There were some truly amazing moments in sports over the past year. Not only did a few teams exercise demons and curses to finally win championships, but there were some spectacular individual performances and milestones as well – especially with the Rio Olympics in August. Plus, there were many emotional, and some surprising, retirements in the world of sports over the past year. We took a look back over the year that was in sports to compile this list of the 10 best moments from 2016. Enjoy.
10. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan Retire
We thought about writing separately about the retirements of basketball superstars Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan from the NBA, but then realized that the two future Hall of Famers careers are so intricately connected, and their personal styles so different, that it became difficult to separate one from the other. During the 15 years from 1999 to 2014, Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs each won five NBA championships – combining for 10 championships between the two teams over a 15 year period. Just as the Celtics and Lakers dominated basketball in the 1980s, so did the Lakers and Spurs dominate in the 2000s.
Individual accolades aside, the two perennial All-Stars could not have more different personal styles. The best illustration of this is the way in which the two players handled their retirement from the league. Kobe announced via Twitter that the 2015-16 season would be his last, kicking off a year long “Goodbye Tour” across the NBA that culminated in a massive tribute at the All-Star game in Toronto and 60 points in his final game. In contrast, Tim Duncan waited until the season ended and then had the Spurs issue a short statement in July announcing that the two-time MVP was calling it a career. No public comment, no press conference, nothing. Tim Duncan left the NBA in the same way that he had dominated it for nearly two decades – quietly.
9. Michael Phelps Does it Again in Rio
There was a good deal of skepticism when Olympian Michael Phelps announced he would swim for Team U.S.A. at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. After all, he was over 30 years old, and hasn’t he done it all in the pool already? Once again, Phelps had his critics eating crow as he dominated men’s swimming in Rio. Announcing that he would really retire (for good this time) after the Rio Olympics, Phelps ended his career in spectacular fashion, leading the U.S. to victory in the 400-meter medley relay and concluding his career as the most decorated Olympian in history. Michael Phelps finished his swimming career, which spanned a total of five Olympics, with 28 medals – 23 of them gold. No other athlete in any Olympic sport has more than nine gold medals to their name. We’ll let you take a moment for that to sink in.
8. Dustin Johnson Wins the U.S. Open
In contrast to Phelps, who dominated his sport like no other, golfer Dustin Johnson had a reputation for blowing it. He came close to winning several of golf’s major tournaments, but always seemed to find a way to blow his lead in the final round, or even on the final few holes. Many golf analysts speculated, aloud, about whether Johnson would ever win a major title. Well, in 2016 Dustin Johnson finally got over the hump by winning the U.S. Open, one of golf’s biggest (and toughest) majors. The win was a decisive victory and forced people to reassess the golfer who had previously been dismissed as a guy who was good, but lacked the stuff to be a champion. Expectations are high for Johnson heading into 2017, as he tries to prove he’s more than a one major wonder. Can he do it again?
7. Portugal and Ronaldo Dominate Euro 2016
It was the year of Portugal in the year’s biggest soccer stories. Not only did Portugal upend France to win the European Championship in 2016, but star player Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 324th goal for Real Madrid in 2016, becoming the team’s all-time top scorer. Previously, the goal scoring record for Real Madrid had been held by legend Raul, who had taken 741 matches to score 323 goals. Ronaldo obliterated that mark by reaching 324 goals in just 310 games. Impressive. And while Ronaldo suffered anearly injury and had to sit out of the European Championship game between his country and France, there proved to be enough talent on the Portuguese squad to down France 1-0 and clinch the coveted title – the first time Portugal has won a major international tournament. The fact that Portugal managed this feat while playing the final match in enemy territory of Paris was even more reason to celebrate.
6. Penny Oleksiak Shines in the Pool at Rio
While Michael Phelps dominated the men’s swimming at the Rio Olympics, a new fresh faced teenager from Canada dominated on the women’s side. Penny Oleksiak, a Canadian competitive swimmer who was only 16-years-old, became the first Canadian to win four medals in the same Summer Games and Canada’s youngest Olympic champion ever, with a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, a silver in the 100-meter butterfly, and two bronzes in the women’s freestyle relays (4×100 meter and 4×200 meter). The young star swimmer seemed to come out of nowhere to dominate in the pool, and inspired young girls around the world. The media took an instant liking to the smiley teenager and she quickly transitioned into doing commercials and making media appearances after the Olympics, before returning to high school in September. With several more Olympics in her future, Penny Oleksiak could dominate the pool for years to come.
