Most Amazing Superhuman Sports Feats
Every once in a while, accomplishments in the athletic realm transcend sports. Athletes do things that many thought were impossible, and they are revered for generations as a result.
For this list, we recognize 15 extraordinary athletic feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits.
Sometimes, these barriers existed in the form of records. Other times, athletes overcame physical, mental or emotional obstacles to record their greatest achievements (which, in one case, is simply living to tell the tale of a harrowing experience).
One note: We’re staying away from athletes whose feats were linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. This doesn't mean certain sports or athletes matter more than others. But for this exercise, we’re focusing on human beings who were powered by skill and will.
Roger Bannister, Distance Running
No list of this nature would be complete without Roger Bannister, who became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. He did so on May 6, 1954, at Iffly Field in Oxford, England, when he stopped the timer with a mark of 3:59.4.
While the milestone itself is an accomplishment, perhaps the most astounding thing about the achievement is how Bannister did it. Compared to present-day training methods, Bannister’s preparations were far from intense. One can only wonder how quickly Bannister would have run with the advancements in modern athletic training.
But even so, breaking the 4-minute mile ensured the Englishman a special place in track and field history.
Felix Baumgartner, Skydiving
On Oct. 14, 2012, as part of the Red Bull Stratos project, Austrian Felix Baumgartner made history.
The daredevil got into a small capsule, ascended far above the Earth and jumped out several hours later — landing safely in New Mexico after a nine-minute descent.
In doing so, Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier without engine power. He also set records for the highest manned balloon flight and highest altitude jump.
Such a venture prompts many questions (and an improved appreciation of the ground we walk on, especially if you’re afraid of heights). Nevertheless, what Baumgartner did was nothing short of incredible. He descended to Earth from about 24 miles above the surface and lived to tell about it.
Bob Beamon, Long Jump
When one thinks of tremendous Olympic performances, this is one of the first feats that comes to mind.
Bob Beamon came into the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City as America’s top hope at a medal in the event, but nobody could have predicted a jump resulting in an Olympic record that has stood for 50 years.
Beamon launched himself into the air and came down 8.9 meters (29 feet, 2 1/2inches) later. In the process, he broke the previous world record by nearly two feet.
To give another perspective on the magnitude of the event, officials manually had to measure the length of the jump, as the device installed to measure jumps did not extend far enough to give an accurate distance.
Gertrude Ederle, Swimming
The English Channel separates England and France, which are a bit more than 20 miles apart. Starting in the late 19th century, distance swimmers attempted to swim across the channel, and the quest boasted far more failures than successes.
Five men had accomplished the feat before 1926, when American Gertrude Ederle became the first female to complete the journey.
Furthermore, her time of 14 hours, 31 minutes was a new record, beating the fastest previous time by nearly two hours.
Tony Hawk, Skateboarding
Skateboarding enjoyed a resurgence in the late 1990s, and Tony Hawk was at the forefront of it. A popular video game series bore his likeness, and in a spectacular career that started at the age of 14, Hawk won pretty much everything there was to win in the sport.
Most notably, though, Hawk became the first skater to pull off a “900,” two and a half mid-air spins on the board. He pulled it off at the 1999 X Games and cemented his place as a skateboarding legend.
Almost as remarkable, Hawk landed a “900” again in 2016, at the ripe old age of 48.
Sir Edmund Hillary, Mountain Climbing
One of the most well-known explorers of the 20th century, Sir Edmund Hillary is best known as the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. While several hundred climbers now scale the peak each year, none had reached the top until Hillary did it in 1953.
The New Zealand native was part of a British-led expedition after eight prior ventures greenlit by the British had failed to reach the summit. Nepal native Tenzing Norgay joined him atop the mountain, but Hillary's exploring days were far from over.
He ventured to the South Pole in 1958 and the North Pole in 1985, becoming the first man to visit both poles and the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.
John Isner/Nicolas Mahut, Tennis
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are top-tier tennis players that have accomplished a great deal as individuals. However, the two men forever will be linked for taking part in the longest tennis match in history.
The match took place in the first round of the 2010 Wimbledon championships. After four sets, the match was suspended due to darkness. It went to a fifth set the next day, and at Wimbledon, traditional fifth-set tiebreaker procedures do not apply. Players compete until one is up by two games, and in this case, Isner and Mahut kept the match going by trading games back and forth.
Darkness forced a second straight delay with the fifth set tied at 59, and finally, after more than 11 hours of action spread out over three days, Isner prevailed, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.
Al Oerter, Discus
Al Oerter became the first American to win a gold medal in four consecutive Olympic Games. This achievement set a precedent that fellow American stars Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps followed, equaling Oerter’s accomplishment with 12-year runs of their own.
However, what gets Oerter on this list isn’t that accomplishment alone, but the way he did it. Oerter’s first gold medal came at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. Beginning with the 1960 Games in Rome, Oerter set new Olympic records in the discus at three consecutive renewals of the Olympics. His totals increased from 59.18 meters in 1960 to 61 meters in 1964 and 64.78 meters in 1968.
