Don’t Call it a Comeback, Call it a Miracle
Heading into the 1988 Calgary Olympics, American Dan Jansen was the veritable golden boy of speed-skating: after setting a junior world record at the age of 16 at his first international competition, he finished first in both the 500-meter and 1,000-meter races at the 1986 ISU Speed Skating World Cup and again at the 500-meter in 1988. But when the starting shot fired during his race at the Calgary Games, taking another title was the furthest thing from his mind. A mere seven hours before the race began, Jansen learned that his sister, Jane, had died after a prolonged struggle with leukemia. Jansen botched both of his events, sustaining not one but two devastating falls. Many feared his tragic finish at the 1988 Olympics would continue to loom over his career into the 1994 Lillehammer Games. But Jansen proved them wrong. Not only did he win the gold medal in the 1,000-meter race, but he set a new world record by .11 seconds. Jansen took a well-deserved victory lap after his win with his 8-month-old infant in tow. He had named her Jane.
Mary Lou Retton: The Perfect 10
Four years after America’s historic victory over the USSR in hockey, the Olympics once again served as a proxy battleground for the Cold War. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, all eyes were fixed on the fight for the gold medal for Women’s Gymnastics All-Around. The contenders: Ecaterina Szabo, a representative of Romania (the only Soviet bloc country in attendance that year), and Mary Lou Retton, a 16-year-old from Fairmont, W.V. After Szabo edged out Retton in both the bars and beam, a shot at a U.S. gold seemed increasingly unlikely. But one small hope remained for the Retton and the rest of the American team: in order to win the gold, she would have to complete the near-impossible feat of perfect 10s for the next two events. Miraculously, Retton pulled through, winning the all-around title by 0.05 points.
Derek Redmond’s Family Matters
Though British sprinter Derek Redmond had faced several setbacks due to sustained injuries—his knee and Achilles tendon surgery tally currently resides somewhere around 13—he arrived at the 1992 Barcelona Games in full form, ready to win big. Seconds into the race, however, Redmond’s hamstring snapped, causing him to collapse to the ground. Though the sound of other runners passing him by became more and more distant, Redmond did not give up; instead, he stood, slowly, and began to limp toward the finish line. It’s not only Redmond’s perseverance that leaves the image of this 1992 race burnt into the memories of those who watched. It was also the sight of Redmond’s father, who, upon seeing his son’s devastating fall, ran onto the track to help his son finish strong.
The Underdog Beats the Bear
It was a Cold War fantasy realized 10 years too late: on one side of the mat stood wrestler Aleksandr Karelin—colloquially known as 'Aleksandr the Great' or 'The Russian Bear’—who, with three gold medals around his neck from the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympics, had yet to lose an international match. On the other side, Rulon Garder, a relative newcomer—a farm boy, fresh-faced and Wyoming-bred, whose best previous finish in an international competition was fifth place. When the two were matched against each other in the battle for the gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was basically a given that Karelin would take the prize: not only was the man an institution unto himself, but he had beat Gardner—and how—at a world-championship competition in 1997. But against all odds, Gardner crushed Karelin, securing a heartwarming U.S. victory.
Float Like a Butterfly, Stand Like a Champion
Muhammad Ali's fists were once prized for their precision, but by the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the boxer’s advancing Parkinson's disease had left him somewhat less steady. Still, nearly four decades after his historic win at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ali was chosen to light the torch to begin the Games. Watch the athletic giant, battling against his own body but standing tall nonetheless, set the torch aflame.
Kerri Strug: No Pain, No Gain
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Kerri Strug was the American gymnastics team’s secret weapon. An exceptional vaulter, Strug served as the team’s closer, gaining back any points lost earlier in the competition. In order to bring home a U.S. gold, Strug would have to score a 9.4 or above on one of her two vaults. But her first run didn't quite go as smoothly as her teammates had hoped. While she stuck the stunt itself, Strug fell straight to the floor on her landing, leaving her with a nasty ankle sprain and a score of 9.1. At this point, commentators are already beginning to talk about her imminent walk-off, lamenting the lost American gold. But Strug defied their speculation, sprinting toward the vault at full speed, and sticking the finish—on one foot. Though Strug had to be carried off the mat by her coaches, the immense pain didn’t deafen her to the sound of her score: 9.7.