5. Peyton Manning’s Fairytale Ending
Longtime NFL quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning was another huge sports icon who retired in 2016. However, Manning got to go out as very few athletes do – a champion. Manning, whose arm strength and play on the field were in rapid decline during the 2015-16 NFL season, still managed to finally win his second Super Bowl in February, due largely to the strength of the Denver Broncos defense. For Manning, who had a losing record in the playoffs heading into 2016 and was embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48, winning Super Bowl 50 was sweet justice and helped to end his career on a high note. Many sports writers were forced to revisit Peyton Manning’s status among the all-time great quarterbacks after he secured himself a second Super Bowl ring. Especially now that Peyton has as many Super Bowl rings as his little brother, Eli.
4. Villanova’s Buzzer Beater
March Madness rarely disappoints, and the 2016 NCAA final turned out to be a true classic. With powerhouse North Carolina the heavy favorites to beat Villanova, it turned out to be a last second miracle play that turned the final on its head and saw Villanova crowned national champions. The championship game was close throughout, and it was incredibly exciting when North Carolina tied the game with just six seconds remaining. When North Carolina player Marcus Paige drained a three pointer to tie the game, even team alumni Michael Jordan (who was in the stands) couldn’t contain his excitement. But the thrill was short lived for North Carolina. While it looked like the game was headed to overtime, Villanova player Kris Jenkins stunned everyone by turning around and draining a deep three at the buzzer – lifting Villanova to the win as time expired. It was a miracle moment and as exciting as they come in sports.
3. The Cleveland Cavaliers Win Their First NBA Title
The past year was probably the best ever in Cleveland sports. Not only did the Cleveland Indians make it to Game 7 of the World Series, but the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA Championship. That brought the first title, in any sport, to the city in more than 50 years. Led by LeBron James, the Cavaliers erased a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to come from behind and shock everyone by beating the heavily favoured Golden State Warriors in seven games. It was a Cinderella moment for LeBron James, Cavaliers fans, and, especially, for the city of Cleveland, which has watched their professional sports teams stink for so long. The win was particularly validating for LeBron, who was heavily criticized for leaving Cleveland in 2010 and “taking his talents to South Beach” to chase championship rings. He returned to Cleveland in 2014 with a promise to win the city a title and he delivered in only his second year back. The parade held in Cleveland to mark the championship, which was attended by roughly 1.3 million people, showed how much the victory meant to the community.
2. Leicester City’s Premier League Title
How much of a long shot was Leicester City to win a Premier League title in 2016? Odds makers had the team’s chances pegged at 500/1 before a single ball was kicked. Yet Leicester shocked the sports world in 2016 by rallying to win the championship in a league that has been dominated by the bigger, richer teams for years. Making the victory more impressive was the fact that Leicester City was only one year removed from playing in the Championship, a division down from the big guns of the Premier League. Most small teams that earn promotion into the top flight struggle to survive, forget about challenging for a title. Many pundits and fans initially treated Leicester topping the table early a joke. But as the season wore on, the expected dropped points just never came. Every time some expert said “this is surely the end of the fairytale,” Leicester would pull out another impressive result, seeing off Manchester City and Tottenham as their closest challengers for most of the year. It was an unprecedented victory in every respect and it literally brought the United Kingdom to a standstill. Only Brexit was a bigger story in the U.K. in 2016.
1. The Chicago Cubs Win the World Series After 108 Years
The only thing more impressive in 2016 than Leicester City’s unlikely victory was the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Along the way, the Cubs exercised the Curse of the Billy Goat and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians in extra innings, in Game 7, in Cleveland. It was a massive moment in sports and a defining moment for generations of Cubs fans, who have had to wait more than a century for their baseball team to win a championship. It was also a huge boost for the City of Chicago, which had a difficult time in 2016 as gun violence spiraled out of control and public schools filed for bankruptcy. The World Series win seemed to put an exclamation point on a great year in sports in 2016 and was the feel-good story that shone brightest in a year where there were many golden moments for sports fans to enjoy.