Greatest Competitors in Sports History
They inspired us. Playing through tremendous pain. Triumphing over incredible odds. Overcoming limitations and prejudices.
Some spent years training to maintain elite levels for contests that are decided by inches and fractions of seconds. Others persevered and endured, despite being slowed by injury or shattered by tragedy.
Regardless of the obstacles, these athletes all rose up to meet their challenges, and found redemption and glory.
They are the greatest competitors in sports history.
Honorable Mention: Wayne Chrebet, Football
Not all professional athletes look the part. At 5-foot-10, Wayne Chrebet was undersized for an NFL receiver, and at his first training camp with the New York Jets, security didn't believe he was an actual player and detained him.
But the scrappy Hofstra grad overcame his height — and the scorn of larger pass catchers like onetime teammate Keyshawn Johnson — to become clutch. Chrebet even earned the nickname "Mr. Third Down" as 379 of his 580 career receptions converted third downs to firsts.
His NFL career ended halfway through his 11th season when he made a third-down catch against the San Diego Chargers in 2005. Chrebet sustained a serious concussion and got knocked out for several minutes. He still held on to the ball for (you guessed it) a first down.
#30: Mia Hamm, Soccer
Mia Hamm was the youngest person to play for the United States national soccer team, joining the women's club in 1987 at 15 before she even went to college.
A speedy striker with exceptional ball control, she led the University of North Carolina to four NCAA titles from 1989 to 1993. In between, Hamm helped America win the inaugural women's World Cup in 1991.
She also led the U.S. women to their first-ever Olympic gold, at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. In 1999, Hamm was one of five Americans to score on penalty kicks that decided the 1999 World Cup, and helped Team USA take Olympic gold again in Athens in 2004.
She retired later that year with a then-record 158 international goals.
#29: Kirk Gibson, Baseball
Kirk Gibson had a penchant for the dramatic home run and is best remembered for his 1988 postseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The left fielder made an amazing falling catch against Mookie Wilson and the Mets in Game 3 of the NLCS. Then, on injured knees, he hit a game-winning home run in the top of the 12th inning of Game 4, and followed that with a gimpy home-run trot around the bases after a three-run blast in Game 5.
He only batted once in the World Series against Oakland. With a runner on first, and the Dodgers down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1, Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda used Gibson as a pinch hitter. A’s closer Dennis Eckersley ran the count to 3-2 before Gibson delivered a two-run, walk-off homer.
The Dodgers went on to win the series in five games, and Gibson cemented his legend.
#28: Kerri Strug, Gymnastics
Before 1996, the United States had never won an Olympic team gold in women’s gymnastics. Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven changed that and captured the hearts of America.
Strug qualified to compete in both the floor and vault, and going into the final rotation, the U.S. clung to its lead over the powerhouse Russian team. Strug, the last to vault for the U.S., over-rotated on her first landing attempt and sprained her ankle.
Unsure if her first score would be enough, coach Bela Karolyi told her, "We need you one more time for the gold."
Strug limped to the runway, put aside the pain and sprinted to the vault, briefly sticking the landing before collapsing to her knees. Her 9.712 guaranteed America the gold, and Karolyi carried Strug to the medal podium.
#27: Martina Navratilova, Tennis
The Czech-born superstar who became an American citizen in 1981 was ranked the world’s No. 1 player in singles for more than 330 weeks. Martina Navratilova dominated women’s tennis from the late 1970s through most of the '80s.
She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 31 women’s doubles titles, and is one of only three women to win a career Grand Slam in women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. She won a record 167 singles titles and 177 doubles titles, and was ranked in the women’s Top 10 for 20 straight years.
Her superb serve-and-volley game served her best at Wimbledon, where she first won in 1978. She made nine straight Wimbledon finals, winning six straight titles from 1982 to 1987 and capturing her last in 1990.
#26: Richard Petty, NASCAR
With 200 Cup Series wins and more than 700 top 10 finishes over a career that stretched from 1959 to 1992, Richard Petty has earned his moniker as "The King" of NASCAR.
Petty won seven championships, was chosen as NASCAR’s "Most Popular Driver" eight times, and holds records for most consecutive Cup Series wins and most wins at Daytona International Speedway, including seven Daytona 500s.
His racing pedigree is impeccable: His father, Lee Petty, won the first Daytona 500 and was a three-time NASCAR champ, and his son Kyle was an eight-time NASCAR winner with 173 top 10 finishes.
"The King" was an inaugural member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
#25: Jennie Finch, Softball
America’s most famous softball player, Jennie Finch holds the NCAA record with 60 consecutive wins, pitching for the Arizona Wildcats over a span that covered parts of three seasons, including a national championship campaign in 2001.
