Athletes display such impressive mastery over their bodies that it’s easy to imagine they’re machines. But they’re not. And perhaps that’s part of what makes sports so captivating. Athletes are often all too human, and the thoughts that go through their heads and the feelings that dwell in their hearts can definitely affect their performance on the field. Thus, no athlete, despite his or her physical domination over the rest of the competition, is assured of victory.
The personal difficulties that athletes have to deal with in their lives vary greatly. These may range from the petty, like a misunderstanding with a friend, to the utterly tragic, such as the death of a child. It’s in cases that fall under the latter category that there’s the greatest chance that an athlete’s performance will be adversely affected. But it’s also in the most difficult of circumstances that an athlete’s ability to overcome personal tragedy is most impressive and inspiring.
Here are ten athletes who experienced tremendous personal tragedies yet overcame them to exemplify the victory of the human spirit:
10. Pat Neshek / Baseball
Oakland A’s reliever Pat Neshek had just celebrated the birth of his son, Gehrig Neshek, by beating the Rangers to win the AL West title when sadly, that same evening, the baby inexplicably stopped breathing. The case was baffling as the child had been born without complications.
The Neshek couple sat around in the house for two days, but afterwards, Stephanee urged her husband to join his team and play in the post-season. They flew to Detroit where upon arriving at the airport, Pat was informed that the MLB had allowed the team to wear the initials “G.J.N.” on their uniforms. “I broke down right in front of everybody else,” Neshek admitted.
When Pat was called in to pitch in the middle of the seventh inning, he did so beautifully, freezing the batter to end the inning. “I know it sounds like a cliche, but I really felt like there was someone watching over me and helping me throw that last pitch,” Neshek recalled while holding back tears.
9. Serena and Venus Williams / Tennis
On September 14, 2003, Yetunde Price, the 31-year-old sister of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams, was gunned down on the streets of Compton while she was in a white SUV with a male companion. At that time, Serena and Venus were already facing difficulties in their careers; Serena was recovering from surgery on the quadriceps tendon in her knee, while Venus was rehabilitating an abdominal injury.
The effect of the murder on the sisters was very evident. In 2004, Venus failed to reach the semifinal of any Grand Slam event for the first time in her career, while Serena watched her ranking plummet to #140. Serena later revealed, “I needed to take time out from tennis because I had an injury to my leg and had all sorts of emotional and spiritual wounds. I started to see a therapist because I was in a bad place and needed to talk things through.”
Like true champions, however, the sisters eventually got their heads and their hearts straight. They came back with a vengeance, Venus winning Wimbledon in 2005, 2007, and 2008, and Serena adding eleven more Majors to her tally and reclaiming the #1 ranking.
8. Brett Favre / American Football
Raiders fans are usually a vicious bunch, but in Oakland’s NFL game against the Green Bay Packers in December of 2003, they made an exception. When Brett Favre was announced as a starter in his 205th consecutive game, even his haters gave him a respectful ovation. That was because they knew what Brett was going through: his father and former baseball coach, Irvin Favre, had just died from a heart attack the day before.
“I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play,” Favre explained. “I love him so much, and I love this game. It’s meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family.”
In a game that had playoff implications for the Packers, Brett passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns to lead his team to a 41-7 victory over the Raiders. His total was just 3 yards shy of his career high, and his 311 yards and four TDs in the first half were a personal record.
7. Ukraine’s 4×6-km Biathlon Women’s Relay Team at the 2014 Winter Olympics
It’s not a usual situation in today’s modern times that athletes are weighed down by concerns about the civil strife gripping their country. But that’s what the women of Ukraine’s 4×6-km biathlon relay team had to suffer through during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Several Ukrainian athletes withdrew from those Games in a show of solidarity with protesters in Kiev, while the IOC forbade participants from wearing black armbands because doing so was supposedly too overt of a political message. The women’s biathlon team, however, decided to continue their participation in the hopes of giving their countrymen something to cheer about.
Well, the team composed of Vita Semerenko, Juliya Dzhyma, Olena Pidhrushna, and Valj Semerenko did end up making their country proud by bringing home Ukraine’s first gold medal in the event since 1994. The margin of victory was 26.4 seconds from their closest competitors: Russia.
Semerenko beamed, “When I was on the podium, I couldn’t stop crying. I tried to calm down and was trying to hide it behind my skis. They were tears of happiness — not only mine, but of the whole country, our team.”
