Groundbreaking Athletes Who Paved the Way for Future Stars
There are millions of athletes around the world, but only a select few can say what they did directly paved the way for future athletes and stars. Whether it was breaking baseball’s color barrier or becoming the first woman to play Division I football, these athletes stood for something greater than sports and influenced the lives of millions.
Here are 30 groundbreaking athletes that made history.
Wearing her Adidas singlet at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Nadia Comaneci proved that nothing is, in fact, impossible. She did what no gymnast had done before; she registered a score so high that the computerized scoreboards couldn’t comprehend it. With a series of dazzling moves and twists, Comaneci, just a teenager, scored a perfect 10 at the Olympics.
Her signature routine on the uneven bars was executed to perfection, literally. The perfect 10 was the first in Olympic gymnastics and set the bar (pun intended) incredibly high. Because the scoreboard was not able to display the perfect 10, the judges had to signal that she actually scored that, much to the delight of the crowd.
What does nearly every Major League Baseball player have? Two hands. One would think having two hands would be a requisite for playing in the big leagues. That, at least for Jim Abbott, was not the case. Abbott was born without one hand and became one of the nation’s best collegiate pitchers at the University of Michigan.
He then went on to win gold at the 1988 Summer Olympics, where baseball was a demonstration event. In the 1988 MLB draft, the Angels selected Abbott in the first round. Remarkably, with the New York Yankees, Abbott threw a no-hitter. Using a creative approach, Abbott would rest his glove on his right arm and seamlessly switch it over to his throwing hand moments after releasing the ball.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King was the No. 1 female tennis player in the world for years and was widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful tennis players, regardless of gender. In 1973, former world No. 1 male tennis player Bobby Riggs, who at the time was 55 years old, challenged a 29-year-old King to a nationally televised and widely publicized match at the Houston Astrodome.
Dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” the match was the most-viewed tennis match and was viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world. The attendance for the match was 30,472, making it the largest audience for a tennis match in the U.S. King monumentally won the match in three sets and is credited with helping proliferate women’s tennis in America.
The only player to have his number unanimously retired by every team in Major League Baseball (and the first athlete to receive this kind of honor), Jackie Robinson was an American hero and professional baseball player. Today, Major League Baseball also celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, where every player on the field wears Robinson’s retired No. 42. So why does the MLB do this?
Because, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Prior to Robinson breaking the color barrier, the MLB was racially segregated, with black players being forced to play in the Negro League. Thanks to Jackie and his perseverance, the barrier was broken and paved the way for future African-American stars to play baseball at the highest level.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
They said it couldn’t be done. The threats of Mother Nature were too dangerous. The altitude was too lethal, and humans simply were not equipped to go that high. Mount Everest’s peak, they said, was reserved for the gods that called the peak home. Then a skinny New Zealand alpinist named Edmund Hillary and his expert Sherpa climbing partner Tenzing Norgay strapped on their crampons, loaded their packs, and did the impossible.
In 1953, Hillary and Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were also the first to successfully descend it. Getting up there is, after all, only half the battle. Their successful summit was part of the ninth British expedition to Everest.
The most prestigious award in college football, and arguably college sports, is the Heisman Trophy. It is awarded annually to college football’s most outstanding player. Up until Ernie Davis, that player was always Caucasian. It wasn’t that college football didn’t have great African-American athletes — it did. It was just a product of the times, a trend that had to be bucked by someone. That someone was Ernie Davis, a standout running back for Syracuse University.
In 1961, Davis broke the Heisman Trophy’s color barrier. What was primed to be a successful career at the next level was tragically cut short. Not long after being drafted first overall in the 1962 NFL, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away less than a year later. He never played a down in the NFL.
In 2018, Kalin Bennett became the first player with autism to sign a letter of intent with a Division I school. Bennett, who played high school basketball in Little Rock, Arkansas, signed with the Kent State Golden Flashes and began his freshman season in 2019. Bennett was offered a full scholarship to join the team and will be utilized as an athletic big man with a polished skill set.
More importantly, he sees himself as an inspiration to all of the kids with autism and other learning disabilities that look up to him. In 2019, Bennett scored his first points, becoming the first autistic Division I basketball player to score in a game.
The world’s most famous marathon, the Boston Marathon, was an event exclusively for men. It was a 26.2-mile race throughout eastern Massachusetts reserved for men, and men only. Then Kathrine Switzer came jogging into town, ready to break the rules and rewrite history. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to run the prestigious race as a numbered participant.
