Take five: Sport stars who became youngest AND oldest to win championships

By Tom Beckerlegge
Published
ronnie osullivan and kelly slater split image

To become the youngest-ever champion in any sport is a rare achievement; to become its oldest-ever champion, equally as tough. But what if you managed to do both? 

Here are five extraordinary sportspeople who stayed at the top of their discipline all the way from beginning to end.

Ronnie O'Sullivan

ronnie osullivan lifts his trophy

On 3 December, Ronnie O’Sullivan (UK, b. 5 December 1975) won a record-extending eighth title at the UK Championships – one of snooker’s three most prestigious events, known collectively as the “Triple Crown”. 

Ronnie defeated Ding Junhui 10–7 in the final, just two days short of his 48th birthday. This made “the Rocket” the oldest winner of snooker’s UK Championship, surpassing the 1988 champion Doug Mountjoy, who was 46 years and 172 days old when he won the title.

Remarkably, exactly 30 years had passed since Ronnie’s first triumph at the UK Championship. 

In 1993, a fresh-faced O’Sullivan served notice of his talent by defeating world champion Stephen Hendry 10–6 in the final, held at Preston Guild Hall on 28 November. At 17 years 358 days, he was the youngest winner of snooker’s UK Championship

Since then, Ronnie has cemented his status as arguably the greatest player ever to pick up a cue. He holds a number of GWR snooker records, including the most ranking titles (40), the most centuries (1,230) and the fastest 147 break (5 min 8 sec).   

Kelly Slater

kelly slater surfing

With his fluid style and aerial tricks, Kelly Slater (USA, b. 11 February 1972) ushered in a new era of surfing. 

Born in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he started riding the waves at the age of just five, and was soon winning age-division events up and down the East Coast. He turned professional in 1990 but success didn’t come instantly, and he finished the 1991 season ranked 43rd in the world. 

In 1992, however, Kelly took the World Surf League Men’s Championship Tour by storm. He earned his maiden title on 6 December 1992 with victory at the Pipeline Masters – an event staged on the Banzai Pipeline, a legendary surfing spot on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Kelly snatched the lead with just five minutes left in the competition and held on for a victory that made him the youngest world surfing champion (male), aged 20 years 299 days.

Fast-forward 19 years – and nine further WSL titles – and Kelly still wasn’t finished. 

While competing at the 2011 Rip Curl Pro Search San Francisco on 6 November, he became the oldest world surfing champion (male) at the age of 39 years 268 days. Subsequent championships may have eluded him, but Kelly remains the king of the waves. 

In 2022, just days from his 50th birthday, he won his eighth title at the Billabong Pro Pipeline – the very same event he had won 30 years earlier, in 1992, to seal his first world title. 

Birgit Fischer

Kayaker Birgit Fischer (Germany, b. 25 February 1962) is one of the most successful Olympic athletes of all time. 

She competed at six Games between 1980 and 2004, winning eight gold medals and four silver – the most Olympic kayaking medals. 

Birgit first picked up a paddle at the age of six, when she joined her brother Frank (who himself would later become a world champion) at a local canoe club. She made her Olympic debut at the 1980 Games in Moscow: on 1 August, she won the final of the women’s K-1 500 m to become the youngest Olympic gold medallist in kayaking, aged just 18 years 158 days old. 

Following her fifth Olympics at Sydney 2000, Birgit announced her retirement from the sport – but three years later, when a film crew asked her to get back in the kayak for a documentary, Birgit felt the competitive urge return. 

She went back into training and regained her spot in the German kayaking squad just in time for Athens 2004. In the final of the women’s K-4 500 m on 27 August, Birgit and her three crewmates saw off their fierce rivals Hungary, winning by just 0.2 seconds. At the age of 42 years 184 days, Birgit had become the oldest Olympic gold medallist in kayaking – an astonishing 24 years after she had become the youngest. 

Teddy Riner

Given he’s 2.03 m (6 ft 8 in) tall, perhaps it’s no surprise that judoka Teddy Riner (France, b. 7 April 1989) stands heads and shoulders above the competition. 

The Guadeloupe-born grappler returned to the Judo World Championships in 2023 after a six-year break from the tournament – entering the men’s heavyweight competition unseeded, Teddy had to battle through one of his toughest-ever draws. 

Reaching the final on 13 May, he defeated Inal Tasoev to become the oldest men’s judo world champion, aged 34 years 36 days, and reassert his standing as one of the sport’s greatest competitors.

Teddy started practising judo at age five; in 2007, he became the youngest men’s judo world champion at the age of 18 years 159 days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

It signalled the beginning of a reign of complete sporting dominance – Teddy didn’t lose a single match for an entire decade, going 154 fights unbeaten. His world championship win in 2023 suggested he remains the man to beat, and with the prospect of a home Olympics in Paris in 2024, you can bet that he will be looking to add to his three Olympic gold medals. 

Ken Rosewall

Ken Rosewall (Australia, b. 2 November 1934) was just three years old when he started playing tennis on the clay courts of Sydney. 

Naturally left-handed, he was taught by his father to play with his right – this unusual approach may have helped Ken develop his backhand, which would become one of the deadliest shots in tennis. 

His slender frame earned him the ironic nickname “Muscles”. But his talent was never in doubt. On 17 January 1953, Ken defeated his compatriot Mervyn Rose 6–0, 6–3, 6–4 to become the youngest winner of the Australian Open men’s singles, aged 18 years 76 days. 

Rosewall’s career was notable for its longevity, spanning the amateur, professional and Open eras. 

In 1972, almost two decades since his first triumph at the Australian Open, he won his fourth and final title. At the age of 37 years 62 days, Ken defeated Malcolm Anderson 7–6, 6–3, 7–5 in the final on 3 Jan to become the oldest winner of the Australian Open men’s singles

Although he wouldn’t add to his tally of 18 Grand Slam victories, he continued to play at the highest level, winning his final tour title in 1977 at the age of 43. In 2008, the centre court at Sydney Olympic Park was renamed Ken Rosewall Arena in honour of his achievements. 

He remains the oldest winner of a men’s tennis Grand Slam.

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