Athletes are known to evolve from one generation to another, and some records get taken down quickly. This stretch was one man taking over his event for more than a decade and getting better as he went along.
For that, one of the most decorated athletes in American track and field makes the superhuman cut.
Charles Radbourn, Baseball
Somewhere up in the great baseball diamond in the sky, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn is laughing at pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings every year. That’s because Radbourn, who was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, pulled off one of the most phenomenal stretches in the history of the sport during the 1884 season.
While pitching for the Providence Grays, the team was in such a state of chaos that some felt it should be disbanded. Radbourn had a solution to unify the team: He would start almost every game of the season from that point forward, in exchange for a raise and an exemption from baseball’s reserve clause.
Radbourn started 40 of the season’s final 43 games, and the pain from pitching became so intense that the hurler struggled to comb his hair. Despite the inevitable fatigue that set in, Radbourne won all but four of those starts and finished with 59 victories on the season, which may be the most unbreakable single-season mark in Major League Baseball history.
As a result of Radbourn’s success, the Grays won that year’s National League championship.
Aron Ralston, Mountain Climbing
This story isn’t for the queasy or faint of heart, but nothing says “extraordinary” like what Aron Ralston did to survive an accident in 2003. While hiking in Utah, an 800-pound boulder crushed Ralston’s right arm against the wall of a canyon. He was stuck beneath its weight, and in order to save his own life, he needed to take drastic steps.
That leads to the decision he made several days later. After breaking several of his own bones in his arm, Ralston amputated his right forearm with a dull knife before escaping the canyon and getting medical attention.
His saga was the subject of a 2010 movie, “127 Hours,” as well as Ralston’s own book, fittingly entitled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
Willis Reed, Basketball
In some cases, excruciating pain becomes easier to manage when the stakes are as high as possible. This is why we fondly remember New York Knicks center Willis Reed for his play in the 1970 NBA Finals.
Reed tore a thigh muscle in Game 5 of the series, then watched from the bench as the Los Angeles Lakers decimated the Knicks in Game 6 to force a winner-take-all series finale.
Few people expected Reed to play, but several minutes before game time, out came New York’s center to go through his warmups.
Reed hit New York’s first two shots of the game. That gave the Knicks the spark they needed, and the Big Apple celebrated the squad’s first NBA title.
Anthony Robles, Wrestling
Wrestling is a sport that involves tremendous coordination and balance. One may think that missing a limb would be an impediment to success, but in the case of Anthony Robles, that was far from the truth.
Robles was born with only one leg and stopped wearing a prosthetic attachment at a young age. He turned to wrestling in eighth grade and became a national champion in his weight class as a high school senior.
That earned Robles a trip to Arizona State University, where he excelled on a national stage in the 125-pound division. His senior campaign saw him go a perfect 36-0, with his last victory coming in an NCAA championship match.
Robles finished his college career with a mark of 122-23, and his trophy case also includes three All-American honors and a trio of Pac-12 titles.
Secretariat, Horse Racing
Secretariat made ESPN’s list of the top North American athletes of the 20th century, and if Big Red could make that list, he can make this one.
The thoroughbred won horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973 and broke a 25-year Triple Crown drought with a 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes, an effort that also included a track-record time (2:24 flat for the 1 1/2-mile distance) that stands to this day.
Secretariat remains one of the most beloved horses of all time, and the reason he was able to accomplish so much may have been revealed in an autopsy following his death in 1989. The doctor performing the procedure, Dr. Thomas Swerczek, revealed that Secretariat’s heart was nearly twice the size of that of an average horse.
If you’re an athlete, and you’re out to break records, a heart that gives you that much energy is a good start.
Joe Thomas, Football
Professional football players go through arguably the most grueling physical competition in American sports. Bodies smash into one another with tremendous force, and injuries are bound to happen.
This is what makes left tackle Joe Thomas’s feat all the more impressive. From the first game of his NFL career in 2007, up until suffering a triceps injury in October 2017, the Cleveland Browns offensive lineman played 10,363 consecutive snaps.
Much is made of players whom coaches rave about with descriptions like “he never takes a play off.” Joe Thomas literally never took a play off, and his contributions to football should earn him a bust in Canton one day.
Tiger Woods, Golf
Tiger Woods has 14 major championships, but perhaps the one that stands out the most (as far as superhuman accomplishments are concerned) is the 2008 U.S. Open.
During the tournament, Tiger Woods was in significant pain. As it turned out, he played a total of 91 holes with a torn ACL and double stress fracture in his left leg.
With a course set up to give players the toughest test of golf imaginable, the U.S. Open is hard enough as it is. Add in debilitating leg injuries, plus 19 extra holes (thanks to a playoff with Rocco Mediate), and you have one of the greatest showings of pain tolerance in the history of tournament golf.
The 2008 U.S. Open wasn’t the 1998 Masters or the 2001 U.S. Open, both of which he won by staggering margins.
In many ways, this performance may have been even more impressive, given that he was essentially playing on one leg for five days.