Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Greatest Athlete of All Time

Since Michael Phelps has accomplished his remarkable goal of winning eight gold medals in a single Olympic Games gathering there has been much talk of who the "greatest athlete of all time" is. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan come to mind in these conversations that are happening all over sports media lately. All three are exceptional athletes that have mastered their sport and inspire fans everywhere. I'm personally a fan of all three. For example, when I am setting up for my golf swing, I think of a photo that my instructor superimposed of Tiger Woods so that he was hitting lefty like me. I try to mimic that stance since it is considered the right way to swing. I just wanted to add two more athletes that don’t always get mentioned when there is talk of superiority in a sport. While this is by no means a complete list of those who dominate, these are two athletes that I also really admire and have thought of as superior since I was a child.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Born in either 1911 or 1914, Babe got her nickname as a child when she demonstrated her prowess with a baseball bat. Later, she expertly played basketball and was truly recognized as an exceptional athlete. Of course, this was in no way acceptable in her day and she was considered a “freak” and “unladylike” among other things. She had a natural ability and could excel at whatever sport she wished. She won many honors in track and field events and qualified for five events in the 1932 Olympics. Women were only allowed to compete in three events and she took the gold medal in the javelin and 80 meter hurdles. A controversial ruling meant that she was disqualified in the high jump, even though she by all rights set a new record. Eventually she was able to share the gold medal. Later, she took up golf and again excelled. Babe won thirteen consecutive tournaments in 1946 and was the first American to win the British Amateur tournament. She had a total of 55 tournament victories that included three US Women’s Open events. In addition, she was one of the founders of the LPGA in 1949. She found out that she had cancer in 1953 and survived until 1956. She was a charter member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame and was the AP Female Athlete of the Year six times.

Billie Jean King: This remarkable tennis player won six Wimbledon titles, four US Open titles, and was ranked number one in the world for five years. In addition, she defeated the likes of Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, and…Bobby Riggs…more about that in a moment. She was the first female athlete to break the $100,000 mark. She was the first woman to coach a co-ed team in sports, first woman to be a professional sports commissioner, and one of the six inaugural inductees into the Court of Fame at the USTA National Tennis Center. She is also the only woman to have won US singles titles on four surfaces (clay, carpet, grass, and hard courts). She also lobbied for, and obtained, equal prize money for men and women at the US Open in tennis. In spite of all these accomplishments, many remember her for the match she won against Bobby Riggs. This player was a former Wimbledon champion and had actively challenged her to this match. He already hustled Margaret Court into a match and beat her. Riggs smugly proclaimed that women could only play about 25% of the level that men could and should only receive 25% of the pay that men get. Billie Jean took the high road at first and said that playing against him was not worth her time. After Court’s loss, she gave in…and ran Riggs ragged. Riggs later enlisted Vitas Gerulaitis to play a doubles match against Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver and lost again. Billie Jean remained friends with Riggs throughout the hype and when he died she claimed that, "Bobby Riggs was a true friend for the last twenty-five years." Of her match with him she said that, "It helped a lot of people realize that everyone can have skills whether you are a man or woman... as well as helping men and women understand each other." Not only an exceptional athlete, but a good sport!

Who are some of your favorite athletes that we don’t always hear about?


Lindsay said...

I am glad you recognized two female athletes. Someone I have in mind, a guy though, is Ian Adamson. He is an adventure racer and has 15 world championship finishes, 14 international championship titles and I think he still holds the world record for endurance kayaking (262 miles in 24 hours).

Apryl DeLancey said...

He sounds awesome! Thank you for sharing.