet them and find out!
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Our 2015 finalists excel on rocks, trails, mats, and ice. What makes these talented athletes tick? Meet them and find out!
Two things are clear when watching 11-year-old Natalie train: She is extremely talented, and she enjoys the sport of taekwondo. “You have to appreciate how much fun she’s having in a hard workout, in a hard match — even though she doesn’t have many of those,” says national AAU coach Arlene Limas, who has worked with Natalie for three years. “Already at a young age Natalie is enjoying [the] process, and that’s huge.” Also huge: Natalie’s list of accomplishments. The sixth-grader won gold in her black belt division this year at the U.S. Open, the USAT National Championships, the AAU Taekwondo National Championships, and the Pan American Taekwondo Youth Opens, outscoring opponents at the events 198–42. She speaks to Girl Scout troops, athletic clubs, and community organizations about the importance of hard work and following your dreams, and she also teaches free youth martial arts classes. Since last winter she has sold more than 1,000 copies of the inspirational book she self-published to help pay for training, Tough Girls Finish First. (She’s also releasing a second book, Kick It Fit with Natalie.) “A lot of girls think they can’t do as well as boys, and that stereotype is not really true,” she says. “I just thought, Why not convince them that they can do anything?”
Photo: Kirk Irwin for Sports Illustrated
Cooper donned his first pair of roller skates when he was only 11 months old. But it wasn’t until he appeared at his first national speedskating competition on the ice, when he was nine, that he remembers having no fear of falling. “I just thought about going out and having fun and just skating,” says Cooper, now 14. In all he’s won five age-division national titles on the ice and two at in-line nationals. Most recently, he took first at the 2015 National Age Group Short Track Championships, where he set a record in the 333-meter distance. This year he also set long-track outdoor age-group records in the 400 and 500 meters. Last February, at the Las Vegas Inline World Cup, Cooper won individual gold, then competed in a 3,000-meter relay with an athlete from his region, who has special needs. “Every time I had seen him skate, he got so much better,” says Cooper. “At that meet, I’d never seen him skate as hard as he did.” The two finished last, and without telling anyone, Cooper gave his individual gold to his relay teammate. “It felt like he gave enough effort that he should have gotten a medal.”
Chang Lee, head coach at Puget Sound Speed Skating, has seen Cooper’s technique improve over the last six years, which is the main reason — among many — he’s been able to excel. “He has a good attitude, good reaction time, a good start, and is very powerful,” says Lee. “He uses good judgment and concentrates well during competitions. That’s how he gets good results.”
Photo: Patrick Downs for Sports Illustrated
Ashima just may have been a little more adventurous over her spring break this year than you were. After all, she scaled a 140-foot rock face in Spain to become the youngest person — and, it’s thought, the first female — to finish a climb rated with that degree of difficulty. It’s the athletic achievement she’s most proud of. “I really had to have confidence in myself because I was being beaten down by that climb,” she says. For Ashima, the thrill of making it to the top keeps her going. “The excitement is unreal because you see everything below you, and it’s so beautiful.” On the indoor circuit, the high school freshman has won her age group at five of the last six USA Climbing Bouldering Youth Nationals. This past summer, she won two gold medals at the World Youth Championships in Italy. An article in The New York Times called her “a serious contender to become the greatest living climber” of either gender, and her TEDxTeen talk, “Just Climb Through It,” has been viewed more than 57,000 times on YouTube. “Ninety-nine percent of climbing is falling,” says Ashima. “But 1% [of the time] you actually get to the top, which is the most important part. It’s important to tell yourself that if you try over and over again, one time you will get it. Just don’t give up.”
Photo: Taylor Ballantyne for Sports Illustrated
During the fall of 2013, Harper had to write a persuasive essay for her seventh-grade English class. She had been competing by herself as a cross-country runner for the previous few years, so she chose to write about why her middle school should have a team. “It was nerve-wracking not having teammates with me on the [starting] line,” says Harper. Her teacher, Dennis Renner, is also the athletic director, and he took Harper’s words to heart. “She made some really valid points,” he recalls. The inaugural team competed the following fall, taking second in the conference, and Harper finished third at the state middle school championship meet. An AAU Junior Olympic champion in the 1,500 meters in 2013 and ’14, Harper also won her school’s award for the highest GPA and most community service hours. And as a point guard on the basketball team, she scored more than 20 points in 10 games and became the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers. Now a 15-year-old freshman, Harper is recruiting runners to start a cross-country team at her high school. “Harper’s a very good leader,” says Renner. “She leads by example.”
Photo: Hollis Bennett for Sports Illustrated
SportsKid of the Year 2015: Meet the Finalists