Lance Armstrong (1971-), the winner of seven consecutive Tour de France competitions, is the best competitive cyclist in the world. He is known and admired, not only for his superb skill and endurance, but for his ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems.
Armstrong was born in Plano, Texas. At the age of 16, he began competing as a triathlete (swimming, running and cycling). Within a short time, he decided to concentrate exclusively on cycling and, when he was 17, he was invited to train with the U.S. Junior National Cycling Team.
At the time, Armstrong was in his last year of high school, so he applied for a six-week leave. The Plano school board refused his request, informing him that, if he took such a leave, they would not let him graduate. Nevertheless, Armstrong chose to withdraw from school and train with the team. Upon his return, he found a way to reorganize his studies, and was able to graduate from a high school in Dallas.
The reason I mention this episode is that it exemplifies Armstrong's single-minded determination. Whatever the problem, Lance Armstrong would find a way around it, no matter how much work or patience it might require.
In 1991, at the age of 20, Armstrong won the U.S. amateur championship and, in 1992, he competed in the Olympics and then turned pro. Over the next few years, he continued to compete, but with mixed results. In 1994, however, he won the Tour DuPont, the most important cycling competition in the U.S.
In 1996, a month after his 25th birthday, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The cancer was so severe that it had already spread to his lungs and his brain, and his odds of survival were small. Armstrong, however, refused to give up. He was determined, not only to recover, but to return to competitive cycling. After undergoing brain surgery, followed by a very potent course of chemotherapy, Armstrong once again began to train. In 1999, he returned to cycling in a big way, winning the Tour de France, the most well-known cycling contest in the world.
The Tour de France is an extremely grueling contest. It takes place over three weeks in July, and involves a very difficult course with intense competition. Armstrong has become a cycling legend by winning the Tour de France six consecutive times (1999-2005), a feat unmatched in the annals of cycling. Many people consider him to be the top athlete in the world.
The English superstar David Beckham (1975-) may not be the best soccer player in the world, but he is certainly the best-known. Beckham is famous, not only for being a great athlete, but for his marriage to a famous entertainer (the publicity-loving Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls band); for his alleged extra-marital affairs; and for his uncanny ability to cultivate global celebrity status. If that were not enough, Beckham has, somewhere along the line, also managed to become the highest-paid soccer player in the world.
Beckham's career started at the age of 16, when he was signed as a player-in-training for the venerable English soccer team, Manchester United (Man U). In 1995, when he was 19, Beckham joined the team professionally, making his Premier League debut as a midfielder.
A midfielder is an especially valuable player on a soccer team. (Pele, for example, was a midfielder.) The job requires a player to position himself midway between the defenders and the other team's strikers, while carrying out a number of different functions: taking the ball away from the other team, moving the ball forward, feeding the ball to his own team's strikers, assisting in scoring, and, whenever possible, scoring himself.
From 1995-2003, Beckham played for Man U as a midfielder. During that time, he became a star player, leading his team to six Premier League championships and two Football Association Cups. During the 1998-1999 season, Man U achieved an unprecedented feat by winning a "treble": the championships of the Premier League, Football Association, and the European Champions League, all in the same year.
In 1998, Beckham joined the English national team, of which he is still a member. Over the years, Beckham has played in the European Championships and World Cup competitions, with mixed results. In 2002, he was promoted to captain of the team.
During his years with Manchester United, Beckham received many prestigious awards and was a popular favorite with the fans. In all, he scored 86 goals in 397 games -- about 1 goal in every 4.6 games -- an excellent record for a midfielder.
However, in the last few years, his relationship with Man U's manager, Alex Ferguson, seriously deteriorated. Interestingly enough, there wasn't a problem with Beckham's play. The problems were due to pressures brought to bear by outside forces: agents, sponsors, and Beckham's wife Victoria (who was the center of, what seemed to be, a never-ending series of leaked stories).
In 2003, Beckham left Man U to play for the Spanish team Real Madrid. The Spanish club signed Beckham to a lucrative contract based not only on his value as a player, but as a commercial entity. Beckham is a moneymaker for the team because he is able to use his immense popularity, especially in the Far East, to generate huge merchandising profits.
