A look at active Olympians and Paralympians from around the world who may not have won his or her sport’s athlete of the year, but nonetheless left an impression on 2020 …
USA, Track and Field
The former teen phenom went two years between races due to Achilles surgeries in 2016 and 2017. Once an heir to Usain Bolt‘s throne, he was an afterthought going into 2020. Then, in July, Bromell broke 10 seconds for the first time in four years (and a month after the woman who taught him to be a sprinter died). He was the world’s second-fastest man in 2020, and the fastest of anybody who has designs on the Tokyo Olympic 100m.
Uganda, Track and Field
Began the year as the 72nd-fastest man in history in the 5000m. Ended it as world-record holder in both the 5000m and the 10,000m, supplanting arguably the greatest runner in history in Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. It’s not just those performances, but what produced them. Cheptegei, who needed 80 hours to travel from Uganda to Monaco for the first of those world-record runs, comes from a nation where there is one all-weather 400m track, and he does most of his sessions on an uneven, egg-shaped grass surface that is longer than 400 meters, according to LetsRun.com’s Jonathan Gault.
Australia, Field Hockey
Lynch, the 2019 International Hockey Federation female goalkeeper of the year, was already logging one day per week as a nurse in a neuro-rehabilitation ward before the coronavirus pandemic. With the Tokyo Olympics postponed, she shifted from part-time hospital shifts to regular managerial work at an Australian virus testing clinic. Lynch, a 34-year-old with 223 appearances in a 14-year national team career, was back in the headlines at the start of December when she was dropped from the national team, seven months before the Games, news followed by reports of a possible player strike.
The pandemic wiped out top-level gymnastics meets in the U.S. for the remainder of 2020. That didn’t stop the 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 32-year-old mother of two who announced in July that she was coming out of a near-eight-year retirement. Memmel, a judge at all six of Simone Biles‘ national championships, hasn’t publicly committed yet to pursuing competing at nationals or trying for the Olympics, but may eye getting a new skill named after her. That would require competing internationally.
Didn’t play a second for the Minnesota Lynx either of the last two years. In fact, she withdrew from Olympic team consideration back in January. Her reasoning was what made it remarkable: Moore took a hiatus from competitive basketball to focus on criminal justice reform. Specifically, the case of Jonathan Irons, who was ultimately released from prison on July 1 after a 22-year-old wrongful conviction. Moore and Irons announced in September that they wed. Moore, the U.S. second-leading scorer at the Rio Olympics, has not publicly announced whether she will try for the Olympics in 2021.
Technically not an Olympian yet, but has repeated intent to play in Tokyo and all but wrapped up qualifying by winning the U.S. Open. Osaka wore a mask bearing Breonna Taylor‘s name to walk out for her first round inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. After that match win, Osaka divulged that she brought seven masks to the event, one for each round through the final, each with a different name of a Black person killed in recent years. She won the tournament. Osaka also marched in Minneapolis after George Floyd‘s death. She announced on Aug. 26 that she would not play the following day’s scheduled tournament semifinal match, leading to that event stopping altogether for a day following the shooting of Jacob Blake.
The Paralympians Behind “Rising Phoenix”
Paralympic competition largely vanished in 2020, yet the summer still provided a spectacle. “Rising Phoenix,” a documentary that intertwined the history of the Paralympics with stories of nine current athletes, debuted on Netflix in August and garnered 90% positive reviews and attention from mainstream media. “It’s a story that has never been told before,” said American Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist and one of the producers for the film, with 16 percent of its staff being people with a disability. “People have an idea about what the Paralympics is, but they don’t really know the history behind it.”
