A sports comeback is defined as “a return by an athlete to the sport in which he or she has formerly been successful.” It’s important to note that there’s no adjective to describe the return. Unfortunately, in some cases, these comebacks are unsuccessful, such as the ill-fated comeback of tennis player Björn Borg, who failed to win even a single match in his return to the game.
The reasons why athletes make comebacks are as varied as the reasons why they decide to leave or are forced to step out of the sports spotlight. Some athletes retire, then later realize that they still had something left to prove. Others are injured, grow ill, or in the case of females, have children, then come back when they’re ready to resume competing. Yet others, for one reason or another, lose the form that once allowed them to excel in their field, then somehow find a way to be competitive again.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding them are, successful athletic comebacks are among the most captivating stories in the world of sports. Here are ten of the most amazing sports comebacks arranged according to the total winnings or salaries these athletes collected in their returns to their sports, the amounts adjusted for inflation. For purposes of variety, a maximum of one male and one female per sport was included in the list.
10. Dara Torres / Swimming / Total Prize Money in Comeback: Usually No Prize Money for Swimming Competitions
American swimmer Dara Torres made a successful comeback from retirement not once, but twice. The first one was for the 2000 Olympics. By that time, Dara had participated in three Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992) where she earned one bronze, one silver, and two gold medals. At the 2000 Games, she added three more bronze and two gold medals to bring her total to nine Olympic medals from four editions of the Games.
Everyone thought that Dara was done after she gave birth to her first child, but she returned to the sport once more. At 41 years young, Torres competed in her fifth Olympic Games (2008), where she added three more silver medals to her tally, bringing her Olympic medal count to twelve — a swimming record for females that still stands to this day.
Following reconstructive surgery on one of her knees, a 45-year-old Torres attempted to qualify for the 2012 Olympics but fell short by nine one-hundredths of a second.
9. Lisa Leslie / Basketball / Total Salary in Comeback: $225,000
In 2007, Lisa Leslie left professional basketball to have a child. By that time, she had won three Olympic gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004), two WNBA Championships (2001, 2002), three WNBA MVP Awards (2001, 2004, 2006), and was the first woman to dunk the ball in a WNBA game (2002). For most people, those achievements would’ve been enough to call it a career. But Lisa’s not like most people. She came back for the 2008 season to be named WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and to win another Olympic gold medal, her fourth.
8. Mark Occhilupo / Surfing / Total Winnings in Comeback: $1.8 Million
Australian Mark Occhilupo won his first amateur surfing competition in 1979 at the age of 13. By 1983, he had built a reputation as a force to reckoned with on the World Championship Tour. Unfortunately, he eventually found himself burned out, and by the early 90s, Occy had lost his desire to surf. Eventually, Mark faded away from the spotlight, and his life began to unravel as he dealt with depression, obesity, and other personal matters.
However, in 1995, something in Occhilupo clicked. He suddenly had a clear vision of his goal: to make an incredible comeback by dominating the surfing circuit. And at the age of 33, Occy did just that when he shocked the surfing world by capturing his first world title in 1999.
7. Monica Seles / Tennis / Total Winnings in Comeback: $8 Million
Monica Seles’ stabbing in 1993 is one of the most horrific events in the history of sports. When it happened, she was the top women’s player and had nine Grand Slam singles titles under her belt. In fact, it was Monica’s success that drove an obsessed fan of her fierce rival, Steffi Graf, to run from the middle of the crowd and stab Monica between her shoulder blades during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg. The injury Seles sustained took her only weeks to recover from, but because of trauma from the incident, she didn’t return to the tour until 1995. However, when she did come back, she did so in style by winning her first tournament, the Canadian Open.
In 1996, Seles won the Australian Open, her tenth Grand Slam singles title. She also won an Olympic bronze medal in 2000, and after becoming an American in 1994, helped the U.S. team win the Fed Cup in 1996, 1999, and 2000.
6. George Foreman / Boxing / Total Winnings in Comeback: $10 Million
After Olympic gold medalist George Foreman lost his championship to Muhammad Ali during “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, he tried to get a rematch but was unable to do so. That caused him to be inactive in 1975. However, the following year, Big George announced his comeback, his intention, still to secure a rematch with Ali. After big wins over Ron Lyle and Joe Frazier, he lost to Jimmy Young and fell ill later that night. Foreman later claimed that during his illness, he had a near-death experience, and that eventually made him decide to be a born-again Christian. The boxing world thought they had seen the last of Big George.
