Most of us graduate from university in our early 20s, with the daunting thought that we now must find our place in the ‘real world’. It’s also exciting; we have our whole lives ahead of us and are free from the shackles of education for the first time.
But in sport, careers can come and go in the blink of an eye. This week, 23-year-old Rebecca Adlington announced her retirement from competitive swimming. Britain’s most successful swimmer of the modern era conceded that she felt old – the winner of the 800m freestyle at London 2012 was just 15. Adlington can now set about creating her own legacy in trying to get “every single child to be able to swim 25 metres before they leave primary school”.
Theo Walcott is another sportsman who was thrust into the limelight at a young age. In 2006, he became England’s youngest ever player at the age of 17 and was a surprise inclusion in the World Cup squad that year. Since then, Walcott struggled with injury and consistency as many Arsenal fans began to lose patience. Yet recently, we have seen a new, more mature side to Walcott. At 23 he has grown up a lot yet still seems to have the world at his feet with a long career ahead of him; he is currently the joint highest English goalscorer in the Premier League and this week confirmed his place in the starting XI for his country.
In snooker, another 23-year-old has had a mixed 2012/13 season. Judd Trump reached World Number One for the first time in November, but has since suffered disappointing first-round exits at the UK Championship and the German Masters. While last year’s ‘golden boy’ of snooker appears to be struggling, he has many years to reaffirm his status. Trump can look to the fine example of Steve Davis who is still competing at the age of 55.
Elsewhere, the current World Number One in golf is also 23. Rory McIlroy is the latest poster boy for the sport, signing a major five-year deal with Nike in January. The Northern Irishman seems to have it all; two Majors, a leading role in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory and a superstar girlfriend in the form of Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.
But amongst this esteemed company, let’s not forget that things can all go a bit pear-shaped. Who remembers Freddy Adu? Billed as the future of U.S. soccer, Adu made his MLS debut at just 14. A promising career beckoned but after disappointing spells in Portugal, France, Greece and Turkey, Adu never fulfilled his huge potential. In January, his club Philadelphia Union notified him that he won’t be part of their plans next season. He too is 23. If the former prodigy couldn’t be nearer rock bottom, pictures emerged on the Internet last week of Adu smoking shisha. Who would want to take a gamble on this washed up tearaway?
It is possible to achieve a lot by the age of 23, but it takes commitment and perseverance to stay on track, especially when one has burst onto the scene so young.