West Des Moines, Iowa
When she was nine months old, Johnson announced her intentions to be a gymnast by dismounting from her crib. Now, at 15, she is the U.S. and world all-around champion. At the worlds in September, Johnson also took gold in the floor exercise and helped the U.S. to its third team title. The biggest test for the 4'8", 88-pound gymnast, who has yet to lose an all-around competition in the senior division, will come this summer in Beijing. "I am willing to put in 100 times more effort," she said, "and come back with another gold medal."
At a time when women's tennis has (allegedly) never been deeper, Henin can barely see the rest of the field in a rearview mirror. Her gilded 2007 included the French and U.S. opens, an almost tacky 63--4 match record and a WTA-record $5.43 million in prize money. This was nothing new. Henin, 25, has inhabited the rankings penthouse for most of the past four years. But this was, as her coach Carlos Rodriguez puts it, "a new Justine." In the past Henin has been fueled by conflict, most notably her estrangement from her father and siblings. After separating from her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, last January, Henin reconciled with her family, and the steely intensity was replaced with calm. "It was a great year for me," she says, "and not only because of my tennis."
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
They do not run, they float, transforming a race into an athletic ballet. Exhausting effort is hidden by an outward calm until a final, breathtaking kick splinters the field. They make the very difficult look very easy. Between them they have five world championships, one Olympic gold medal and three world records, yet Defar is only 24 years old and Dibaba 22.
They are their nation's second generation of female distance runners, following the path hewed in the 1990s by Olympic gold medalists Fatuma Roba and Derartu Tulu and world champions Berhane Adere and Gete Wami. Defar, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 meters, was unbeaten in 2007, including a sensational world record of 14:16.63 in the 5,000 last June (nearly eight seconds faster than the old mark) and the world championship three months later. Dibaba, who got her first world title in the 5,000 meters as an 18-year-old prodigy in 2003, won the world championship in the 10,000 meters, seven months after breaking the indoor world record in the 5,000. Over the last seven years they've gone head-to-head 22 times, with Defar winning 13 of the races.
However, the two are not close friends: In 2003 Dibaba was poised to earn a $125,000 Golden League jackpot if she won the 5,000-meter race in Berlin. On the day before the race she said of Defar, "She is like a sister to me." Then Defar outkicked her the next night, denying her the money. At the Beijing Olympics next summer it is not only a matter of how many medals these two will win, but of who might deprive the other of gold.
Dois Riachos, Brazil
Ignore everything she did last year except for five seconds in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 27, and the striker would still deserve a place on this list. In Brazil's 4--0 dismantling of the U.S. in the semifinals of the Women's World Cup, she took a pass with her back to the goal, flicked the ball behind herself, spun around Tina Ellertson, regained possession, juked Cat Whitehill and slotted the ball past goalkeeper Briana Scurry. It was the prettiest goal anyone, man or woman, scored in 2007. Of course, Marta did more—she had seven goals in the tournament—but it was how she did it that was so impressive. Led by Marta, Brazil played with a flair heretofore unseen in the women's game. All she's missing is a World Cup—Brazil lost to Germany 2--0 in the final—and an Olympic gold. Give her time, though. She's only 21.
Walking through airports in her Tennessee warmups, the 6'3" Abbott was often mistaken for a member of the Lady Vols basketball team. She doesn't dunk, but Abbott, 22, whips a mean, 72-mph rise ball down the pipe and was arguably the most dominant pitcher in NCAA history. With Abbott as their ace, the Lady Vols went to the Women's College World Series for the first time, advancing to the semifinals in '05 and '06 and then the title game last spring. As a senior she made 52 starts and won 50 times, ringing up 29 shutouts, an 0.68 ERA and a Division I--record 724 strikeouts. In August, Abbott led the U.S. to its sixth straight Pan Am Games gold medal; next summer, with Abbott on the mound, the Americans will be favored to win their fourth straight Olympic gold.
Tsu Mie, Japan
There's one surefire way an athlete can end a debate over who is the best in his or her sport: never lose. That's been the argument made by Yoshida, 25, from the time she won a Japanese national title in 2002 through her fifth straight world championship, at 55 kilograms (121 pounds), in September—a 115-match winning streak. What's more, Yoshida has won every international competition she has entered, beginning in 1998 and including the Olympic gold medal in '04. Competitors have begun to assume a defensive stance to avoid Yoshida's aggressive double-leg tackle, so she has been honing new moves for the Beijing Olympics. Her goal: "I want to stay undefeated until I retire," she says.