As I write this, Beckham is still a member of Real Madrid, a partnership which has proven fruitful for both him and the club. His play is still excellent, the fans love him, and both Beckham and Real Madrid make a lot of money. The only unhappy camper is Beckham's wife, who refuses to move to Spain.
Baseball player Barry Bonds (1964-) is the best left fielder/hitter in baseball history. In fact, according to proponents of sabermetrics (the mathematical analysis of baseball statistics), Bonds is the third greatest player of all time: only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams being better overall. However, unlike Ruth and Williams, Bonds has a tarnished reputation, centering on the question, "Did he or did he not willingly use illegal drugs to enhance his performance?"
Bonds was born in Riverside, California, into an athletic family. His father, Bobby Lee Bonds was an all-star ballplayer; his uncle Robert Bonds was a professional football player; and his aunt Rosie Bonds was an Olympic track star.
In 1982, Bonds graduated from high school as an all-around athlete, excelling in baseball, football and basketball. He was drafted as a baseball player by the San Francisco Giants (where his father had played for seven years), but he opted to go to college first, attending Arizona State University.
In 1986, after his graduation, Bonds began his professional career by joining the Pittsburgh Pirates. He stayed with the Pirates through 1992. He then moved to the Giants where he still plays.
In the course of his career, Bonds set many important hitting records and received many prestigious awards. His most well-known record is hitting the most home runs in a single season (73 in 2001). He also holds a number of lesser-known, but interesting records. For example, he is the only player to hit six home runs in six straight games twice.
Perhaps even more impressive, Bonds is third in overall total career home runs. By the end of the 2004 season, he had hit 703 home runs, trailing only Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714). As a base runner, Bonds is the only baseball player in history to accumulate 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases.
Over the years, Bonds's skill has been recognized by numerous honors. Since 1990, he has won the National League (NL) Most Valuable Player award 6 times, the NL Golden Glove (best outfielder) 8 times, and was voted an All-Star 12 times.
Unfortunately, Bonds's astonishing accomplishments were overshadowed when, in 2003, his trainer was charged with supplying athletes with illegal anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Bonds was suspected, not only because of his association with that particular trainer, but because his body-builder physique and on-the-field performance were, to say the least, extremely unusual.
At the time, there was no drug testing in major league baseball and, at first, Bonds denied ever using such drugs. However, in December 2003, he told a federal grand jury that he did take the drugs, although he didn't know what they were at the time.
In the summer of 1998, at the age of 16, Roger Federer joined the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour. On February 2, 2004, he became the number one ranked player on the tour. During the preceeding five and a half years, Federer had developed from a teenage newcomer into the best player in the world. In the process, he became a competitor of such skill and finesse as to redefine what it means to be a tennis champion.
Federer (1981-) was born in Basel, Switzerland, where, even as a youth, he excelled as a tennis player. As a young teenager he played in the junior circuits and, in his last year as an amateur (1998), he was the World Junior Tennis Champion.
In 1999, Federer finished his first year as a pro as one of the ATP's 100 top players, the youngest person ever to do so. By the beginning of 2005, he had won 23 singles titles and 6 doubles titles, including Wimbledon in 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Open in 2004, and the Australian Open in 2004.
However, a mere reciting of his awards and accomplishments doesn't come close to telling the story. Roger Federer is much more than a highly accomplished athlete; he is an extremely intelligent competitor who has an uncanny ability to control virtually every aspect of the game. Playing against Federer is like playing chess and tennis at the same time.
What makes Federer unique is that he has an intuitive understanding that allows him to anticipate what his opponent is about to do. In the middle of a match, for example, Federer will notice cues in his opponent's game and instantly modify his own playing style. At the same time, he is able to hide his own intentions so well that his opponents are unable to figure out what he is up to.
Aside from being a master of strategy, Federer is a superb player with enormous physical and mental skills. He can hit every shot well, and he can do so from any angle. (For example, he is one of the few players who will use a one-handed backhand.) Whatever the situation, Federer is able to call upon his wide repertoire of shots to return the ball from anywhere to anywhere, with whatever speed, height and spin he wants. This allows him to control the tempo and the development of the game according to his overall strategy, one that he will modify instantly as the need arises. In this way, Federer is able to impose a commanding physical and psychological presence upon his opponents.