The streak included Wildcat wins over four No.1-ranked teams and a 1-0 shutout over UCLA in the 2001 title game.
Finch won Olympic gold with Team USA at Athens in 2004 and spent five seasons inside the circle with the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league.
Finch notably struck out major leaguers Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza and Brian Giles at an All-Star softball game in 2004. From a softball mound, her rising fastball was the equivalent of an MLB fastball thrown between 98-100 miles per hour.
#24: Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball
"The Iron Man" was a 19-time major league All-Star and two-time American League MVP who played in a record 2,632 consecutive games between 1982 and 1998 during a 21-season career with the Baltimore Orioles.
Born in Maryland and the son of longtime Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr., Ripken played third base and shortstop for the Orioles. He had his breakout season in 1983, hitting .318 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI.
His best year came in 1991 when, in the middle of his consecutive games streak, he hit .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBI and led the league in total bases.
#23: Jessie Tuggle, Football
Undrafted out of Valdosta State, linebacker Jessie Tuggle caught on with the Atlanta Falcons in 1987, and injuries opened up a spot for him in the starting lineup a year later.
Tuggle didn’t let the chance pass him by, and "The Hammer" became a five-time Pro Bowler.
He is the only player to twice record at least 200 tackles in a season and holds the NFL record with 1,640.
#22: Usain Bolt, Track and Field
He is the fastest man in the world. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt holds world records at both 100 meters and 200 meters.
He was undefeated in nine Olympic races, winning 100- and 200-meter golds at three consecutive Games from 2008 through 2016, as well as anchoring the Jamaican 4x100-meter relay team in three gold-medal wins (Jamaica was stripped of its 2008 gold after a teammate was disqualified for performance-enhancing drugs).
"Lightning" Bolt also won 11 world championships across the three events between 2009 and 2015.
#21: Reggie White, Football
A master of the bull rush and the swim move, the "Minister of Defense" was one of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history.
Reggie White recorded 198 sacks and more than 1,000 tackles over 15 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and, after a brief retirement, the Carolina Panthers. The 13-time Pro Bowler (and All-USFL first-teamer with the Memphis Showboats in 1985) was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
At his peak, White recorded 21 sacks with the Eagles in 1987 — a season that was shortened to 12 games.
#20: Jim Abbott, Baseball
Born without a right hand, Jim Abbott overcame long odds to become a Major League Baseball pitcher.
A standout at Michigan University, he won the James E. Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete in 1987.
In 1988, when baseball was a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics, he pitched the final game for a Team USA win that would have clinched a gold medal.
He played with four teams in 10 big league seasons, and is best remembered for no-hitting the Cleveland Indians while pitching for the Yankees in 1993.
#19: Muggsy Bogues, Basketball
Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues was the shortest player in NBA history. At 5-foot-3, Bogues was a point guard who ran the floor with a megawatt smile and incredible speed.
Drafted by the Washington Bullets in the first round of the 1987 draft, he had a brief comic pairing with 7-foot 7 Manute Bol (then the tallest player in the NBA) before the Bullets left Bogues unprotected in the expansion draft, and he was claimed by the Charlotte Hornets.
The "Space Jam" star became one of the most popular players in Hornets history, and over 10 seasons in Charlotte, he became the team’s career leader in assists (5,557) and steals (1,067).
#18: Bob Gibson, Baseball
A 250-game winner with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bob Gibson once pitched to three batters after Roberto Clemente lined a shot off his shin — before his leg finally snapped above the ankle. He returned to the team by the end of the season and won three World Series starts against the Red Sox in 1967.
Gibson was a dominant strikeout pitcher who found it "important to mess with a batter's head."
He relied on a power fastball, two different sliders and a curve, as well as a number of knockdown and brushback pitches.
#17: Jim Brown, Football
Jim Brown could do just about anything as an athlete.
A college star at Syracuse University in football, basketball, track and lacrosse, Jim Brown was the dominant professional running back of the late 1950s and early '60s, retiring with a then-record 12,312 rushing yards and 106 rushing touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns.
A three-time MVP, Brown won the rushing title eight times, made the Pro Bowl every year and averaged more than 100 yards a game for his entire nine-year NFL career.
Younger fans know him as an actor, where he's enjoyed a 50-year career with roles in movies like "The Dirty Dozen," "The Split," "100 Rifles" and "Slaughter," as well as football flicks like "Any Given Sunday" and "Draft Day."
#16: Emmitt Smith, Football
The second-leading rusher in American high school football history, Emmitt Smith left the University of Florida after three seasons and went about destroying the NFL record books.
By the end of his 15-year career with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals, Smith was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards and set the mark for rushing touchdowns with 164. He both led the league in rushing and won the Super Bowl in three separate seasons.
