On Dec. 14, Sports Illustrated will announce its 2015 Sportsman of the Year.
There are 12 nominees, including a horse:
Over the next month, SI will post essays making the case for each candidate. The essays will be collected here. I can’t wait for the one about the horse.
The Sports Illustrated award is a big deal. It’s been presented annually since 1954, when the winner was Roger Bannister, a British medical student who that year became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes.
You can see all 61 of the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year covers here.
The honorees since Bannister form a brother- and sisterhood of athletic virtuosity:
Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Derek Jeter …
Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning …
Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James …
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods …
Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky …
Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe …
John Wooden, Dean Smith and Coach K …
Collectively, the U.S. women’s soccer team won in 1999, the last year before this one in which the Americans triumphed in the World Cup.
The circle is an exclusive one. Just look at some of the superstars who didn’t make the cut:
Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente …
Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, Kobe …
Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Martina Navratilova, the Williams sisters …
Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice …
So, yeah. Being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is special.
That said, one or two past choices stand out as ill-advised when viewed through the finely polished lens of history.
In 2002, for example, this loathsome mountebank still had the world believing that he’d never taken performance enhancing drugs or engaged in anything so ghastly as blood doping; that he won year after year simply because he was the world’s best cyclist; and that the murky questions swirling around him even then were the fruits of petty jealousies, cutthroat rivalries, invasive inspection and testing protocols, and a biased, malicious French press.
Only much later would we learn the truth: that he was a grifter to the bone. This Sportsman of the Year, a pathological narcissist, cared no more about sportsmanship than he did about a squashed bug.
Then there was this cheesy paean, from 1998,
We may have thought — or wished — that these two really were gods of baseball, but as it turned out, they were just a couple of chemically engineered goons.
The chemicals made their biceps swell to cartoon-like proportion. That helped them (and dozens like them) club baseballs with a bat. Beyond that, though, they had all the athleticism — and authenticity — of pro wrestlers.
To properly credit their feats, we now know, we should have bestowed tunic and wreath, and the eminence that they symbolize, on the era’s true sports star:
The Anabolic Steroid.
Such blotches, however, are rare in the annals of the Sports Illustrated prize. Almost every year, it goes to someone worthy of a place among the greatest of the great.
That’s the rarefied stratum where Lloyd now belongs, according to Wahl.
As SI’s chief soccer writer, he has covered the U.S. women’s team through the past three World Cup cycles. He also covered the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics. He’s spent hundreds of hours observing Carli Lloyd’s game.
He points to two qualities that elevate her above other footballers:
Her superhuman work ethic, and
Her gift for playing best when the stakes are highest.
James Galanis, Lloyd’s soccer mentor and personal coach, evangelizes about the importance of “training when nobody is watching.” The best players, he says, push themselves to keep improving, even when others have walked off the practice pitch. Especially when others have walked off the practice pitch.
In the off-season, Wahl writes, Galanis makes sure Lloyd is training “twice a day, seven days a week, including on holidays — knowing full well that the competition is not.”
Lloyd made jaws drop with her third goal in the World Cup final.
She had the ball at midfield, a good 50 yards from the goal, when she spotted Ayumi Kaihori, the Japanese keeper, far off her line. To everyone’s surprise, and most particularly Kaihori’s, Lloyd let it rip.
Her shot rose along a long, tight arc before dropping just beyond the grasp of the frantically backpedaling keeper. Kaihori got a hand on it as she tumbled awkwardly to the ground, but it wasn’t enough. The ball bounced once in front of the net, then went in.
Wahl calls it “the greatest goal in U.S. soccer history.”
What few people know is that it wasn’t a fluke: Lloyd didn’t just swing hard at the ball and get lucky. Wahl writes that she and Galanis have practiced the shot for years, “on an empty field in New Jersey, far from any crowds.”
As memorable as the missile from midfield was, Lloyd’s performance that day was what her teammates have come to expect. Like Hamm and Akers, Lilly and Foudy, Wambach and Solo, Lloyd usually shines brightest when the spotlights are turned up.
“If the greats are measured by how they perform on the most important occasions,” Wahl writes, “then Lloyd now deserves her place among them. That’s what happens when you score six goals in the final four games of World Cup 2015. … That’s what happens when you have scored the winning goals in two Olympic finals, in 2008 and ’12. And that’s what happens when you pull off one of the greatest individual performances ever in a World Cup final, men’s or women’s.