To me, what is most impressive about Federer is that, no matter what happens -- even if he makes a mistake in the middle of a game -- he never gets upset or frustrated. He never loses his concentration, he never becomes impatient, and he never complains.
For example, on January 27, 2005, Federer was defeated (by Marat Safin) in a grueling match during the Australian Open. Although this was an unexpected upset that ended a 26-match winning streak, Federer was calm. "Itís always going to hurt," he said, "no matter how great the match was. But at least I can leave the place feeling good about myself, because I gave it all I had."
It would be difficult to find any athlete, anywhere, who is able to see the big picture better than does Roger Federer.
Jones Jr., Roy
The American boxer Roy Jones Jr. (1969-) is a rare athlete, one who comes along once in a generation and, through sheer skill and endurance, manages to dominate his sport. In Jones' case, that domination may have ended (I'll explain why in a moment) but, all in all, he is still the best boxer of his time.
Jones was born in Pensacola, Florida. Although he had a highly successful amateur career, it was not until 1988, at the age of 19, that he began to attract international attention.
In 1988, Jones represented the United States at the Olympic Games as a light-middleweight boxer. That year, the Games were held in Seoul, Korea, and in the final bout, Jones fought a Korean boxer, Si-Hun Park, for the title. The fight was close and Jones lost. However, the decision was disputed and, later, some of the judges admitted they had been bribed by Korean officials to vote against Jones. Nevertheless, the decision was not overturned so, officially, Jones was the silver medal winner (although he never accepted the award). Regardless, the judges did award Jones the Val Bareker Cup as the most outstanding boxer of the entire 1988 Games.
The next year, at the age of 20, Jones turned pro. He had a very interesting professional career, but before I talk about it, I want to explain a bit about professional boxing titles.
In boxing, there are more than a dozen organizations that sanction championship bouts. The most important are the WBA (World Boxing Association), the WBC (World Boxing Council), and the IBF (International Boxing Federation). Each of these organizations recognizes its own "official" champions in each of the different weight classes. For example, there can be a different heavyweight champion for the WBA, the WBC, the IBF, and so on.
In 1989, Jones started to box professionally and did extremely well. By 1993, his record was 20-0 (with 19 knockouts), and Jones was given his first chance to fight for a world title. He did so, beating Bernard Hopkins to win the IBF middleweight championship.
In 1994, he moved up one weight class, beating James Toney to win the IBF super middleweight championship. At the time, Toney had been undefeated in 46 fights.
Over the next two years, Jones, demonstrated a relentless talent, winning fight after fight after fight. In 1996, he again moved up to a higher weight class, beating Mike McCallum to win the WBC light heavyweight title. Two years later, Jones beat Lou del Valle to win the WBA light heavyweight championship. The next year, 1999, he beat Reggie Johnson to win the IBF light heavyweight title. In doing so, he managed to do what few boxers have ever done, capture all three major titles in one weight class at the same time.
Over the next few years, Jones's brilliant career continued as he fought and won one match after another. In 2003, he beat John Ruiz, the WBA heavyweight champion, which left Jones with both middleweight and heavyweight titles at the same time, a feat that had been achieved only once before in boxing history (by Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897). By the end of 2003, Jones had accumulated a record of 47-1 an incredible accomplishment in any day and age. (His one defeat had come in 1997, when he had lost on a technicality.)
By 2004, however, when Jones was 35, he began to slow down. The brutal ruthlessness that had characterized his earlier years began to fade. He fought only twice and lost both times: in May, to Antonio Tarver, who knocked out Jones in the second round; and in September, to IBF light heavyweight champion Genome Johnson, who knocked out Jones in the ninth round.
Still, that left Jones with a professional record of 49 wins (with 38 knockouts) and only 3 losses. It also left him with having won six different championship titles in four different weight classes, a unique accomplishment that marks Jones as one of the best boxers in history and, most certainly, the best boxer of his time.
American football player Jerry Rice (1962-) grew up in the tiny town of Crawford, Mississippi. As a boy, Jerry and his brothers worked for his father, who was a brick mason. According to legend, Jerry would catch bricks thrown to him by his brothers and, in doing so, developed his abilities as a receiver. The story is cute, but probably not that important. What is important is that Jerry, the boy, grew up to be Jerry the professional football player, the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League (NFL).
Before becoming a pro, Rice played for Mississippi Valley State University from 1981-1984. The team ran a strong passing offense and Rice, who had the ability to catch almost anything, was a standout. In his last three years, he paired successfully with quarterback Willie Totten to lead the team to success while setting numerous records. In 1984, for example, Rice caught 112 passes for 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns. In honor of the two star athletes, the school later renamed its football arena the Rice-Totten Stadium.
Over the course of his college career, Rice set 18 NCAA Division II records. His play was so outstanding that, in 1985, he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League.
To put this in perspective, I need to take a moment to explain a bit about the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Within the NCAA, there are three divisions. Division I contains the big-name schools with the largest athletic programs; Division II contains the schools with less prominent athletic programs; while Division III is for the smallest schools. In almost all cases, professional football players come only from Division I schools.
The school Rice attended is a small, historically black college in Mississippi, a Division II school. Such schools do not have the coaching expertise and training facilities as the larger Division I schools. For a football player to be drafted into the NFL from a Division II school is highly unusual. For Rice, it was a tribute to his outstanding skill as an athlete.
The beginning of Rice's professional career did not go well. In his first season (1985), he started in only four games and, for most of the season, he did not play well. Then, in the 14th game, everything changed. In a single game, Rice caught 10 passes for 241 yards (a team record at the time). The rest of the year went just as well and, at the end of the season, Rice was voted the NFL Rookie of the Year. By his second season (1986), Rice was a star, catching 86 passes and leading the league in both receiving touchdowns (15) and receiving yards (1,570).
During the 16 years Rice was to spend with the 49ers (1985-2000), he broke virtually every receiving record in existence. His recipe for success was straightforward: work hard, never give up, and have a good attitude. For example, in 1994, Rice showed up to training camp before the rest of the veterans and, for two days, practiced in 100-degree heat with the rookies and the free agents.
In 2001, the 49ers chose to release Rice because of salary cap restrictions, and his contract was picked up by the Oakland Raiders. (A salary cap is a limit on how much money a team can spend on players' salaries.) By then, Rice was 39 years old -- positively ancient for a professional football player -- but that didn't stop him. In both 2001 and 2002, he had over 1,000 receiving yards (for the 13th and 14th times) and, in 2002, he scored his 200th touchdown.
By 2004, the Raiders had begun to concentrate on developing their younger receivers, and Rice's importance to the team was diminishing. He asked to join a team where he would have a larger playing role and, in the middle of the season, Rice was traded to the Seattle Seahawks, where he continues to play.
Over the course of his career, Rice has also played in four Super Bowls, three times on the winning team (the 49ers in 1985, 1989 and 1990) and once on the losing team (the Raiders in 2003). In 1989, he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl.
By any standard, Jerry Rice's record as a football player is extraordinary. He holds many important records, including the most touchdowns in NFL history (187), the most receptions (1,281), the most seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards (12), the most receiving yards in a single season (1,848 in 1995), and the most touchdowns in a single season (22 in 1987). In his 20 years in the NFL, Rice has played in the Pro Bowl (the NFL's All-Star game) 13 times.
Williams, Venus and Serena
Americans Venus (1980-) and Serena (1981-) Williams are sisters, who emerged from a poor, underprivileged background to become international tennis stars.
Venus and Serena were born in Michigan into a family of five sisters. When the children were young, the family moved to Compton, California, a small town in Los Angeles County, known for its poverty and gang violence. Although the area was a rough one, the Williams parents were able to raise their daughters with strong values and goals. The girls were raised as devout Jehovah's Witnesses and were home-schooled by their mother. In their spare time, their father would take all five daughters to play tennis on the local public courts.
From an early age, it was clear that both Venus and Serena were natural tennis players. Serena won her first tournament at the age of 5. By the time she was 10, she had entered 49 tournaments and had won 46 of them. Venus was also winning tournaments, starting at the age of 10 and, for years, the two sisters were considered the best women's juvenile tennis players in the entire state of California.