However, during the race, race official Jock Semple interceded and attempted to extricate Switzer from the course. Wrong move. Switzer’s boyfriend, Thomas Miller, was not going to stand for this and shoved the official to the pavement, allowing Switzer to continue running. In 1972, the marathon officially opened its gates to women.
The Tour de France is the most famous and prestigious bicycle race in the world. It’s probably the only bicycle race most people have even heard of, to be frank. The race, which, to no one’s surprise, takes place in France, was traditionally dominated by Europeans. Europe, at large, has a huge cycling culture that is not found in America, a country that is more focused on team sports like basketball and football.
In 1986, LeMond captured the nation’s attention when he won the Tour de France, becoming the first non-European to win the Tour. He also effectively ended European supremacy in the sport. LeMond would win the race two more times before retiring from the sport.
John Baxter Taylor
Today, the Olympics are a very colorful event, literally. People of all shapes and sizes, colors and countries are represented at the world’s greatest multiday sporting event, the Olympics. Flags of all nations fly as athletes from around the globe compete against one another. However, that inclusion, unity, and celebration of diversity wasn’t always present.
In America, the Olympics were a predominantly white occurrence. Yet, in 1908, John Baxter Taylor of Philadelphia became the first African-American to win Olympic gold. Taylor was a member of the United States’ gold-medal-winning men’s medley relay. Sadly, he passed away from typhoid fever only a few months after making history.
Becca Longo was a dominant high school football kicker at Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona. The success she had garnered national attention for the dual-sport athlete, and Adams State University, a Division II school located in Colorado, came knocking.
In 2017, Adams State offered Longo a scholarship, making her the first woman to earn a college football scholarship to a Division I or II school. A hero for millions of girls looking to get into football, Longo’s college career has not gotten off on the right foot. As a freshman, Longo injured her foot and missed the season. On Twitter, she announced her intention to transfer from Adams State.
Wrestlers, especially the Division I kind, are an incredibly tough bunch of people. It takes balance, strength, determination, and an endless reserve of toughness and stamina to compete and succeed in the highest level of collegiate wrestling. And 99.9% of said collegiate wrestlers are doing so with two legs and two arms.
That, however, was not the case for Arizona State’s Anthony Robles. Robles was born with only one leg, but he didn’t use that as an excuse, and became a prolific high school wrestler. After receiving minimal Division I interest, Robles settled at Arizona State. As a senior, he went undefeated, became a Pac-10 champion, and won the national championship at the 125-pound weight class.
Another record that was thought to be humanly impossible was the 4-minute mile. It was too fast, too strenuous, and not feasible. Humans, they said, were not built for that kind of speed. Well, common thought and belief would be shattered by a pencil-thin Englishman by the name of Roger Bannister.
After the 1952 Olympics, Bannister set out to become the first person to run a sub-4-minute mile, and in 1954, at a track in Oxford, England, Banner achieved his goal. The most impressive part of Bannister’s superhuman sprint was the minimal training he did for it. At the time, he was training to become a doctor and could only dedicate so much time to running. His record lasted all of 46 days.
Reinhold Messner should be a synonym for adventure and badass. Initially, people thought Mount Everest couldn’t be conquered. Then it was. So the next assumption people made was that it couldn’t be conquered alone. Or without the use of supplemental oxygen. Enter Italian (of German heritage) Reinhold Messner.
In 1978, Messner conquered Mount Everest alone, marking the first successful solo ascent of the world’s highest peak. He also did it without oxygen tanks, marking the first time a climber summited the daunting peak breathing just the (thin) air around them. After Everest, Messner became the first climber to summit all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters above sea level.
Let’s ignore the controversy surrounding South African runner Oscar Pistorius and appreciate him for what he did as an athlete. Nicknamed “Blade Runner,” Pistorius had his feet amputated at just 11 months old due to a birth defect. As a youth, Pistorius got involved in sprinting and quickly became one of the world’s top disabled athletes.
Then he became a Paralympic champion while petitioning the governing bodies to let him compete with able-bodied athletes. After years of petitioning, Pistorius won a monumental battle and was allowed to run with able-bodied athletes. In 2012, he made Olympic history, becoming the first double-leg amputee to partake in the Olympics.
Before Katie Hnida, there was Ashley Martin. A soccer player for the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks (surprisingly not located in Florida), Martin walked on to the Division I FCS (lower than FBS) football team, where she would make football history.
On August 30, 2001, Martin became the first woman to play in and score points in a Division I football game, kicking three successful extra points on three attempts in a landslide victory over Cumberland University. After the moment of a lifetime, Martin remained humble in her triumphs. “I didn’t do a thing,” she said. “All these guys put all the heart and hard work in it.”
Jim MacLaren had it all going for him. He was a star football and lacrosse player at the prestigious Yale University. His future was bright, and then it nearly ended. MacLaren was struck by a bus while training and needed to be shocked back to life. When he awoke in the hospital, his left leg below the knee was gone.
MacLaren channeled his energy into running and triathlons and become the world’s premier amputee runner and athlete. He ran a 3:16 marathon and finished the world’s most grueling triathlon — the Hawaii Ironman in Kona, Hawaii — in 10:42. Tragically, in 1993, MacLaren would get struck by a van while competing in a triathlon in Southern California, rendering him a quadriplegic.
Today, the NBA is all about the three-point shot. Gone are the days of extensive passing and playing as a five-man team. Instead, us fans watch players like Devin Booker dribble up the court and launch a deep three. Yes, they are making it with impressively high accuracy, but the three has taken away from the beauty of basketball.
However, jacking up 30- and 40-foot shots wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 1979 NBA season, teams were unable to shoot threes because the league had yet to implement it. Then, in 1979, the game would change forever. Chris Ford, of the Boston Celtics, is credited with making the first three-pointer in NBA history when he sunk a three on October 12, 1979.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith
The Olympics, in theory, is an apolitical event. It’s a time where politics are pushed aside and the focus is purely on the sport. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, like in 1968 (and at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith finished third and first, respectively, in the 200 meters.
On the podium, the two American sprinters removed their shoes and donned black gloves on their raised fists. They were calling attention to poverty in America and racism. The iconic moment captured one of the most internationally recognized demonstrations at an athletic event. Since then, athletes have used their podium, both figuratively and literally, to call attention to injustices.
Kobe Bryant was the first player in NBA history to have at least 30,000 career points and 6,000 career assists. On top of that, he was one of only four players with 25,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, and 6,000 assists. For two decades, Kobe has continued to play through obstacles on and off the court.
Bryant’s loyalty has forever changed the Lakers’ franchise and it paid off with five championships and an incredible legacy. Bryant was known for record-breaking points and groundbreaking performances – one of which was in 2006 where Bryant single-handedly scored 81 points.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were an expansion team, and during the team’s first season, management and ownership wanted to generate some much-needed publicity and hype for south Florida’s first NHL team. To generate publicity, the Lightning signed Manon Rhéaume to play in a 1992 preseason exhibition game.
Rhéaume thus became the first woman to suit up for an NHL team, and she fared pretty well. She allowed two goals and made some impressive stops, generating praise from her NHL peers for her poise and ability. After her brief NHL stint, Rhéaume went on to win a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Katie Hnida started her college football career as a walk-on at the University of Colorado. Although she never took the field for the Buffaloes, Hnida did become the second woman to suit up for games at the Division I level, and the first to do so in a bowl game at the FBS level. In 2002, Hnida transferred to the University of New Mexico, where she again walked on to the football team.
As a Lobo, Hnida became the first woman to play in a Division I FBS bowl game when she kicked in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA. Although her kick was blocked that game, Hnida would go on to make history on August 30, 2003, when she became the first woman to score in a Division I FBS game, kicking two extra points in a blowout win against Texas State University.
At age 18, Cassius Clay became an Olympic gold medalist after pummeling his way through the 1960 Summer Olympics. One year later, Clay converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali. In 1964, an outspoken Ali, just 22, became the world heavyweight champion after defeating Sonny Liston. Considered the top boxer in the world, Ali was also vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War and, in 1966, refused to draft into the military.
For his actions, Ali was arrested and stripped of his boxing titles. Finally, in 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but not before he missed nearly four years of fighting in his prime. For his actions, Ali gained a massive following and became a godlike figure and symbol of resistance during the counterculture movement.
While Danica Patrick is the butt of many jokes for the high frequency with which she wrecks cars and bombs out of races, she is a groundbreaking athlete nonetheless. To date, Patrick is statistically the most successful woman in American open-wheel racing.
