The signature Nike shirt hugged the slightly hunched frame of Tiger Woods as he teed off the most anticipated round of this year’s Masters at Augusta National. Woods has had well-documented issues in his private life and numerous back surgeries. The toll showed as he doffed his trademark black cap to the adoring crowd to reveal thinning hair damp with sweat in the mid-April heat of the Deep South.
In his first tournament in over 500 days and 408 days since the crash that nearly cost him his leg and life, the 15-time major winner finished the first day at one-under par, four shots off the lead.
He confirmed in a press conference this week that he is confident that he can win his sixth Masters title to add to the magnificent victory in 2019 following one of the great sporting comebacks. As Woods seeks to equal Jack Nicklaus’ record at the Masters to cement an already wonderful legacy, we take a look at four more inspiring sporting comebacks.
Norway and Olympique Lyonnais striker Ada Hegerberg made a stomping return to action for her national team just last night, scoring a hattrick against Kosovo after 1,719 days away. The World Cup qualifier ended 5-1 to the Scandinavian side.
Champions League all-time top scorer Hegerberg chose to boycott the national team five years ago, as she felt the Norwegian Football Federation lacked impetus in its promotion and funding of the women’s game. Although the federation promised to double the remuneration pot for women’s football, Hegerberg felt there was plenty more still to do.
So strong was the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or winner’s conviction that she missed the 2019 World Cup in France. In an interview with Euronews in 2019, she said her time with the national team left her “mentally broken”.
When she announced her return, Hegerberg said that she was excited to “get a new story started,” but did not regret her time away from the national team.
Contributing three goals in forty minutes in a 5-1 victory was a fantastic way for Hegerberg to remind her country what she can do. The result took Norway top of World Cup Qualifying Group F with 16 points, and they haven’t conceded a goal in any of their six games.
The greatest heavyweight of all time was for a time denied the chance to pursue his career and passion on grounds of his conscientious objection to conscription into the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his passport and not a single state in the union would grant him a boxing licence. From March 1967 to October 1970, a time when Ali ought to have been at his peak, he did not have a single professional fight.
“Man, I aint got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
After just 21 minutes of deliberation, Ali was found guilty of draft refusal, but was saved the $10,000 fine and five years prison time. During his inactivity, public opinion began to turn against the fruitless and costly war in Vietnam and Ali’s stance began to garner sympathy. He toured colleges, criticising the war and advocating African-American pride and racial justice.
New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote in 2013 that: “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”
In 1971, Ali fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, the enduring Fight of the Century. Both were undefeated and had a legitimate claim to be heavyweight champion of the world. Before the fight, Ali accused Frazier of being an Uncle Tom, supported by: “white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs and members of the Ku Klux Klan.” Ali proclaimed: “I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.”
Ali lost the fight by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat. Though not the victorious comeback that Ali would have wanted, to return at all and be lauded in American society as one of the greatest ever is testament to the power of his conviction in his principles. He would suffer another defeat before going on to beat George Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle at 32 years old, cementing his place as one of the all-time greats.
James R. Jordan Sr., father of NBA icon Michael, was found dead in a swamp in North Carolina in 1993 having been carjacked by two teenagers. This was the final straw for an exhausted Michael Jordan, who retired three months later following enormous pressure as a global icon and the key man in the Chicago Bulls first three-peat between 1991 and 1993.
Jordan was always extremely close with his father, who mentored him throughout his burgeoning career. According the NBA website, Jordan imitated his father while hard at work on the court.
“He dangled his tongue out of his mouth – picked up from observing his dad working on mechanical devices – as he levitated toward the basket and it became one of his first trademarks in personal style.”
Before basketball though, Jordan’s great sporting love was baseball. It was always the dream of his father that the name Michael Jordan would be remembered in the annals of Major League Baseball history rather than those of the NBA. To honour the dreams of his father, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball and signed for the Chicago White Sox’s Minor League Baseball team in 1994.
The number 23 was retired by the Bulls in the same year, until the most infamous two words in basketball history were announced in 1995.
The Bulls had been suffering without their starman, losing in the second round of the playoffs in the 94-95 season.
Concerned about becoming a replacement player due to the MLB strike in 1995, Jordan decided to return to Phil Jackson’s team.
Jordan donned the 23 again, and between 1995 and 1998, the Bulls won three more consecutive championships, making them one of the best teams in the sport’s history.
Following a controversial split decision which awarded him the win at UFC 167, Canadian MMA fighter George Saint-Pierre voluntarily vacated his welterweight title in December 2013, but the door was left ajar for a future return.
This would prove difficult though, as he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament that would require surgery. He renegotiated his contract in 2017 and reportedly agreed to financial terms of a multi-fight contract.
Saint-Pierre was scheduled to return and fight Michael Bisping in 2017, but pulled out following an eye injury and huge difficulty moving up to the require weight class. The event was postponed until November that year.
After four years out, cancellations and injuries, Saint-Pierre defeated Bisping via technical submission in the third round to become the middleweight champion. This made him the fourth person in UFC history to become a champion in multiple divisions.
The return to the octagon was the highest pay-per-view event in Canadian history and earnt him the praise of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
A bout of ulcerative colitis forced St-Pierre to vacate his middleweight title after 34 days. Primary symptoms include weight loss, fever and abdominal pain, far from ideal for a man who makes a living in the fight game.
St-Pierre’s characterful tenacity saw him express an interest in dropping down to lightweight to fight the winner of rivals Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, but UFC President Dana White vetoed it.
A full recovery was made from ulcerative colitis, but St-Pierre announced his retirement in 2019 as one of the finest fighters in the modern era.
The decisions by these athletes to take time away from the sport that promises glory, wealth and recognition the world over based on the strength of their convictions and proves that athletes are far more than they are often given credit for.
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