In 1991, when Venus and Serena were 11 and 10 years old respectively, the family moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where the sisters were able to work with a professional coach, Rick Macci. A year and a half later, however, the coaching was taken over by the girls' father, Richard Williams, an eccentric martinet, who took firm control of the girls' lives. For four years, Venus and Serena practiced six hours a day, six days a week.
Each of the girls was so good that they were able to turn pro at the age of 14, Venus in 1994 and Serena in 1995. At that point, it becomes difficult to follow their careers, because they played in so many competitions and won so many titles. In fact, the sisters were both so good that it would sometimes happen that they would be the top two finalists in a competition. In such cases, one of the sisters would have to beat the other to win the title.
To give you a feeling for just how good Venus and Serena are, I'm going to summarize their accomplishments. Before I do, however, I'd like to give you a bit of background regarding women's tennis tournaments.
The international organization that governs professional women's tennis is the Women's Tennis Association or WTA. Each year, the WTA sanctions a great many professional tennis tournaments around the world, the so-called WTA Tour. The 2005 WTA Tour, for example, consists of 63 different events in 33 countries. Each week during the tour, which runs from January to November, the WTA releases a ranking of the players' performances. The most important statistic is who, at that particular time, is the number 1 player.
Of all the tournaments, there are four that are considered to be the most important: the Australian Open (held in January), the French Open (May), Wimbledon (June), and the U.S. Open (August). Individually, these four competitions are known as the Grand Slam tournaments, because if anyone ever manages to win all four tournaments in the same year, she is said to have won the "Grand Slam".
In the history of women's tennis, only three women have ever won the Grand Slam: Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988). However, Grand Slam tournaments are so important that winning even one of them is considered to be a big deal.
So, now to the stats. At the end of the 2004 season, Venus had won 29 singles titles of which 4 were Grand Slam events: Wimbledon (2000, 2001), and the U.S. Open (also 2000, 2001). In 2001, she won the U.S. Open by beating Serena in the final.
Serena is, if anything, more accomplished. By the end of 2004, she had won 26 singles titles. Of the 26 single titles, 7 were Grand Slam events: the Australian Open (2003), the French Open (2002), Wimbledon (2002, 2003), and the U.S. Open (1999, 2002). In 5 of those competitions, Serena won by defeating Venus in the finals.
By mid-2002, the sisters were ranked as the number 1 (Venus) and number 2 (Serena) players in the world. This was the first time that two siblings had ever held these honors at the same time.
In doubles competitions, the sisters play together. By the end of 2004, they had won 10 doubles titles, of which 6 were Grand Slam events: the Australian Open (2001, 2003), the French Open (1999), Wimbledon (2000, 2002), and the U.S. Open (1999). In 2000, the sisters also won the Olympics doubles gold medal.
So what makes the Williams sisters so different from so many other tennis players? Two things. First, they have never forgotten their humble beginnings and how hard they have worked to get to where they are. Second, through injuries, bad luck and disappointments, they never give up, no matter how rough the ups and downs.
On January 29, 2005, Venus was interviewed. Both Venus and Serena had had their share of ups and downs over the last two years. In 2003, their parents had separated, their oldest sister had been killed in Compton in a street shooting, and both sisters had suffered injuries. Their play had been affected and, in the current tournament, Venus had done poorly because of stomach and thigh injuries. She was asked if this might be the beginning of the end. Were the Williams sisters on a permanent decline?
Her answer was, "I look at it as an honor that myself and my sister have been able to lift the level of tennis. People are asking me, What's wrong with the Williams sisters? There's nothing wrong. We're still fighting. We're working real hard, and we've been through a lot."
The next day, Serena defeated the number 1 ranked player, Lindsey Davenport. In doing so, Serena had just won the Australian Open for the second time in three years.
The American golfer Eldrick (Tiger) Woods (1975-) grew up in the town of Cypress, California, south-east of Los Angeles. His heritage is mixed, being one quarter African-American (from his father), one quarter Thai (from his mother), one quarter Chinese (from both parents), as well as one eighth each American Indian (father) and Caucasian (mother).
