In 2003, the Revolution was televised.
LeBron James, a high school senior, became one of the biggest draws across sports. His games were showcased on ESPN. His highlights lit up SportsCenter. He was Next, and we didn’t even have to wait very long.
Move ahead 14 years and it’s pretty obvious that James lived up to the hype. He also set off an unintentional cascade of expectations for great scholastic athletes across other sports. It’s not just high school basketball players who are asked if they can be the next LeBron; track and field athletes and wrestlers face the same hype-driven query when they emerge as the dominant figure in their sport at their time.
Now, 14 years later, a true heir might have emerged. Track star Sydney McLaughlin is 17 years old and already among the world’s best in her sport, just as LeBron was as a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio.
Here are the accolades McLaughlin holds already (and there’s still plenty of time before the Kentucky-bound senior graduates this spring):
— National High School Record: 400 meter outdoor hurdles
— National High School Record: 300 meter outdoor hurdles
— National High School Record: 300 meter indoor dash
— National High School Record: 400 meter indoor dash
Add to this list her place on the U.S. Olympic team before her senior year — she reached the semifinals of the 400 hurdles in Rio — and it’s hard to argue that another teenager in the past 14 years has been more accomplished in their sport, relative to general competition.
But is McLaughlin truly the best high school athlete of a generation? Let’s investigate some of the other alternatives and note the discussion does not include teen athletes who did not participate in high school sports.
Allyson Felix, Track and Field
If we’re going to consider elite high school track and field athletes, Felix is impossible to overlook. While it must be noted that she graduated the same year as LeBron (2003), Felix is 11 months younger, so we’ve included her on this list. While she didn’t earn an Olympic berth while still a high school student, she did compete in the Olympics at age 18, earning a silver medal in the 200 meters at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Like McLaughlin, Felix was the high school athlete of the year (as awarded by Track and Field News) as a junior, and she finished second in the indoor 200 meters at the U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships during her senior year.
Like LeBron, Felix has gone on to a glittering professional career, competing in four summer Olympic Games and capturing a total of nine Olympic medals.
Candace Parker, Girls Basketball
Also nearly LeBron’s age — she graduated in 2004, a year after James and Felix — Parker was unquestionably the most dominant prep girls basketball player of her era. She’s the only two-time winner of the American Family Insurance ALL-USA USA Girls Basketball Player of the Year (in 2003 and 2004) and finished her Naperville Central career as a four-time Illinois all-state selection and two-time state champion. She started 119 of her 121 high school games, averaged 22.9 points and 13.2 rebounds per game and even became the only girl to ever win the McDonald’s Slam Dunk Contest to boot.
Parker went on to win two national titles in three seasons under legendary coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee before leaving for the WNBA, where she was a No. 1 overall draft pick of the L.A. Sparks. She is a two-time league MVP, was the WNBA rookie of the year in 2008 and finally captured a league championship in 2016. She has also captured two Olympic gold medals, in 2008 and 2012.
Maya Moore, Girls Basketball
Like Parker, Moore was a transcendent star throughout her four-year high school career at Collins High School in Georgia. She was just the second junior (after Parker) to win the Naismith Prep Player of the Year award, led Collins Hill to three state titles in four state final appearances and also helmed a Collins Hill squad that captured the national title for the 2006-07 season.
She finished as her school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, assists and steals and was the runner-up in the high jump at the Georgia state championships as well.
After graduating from Collins Hill, Moore attended UConn, where she captured back-to-back NCAA titles in 2009 and 2010. She is a three-time WNBA champion, captured a league MVP in 2014 and a WNBA Finals MVP in 2013.
Mark Hall, Wrestling
In the state of Minnesota, an athlete can compete in six high school seasons, beginning in his seventh grade year. Mark Hall took full advantage, earning a total of 12 titles — six individual and six team — while competing for Apple Valley between 2011-2016. He finished his scholastic career with just four losses, all suffered during his freshman season.
As a high schooler, Hall was a Junior World champion, a Cadet World champion and a three-time Cadet National champion.
Hall was awarded the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award in 2016 for his achievements before he graduated and left for Penn State., where he was part of a national championship team during his true freshman season, when he finished as the national champion and All-American at 174 pounds.
