The Future is Bright: 5 Mercer Island High Schoolers to Watch

August 30, 2023 | by Megan Burbank

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From actor Joel McHale to NBA coach Quin Snyder to Olympic gold medalist Mary Wayte Bradburne, Mercer Island’s talent pool punches above its weight, shaking up the Northwest and the world. The next generation is just as impressive: They’re nationally ranked athletes, innovative startup founders, accomplished musicians, and theater makers putting on full-scale productions — all while still in high school.

Meet five remarkable young islanders whose contributions to their communities — whether on the track, onstage, in the pool, or behind a computer making apps that change lives — are already capturing national and international attention. And with the anticipated arrival of freshman Sophia Rodriguez, who holds the world record for 14-year-olds in both the two-mile and 5000-meter runs, their ranks are only growing.

Piper Enge

The next Olympic swimming champion could be a familiar face: Mercer Island breaststroker Piper Enge is one of the best high school swimmers anywhere. She’s already won multiple state titles and a gold medal for the United States in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships. Enge will be representing Team USA again this September when she competes in the Junior World Championships in Israel, and as for the Olympics, she says: “I will absolutely be at trials in June and do my best to place as high as I can.”

Kyle Gerstel

With a keen eye for ambitious material, Kyle Gerstel is one to watch among the next generation of theater artists. In June, Gerstel brought the clever, Tony-nominated send-up of religious fundamentalism “Hand to God” to Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theater as part of its showcase of young Northwest theater artists. As the artistic director of Penguin Productions, his plays make space for Mercer Island teens to express their creativity. Gerstel’s take on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody,” an adaptation of the 16th-century morality play “Everyman,” opened at Luther Burbank Park in July. In the fall, Gerstel will return to the newsrooms at Mercer Island High School’s Islander and TeenTix, where he serves on the Teen Editorial Staff. He’s also looking forward to programming his first full season at Penguin. “I’m not sure when I’ll be directing next, but there’s something nice about focusing on supporting other artists and dreaming up new spaces and structures for their work,” he says. “No one said producing can’t be creative!”

Ava Yeh

This year, Mercer Island’s Ava Yeh and her harp hit a major milestone: The musician placed first among those under 18 at the 25th Biennial American Harp Society National Competition. But Yeh doesn’t just play music: She also imagines how it can make change and expresses it through visual art. In 2022, she won Toyota’s annual Dream Car Art Contest with her Toyota Dream Orchestra Car, a vehicle that plays classical music for passengers and passersby in an effort to boost their health – both physical and mental. As Yeh pivots to her senior year, she’s focusing on college applications and learning new harp repertoire for future competitions and auditions, and continuing her podcast, Rice and Shine, where Asian American teens discuss pop culture, current events, and life in general.

Subha Vadlamannati

At 17, Subha Vadlamannati is the youngest on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list for Seattle, alongside the Storm’s Jewell Loyd and Seattle Symphony cellist Nathan Chan. Vadlamannati made the impressive lineup of “Seattle’s biggest and brightest young entrepreneurs” for the Linguistics Justice League, a nonprofit she founded to preserve and develop educational and technological support for low-resource languages. Forbes is just the latest recognition Vadlamannati’s organization has received: An app they developed won the US Congressional App challenge in 2022, a major win for the emerging nonprofit. Next month, Vadlamannati will be expanding her extracurricular activities to include serving on the Youth Advisory Board for Congressman Adam Smith, and, as a category winner for T-Mobile’s Change Maker Award, she’ll be presenting to T-Mobile’s executive team at the company’s technology lab in October.

Owen Powell

In July, the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation and USA Track & Field launched an initiative with the goal of “fueling the next generation of the sport to reach their goals and potential.” Only 40 athletes made the cut, and Mercer Island’s Owen Powell was among them. Last season, Powell placed first among sophomores nationally in the 800-meter run and was Washington’s 3A state champion for the 1600-meter run. As part of the Nike Elite Program, Powell will join athletes from 18 states, all building up for track season. Given that Powell reached this milestone while just a sophomore, his next two seasons will be required viewing.

Photo courtesy West Coast XC