How charmed was this 15-year-old's season? After breaking five world records and winning nine gold medals at the paralympic world championships in December 2006, Long went on to beat, among others, a decorated Olympian (Michael Phelps), an NCAA basketball champion (Joakim Noah) and a Heisman Trophy winner (Troy Smith) for the Sullivan Award, given to the nation's best amateur athlete. Adopted by American parents from a Russian orphanage when she was 13 months old, Long was born without fibulas, ankles and heels, and had her legs amputated before she was two. Growing up, she used sports as physical therapy, pursuing basketball, gymnastics and rock climbing. But it was in the pool where she found the most success. Long, who began swimming competitively in 2002, won three gold medals at the '04 Paralympic Games and will be looking for more in Beijing.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Santa Clara, Calif.
To find a partnership as successful and enduring as this one, you have to step beyond the world of sports. How far beyond? Well, as May-Treanor (above, right) put it while accepting the AVP Crocs Tour Team of the Year award in October, "I feel like Sonny and Cher." Of course, that duo didn't top the charts nearly as often as the 30-year-old May-Treanor and the 29-year-old Walsh, who extended their dominance in the women's game to seven years by winning 13 of the 15 AVP events they competed in and seven of eight FIVB titles in 2007. Total victories as a team over that span: 83. Moreover, the 2004 Olympic gold medalists each passed Holly McPeak, May-Treanor's partner early in her career, to become No. 1 (May-Treanor, 89) and No. 2 (Walsh, 86) on the beach volleyball alltime wins list.
The tranquil May-Treanor and the bubbly Walsh (above, left) are married to professional athletes: May-Treanor's husband, Matt Treanor, is a backup catcher for the Florida Marlins, while Walsh's husband, Casey Jennings, is a top beach volleyball pro. What makes this partnership work are their shared attributes on the beach—great range, quickness, balance, versatility, chemistry, good communication and, as one coach observed, "killer instinct." And don't forget mutual appreciation. Said May-Treanor upon receiving her fourth consecutive AVP Best Offensive Player award. "I wouldn't be the best offensive player if I didn't have a great setter. She serves me up nectar."
The 21-year-old had an easy time gliding through the water at the world championships in August, winning five medals, including golds in the 200 and 400 free. Her life out of the pool, however, was turbulent. Last May, Manaudou, who broke the 18-year-old world record in the 400 free in 2006, left her longtime coach Phillipe Lucas and moved to Italy to be with her then fiancé, swimmer Luca Marin. By the fall Manaudou had been kicked off her Italian club, broken up with Marin, moved back to France, named her 22-year-old brother, Nicolas, as her coach and begun dating French swimmer Benjamin Stasiulis. Still she has maintained her focus. At a FINA World Cup event in November—her first meet in three months—she broke the European record in the 200 free, proving she can still live up to her nickname: L'Or (Gold) Manaudou.
Sure she is strong and fast, coach Vitaly Petrov says of his star pupil, but it's Isinbayeva's instinct, body control and ability to execute each stage of the vault with split-second perfection that enables her to sustain her remarkable winning streak. Since July 2004 the former gymnast has won every major world competition she's entered, including the last four championships (two indoor, two outdoor), and the Athens Olympics. In '07 Isinbayeva, 25, won all 18 competitions she entered, and she has broken the indoor and outdoor records a total of 20 times—most recently the indoor mark, raising it to 4.93 meters (16'2 1/10") last February. No other woman has come within five inches of her '05 outdoor record of 5.01 meters (16'5 1/4"). "Maybe if [others] would jump 4.80 meters," she said after winning the '07 worlds, "I would feel more pressure and jump higher."
With her giggly personality and mouth full of braces, she doesn't have a forbidding presence. But Fernandes, 22, will run you down. At the triathlon world championships in August, she finished 12th out of 13 competitors in the swim, moved up one spot after the bike phase, then calmly dusted the field in the 10-kilometer run to win the world title—with a minute to spare. Since 2004 Fernandes has won 18 of 19 World Cup events, and her 19 total victories on the circuit tied her with Australia's Emma Carney for the career record. The daughter of former pro cyclist Venceslau Fernandes, Vanessa has taken the last four European titles. Most of her victories have mirrored her performance at the worlds: marked by a furious, punishing rally and a smile at the finish.
