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The Greatest Athlete Comebacks in Sports History

Australia’s swimming legend and most successful Olympian, Ian Thorpe, announced last week that he would be returning to competitive swimming with a view to winning even more medals at the 2012 Olympic Games, in London. Thorpe, who is just 28 years old, originally took a break from swimming in 2006 and, at the time, refused to say he was retiring from the sport. He is now heading to Abu Dhabi and Europe to fully focus on training and preparation for the Games. It will be intriguing to see whether ‘Thorpedo’, as he is known down under, will add to his Olympic medal tally of 5 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze.

With this announcement in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some successful comebacks in world sport. In my search, I discovered many cases of successful (and unsuccessful – can anyone remember Hall of Famer and pitcher, Jim Palmer, who had a failed comeback with the Orioles in 1991?) comebacks.

You may not necessarily agree with the choice, or the order, or certain omissions (cyclist Lance Armstrong, Dara Torres, who won an Olympic swimming medal at the age of 41, or French racing driver Alain Prost to name a few) but here are my top five:

1. Niki Lauda

The Austrian driver from Formula 1 motor sport had to overcome adversity and fear to come back from a forced retirement. As defending champion, Lauda was leading the World Championships in 1976 after winning 5 races. Lauda, driving a Ferrari, had a horrific crash in the German Grand Prix in Nurburgring. The car burst into flames. With Lauda trapped in the wreckage, he was given up for dead. He suffered severe burns, extensive scarring and toxic flames damaged his lungs. Despite this, Lauda remarkably returned to the track just 6 weeks later. His successful return to the sport was confirmed with a victory in the 1977 World Championships. He repeated that feat 7 years later with a 3rd World Championship victory in 1984.

2. Mario Lemieux

Ice Hockey provides a truly amazing story of a sports player overcoming real adversity. Canadian Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux is widely recognized as one of the greatest players of all time. He won 2 Stanley Cups as a player in 1991 and 1992 and won 3 Hart Trophies (1987/88, 1992/93 and 1995/96) as NHL’s most valuable player in the regular season. However, what makes Lemieux so special is the fact that he achieved all this after overcoming terrible health problems. He can be seen as ice hockey’s equivalent to cycling’s Lance Armstrong who recovered from testicular cancer to win a record 7 Tour de France titles. Lemieux retired twice from hockey. He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma which forced his first retirement in 1997. He overcame that, returning to the NHL in 2000. In 2002 he led his country to an Olympic Gold Medal. His second and last retirement in 2006 was due to an abnormal heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation. Lemieux is now owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and has launched the Mario Lemieux foundation, which “is dedicated to raising funds for cancer and neonatal research as well as Austin’s Playroom Project, an initiative that creates sibling playrooms in medical facilities”.

3. Kim Clijsters

In tennis, Belgian Kim Clijsters, recently crowned Australian Open Champion, proves that comebacks can be successful. Clijsters left the game to start a family in 2007 but, just 2 years later, she returned to tennis and sensationally won the 2009 US Open after being offered a wildcard to take part. She has since followed up that win with another US Open triumph in 2010, and, in January she defeated Li Na to win the 2011 Australian Open – her fourth major.

4. George Foreman

Boxing is a sport where comebacks are fashionable. I could talk about the 2 Sugar Rays – Leonard and Robinson, Jack Dempsey – or even Muhammad Ali. The so-called ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ victory in 1974 in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), after 3 years out of the ring, was a hugely successful comeback for Ali. However, for me, arguably the greatest boxing comeback is from the man that Ali beat that day in Zaire – George Foreman.  Foreman who first won the heavyweight title against Frazier in 1973 stopped fighting in 1977. Ten years later he stepped back into the ring at the age of 38. After losing to both Evander Holyfield in 1981 and then Tommy Morrison in 1993, Foreman got a title shot against Michael Moore in 1994 in Las Vegas.  With a 10th round knockout (check it out on YouTube), Foreman became the oldest ever heavyweight champion at the age of 45, holding the record for the longest time between title reigns.

5. Michael Jordan

Jordan, who is acclaimed to be the greatest basketball player of all time, is my final selection. Jordan shocked world sport by announcing his retirement from NBA basketball in October 1993. At the time, Jordan was at the height of his game and had already won numerous individual honors in addition to 3 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls (1991-1993). He retired to pursue a baseball career and signed a minor league baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox. After failing to reach the big leagues, Jordan returned to basketball in 1995 and inspired the Bulls to the 1996 NBA title. He became an integral part of what many claim to be the greatest team ever. In all, after returning to basketball, Jordan won 3 further NBA titles with the Bulls (1996-1998). He did have a second retirement in 1999 and a subsequent comeback with the Washington Wizards in 2001, after taking on an ownership and executive role, but that didn’t prove to be as successful as his first.

Thorpe, in last week’s press conference, stated:

“It was on my bucket list to swim another Olympics before I was 30, along with playing James Bond, starting a rock band, being a pilot – this seemed more realistic.”

Like the other 5 athletes mentioned here, let us hope that Thorpe does have a successful comeback. I’m not sure we’re quite ready to see him in a Bond movie just yet!

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