The list of athletes who have overcome profound adversity to succeed in their careers and their lives is long, but while we recognize great stories of triumph from the past – such as Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson, or Martina Navratilova – it is important to chronicle a new generation of strivers who didn’t let life’s hardships and cruel blows keep them down. Here are a few athletes worth celebrating for their modern achievements in the 21st century:
Serena and Venus Williams
The story of Serena and Venus Williams rising from the mean streets of Compton, California, is well known. Richard Williams is the greatest tennis coach in history, one could argue, because he raised his two daughters in such a terrible, unsafe, impoverished environment and gave them the tools to succeed – not just tennis technique, but how to be tough, how to be calm, how to respond to every possible challenge one can think of, on and off the court. The Williams Sisters are great tennis champions, having won 30 majors between them, plus many more doubles titles. However, they are also courageous individuals in the public square, doing things in the realms of activism and philanthropy which give back to those who have less. They also stand up for their beliefs. They did not attend the Indian Wells tennis tournament – now known as the BNP Paribas Open – in Southern California because of racist treatment at the hands of fans back in the early 2000s. They waited roughly a decade and a half to come back to the tournament, and let everyone know that they were coming back on their own terms. There is a resilience to the Williams Sisters which goes beyond the tennis court. They are determined not only to win championships – which they have won a lot of – but be their own selves, not conforming to what everyone else says they should do. That, as much as the titles, is an inspiration for young Black women who pursue a life in tennis or other sports. Coco Gauff, the American teenage tennis sensation, has had these two to look up to as role models. If she wins major titles, Gauff will know that Serena and Venus helped her in a very real way to become a great athlete.
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The greatest gymnast in modern times had a mother who struggled with substance abuse. Simone Biles was helped by her grandparents, who stepped in when her mother couldn’t reasonably handle the day-to-day challenges and duties of motherhood. From this background of difficulty and instability, Biles – whose attention was turned to gymnastics because of a logistical complication on an outdoor school field trip which needed to adjust its plans – became an elite gymnast who will try to add to her Olympic medal total at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo. Biles has a combination of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. If she wins four in Tokyo, she will surpass Vitaly Scherbo (33) for the most combined Olympic and World Championship medals in the history of competitive international gymnastics.
Biles won four gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She won three individual golds and one team gold. While many elite gymnasts are teenagers, placing the prime of a gymnast’s career in the late teens, Biles – at age 23 – is hardly washed up. At 23, she has the physical strength to do well in a number of events, though her identity as the world’s greatest all-around gymnast might be seriously challenged by top competitors. According to SportsbookAudit.com Biles is still in good position to win multiple golds in Tokyo in specific disciplines pus the team competition. Getting that international record of 34 medals (Olympics and World Championships) would cement her as the greatest gymnast of all time, a label many analysts and commentators are willing to give to her.
Kayla Harrison was sexually assaulted by her judo coach. Being sexually assaulted is bad enough in any possible set of circumstances, but Harrison had to endure this severe trauma within the context of competition and training. Going to the training facility after her assault had to involve a certain degree of emotional difficulty. Training as a judo martial artist would remind her of all the suffering she endured and the nightmares which invaded her mind. It is impossible to adequately convey just how much mental and collective discipline Harrison needed to have to start over, rebuild her judo career, believe in the practice and training she was putting forth, and then rise to the top of her craft as the gold medalist in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Kayla Harrison was violated and harmed on a deep level, scarred in ways we would never want our own daughters to experience. This was a hellish path she had to walk, and yet she found enough inner peace and personal belief to rebuild everything in her life and succeed. Kayla Harrison is now a motivational speaker who talks to young people about her experience. She is giving back and turning her terrible experiences into a positive teaching tool for others. That in many ways means more than the Olympic gold medal she won.
The man profiled in the movie “The Blind Side” is an example for football players everywhere. Michael Oher’s mother was unable to conquer the demon of substance abuse. A family adopted Oher and took him under its wing. From this family, Oher had to adjust to a profoundly different cultural experience and a lot of complexities in his interactions at school and on the practice field. It is an experience few people can relate to, and there had to be moments when Oher wondered where he fit in society. Yet, Oher forged ahead and became an elite offensive linemen. He went to Ole Miss, even though Nick Saban of Alabama was in on his recruitment. He then became an NFL starting offensive lineman and helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII in February of 2013 over the San Francisco 49ers. What a journey.
The elite surfer survived a shark attack in 2003 which caused her left arm to be surgically removed. She somehow managed to not only continue her career, but win the national surfing championship in 2005. That is absolutely mind-blowing. Bethany Hamilton didn’t just have the trauma of an attack; she lost an entire limb! It is beyond comprehension. Yet, she picked herself off the canvas and became a champion surfer. That is an extraordinary display of toughness, more than most of us can imagine.