Is he the world’s strongest toddler?
A recent TV documentary profiled Liam Hoekstra, a toddler in Michigan whose parents had noted his unusual gifts of coordination and strength and therefore sought expert opinion on the child’s condition. In the video, Liam is seen climbing a rope, performing pull-ups and sit-ups, and performing other feats of strength and coordination. Various experts, including me, were asked to participate in the documentary and provide commentary on Liam’s extraordinary abilities. The underlying theme is that Liam is genetically gifted, carrying some specific gene mutation that contributes to his outstanding physical performance. No such gene mutation has been identified in Liam’s DNA as of yet, though the documentary suggests that the search is ongoing and that there are anticipated benefits for researchers of muscle disease.
The documentary raises several questions as it explores Liam’s physical abilities. Perhaps most important is that extraordinary physical performance does not usually land itself in a physician’s office for clinical evaluation, so it’s remarkably difficult to know just how unique Liam is in relation to his peers around the globe. And who’s to say that this three-year-old’s unique strength and coordination are not simply accelerated physical development that will eventually be matched (or approached) by his slower-developing peers? If that were the case, then 10 years from now we wouldn’t expect Liam to stand out in the crowd as much as he does today.
And the more challenging issue is what to think of Liam’s athletic future. Aspirations of professional- or Olympic-level sport are not uncommon, but it is far easier for the parent of a gifted child. Should children be identified from an early age as genetically gifted, thereby providing them with an early entry into some targeted sport? We’ve certainly seen cases where gifted athletes find success in sports that were pushed on them as young children, but should this be further supported by genetic testing? Assuming Liam does carry some unique genetic advantage that can be identified, should others like him be tested for such genes and pursued at young ages based on their genetic profile? The questions are many and the answers few.
Several of the issues raised in the documentary are discussed in my 2007 Human Kinetics book, Genetics Primer for Exercise Science and Health, including how genes are related to exercise and sport performance and the ethics behind genetic screening in sport.
Stephen M. Roth, PhD
University of Maryland
Watch the entire "World’s Strongest Toddler" video, including Dr. Roth’s contributions, on YouTube: