Top 10 – Gritty Athletes

By Hunter Swanson | Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Yesterday’s piece explained what grit was and how it is probably the most important trait an athlete can have that elevates them from good to great.  For those of you who didn’t read it, here’s the tl;dr: grit is courage and resolve; strength of character.  It is self-discipline combined with commitment and a desire to see your task through.

There are thousands of examples of athletes that have embodied grit – most wouldn’t have made it to the height of their careers if they didn’t have a strong grip on it.  From surviving rough upbringings to facing down medal challenges to overcoming cultural division, athletes’ grit can be tested at every turn.  Because of this, today’s Top 10 list is going to be in no particular order.  No one athlete’s gritty achievements really stand out above the others.  This list is composed of athletes whose grit changed their sport, inspired a generation, or faced down impossible odds and came out on top.  Here is this week’s Top 10 – Gritty Performances.

Kathrine Switzer – The Boston Marathon

Running a marathon alone is a strong indicator of an athlete’s grit.  It’s a 26.2 mile testament to their ability to push through pain to achieve a goal they can’t even physically see.  But then there’s Kathrine Switzer.  Not only did she run a marathon, but she was the first female to do it.  What makes this moment so iconic is the shot of Switzer running as race director Jock Semple tries to physically drag her down and stop her from running.  But nothing was going to stop her – not the distance, not the director, not misogyny – Kathrine Switzer was going to go the distance.

Jackie Robinson – Breaking Barriers

Do I really need to explain why Jackie Robinson, the first ever African American to play professional baseball, is on this list?  If anyone were to be the personification of the word “grit”, it would be this man.  To face down racism, death threats, opponents, and even teammates that will do everything in their power to prevent him from playing the game, Jackie Robinson’s strength of character is incomparable.  Only a man with his level of grit could have succeeded against such odds.

Edna Campbell – WNBA Cancer Survivor

To be the 10th overall pick in the 1999 WNBA draft, Edna Campbell already has a strong foundation of grit.  But what she went through during her fourth season would shake anyone – she discovered she had breast cancer.  Not only did her grit help her battle and eventually defeat the deadly disease, she would come back to the WNBA and play for a few more seasons.  In 2006, Edna’s return was voted the “most inspirational moment” in WNBA history.

Curt Schilling – Bloody Sock

Here’s the scene: the Boston Red Sox are down 3-0 in the best of seven World Series against their most hated rival, the New York Yankees.  No team in the history of baseball has ever come back from that.  Then Curt Schilling takes the mound – one of the MLB’s greatest post-season pitchers ever.  But something is wrong.  His sock is soaked in blood.  Turns out, he had a radical procedure down on some loose tendons and he was bleeding through his stitches.  This didn’t stop Schilling from putting the Red Sox and all of Boston on his shoulders and securing their first win.  They would eventually go on to win three more and be the first and only team to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win the World Series.

Michael Jordan – The Flu Game

Many believe Michael Jordan to be the greatest basketball player of all time.  You don’t get that label on sheer talent alone.  He is also one of the grittiest athletes in all of sports.  His performance in game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals is the epitome of grit.  With the series tied two apiece against the Jazz, Jordan went into this game with a serious stomach virus.  He didn’t let that stop him.  He went on to score 38 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block, and played for 44 minutes.  The Bulls won the game and the series because of Michael Jordan’s relentless grit.

Kerri Strug – Twisted Gold

1996 Olympics.  No U.S. women’s gymnastics team has ever won gold.  Teammates have fallen twice to lose the lead.  Strug needs a 9.5, a near perfect score, to secure gold.  She goes for her first run – and injures her ankle.  She gets a 9.1.  She has another jump, but can barely walk.  Kerri Strug gritted through it all and went for gold, landing her move and posed for the judges just long enough before collapsing in pain.  She got a 9.7 and won the first ever gold for U.S. women’s gymnastics.

Alonzo Mourning – Kidney Disease

During his time in the NBA, Alonzo Mourning was one of the most dominant big men in the league.  But, due to his size and his style of play, he took some serious damage over the years.  So much so that he needed some serious pain killers.  There is a chance that this could have led to Zo’s kidney failure in 2003.  But instead of retiring, Alonzo had a kidney transplant from an estranged cousin and was back in the next year.

Clint Malarchuk – Severed Carotid Artery

Most sports fans have seen the freak accident of NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk.  It’s the one where an opponent crashes into him and the guy’s skate slices Clint’s throat.  Thanks to some heroic efforts by staff, Clint was able to survive what is pretty much a death sentence for anyone else.  That alone would put Clint on this list, but the gritty/crazy part to all this is that the man was back on the ice THE NEXT WEEK.  Talk about not letting anything stand in your way – especially a near death experience.

Kirk Gibson – The Improbable Impossible

With injuries to both knees, Kirk could barely walk.  It’s Game 1 of the World Series, the Dodgers against the A’s, and Gibson is on the bench.  A’s are up 4-3, a man on first, 2 outs, and Kirk is called up to pinch hit.  He goes up against one of the greatest closers at the time, Dennis Eckersley, who hadn’t allowed a home run in 5 months.  In two pitches, Kirk goes down 0-2, but is able to work the count back to full.  Then, with two bad knees and a prayer, Gibson launches the next pitch up and over the right field wall.  The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series as well.

Aaron Fotheringham – Unstoppable Action Sport Star

Aaron Fotheringham didn’t have to overcome an injury he suffered in his sport, he didn’t have to battle racism or sexism, he didn’t make some miracle play – he was simply born different.  Aaron Fotheringham suffers from spinal bifida, a spinal defect that means he can’t use his legs.  So what does he do?  He becomes an action sport athlete doing tricks that people on skateboards and BMX bikes have a hard time pulling off.  He was the first person to successfully complete a backflip in a wheelchair at the age of 14 and the first to do a double backflip by the time he was 18.  When asked about his handicap, Fotheringham just laughs and shrugs, “They’re just wheels stuck to my butt.  How can that not be fun?!”

Bonus: Shaquem Griffin – One-Handed Standout

Imagine playing soccer with one foot.  How about football with one hand?  Shaquem Griffin doesn’t have to imagine.  Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome when the amniotic sac wrapped around his wrist while he was in the womb.  By the age of four, to alleviate excruciating pain, they amputated his hand.  Now Griffin is one of the top prospects for this year’s NFL Draft.  With athletes like Von Miller looking forward to the chance to play with the young man, there’s a great future for Shaquem Griffin – not just because of his athletic gifts, but because his grit has given him the strength to rise above the doubters and achieve his dream.