Norway, Ice Hockey
In 2018, she became the second woman to play ice hockey at the Paralympics, where there is not a separate women’s tournament. In 2019, she earned her medical degree from the University of Oslo (after playing every game of the world championship tournament). In 2020, Schrøder went from working as a nurse and lab assistant in a private clinic to a doctor in the cardiology ward of Akershus University Hospital on the outskirts of Oslo. She had planned to spend that month with the national team, preparing and playing at the European Championship, which was canceled due to the pandemic. As of July, she still planned to go for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
USA, Alpine Skiing
Shiffrin endured the most difficult year of an incredible young ski racing career. Her father, Jeff, died Feb. 2, and she did not race again that winter before the World Cup season ended prematurely due to the pandemic. After 300 days between races, Shiffrin returned this autumn and won for the 67th time, a victory she had a hard time believing was possible and that felt like the first win of her life. Off the slopes, nearly $3 million was raised through the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund to aid U.S. skiers and snowboarders’ Olympic dreams amid the pandemic.
Japan, Figure Skating
A pioneer of Japanese skating — the nation’s first man to win an Olympic medal and a world title in the sport. Takahashi, now 34, came out of a four-year retirement in 2018. Then, last year, he announced a switch from singles skating to ice dance. Nobody has competed in both as Olympic medal program events, but that is Takahashi’s goal. PyeongChang Olympian Kana Muramoto and Takahashi finished second at last week’s national championships, giving hope that they can improve over the next year and grab what will likely be Japan’s sole Olympic ice dance spot.
The famous, shirtless, oiled-up flag bearer from the most recent Summer and Winter Olympics. Taufatofua qualified for his third straight Games in late February, winning an Oceania continental taekwondo qualifier. He benefited from there being just one other entrant in his weight division for the one available Olympic spot, crushing Papua New Guinea’s Steven Tommy 20-4. Taufatofua did not rest. He re-entered training for a new sport — sprint kayak — hoping to become the first athlete to compete in multiple sports at one Summer Games since 1992.
In February, the Rio Paralympian Torres and his wife created a foundation to deliver food to disadvantaged people in Bogota. It gained importance during the pandemic. “We are doing this so that many people who live of their day to day work, who used to sell fruit or other kind of food in the streets, and can no longer do so, have something to eat,” Torres, a 2019 World 97kg bronze medalist, said, according to the International Paralympic Committee.
Technically not an Olympian until she hits the roads in Sapporo on Aug. 7, but Tuliamuk secured her spot on the U.S. team with a surprise victory at the marathon trials on Feb. 29. Tuliamuk drove an Uber and crocheted while sidelined by injury for parts of the previous two years (still crochets). She entered trials seeded 10th, then beat the strongest women’s field in U.S. history. Tuliamuk wasn’t fazed by the Olympic postponement. Instead, she and partner Tim Gannon saw it as an opportunity to try and start a family. They succeeded. Tuliamuk is due with a baby girl, who will be named Zoe, on Jan. 22. She plans to return to running in time to be ready for Tokyo.
The marathon, the quintessential Olympic event marked by enduring and overcoming, produced myriad stories of resilience this year. Led by Tuliamuk, but also including Molly Seidel, who made the U.S. Olympic team in her first marathon after going public with an eating disorder battle. And trials third-place finisher Sally Kipyego, who had daughter Emma in 2017 and considered quitting — she didn’t race for 20 months due to pregnancy, childbirth and a return marked by fatigue and illness. Then there’s Sara Hall, a 37-year-old who has never made an Olympic team and dropped out of the Feb. 29 trials, yet came back to run the second-fastest marathon ever by a U.S. woman on Dec. 20. On that same day last week, Martin Hehir, an anesthesiology student with two daughters age 2 and younger who spent the previous weeks treating coronavirus patients in an intensive care unit, won the men’s race in 2:08:59, becoming the 12th U.S. man to ever break 2:09.
WNBA players, including Olympians, leading the way in activism among professional team sports goes back years. It continued in 2020, when the season was dedicated to Breonna Taylor after a 26-second moment of silence (Taylor was killed at age 26). Players also called for the ouster of Atlanta Dream co-owner, Senator Kelly Loeffler, who spoke out against the league’s social justice plans. While individuals put up incredible performances — from MVP A’ja Wilson to Finals MVP Breanna Stewart and her Seattle Storm teammate, 40-year-old Sue Bird — no collective group of athletes in any league used their voices quite like those in the WNBA.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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