10 Elite Athletes Who've Taken Their Sport To New Heights

Few individuals in modern society can lay claim to the volumes of accolades that we shower upon our athletes. To be endowed with natural talent, to hone and foster it with dedication and hard work and to reap the innumerable rewards that come with such prowess not only spells considerable financial gain, but also propels these young men and women into the realm of celebrity status. Yet, even among these elites, there are those athletes whose personalities, characters, behaviors and performances set them apart as even more special than their peers. They are the ones we think of as defining their sport, they are the athletes whose careers we find riveting, whose activities are newsworthy both on and off the field, and whose lives we find enthralling. They are the top 10 most electric personalities in sports who have all taken their respective sports to new heights.

10 Missy Franklin – Swimming

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An accomplished athlete in volleyball, basketball, tennis and gymnastics before even hitting the water, Missy Franklin has rapidly become one of the most successful female swimmers in history. Winning five medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London (4 Gold and 1 Bronze), Franklin established herself as the world's premier female athlete in the pool. Even more astonishing is that she did so while at the tender age of just 17. Despite her youth, Franklin has set the bar incredibly high for women's swimming and seems more than capable of more dramatic results. Her debut Olympic performance ensures that Missy Franklin will likely be a dominant force in the sport for a considerable time to come.

9 Tiger Woods – Golf

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The most successful golfer of the modern era (arguably in history), Tiger Woods has single-handedly made golf cool for generations of new fans since he emerged as the most exciting player in the game before the age of 21. After turning pro in 1996, Woods won his first Major title, the U.S. Open, by a record 12 strokes in 1997, and had been ranked the World Number one for nearly two decades. Despite a flurry of well publicized personal issues that has contributed to somewhat of a stall in his career of late, there is no denying that Woods' flair for the dramatic and immense talent have combined to make him one of golf's most popular and successful athletes.

8 Lionel Messi – Soccer

The Argentinian forward has been called by many the greatest soccer player in history. His skill with the ball is unmatched and his ability to literally change the course of a match by himself is unprecedented, as demonstrated by his being voted FIFA Player of the Year four times. A relatively unassuming chap, Messi prefers to let his talent do the talking for him, and it's difficult to argue with that logic. The expectations on Messi and team Argentina to succeed at the upcoming World Cup in Brazil are enormous, but if anybody can shoulder the pressure and bring his A game to the tournament, it's surely Lionel Messi.

7 Danica Patrick – NASCAR 

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Equally well known for her sultry, sexy good looks as her talent behind the wheel, Danica Patrick has been a groundbreaking force in NASCAR. Since turning pro in 2002, Patrick saw a number of top ten finishes but failed to win a race in her early career. In 2005, she became only the fourth woman in history to earn a spot at the Indianapolis 500, leading the race for 19 laps and finishing in a record fourth place, which was impressive enough for her to win the Indy Racing League's Rookie of the Year. In 2008 she became the first woman in history to win an Indy Car race (The Japan 300) and has gone on to become the first to win time trials at the Daytona 500, which made her the first woman ever to win a pole position for the prestigious event. At only 32 years of age, Danica Patrick seems poised to continue her storied career for some time.

6 Manny Pacquiao – Boxing


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A professional boxer since the age of 16 when he turned pro in 1995, 'Pac Man' has been among the most successful fighters in the history of the sport. Having won an astonishing 7 World titles in 6 weight divisions (Flyweight, Junior Featherweight, Super Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight and Super Welterweight), Pacquiao has established himself as pound for pound one of the greatest boxers to ever step into the ring. He is a considered a living legend in his native Philippines, and has only an as yet unconfirmed bout against undefeated American rival Floyd Mayweather Jr. to add to his stellar resume in what would likely be one of the most anticipated fights of all time.

5 LeBron James – Basketball


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No player in the NBA has made more of an impact both on and off the court over the past decade than LeBron James. Since winning the league's Rookie of the Year title in 2004, James has gone on to earn a hugely impressive host of awards; he's a 2-time NBA Champion (2012, 2013), 2-time Championship Final MVP (2012, 2013), 4-time NBA Most Valuable Player (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013), NBA Scoring Champion (2008), 10-time NBA All-Star (2005 – 2014), 2-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (2006, 2008) and a 3-time Olympic medalist (2 Gold; 2008, 2012 and 1 Bronze; 2004).

Coming directly after the era of Dennis Rodman and other so-called NBA 'badboys,' James has ushered in a more family friendly environment, which he has consistently contributed to his being raised by a young, single mother in financially stressful conditions. James is a devoted family man, happily married with two young sons and is widely seen as one of the most stable and iconic figures ever to make his mark on the NBA.