#15: Lindsey Vonn, Skiing
Over 19 seasons and numerous injuries and surgeries, Lindsey Vonn is the most famous American alpine skier.
Competing with complete reckless abandon, she generated terrifying speed that often resulted in terrifying crashes. But when she fell, she got up again — overcoming concussions, bad bruises, a broken finger, a broken arm, sprained and torn ACLs and MCLs, a broken ankle and a fractured tibia to collect 82 World Cup race wins, including 43 downhill and 28 super-G titles.
She won Olympic gold in 2010 at Vancouver, and took two world championship titles in 2009.
Vonn retired in early 2019 after earning a downhill bronze in her final race at the world championship in Sweden.
#14: Jesse Owens, Track and Field
One of America's most famous athletes, Jesse Owens set three world records and tied a fourth while competing for Michigan at a track meet in 1935, setting him up for an amazing Olympic games in 1936 in Berlin.
Overcoming racism at home and Hitler's concept of Aryan supremacy in Germany, Owens won four gold medals at Berlin, in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 relay. His feat went unmatched until Carl Lewis won four golds in Los Angeles in 1984.
#13: Serena Williams, Tennis
Serena Williams has been ranked No.1 eight times, for a total 319 weeks, since making her pro debut as a 14-year-old in 1995.
She has won more than 800 singles matches and 72 titles, including 23 major singles titles and 16 major doubles championships, many of them with her sister, Venus.
With a dominating serve and powerful groundstrokes, Serena has completed a career Grand Slam and twice has completed a "Serena Slam," winning four straight majors that weren't in the same calendar year.
Williams has overcome injury to rise to the top again and again, currently returning from a pregnancy leave to battle back into the top 10 at age 37.
#12: Walter Payton, Football
In 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Walter Payton made 170 consecutive starts from December 1975 until September 1987, a record for running backs.
The durable superstar known as "Sweetness" ran with a signature stutter step — often followed by a stiff arm — that froze would-be defenders.
He retired a nine-time Pro Bowler with a then-record 16,726 rushing yards.
#11: Pete Rose, Baseball
They called him "Charlie Hustle" for a reason.
Pete Rose, the driving force behind Cincinnati’s "Big Red Machine," is Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader. He won three batting titles and an MVP to go with two World Series titles with the Reds and helped bring the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies their first-ever championship in 1980.
He was involved in one of baseball’s most famous home plate collisions, scoring the winning run after slamming into Indians catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game, fracturing Fosse’s shoulder.
Rose always ran like he had money on the game — and he might have. He lost his spot as Reds manager in 1989 when he was banned from baseball for gambling.
#10: Willis Reed, Basketball
A seven-time All-Star and NBA Rookie of the Year in 1965, Willis Reed was a center/power forward who spent his entire 10-season playing career with the New York Knicks.
Regarded as one of the all-time great clutch players and a superior defender, Reed led the Knicks to two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973.
His defining moment came in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Crippled by a torn muscle in his leg, Reed’s inspiring entrance caused the Madison Square Garden crowd to erupt. He hit his first two shots (his only points) and played shutdown defense on Wilt Chamberlain during a Knicks-dominated first half.
After the game, famed announcer Howard Cosell told Reed, "You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer."
#9: Tom Brady, Football
Love them or hate them, the New England Patriots are a perennial playoff team with a great chance to go to the Super Bowl every year since 2001. The common thread? Quarterback Tom Brady.
He took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe during the second game that season and took the 0-2 Patriots to the promised land for the first time, becoming the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Brady now has led the Patriots to nine Super Bowls, winning six rings, over 19 seasons and has thrown for more than 70,000 yards.
He leads all quarterbacks with more than 200 regular-season wins and owns almost every major postseason and Super Bowl record for quarterbacks.
#8: Michael Phelps, Swimming
In his first Olympics, at age 15, Michael Phelps qualified for the 2000 Olympic Games. He made the 200-meter butterfly finals, finishing fifth.
He went on to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team four more times, becoming the most dominant athlete in Olympics history. At Athens in 2004, the 6-foot-4 star with a 6-foot-7 wingspan won six gold medals. At Beijing in 2008, the butterfly and freestyle star won a record eight gold medals. At London in 2012, he won another four gold medals and became the most-decorated swimmer in Olympic history.
He briefly retired, but two years later, he was called back to the pool. The flag-bearer for the U.S. team in Rio in 2016, Phelps won another six gold medals.
His final Olympic haul? A ridiculous 23 gold medals, three silver and two bronze.
#7: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track and Field
Jackie Joyner-Kersee enjoyed a 1,000-point career playing college basketball for UCLA, but her real focus was track and field.