The name "Tiger" was chosen by Woods's father, Earl, a retired U.S. army officer who had served in Vietnam. During the war, Earl had a Vietnamese friend he used to call Tiger. After the war, Earl lost track of his friend, but he gave his newborn son the same nickname. The story is that Earl expected his son would grow up to be famous. When that happened, he hoped his Vietnamese friend would see the names "Tiger" and "Woods" together, make the connection, and get back in touch with Earl.
If this story sounds hard to believe, that's only because you don't know Earl Woods. Earl was a strong, determined father. As far as he was concerned, the most important goal during Tiger's childhood was to make the boy into a star golfer. Time and again, Earl would focus Tiger on one long-term goal: to become the best professional golfer in the world. In later years, Earl would brag that Tiger knew how to swing a club even before he could even walk.
When Tiger was only 2 years old, Earl arranged for the youngster to appear on the Mike Douglas TV show, where the boy took part in an informal competition against comedian Bob Hope, himself a veteran golfer. Three years later, Earl again put the boy on TV, this time on a show called "That's Incredible". Although young Tiger was only 5 years old, he attracted a great deal of attention for his precocious golfing skills. Over the next 10 years, as Tiger's reputation grew, he was featured on one national TV show after another.
When Tiger was 7, Earl decided that the boy needed to learn how to be psychologically tough (one of the advantages of having a father who is a retired army officer). To do so, Earl would hold practice sessions during which he would intentionally distract the boy each time he was about to shoot. When he was older, Woods thought back to these sessions and commented, "I'd get angry sometimes, but I knew it was for the betterment of me."
In 1984, at the age of 8, Tiger won his first world championship. It was in the 10-and-under division. In his final round of the contest, Tiger scored 5 under par, an astonishing achievement.
By the time he was 11, Tiger was undefeated in more than 30 tournaments, most of which had over 100 players. At age 14, he played a round with 21 touring pros at a pro-junior event: only three of the pros were able to beat Tiger's score. At age 15, he became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
In 1994, he entered Stanford University on a golf scholarship and, for two years, represented the school in collegiate events. In that time, he won 10 competitions, as well as the NCAA title. In 1994, after winning the last three U.S. Junior Amateur Championships, he became the youngest player to ever win the regular U.S. Amateur Championship.
After two years at Stanford, Woods was both popular and successful. In August 1996, however, several days after winning his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championship, he dropped out of school, so he could officially become a professional player. The world of professional golf has never been the same.
To start his career, Woods immediately signed two multi-year contracts worth $60 million. He then began to play as a pro. Before long, Tiger Woods had become the most famous golfer in the world. Over the next decade, Woods won everything there was to win, setting more records and receiving more awards than any player in the history of golf. Along the way, he redefined what it meant to be the top golfer in the world.
By 2004, Woods had won 53 tournaments, 40 of which were on the PGA (Professional Golfer's Association) Tour. His list of major PGA wins is spectacular: the Masters (1997, 2001, 2002), the U.S. Open (2000, 2002), the Open Championship (2000), and the PGA Championship (1999, 2000).
In six different years, Woods was selected as PGA Tour Player of the Year; for over five years, he was ranked, continuously, as the number one golfer in the world. Indeed, Woods was so successful that the golf world looked upon him as superhuman, perhaps unrealistically so.
Back in October 1996, Woods was interviewed after he had just won his first PGA Tournament. He was 20 years old, and it was only the fifth time he had competed as a professional. When Woods was asked if he had anticipated winning so soon, he replied, "This is my purpose. It will unfold."
At the end of that year, Woods was selected as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. His father, in a fit of hyperbole, bragged that "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity."
In late 2003, however, Woods hit a bad slump and, in September of that year, after being at the top of the heap for 264 weeks (a record), he lost the number one spot to Vijay Singh.
Months passed without Woods winning a major tournament. Then, at the beginning of 2005, he rallied. At the end of January, he won his first PGA tournament in 18 months. In doing so, he left the world to wonder: if Tiger Woods is really everything his father claims him to be, is he capable of a Second Coming?
© All contents Copyright 2005, Harley Hahn
Full trademark and copyright information