Since 2007, SI Kids has awarded an annual SportsKid of the Year. This year’s five finalists stand out for their accomplishments and the poise they exhibit even when they’re not competing. Check back at the end of the month to find out who will be the 2018 SportsKid of the Year!
Sugar Grove, Illinois
Leah Hayes wins. A lot. The 13-year-old almost never loses a local race. She owns six national age-group records, two of which she set this year: in the 100-yard breaststroke and the 400-yard individual medley.
In August, at a USA Swimming Futures Championship, Leah competed in a field that included 20- and 21-year-old collegiate swimmers. She won the 200-meter IM, coming just .4 of a second from breaking Missy Franklin’s age-group record.
Because it includes all four strokes, the IM is a test of a swimmer’s all-around skill, which Leah has in abundance. “She swims with absolute fire and passion,” says Nancy Hooper, who coaches Leah on the Fox Valley Park District Riptides. “I feel very confident that she will be at the Olympic trials in 2020.”
When Leah was six, she began to suffer from alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss. After struggling with its effects, she now embraces her look—and uses her success in the pool to spread a message: “Don’t let anything hold you back. Be confident in everything you do.”
Cross-country, track and field, triathlon
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Clara was already running national races as a seven-year-old when a fall from the monkey bars during recess left her with a serious back injury. Five months later, after a full recovery, she was running again.
Dad Craig, an avid runner and triathlete, promised Clara that if she proved she could finish a 5K, she could enter one. Soon after, Craig found a handwritten note on his desk. That was my best run ever, it read. Can i run a five k.
Clara finished a local race in an impressive 22:28—and she was just getting started. At eight, she won her division at the AAU Cross-Country Championships. She was also a USA Triathlon youth age group national champion, earning the Most Inspirational Comeback Kid Award from the organization.
In 2018, she swept the 12-year-old 800, 1,500, and 3,000 meters at the AAU 14-Under Youth Indoor National Championships. She was the female 5K winner at the Fifth Third River Bank Run in her hometown (17:52). She won her division in time trial and road race at USA Cycling Amateur Road Nationals, and she was again a USA Triathlon youth age group champ. Says Brant Hendler, who runs the junior cycling team with which 12-year-old Clara trains, “There’s just no quit in her.”
It was the biggest game he had ever played in, and very few people in the crowd of 3,000 were cheering for his team. “It was crazy,” recalls Kibru of the final of the 2018 U-12 Pan American Championships. He pitched five innings against the host team, Mexico, allowing only three hits and striking out four. The 10–2 win gave the U.S. its first gold medal at the tournament, and Kibru was named MVP.
“He was a calm, cool, composed kid,” says Todd Fine, the national team’s head coach. “The moment never got too big for him.”
Kibru, who was adopted from Ethiopia when he was four, also plays soccer. He decided he wanted to get serious about baseball a little over a year ago and joined coach Robert Prieto’s MVP Hustle team, which was named the top U-11 team in the country. Twelve-year-old Kibru is still working on developing his off-speed pitches, but his fastball can touch 81 mph. Says Fine, “The thing that is the coolest to me is he doesn’t realize how good he is.”
Caitlin was six or seven when her dad, Jesse, a seasoned surfer, took her out on his board. Around six months later, she was standing on her own board, already falling in love with the feeling of being out on the water. At 13, Caitlin is now out there once or twice every day, up to three hours at a time. In the afternoons, she surfs with her dad, mom Ali, and 11-year-old brother Timothy.
This year, she ranked No. 1 in the girls’ Under-16 West Coast Prime Series, earned the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s 2018 Rookie of the Year, and scored three perfect 10s at NSSA nationals, a first in the event’s history. She also helped Team USA earn bronze at the International Surfing Association World Surfing Games in Japan and won gold in the under-16 girls division at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships. “I have so much fun,” she says of competing. “I get a little nervous, but I try to think that it’s just a contest and my results aren’t really going to define my whole surfing career.”
USA Surfing head coach Joey Buran recalls being “stunned” the first time he saw her. “She is doing technical things with the waves that no one else is doing,” he says. “There’s an artistic flow to her surfing . . . and she reads the ocean as good or better than anyone I’ve seen in my 40 years of being involved in surfing.”
La Cañada, California
Before accompanying his mom, Heather, on a trip to rural Uganda, 10-year-old Ray decided to collect gear from his soccer teammates. He wanted to donate it to the kids in the village his group would be visiting. (His mom is an associate professor of clinical preventative medicine and international relations at USC.) “It was a super inspiring trip for me,” says Ray, now 15. “I wanted to go back.”
A few months later he launched a nonprofit organization, Ray United FC, with help from his parents. Today, thanks to Ray’s tireless efforts, his charity has raised more than $200,000 and hosted four camps during which participants receive healthy meals, clean water, hygiene kits, shirts, and donated soccer uniforms. It has also sponsored nine kids to attend high school in Uganda.
Around the same time he made that first trip to Uganda (he’s now been eight times), Ray began diving. He has qualified for Junior Olympic nationals in each of the last three years, and as a freshman at La Cañada High, he was the 2018 CIF Southern Division 2 champion. “He’s got such a tremendous talent,” says La Cañada diving coach Art Lopez. “And he is a kind, compassionate young man. . . . He walks the walk instead of just talking the talk.”