Youngsters who leapfrogged into history in 2021

'Mental health is 100 per cent of the game. If you're not mentally there then you're not there at all' 24 Dec 2021
Close up of Anastasia Pagonis of USA brown eyes, brown hair and white USA mask
Gold medallist swimmer Anastasia Pagonis of USA at the women’s 400m freestyle S11 medal ceremony
ⒸOIS/Joel Marklund

There were some significant performances from youngsters in 2021 in tracks to the pools.

The pandemic didn’t stop these new faces from making a splash and being an instant hit with their phenomenal display of talent. And when these achievements are at the highest level - the Paralympic Games, it is all the more special, and needs to be celebrated.

Here are some of the young stars who will be the face of their sport in the coming years and the ones to watch out for at Paris 2024.


Jiang Yuyan (Para Swimming - China)

Sixteen-year-old Jiang Yuyan may have been the youngest athlete in China's powerful 256-strong team in Tokyo, but she returned home with her first Paralympic medal, the gold in the women’s 50m Butterfly S6. She had also set a World record (34.56 secs) in the heats.

Yuyan, who had sensational campaigns at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games and World Championship winning three gold medals each, believes that the result at Tokyo 2020 was the recognition for all the efforts and training she put in all these past years.

“I think it’s a milestone of my life," said Yuyan.


Ambra Sabatini (Para Athletics - Italy)

Just few weeks after smashing a World record on her debut at the Dubai 2021 World Para Athletics Grand Prix, Italy’s Ambra Sabatini was crowned as the Paralympic Champion.

Sabitini once again smashed the World record, not just once but twice on her way to sealing the victory in women’s 100m T63 final. What was spectacular was Sabatini led an Italian clean sweep finishing the race in 14.11 seconds.

With tears in her eyes, the 19-year-old said: “It represented the redemption of the last two years, from the accident. Now I feel complete.”

Sabatini stood on top of the Paralympic podium two years after her accident which left her left leg amputated above the knee.

Miyuki Yamada

Miyuki Yamada (Para Swimming - Japan)

Fourteen-year-old Miyuki Yamada stole the hearts at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre winning the host nation's first medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. In doing so, Yamada also became the youngest Japanese to reach the podium in the history of the Games.

Yamada also had claimed a silver in the women's 100 metre Backstroke S2 class, touching the wall in 2:26.18, finishing behind reigning Paralympic and World Champion Yip Pin Xiu of Singapore.

Yamada, who started swimming at the age of five and made her international debut only in February 2020 in Melbourne, was thrilled with her success.

“I wanted to give my 100 per cent,” said the promising star.


Avani Lekhara (Shooting Para Sport - India)

At 19, Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman ever to win a Paralympic gold medal when she clinched the historic gold in R2 women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 final ahead of Chinese legend Cuiping Zhang and Ukraine’s reigning World Champion Iryna Shchetnik. She also became the first from the country to stand atop the podium in 45 years of Paralympic shooting.

A calm and composed Lekhara focused on shot by shot to shoot a score of 249.6 which was a World record equalling score. In fact, during the finals, Lekhara was only shooter to produce a perfect 10.9 score though she got 9.9s in the last two rounds.

Days later, she went on to claim the 50m Rifle 3 Position SH1 bronze to add to an unprecedented gold she had won earlier at the Games.

Liu Yutong (Para Badminton - China)

The 17-year-old Chinese prodigy in Para Badminton, Liu Yutong lived up to the expectations when she clinched the Paralympic gold medal winning the women's singles WH2 finals over compatriot Xu Tingting.

Yutong also picked up a silver in the women’s doubles pairing up with Yin Menglu, thus making it a memorable first Paralympic Games.

Before this, Yutong had already made a mark in the international Para Badminton circuit, having captured her first World Championships title in 2017 Ulsan as a 13-year-old. A year later, she won two golds at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Indonesia before becoming the double World Champion in Basel, Switzerland, which also took her to the top of the world rankings.

Anastasia Pagonis (Para Swimming - USA)

Certainly, it was a dream Paralympic debut for USA’s young sensation Anastasia Pagonis who signed off with a gold and a bronze medal.

The 17-year-old, who is also a TikTok star and uses the platform to raise awareness on various issues, triumphed in the women’s 400m Freestyle S11 with a new World record. The gold medal show was definitely a confidence booster for Pagonis, who had predicted her result before the race.

Having lost her vision at 14, Pagonis admitted that she was suffering with her mental health recently and it even was triggered when she had an issue with her swimsuit before the heats.

“Mental health is 100 per cent of the game. If you're not mentally there then you're not there at all,” she said.

You have to set boundaries for yourself and I think that’s super important. I wanted to swim every single S11 event.”