While still in college, she won silver in the heptathlon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The heptathon consists of seven events: 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meter, long jump, javelin and 800 meters.
Four years later, in Seoul, Joyner-Kersee set a standard for modern athletes that still stands today, scoring 7,291 points to win the heptathlon gold, and adding a gold in the long jump.
She grabbed heptathlon gold again at Barcelona in 1992 to solidify her standing as America's greatest female athlete.
#6: Ty Cobb, Baseball
Over 24 seasons (22 with the Detroit Tigers and two with the Philadelphia Athletics), Ty Cobb won 12 American League batting titles (including nine straight from 1907 to 1915) hit over .320 for 22 consecutive seasons (three times topping .400) and won the Triple Crown in 1909.
After retiring with a .366 career average, he was elected as one of the inaugural members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
"I never could stand losing," he said.
Cobb also finished with 897 stolen bases and holds one record that will never fall: He stole home an astounding 54 times.
#5: Jim Thorpe, Baseball, Football, Track and Field
Maybe America’s most well-rounded athlete, Jim Thorpe was the first Native American to win Olympic gold for the United States, winning the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm games.
Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation, later played Major League Baseball with the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves from 1913 to 1919.
He played pro football with the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and New York Giants from 1919 to 1926.
#4: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Golf, Basketball, Track and Field
Mildred "Babe" Didrikson was a multi-sport star, winning Olympic gold in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin, as well as a silver medal for the high jump at the 1932 Los Angeles games.
Reportedly earning her nickname for hitting five home runs in a game as a child, Didrikson pitched an inning for the Philadelphia Athletics in spring training in 1934, yielding just one walk and no hits, then pitching an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals and later two shutout innings for the New Orleans Pelicans.
She toured the country playing basketball with Babe Didrikson's All-Americans, and started playing golf. She entered the PGA's 1938 Los Angeles Open, competing against men, and while she didn't make the cut, she did meet professional wrestler George Zaharias, whom she married.
Didrikson later became the only woman to make the cut at a PGA Tour event. She won 41 times on the LPGA tour, including 10 major tournaments.
Her career was cut short by colon cancer — but she defied the disease by winning her last major a month after surgery in 1954, while wearing a colostomy bag.
#3: Michael Jordan, Basketball
Everyone wanted to "Be Like Mike." Who wouldn't, with six NBA titles in eight seasons?
The five-time NBA MVP and six-time Finals MVP led the league in scoring 10 times — and was also named to the all-defensive first team nine times. MJ's staggering stat lines would be even more impressive had he not twice briefly retired.
The first time he stepped away was in 1993, after the Chicago Bulls' third straight title, following his father’s murder along a North Carolina highway. While there was speculation about a golf career, Jordan started playing minor league baseball with the White Sox, and the Bulls quickly retired his iconic No. 23 in 1994.
He quit baseball in 1995 during a preseason strike and came back to help the Bulls' playoff push. A season later, Jordan and the Bulls started their second streak of three NBA titles, including a then-best 72-10 regular-season record.
He retired again after winning that sixth title, but returned to the NBA as part owner of the Washington Wizards, and started playing again in D.C. after the terror attacks in September 2001, leading the Wizards in scoring.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist (once in college and as a member of the 1992 Dream Team) finally retired for good in 2003 with a career average of more than 30 points per game.
#2: Brett Favre, Football
One of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks got off to a dubious start as a rookie in Atlanta. In his first four snaps, Brett Favre threw a pick-six, a second interception and was sacked for an 11-yard loss. He then was traded to Green Bay, where he promptly failed his physical.
With the Packers, he blossomed into an iron man and made 297 straight starts over 16 seasons, including a year with the Jets and two with the Vikings. He also won three consecutive NFL MVP awards.
In his most emotional game, Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns the day after his father died in 2003.
He tossed 508 career touchdown passes and threw for 71,838 yards, both records when he retired.
He also may hold the unofficial record for retirement announcements. But Favre, who "led" the NFL in sacks, fumbles and interceptions, was the grownup version of the backyard gunslinger every kid who ever hoped to play quarterback in the NFL dreamed about becoming.
Knock him down. Pick him off. He still kept coming at you.
#1: Gordie Howe, Hockey
There were times when it seemed that "Mr. Hockey" would never stop skating. The 23-time NHL All-Star holds the record for most games played: 1,767.
His rough-and-rumble reputation inspired the so-called "Gordie Howe hat trick," which was achieved by recording a goal, a save and a fight in a single game.
He played 32 seasons with the NHL and the WHL between 1946 and 1980, then even came back to skate a shift with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997 at age 69.
Old No. 9 is second on the NHL all-time goals list with 801, behind only Wayne Gretzky, who wore No. 99 as a tribute to Howe.