However, in 1987, after ten years of being away from the ring, a 38-year-old Foreman announced a comeback. While seemingly out of shape, George won a flurry of matches, which allowed him to challenge the tremendously in-form Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield. However, Foreman lost the 1991 fight, and after being defeated again in another title shot against Tommy Morrison, Big George’s quest to become Heavyweight Champion looked like it was definitely over. Nevertheless, purely on his profile as a former champion, Foreman managed to earn a title shot against Michael Moorer, who had beaten Holyfield for the IBF and WBA titles. No one gave the 45-year-old Foreman a chance to win. But he did. By knockout, no less.
Twenty years after losing his title for the first time, Big George had become the oldest fighter to win the World Heavyweight Championship.
5. Greg LeMond / Cycling / Total Salary and Career Winnings in Comeback: $15 Million
At 25 years of age, Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France in 1986. He was planning to defend his championship, but he fell while riding in the Tirreno-Adriatico and suffered a fracture to his left wrist. He flew back home to the United States to recover from the injury, but while turkey hunting, Greg’s brother-in-law accidentally blasted him with approximately sixty pellets, nearly killing the cyclist. It was expected that Greg would take a long time to recover from the accident and its complications, but to everyone’s surprise, he announced he would return to serious competition in February of 1988. Unfortunately, overtraining resulted in tendinitis in LeMond’s right shin and caused him to miss the Tour for a second year running.
In the 1989 Tour de France, Greg was able to participate, but no one considered him a contender. However, he shocked everyone by winning his second Tour victory by eight seconds, the closest margin of all time. In fact, LeMond defended his title by winning again in 1990.
4. Andre Agassi / Tennis / Total Winnings in Comeback: $18 Million
By 1997, Andre Agassi had won three Grand Slam singles titles: Wimbledon (1992), the Australian Open (1995), and the US Open (1994). He had also won an Olympic gold medal (1996). His fans believed there were many more major achievements to come, but Agassi’s ranking shockingly dropped to #141 on November 10, 1997. As a result, everyone wrote Andre off and believed he would never win any significant championships again.
Because of Agassi’s low ranking, he decided to play in Challenger Series tournaments, a circuit for players ranked outside the world’s top 50. That spurred a comeback that saw him win five titles and rise to #6 in the world, the highest jump into the top 10 made by any player during a calendar year.
In his comeback, Andre won three more Australian Opens (2000, 2001, 2003), a French Open (1999), and a US Open (1999) to bring his total number of majors to eight.
3. Tiger Woods / Golf / Total Winnings in Comeback: $21 Million
With his fourteen Major Championships, Tiger Woods was being called the future “Greatest Golfer of All Time”. But at the end of 2009, the media’s focus on his marital infidelities made Tiger decide to take an indefinite break from competitive golf.
It was in April of 2010 that Woods returned to compete in the 2010 Masters Tournament, where he finished in a tie for fourth place. To date, Tiger hasn’t added another major to his list of accomplishments, but he has reclaimed his position as the world’s top-ranked golfer and was named PGA Player of the Year in 2013.
2. Mario Lemieux / Hockey / Total Salary in Comeback: $50 Million
In 1993, Canadian hockey player Mario Lemieux seemed like he was on track to break Wayne Gretzky‘s single-season scoring records when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As a result, Mario had to miss two months of play, and his team, the Penguins, struggled greatly without their star player. Surprisingly, on the the day of his last radiation treatment, widely known as an energy-draining procedure, Lemieux flew to Philadelphia to play with his team. Despite a loss by the Penguins, Mario scored a goal and an assist, a feat that earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. In fact, the Penguins would eventually win an NHL-record seventeen straight games that season. Unfortunately, years of dealing with more radiation treatments and several back surgeries forced Lemieux to retire in 1997, and he was subsequently inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Surprisingly, though, the Canadian wasn’t done yet. Mario returned to the NHL once more in 2000 and scored 76 points in only 43 games. In fact, at 37 years of age, Lemieux managed to lead the league in scoring for most of the 2002-2003 NHL season.
1. Michael Jordan / Basketball / Total Salary in Comeback: $80 Million
The problem with Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time, was that he didn’t know when to stop coming back. However, it can hardly be argued that his return to the game in 1995 — after his 1993 retirement and his forgettable stint playing minor league baseball — was one of the greatest sports comebacks in sports history.
Air Jordan’s accomplishments in his initial return were astounding. With the Chicago Bulls, he won three straight NBA Championships (1996-1998) to bring his total to six, and two Most Valuable Player Awards (1996, 1998) to bring his total to five.
Let’s leave the story at that and not discuss Michael’s Washington Wizards comeback.
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