4 Serena Williams – Tennis


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Since following in the footsteps of her older sibling Venus and turning pro in 1995, Serena had an immediate impact on the sport, and not all of it was positive, which is hardly surprising given that very few black tennis players had risen to the level of these two superstars. Known initially as much for their long, beaded hair as their immense talent, both Venus and Serena were the victims of intense media scrutiny that often bordered on openly hostile racism. Though early in their careers Venus was the more successful player, by 2002 Serena had overtaken her and all others to become the WTA World Number 1, a title she has held on six occasions.

Her list of accomplishments is amazing. Serena is a 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist (3 Singles and 1 Doubles title with Venus), 4-time WTA Tour Champion, U.S. Open and French Open Champion, with 17 Grand Slam Singles titles, 32 Major tour titles, 13 Grand Slam Doubles titles (with sister Venus), and is also the last WTA player in history to have held all 4 Grand Slam titles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) at the same time (2002- 2003). There is no doubting why this incredible athlete is considered by many to be the greatest female tennis player ever, and she is no doubt capable of adding to that legacy as she has once again retained her World Number 1 ranking this year.

3 Sidney Crosby – Hockey


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After an incredible Junior hockey career, Crosby was selected first overall in the 2005 NHL draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the tender age of 18. The dividends were immediate; Crosby earned the NHL's Rookie of the Year Award by scoring a phenomenal 102 points overall. The next season he outdid himself, tallying 120 points and becoming the youngest player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's scoring champion as well as the Hart Memorial Trophy as the leagues' MVP. His monumental talent, impressive maturity and natural leadership skills saw him named team Captain just two years later, making Sid The Kid the youngest player ever to wear the 'C' in NHL history. In 2009 he led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1992. In 2012 he was instrumental in Canada's Olympic Gold medal victory in Vancouver, B.C., scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against arch rivals the United States. Despite being plagued by concussive injuries throughout his career, Crosby continues to demonstrate that his skill, hard work, leadership and tenacity have already become legendary.

2 Rafael Nadal – Tennis


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Another incredible athlete blessed with Hollywood good looks, 'Rafa' has emerged as one of the sports most heralded players. After turning professional in 2001 at the young age of 15, Nadal was a top 5 ranked player by 2003, and has been dubbed 'The King of Clay' for his amazing record of victories on that surface, though he has worked hard to establish his dominance on hard court and grass as well. By age 24, he became the youngest ever player to win the Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open). The current World Number 1 has racked up an astonishing haul of titles; Australian Open Champion (2009, the first Spanish player to do so), 8 time French Open Champion (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013), 2 time Wimbledon Champion (2008, 2010), 2 time U.S. Open Champion (2010, 2013), 4 time Davis Cup Champion for Spain, and Olympic Gold medalist (2008) among many others. Though his career has been beset by injuries, Nadal continues to demonstrate that his grit, dedication and superb talent will be a dominant force in tennis for many years to come.

1 Usain Bolt – Track and Field


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Known as 'Lightening Bolt,' this Jamaican sensation is unquestionably the fastest man on the planet. Having emerged at age 15 as one of Track and Field's rising stars, Usain Bolt made the Beijing, China Olympics in 2008 his personal coming out party. The Men's 100 meters is the premier event of any Summer Olympiad, and Bolt literally had the packed stadium crowd of over 100,000 on their feet in astonishment as he breezed to a new World Record time of 9.69 seconds to win his first Gold medal. He went on to win his second Gold in the 200 meters, seemingly effortlessly setting another WR time of 19.30 seconds and captured his third Gold as a member of the Jamaican 4x100 meter relay team, powering the third leg of the race to another WR time of 37.10 seconds, and becoming the first athlete in history to win 3 Gold medal races in WR times at the same Olympiad.

Not to be outdone, he raised the bar at the London Games in 2012 by defending his 100 and 200 meter titles; his mark of 9.63 seconds in the 100 meters was another WR, and his 200 meter victory made him the first man to win 200 meter Golds in back to back Olympiads. Just for fun it seemed, he also helped the Jamaican 4 x100 meter team defend their Gold medal in WR time (36.84 seconds) in simply an incredible feat of athletic prowess. The six-time Olympic Gold medalist is as well known for his laid back, engaging and sincere warmth as he is for his unbelievable talent, and is the obvious favorite in these events for the upcoming 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where he will no doubt have crowds anticipating yet more jaw-dropping performances.

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