Your list of the twelve greatest athletic achievements of all-time may be different from mine, but I think you will have to agree that all of these feats were special in the history of the sport. In truth, my list totals thirteen.
Wilt Scores 100, Number 12
On March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a 169-147 victory by the Philadelphia Warriors over the New York Knicks, breaking his previous record of 78 points, set earlier that same year. In that game, he set an all-time mark for field goals, 36, for free throws made, 28, for most points in a quarter, 31, and most points in a half, 59. This is a record that is unlikely ever to be broken, although Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers came relatively close two years ago when he scored 86 points in a single game.
Gertrude Ederle Swims the Channel, Number 11
On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle, an Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist, entered the frigid waters of the English Channel at Cap Gris-Nez on the Normandy coast of France, and emerged 14 hours and 30 minutes later at Kingsdown, Kent, England, as the first female to accomplish the feat of swimming the channel. “People said,” she remarked, “that a woman could never swim the channel, but I proved they could.”
Roger Federer Appears in 23 Consecutive Grand Slam Finals, Number 10
Roger Federer dominated professional tennis for the entire first decade of the twenty-first century. Just as impressive as his unbelievable feat of appearing in 23 consecutive Grand Slam finals maybe his singular accomplishment of being ranked the number one tennis player in the world for 237 straight weeks.
The Career of the “Great One”, Wayne Gretzky, Number 9
The entire career of Wayne Gretzky is nothing less than astonishing. The “Great One” scored a record 92 goals in the 1981-82 regular season. In 1985-86, he amassed a total of 215 points on 85 goals and 163 assists. Yes, that’s 163! Gretzky set no less than 40 regular-season records, fifteen playoff records, and 6 All-Star records. He holds the career marks for most goals, most assists, and most points. He holds virtually every offensive record for which there are records.
Jesse Owens Sets Four World Records in One Hour, Number 8
In 1935 Jesse Owens, in just under sixty minutes (some say it was in a span lasting only forty minutes) at a Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, broke three World Records and tied a fourth. First, he tied the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100 Yard Dash. He then broke the world record in the Long Jump, soaring 26 feet, 8 and 1/4 inches (8.41 m), and in quick succession broke the world records in the 220 Yard Sprint and the 220 Yard Low Hurdles. The next year Owens went on to capture four Gold Medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Adolph Hitler refused to shake his hand because he was black.
Rogers Hornsby bats .424 in a single season, Number 7
In 1924, Rogers Hornsby batted .424 during the entire course of the regular National League Baseball season. Along with being walked 89 times, he amassed a record for on-base percentage, .508. No other player, until a steroid freak named Barry Bonds, accomplished the feat more than three-quarters of a century later, has ever accomplished that feat.
Joe DiMaggio Hits Safely in 56 Straight Games, Number 6
In 1941, the same year that Ted Williams became the last Major Leaguer to hit for a batting average of over.400, “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio set a record which most baseball aficionados say will never be broken, getting at least one hit in every game he played over a 56 game span. The streak began on May 15, 1941, and it ended when Kenny Keltner, the Cleveland Indians third baseman, made two incredible stops on screaming ground balls DiMaggio had propelled like cannon shots down the third baseline, robbing him of hits both times. DiMaggio, after going hitless that day, went on to hit in another 18 straight games. That year he would beat out Williams for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
The Career of Bill Russell, Number 5
In thirteen seasons as the center for the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell won the league championship eleven times, missing out during the two seasons when he was hurt and unable to play for most of the regular season. Otherwise, the Celtics would arguably have won the league title all thirteen years he was in the league. Russell showed the NBA that the path to the title was always through the great defense, an art that had been ignored until Russell raised it to the consummate level.
Michael Phelps wins eight Olympic Gold Medals, Number 4
At the 2008 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps was untouchable, winning eight Gold Medals and breaking several world swimming records in the process. He had already amassed six gold medals from the 2004 Olympics, thus giving him the impossible total of 14 Olympic Gold Medals. In Beijing, his golds were awarded for the 100-meter butterfly, the 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter individual medley, the 400-meter individual medley, the 4×100 freestyle relay, the 4×200 freestyle relay, and the 4x100meter medley relay. Wow!
The Tiger Slam, Number 3
At the end of the 1999 Pro Golf season and the beginning of the 2000 season, Tiger Woods racked up six straight tournament wins, just a precursor to what he would later accomplish during the remainder of that season and into the next. He would shred the record books during this period of his career, winning the U. S. Open at Pebble Beach by an unheard-of fifteen shots over Ernie Els, the British Open at St. Andrews in July, the PGA Championship at Valhalla in August, fending off a heroic effort by Bob May, and completing the Slam at the Masters the following April. This is a feat never before accomplished, and it is unlikely that it will ever happen again.
Nadia Comaneci Gets Seven Perfect Tens, Number 3
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Nadia Comaneci, a fourteen-year-old Romanian-born gymnast who stood four-feet-eleven inches tall, won Gold Medals in the Balance Beam, the Uneven Bars, and the Individual All-Around. Her unimaginable feat of scoring seven perfect “tens” is unlikely ever to be equaled. This petite little girl put gymnastics on the map all over the world with her singular accomplishments at the Olympics.
Brett Favre’s Starting Streak, Number 2
In football, every member of the defensive team draws a bead on the quarterback. The quarterback position is very vulnerable, and very few of them last a full season without being replaced by their backups for at least a portion of the games they play. Not Brett Favre, however. This iron man started an incredible 297 games over an 18-and-a-half season span, a record that is certain never to be broken. This accomplishment, if not the most spectacular in terms of excitement, is just mind-boggling. There is simply nothing more to say.
“Do You Believe in Miracles?”, Number 1
The Russian Olympic Hockey team that played in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, during the heart of the Cold War, was considered by many to be the best-assembled. They had played a succession of National Hockey League teams in the year previous, gaining a record of five wins, three losses, and one tie. A few months before the Olympics they played the NHL All-Star Team, and gave them an old-fashioned whipping, trouncing them by the unheard-of score of 6-0. Thus when the Americans, whose team consisted only of amateurs, mostly college players and NHL cast-offs, faced them in the finals of the Olympic tournament, no one gave them even a ghost of a chance. Las Vegas oddsmakers had cast them as a 400-1 underdog. The Russians started fast and quickly gained a 1-0 lead, but the Americans managed to skate with them and hung in there, playing way over their heads. Their coach, Herb Brooks, had told them in the locker room, “If you lose this game, you will take it to your graves.” He then paused, took a few steps to leave, turned again, and said, “Your fucking graves.” His team took his pep talk to heart, and on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, they went out and accomplished the impossible.
Afterword: Some notable achievements have been left out, as is the case with all lists such as this. The most egregious omission is probably Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. I’m sure you can think of others and that you will let me know in no uncertain terms what I have omitted. Please do.
The order of these stellar accomplishments could be argued from now till Doomsday, but these singular moments in sports all have one thing in common: they are nothing less than superhuman in terms of the quality and excellence they reflect. It is the human at his or her very best.