Nick Suriano, Wrestling
While Mark Hall was dominating the wrestling season in Minnesota, Nick Suriano did the same in New Jersey. And while Suriano only had four years to compete at the high school level, he never lost a single match, becoming just the second wrestler in state history to capture four individual state titles between 2013-2016. Suriano was 159-0 in total and was only taken down once in his entire career while competing for national power Bergen Catholic, which finished ranked No. 5 in the USA TODAY High School Sports/National Coaches Association Super 25.
Like Hall, Suriano competed for Penn State as a true freshman in 2016-17 and was undefeated before suffering an ankle injury which forced him to withdraw from both the Big Ten and NCAA championships.
Clayton Kershaw, Baseball
Kershaw is a household name for his accomplishments with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he was also a stunningly dominant pitcher in the strongest high school baseball state in the country: Texas. Competing for Dallas’ Highland Park, Kershaw finished his senior season 13-0 with an ERA of just 0.77 and a whopping 139 strikeouts in 64 innings. That includes one of the more remarkable feats imaginable: an all-strikeout perfect game during one mercy rule-shortened, five-inning affair.
He was named the 2006 ALL-USA Baseball Player of the Year and the Gatorade Player of the Year before being selected with the No. 7 overall pick by the Dodgers. Since entering the major leagues in 2008, Kershaw has won three Cy Young awards, one NL MVP and pitched a no-hitter.
Missy Franklin, Swimming
A contemporary Olympian, Franklin became America’s darling after a stunning performance at the 2012 Olympics in London, where she won a total of five medals, four gold. A dominant star at Regis Jesuit High School in Colorado, she set four world records while still competing for her high school team, including a world record in the 200 yard backstroke during an Olympic final. She eventually was named the 2012 World Swimmer of the Year and American Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine.
After graduating from Regis Jesuit, she matriculated to Cal-Berkeley, where she competed for the Bears for two years before turning professional a year before the Rio Olympics. Franklin struggled at the Rio Olympics, finishing with just one medal, which she earned for swimming a preliminary round for a gold medal-winning relay squad. She failed to qualify for the final in her two signature events, the 200 freestyle and 200 back, and called her performance in Rio disappointing.
Katie Ledecky, Swimming
If Missy Franklin was the golden girl in London, Katie Ledecky was her silver disciple. Competing in just one event at the age of 15, Ledecky won gold in the 800 meter freestyle. Over the next three years, while she competed for Stone Ridge School in Maryland, Ledecky transformed into the world’s greatest female swimmer. She won four gold medals at the 2013 world championships, setting two world records in the process. She won five gold medals and broke three world records at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships before a remarkable World Championships run in 2015 when she earned another five gold medals sweeping the freestyle events while breaking her own world records in the 800 and 1,500 yard events.
Her high school career was equally impressive, and she finished holding every swimming record at Stone Ridge except the 100-yard breaststroke. Like Franklin before her, Ledecky was also named Swimming Magazine’s World Swimmer of the Year and American Swimmer of the Year, but she earned the honor twice, in 2013 and 2014.
NEXT TO LEBRON
So, who has come closest to LeBron’s remarkable run at St. Vincent-St. Mary? Given the international standards they achieved while still students, it’s hard to lobby for anyone but McLaughlin, Franklin or Ledecky (remember, Felix earned a silver in Athens after she graduated from high school). Given the Olympic/international test, Ledecky and Franklin are clearly a cut above all other contenders due to their overwhelming Olympic and international success. Franklin’s performance in 2012 was electric, earning her a nod as the global swimmer of the year.
Yet, as great as Franklin’s Olympic medal haul was in 2012, Ledecky’s international accomplishments over the course of her career are even more impressive. After taking an Olympic gold medal just weeks removed from her freshman year, Ledecky has been purely golden. Her freestyle dominance is unmatched even within swimming, and she is perhaps the only swimmer with the potential to eventually catch her own idol, fellow Maryland native Michael Phelps.
That honor alone sets her apart from anyone else on the high school stage, then or now. Even Franklin and McLaughlin, who may still have some remarkable achievements ahead before she heads to Lexington.