She is known as the diving princess, and for the last six years Guo has been nothing short of majestic. She swept the solo and synchronized gold medals at all four world championships since 2001 and also at the Olympics in '04. At the worlds last March, Guo, 26, beat teammate Wu Minxia by a convincing margin and then joined Wu to dominate the synchronized event. (The runners-up finished more than 37 points behind.) Guo, who began diving when she was six, stood out at an early age for her exceptional grace and spatial awareness. After finishing fifth on the 10-meter platform at the 1996 Atlanta Games, she concentrated on springboard and became the finest three-meter diver in history. At the same time she became a major celebrity in China, where she appears in commercials, fashion shows and gossip columns. Guo has already announced that she will retire after the Beijing Olympics, ending her run as one of the greatest divers—male or female—of all time.
How did the Seattle Storm's 6'5" center respond after doctors suggested that she take a year off and have surgery on a stress fracture in her shin? She played for six months of her off-season in the world championships (helping Australia win the gold) and for pro teams in South Korea and Russia. When Jackson rejoined the Storm in May, she was 20 pounds lighter, a step quicker and feeling, she says, "10 times better physically." Though Seattle had only a 17--17 season, Jackson, 26, led the WNBA in scoring (23.8 points, a career best) and rebounding (9.7 boards) en route to winning the league's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Best of all, Jackson believes she has yet to reach her peak. "My game is developing," she says. "I'm just getting better and better."
Stratton Mountain, Vt.
After her infamous showboat move cost her a gold medal at the Turin Olympics in 2006, Jacobellis got serious. She won her second straight snowboard cross world championship last January, picked up a silver medal at the X Games one week later and topped off the season in March with back-to-back World Cup victories at Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid, N.Y., to win her first Cup title. After dabbling in the halfpipe—and finishing second at the last stop on the Grand Prix circuit—Jacobellis, 22, is concentrating on snowboard cross this season, and is already off to a promising start. With a win in the SBX opener in Chile in September, she was the leader in total World Cup points at year's end.
Los Angeles, Calif.
In a sport riven by drug scandals, any woman reaching for a crown once worn by Marion Jones can't merely be fast—she must possess believability. Felix fits the bill, carrying herself with class while welcoming scrutiny with the same smile she wears in competition. And she is fast. Felix won an Olympic silver medal in the 200 meters in 2004 and has since added two world titles. Last summer at the world championships she won the 200 in 21.81 seconds, the fastest time in the world in eight years, and added relay medals in the 4 √ó 100 meters and the 4 √ó 400 meters. "She can dominate both [the 200 and 400] if she wants to," says Olympic medalist Frankie Fredericks. In fact, Felix, 22, hopes to become the second woman to win four gold medals in track and field at a single Games, combining two sprints (the 200 and either the 100 or 400) with two relays.
International women's skating was taken over by the Ando and Asada Show last season, as the pair dazzled judges with an array of turbo jumps and regularly battled each other for the top spot on the medal stand. Last December, Asada, 17, edged Ando, 20, to win the Japanese national title. Three months later Ando got even in front of another home crowd, defeating Asada by less than one point for the gold medal in the world championships in Tokyo.
Both leaped onto the international stage at an early age, making history with their jumping abilities. At 12 Asada became the first woman to land a triple-triple-triple combination in competition. When she was 14, Ando pulled off a quadruple Salchow at the Junior Grand Prix final and remains the only woman to land a quad in competition.
Away from competition, the two skaters go separate ways—Asada trains in Los Angeles while Ando is coached in Hackensack, N.J. "We don't really get together," says Asada, who at year's end was ranked No. 1 in the world, "but when we see each other, it's friendly." They endure intense scrutiny from the Japanese press, who often speculate whether the spotlight is big enough for both skaters. After two months of the 2007--08 season, Asada held the upper hand over her rival, having won two events and coming back strong to finish second at the Grand Prix final on Dec. 15, a competition for which Ando failed to qualify.
She lifted the women's event to a new level with her world-record 2:15:25 in the 2003 London Marathon—three minutes, 17 seconds faster than any other woman has run 26.2 miles—but Radcliffe's race in New York City in November may have been just as impressive. Less than 10 months after giving birth to her first child, daughter Isla, and overcoming a stress fracture in her lower back, the 33-year-old dropped a 4:59 mile 2 that left the pack strewn behind her in the streets of Brooklyn. Radcliffe led the entire race (finishing in 2:23:09) and over the last half mile blew away her closest competitor, Gete Wami, who later said, "It took me three years to recover from [childbirth]." Afterward Radcliffe, who has won all seven marathons she has finished (she dropped out during the 2004 Olympic race), said she felt better than ever. Scary.