6. Félix Sánchez / Running
Dominican runner Félix Sánchez had won the gold in the 400m hurdles event at the 2004 Athens Games and was raring to repeat the feat at Beijing in 2008. However, shortly before the race, he learned that his beloved grandmother had just died. Understandably, the news affected Félix so much that he failed to advance to the semifinal of the event.
While training for the 2012 Games, Sánchez made a vow for his beloved “abuela”:
I kind of made a promise I would win one more championship for her. I was holding a lot of emotions, a lot of tears throughout the week just watching other medal ceremonies prior to the semifinals and prior to the finals, just picturing myself on the medal stand winning gold and how it would feel in that moment.
True to his promise, Sánchez won the event in London. In a touching display, soon after his victory had been confirmed, he collapsed on the track, pulled out a picture of his grandmother from his bib, and kissed it. He was also a bundle of tears on the podium.
5. 1970 Marshall University American Football Team
This story is so inspirational that it spawned the 2006 movie We Are Marshall starring Matthew McConaughey. However, it begins with tragedy.
A week before the final 1970 game of Marshall University’s American football team, the plane carrying the players, coaches, wives, boosters, and officials of the team crashed, killing all its passengers. The event was so devastating to the town of Huntington, West Virginia that it almost didn’t field a team the following season. However, after receiving a special NCAA dispensation that allowed freshmen to play, new head coach Jack Lengyel was able to convince athletes from other sports to join the team. Almost miraculously, the ragtag group of players snatched a last-minute win over Xavier during the team’s first home game since the tragedy.
Since then, the Marshall Thundering Herd football team has greatly improved in quality, even winning national championships in 1992 and 1996.
4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / NASCAR
The Daytona International Speedway is an extremely memorable track for the Earnhardts. In July of 1990, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. won his first Winston Cup points race in the venue. Sadly, ten-and-a-half years later, he lost his life on the same track during the final lap of the season-ending Daytona 500. The last big Earnhardt memory of the Daytona International Speedway would have been a tragic one, but Dale Sr.’s son, Dale Jr., used inspiration from his father’s racing legacy to prevent that from happening.
Just five months after Dale Sr.’s death on the track, Junior charged from sixth place with just six laps remaining to claim an emotional victory. “Y’all know who that’s for, guys,” the beaming son reminded over his vehicle radio while he took his victory lap.
3. Ben Crenshaw / Golf
At the 1995 Masters Tournament, Ben Crenshaw was by no means a nobody — he had already won the event in 1984. But challenging for the title again 11 years later after that victory? It was a long shot. Not only was he 43 years old, but his mentor, Harvey Penick, who helped Crenshaw when he was having problems with his swing, had also died the Sunday before the start of the tournament. “I was an emotional wreck; my concentration was not there. My game was bad and so was I after that news [Penick’s death] Sunday night,” admitted Ben.
However, playing with what Crenshaw called “a 15th club” in his bag, the grieving golfer won the title by a single stroke to become the second-oldest Masters champion in history.
2. Pete Sampras / Tennis
In his quarterfinal against Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, Pete Sampras, looked down and out after falling behind two sets. However, Pistol Pete heroically came back to win the next two to take the match to a fifth and deciding set. Surely, he had gained back the momentum and would secure the win. But then, in what most everyone at that time considered to be a very strange occurrence, Sampras suddenly began crying uncontrollably. It was later learned that Pete’s friend, mentor and coach, Tim Gullikson, had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to be flown back to the United States after collapsing in the Melbourne locker room just before the tournament started.
Recalling the incident, Sampras explained,
I think people understand that I’m normal, I have feelings like everyone else… I’m not a robot out there. I’m as normal as the guy across the street, and I think that’s what people have to realize: when they see tennis players, we’re not above everyone; we do the same things everyone else does.
However, seemingly with the aid of superhuman powers, Sampras continued to hit winners even as his tears trickled down his face. In the end, he ended up taking the match 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
1. Michael Jordan / Basketball
When Michael Jordan‘s father was murdered in July of 1993, it shaped his decision to leave the game in October of that year. The news shocked the world, but Michael’s decision was also understandable since he had been very close to his dad. In fact, James Jordan was the source of Michael’s habit of sticking his tongue out in moments of great intensity.
However, to the basketball world’s delight, Jordan announced his return to the game in the middle of the 1993-94 season. That comeback resulted in three consecutive championships for the Bulls from 1996 to 1998, the most emotional for MJ being the 1996 championship. The team won that title on Father’s Day, and Michael appropriately dedicated the win to his late dad.