In 2008, she won the Indy Japan 300, becoming the only woman to win an IndyCar Series race. In 2005, she was named the Rookie of the Year for both the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and 2005 IndyCar Series. She also finished third place once at the Indy 500, the highest finish by a woman, ever. After open-wheel racing, Patrick transitioned to stock car racing (NASCAR).
Considered one of the greatest female basketball players ever, Becky Hammon suited it up for the San Antonio Stars and New York Liberty of the WNBA, where she was a six-time All-Star. She’s also a two-time Olympian representing the Russian national team (that you’ll have to read about elsewhere).
After retiring from playing, Hammon took up coaching, and in 2014, the Spurs hired Hammon as an assistant coach. With that, she became the second female assistant coach in NBA history and the league’s first female full-time assistant coach. That distinction also made her the first full-time female assistant coach in any of North America’s four major professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL).
“The pins don’t recognize who is throwing the ball, whether it is a girl or a guy,” said Kelly Kulick. But everyone in the bowling world will recognize her. That’s because she is the first woman to ever qualify to play on the PBA Tour. Then she one-upped that accomplishment by becoming the first woman to win the PBA Tour title.
In 2010, Kulick stormed through the competition en route to a win at the 45th Tournament of Champions, one of the four majors on the PBA circuit. With that win, Kulick earned herself a nice $40,000 prize and a two-year exemption to continue playing on the predominantly male PBA Tour.
Again, please ignore the steroid controversy that surrounded Lance Armstrong after it was revealed he was a serious steroid user, tainting his record seven Tour de France victories. In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with a fatal type of testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. Doctors gave Lance an almost 0% chance of living.
Needless to say, the prognosis for Lance was grim. However, Lance fought the disease and returned to competitive cycling (yes, with the aid of steroids), becoming the world’s preeminent cyclist. For his efforts, he was also dubbed an American hero and a beacon of hope to cancer patients and survivors.
LeBron James was not the first 18-year-old to enter the NBA. High schoolers had made the leap prior to James, with plenty of them being successful (Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, to name a few). The difference with James, though, was the global hype he received while still playing high school ball at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. In high school, James was being interviewed on ESPN.
His games were nationally televised; people began comparing him to NBA greats. The pressure was unreal, the expectations almost unbelievable. And how did James, the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft, handle it? Masterfully, unlike anything sports fans have ever seen. He may be a polarizing character, but he was burdened with insane expectations and lived up to them like no athlete had ever done before.
Nobody got higher than Junko Tabei, nobody. Born in Miharu, Japan, Junko was interested in climbing and mountaineering from a young age but was considered weak. Not interested in what others thought of her, Junko pursued mountaineering as a hobby throughout her time in college. After she completed her degree, she upped the ante and began doing high-elevation expeditions.
In 1975, Junko Tabei defied gender norms and expectations and summited the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest. After Mount Everest, located between Nepal and China, Junko decided to tackle the remaining mountains in the Seven Summits group (each of the seven continents’ highest peaks) — becoming the first woman to do so.
While LeBron James made this list for what he was able to do at such a young age, Tom Brady is here for the exact opposite reason. Like a fine wine, Brady has seemingly gotten better with age. In the early part of his career, Brady won three Super Bowls before a lengthy hiatus. Now, approaching his mid-40s, Brady has added another three rings to his collection.
He is the oldest player to win an MVP Award and the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Brady, unsurprisingly, also holds the record for the oldest Super Bowl MVP. What he is doing is simply defying the laws of nature. He’s playing the most physical sport on the planet, aging, and, somehow, getting better. In short, Brady is proving that age, like the two digits on his jersey, is just a number.
An ACL tear is a very common injury in the NFL. And the accompanying surgery and rehab is also fairly normalized at this point. However, most people who suffer the injury need a year off from football, and a large number of those players don’t come back as a facsimile of their pre-injury self. Don’t tell that to Adrian Peterson.
The future Hall of Famer back tore his knee late in the 2011 season. Nine months later, Peterson was back on the field. And when the season ended, he was the league’s MVP. He left doctors and medical experts speechless and clueless as to how he did it. He ran for 2,097 yards, just eight yards short of the NFL rushing record. Therefore, Peterson is the gold standard for coming back from knee injuries.