The long-hitting 26-year-old was richly rewarded in 2007 for the aggressive way she plays the game: eight LPGA victories, including her first major, the Women's British Open; five runner-up finishes; the Rolex Player of the Year award; the Vare Trophy, for lowest average score; the No. 1 world ranking; and winnings totaling more than $4.36 million, which wiped out the previous single-season record of $2.86 million (set by Annika Sorenstam in '02). Best of all, perhaps, Ochoa's clutch performances—including a stunning 150-yard six-iron that set her up for a birdie putt in the season-ending ADT Championship—should put to rest questions about her past collapses. "There were a lot of people saying I couldn't win a major," said Ochoa after she won the Women's British Open at St. Andrew's with four days of brilliant shotmaking. "I did it, and there's no more to say."
Last March she led the Calgary Oval X-Treme of the Western Women's Hockey League to the senior national championship, scoring 11 goals with six assists to earn tournament MVP honors. So what was the 29-year-old winger going to do for an encore? How about eight goals and six assists at the women's world championships the following month, winning another MVP award and her sixth world title as a member of Team Canada. The only time Wickenheiser wasn't the dominant player on the ice this year was when she played against the men—and even then she got two goals in an exhibition game for Arboga, a men's team in Sweden. (Arboga decided not to sign her.) The next challenge: winning a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Says Wickenheiser, "I feel a responsibility to raise the level of the [women's] game every time I play."
With two Olympic golds and the six highest scores in history, Jackie Joyner-Kersee has stood alone for more than 20 years as the definition of greatness in the heptathlon. But Kl√ºft, 24, is gaining on her. This summer she won her third consecutive world championship in the event to go with her gold medal from the 2004 Olympics. In winning the '07 worlds with 7,032 points, Kl√ºft became the third woman to exceed 7,000 and is the second-highest scorer, behind Joyner-Kersee. The versatile Swede brings a relentlessness to the exhausting event. Although the 5'10", 143-pound Kl√ºft stands out only in the long jump, she does not have a weakness among the other six events. Best of all, she wins with joy and without ego, a whisper of fresh air blowing through any stadium.
She aspires to a place in skiing history alongside champions Janica Kostelic of Croatia and Anja Paerson of Sweden, who between them own five Olympic golds, 12 world championships and five World Cup overall titles. It is a towering goal, and Hosp, 24, took her first major step when she won the World Cup overall championship last March. Hosp began in the technical events of slalom and giant slalom but made the jump to the more harrowing speed events of downhill and Super G. For speed racers, size is an advantage, and Hosp carries an athletic 152 pounds on her 5'8 1/2" frame, while calling on the turning skills developed in slalom and GS. In the 2006--07 season it was a proven formula.
Go ahead, admire her 2006--07 stats (19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds a game), her glittering hardware (including two '07 player of the year honors, the Wade Trophy and the Wooden Award) and the versatility (she can play any of the five positions) that makes Tennessee's 6'4" junior the best shooter, the best rebounder, the best shot blocker, the best passer and, when the opportunity arises, the best dunker in just about any game she plays. But don't forget it's all about winning for Parker. Last March she asked not to be mentioned in discussions of Lady Vols greats until she had what they had, an NCAA title. Now that she has one (Tennessee beat Rutgers 59--46 in the final on April 3), plus a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Parker, 21, can be included among all basketball greats, period. "You are witnessing the best player in the world," Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer said after the title game. "There is nobody who comes close."
Photograph by Joe McNally
BOB MARTIN (HENIN)
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (DIBABA)
Photograph by Bob Martin
Photograph by Paulo Fridman
J.P. WILSON/ICON SMI (ABBOTT)
SZILARD KOSZTICSAK/EPA (YOSHIDA)
Photograph by Simon Bruty
GERT EGGENBERGER/EPA (WALSH AND MAY-TREANOR)
MARCUS BRANDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (MANAUDOU)
LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP (ISINBAYEVA)
ANDY KING/AP (FERNANDES)
Photograph by Gerard Rancinan
ELAINE THOMPSON/AP (JACKSON)
AGENCE ZOOM/GETTY IMAGES (JACOBELLIS)
Photograph by Dan Winters
ISSEI KATO/REUTERS (ANDO)
KIMIMASA MAYAMA/EPA (ASADA)
PETER FOLEY/EPA (RADCLIFFE)
Photograph by Robert Gallagher
Photograph by Peter Read Miller
ANDREW YATES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (KL√úFT)
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (HOSP)
Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride