Gutsiest Sports Performances of All Time – Part 2
Sports by their very nature are defined by athletes accomplishing physical feats. In that vain there is always drama and always the possibility of injury. It doesn’t matter which sport it is. A broken bone is a broken bone and a torn muscle is a torn muscle no matter if it happened on a football field or a golf course. The second part of this series will examine some of the lesser appreciated sports in the United States and the amazing stories sports fans should get to know.
Hockey – Steve Yzerman and The Crooked Knee
Most people remember Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman as the center piece of a dynasty. A 10-time All-Star, he is the sixth-ranked scorer in NHL history, has won awards for his offense and defense as well as performances in the playoffs. Most importantly he won three Stanley Cups. For Detroit fans though it is the historic manner in which won the third that they will forever view him as one of the greatest players in hockey history.
During the 2001-2002 season the Red Wings were still contenders in the Western Conference but their hopes of another championship took a near fatal hit when Yzerman re-aggravated a gruesome knee injury. It was so bad that even after surgery it healed back crooked and remained very painful. Yzerman missed 30 games during the season. When he returned for the second half and the playoffs, people could plainly see he was practically skating on one leg. Yet his incredible skill allowed him to still rank sixth on the team in scoring.
It didn’t take long for the feel-good tale to take a dark turn. Detroit entered the playoffs and promptly went down two games to none against the Vancouver Canucks. So in Game 3, with the series and the season in the balance, the Red Wings got a huge boost from their leader. Yzerman scored the only goal of the first period. His teammates followed his lead and Detroit won the game 3-1. Two days later in Game 4, he scored the go-ahead goal in the third period that proved to be the winning score of the game. From there the Red Wings rode their momentum home where they wrapped up the series.
This continued into the semi-finals where the team easily dispatched the St. Louis Blues in five games, setting up a titanic grudge match against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals. There Yzerman’s leadership was truly on display. After Colorado took a 3-2 series lead, he told the media and his teammates that the only way they could pull it out was to play smarter. Detroit won the last two games by a score of 9-0.
By that point their opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Carolina Hurricanes, had no chance. Though Yzerman didn’t score a goal he had four assists for four points and helped his team win their third Stanley Cup in five games. It was his last championship. He retired in 2006. There is no doubt though that it was the sweetest.
Olympics – Shun Fujimoto and The Busted Cap
Everyone in the world will immediately jump on Nancy Kerrigan for winning silver in figure skating after the famed mugging orchestrated by fellow American Tonya Harding or Kerri Strug and her iconic vault to clinch gold for U.S. gymnastics despite breaking her ankle. There is no question those events deserved the spotlight they got because they were undoubtedly heroic. However the true depth of Olympic guts belongs to a gymnast almost no American has ever heard of.
Back in the 1970s, at the heart of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the premier power in Olympic gymnastics, women and men. However, they were playing second fiddle for the past sixteen years to the dynasty of that era, Japan. Their men’s team had won gold in every Olympics since 1960. They hoped to do it again. At the heart of their team was a little known replacement named Shun Fujimoto. As the all-around team competition progressed it became clear that the Soviets were not letting up in their pursuit of finally dethroning the champions. Japan knew it needed a nearly flawless performances down the stretch to hang on to their lead. At 26-years old, Fujimoto was old enough to sense the moment. It was up to him to lead the way.
When it was time for the floor exercise he began his routine but during the act felt his right kneecap break. He still finished but with such a bad injury would certainly have to withdraw from the competition. Doctors stated that the way gymnasts use their knees and legs for explosion and landings, a dislocated knee is catastrophically painful. Yet Fujimoto, sensing the Soviets lurking, refused to tell his trainers what had happened. He competed in two more events, scoring an incredible 9.5 on the pommel horse and an even more amazing 9.7 on the rings. On his final dismount, he landed perfectly, right as the rest of the knee dislocated and ligaments tore. He collapsed to the ground in agony.
Japan defeated the Soviets 576.850 to 576.450. It was the closest match in team Olympic gymnastics history.
Fujimoto became a hero back home, but admitted later he couldn’t bring himself to do it again if the situation were played over. Not that it matters. Nobody can take that incredible day away from him.
Golf – Tiger Woods and The Double Fracture
Leading up to the 2008 U.S. Open it was clear ace golfer Tiger Woods, winner of 13 major championships, was not feeling like himself. He’d only recently gone through two months of rehab following knee surgery and was clearly still in pain. Regardless he decided to give the championship a go. Things did not start well. Hurting and still rusty after two months off, Woods shot one over par in the first round. It grew so bad at times that he would bend over in agony after drives because of the torque on the knee. Other golfers were amazed he finished the round. They were even more amazed when he returned the next day.
After falling to +3 through his first nine holes on Day 2, he found his rhythm on next nine, hitting four straight birdies. This drew him into second place and one stroke behind the leader. It wasn’t until Round 3, or “Moving Day” as golf enthusiasts call it, that things got crazy. Through his first twelve holes Woods couldn’t do anything right. He shot three over for the day and one over for the tournament. Thenm out of nowhere he sank an eagle on the 13th hole, countered another bogey with a chip-in birdie at the 17th, and shook the golf world up with a stunning 60ft eagle putt on 18. Somehow Woods shared the lead going into Round 4 without ever losing the grimace of pain on his face.
It only got more unbelievable from there. On his first two holes the next day he double-bogeyed and bogeyed, dropping three strokes. He got two of those back with a birdie scramble at 9 and 11 but quickly lost them again at 13 and 15. This left him one stroke behind leader Rocco Mediate going onto the 18th. Tiger needed a birdie just to force a playoff. It didn’t look good when he hooked his tee shot into a bunker and then hit a bad layup shot past the fairway and into the rough. On the advice of his caddie, Woods switched wedge clubs to make sure his ball didn’t roll past the hole, which was 101 yards away. His third shot, which golfers later said was close to impossible, landed fifteen feet short of the hole. From there, on a green that was notoriously bumpy and considered poor quality, Tiger curled in the putt to force a playoff.
This was good and bad news at the time. Good because Woods had a chance at his 14th major. Bad because it wasn’t sudden death, one hole playoff rules. He and Mediate would have to play another 18 holes on Day 5 to decide the winner. The round was a classic back and forth battle with Woods unable to shoot with any consistency. At one point he held a three-stroke lead but lost it when he bogeyed twice on the back nine and Rocco birdied twice, Tiger once again had to birdie the 18th for a tie. Thankfully this time his drive was perfect. He reached the par 5 green in two. When Mediate missed a potential clinching birdie putt, Wood put his eagle putt within three feet and sank the birdie to force a sudden death 19th hole.
Ever focused and defiant he reached the green in two while Mediate could no longer control his shots. His resulting quest to the green afforded Tiger two putts to clinch an unforgettable championship match. It wasn’t until later that word began to spread Woods would have to end his 2008 season early. Apparently against the advice of doctors he had played the Open with two stress fractures in the tibia bone of his knee suffered during rehab. Any golfer will say playing with a sprain or cramps is hard enough. The fact Woods won a prestigious championship in five rounds of golf on a broken knee made it a performance worthy of legends.