Legends and newcomers, record-setters and awe-inspirers, these were the men and women who epitomized athletic excellence in 2016
HIS ASCENSION to the college football mountaintop was not totally unexpected. Lamar Jackson hinted at his immense potential at the end of last season, when the native of Pompano Beach, Fla., recorded 453 total yards and four touchdowns in Louisville's 27--21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.
Yet few envisioned that the sophomore would make the leap to stardom so quickly. With a strong, accurate arm and breathtaking speed, Jackson represents the next step in the evolution of the dual-threat quarterback. In 2016 he roasted defenses with pinpoint passes, designed runs from the pocket and improvised dashes to escape pressure. As he ticked off statistical benchmarks for the 9--3 Cardinals, Jackson defied comparison with other players. Determining how many teams had scored fewer touchdowns than Jackson alone was fodder for a weekly parlor game.
In a 63--20 rout of then No. 2 Florida State on Sept. 17, Jackson had 362 total yards and five touchdowns and generated enough highlights to keep fans entertained on YouTube well into 2017. He only added to his reel in the weeks that followed. Jackson's gaudy season totals—4,928 total yards and 51 touchdowns—left no doubt about who was the player of the year in college football.
PERHAPS IT'S redundant, declaring the best player in hockey the best player in hockey. But in a year marked by the ascendance of the NHL's infant class, Sidney Crosby, at age 29, dispatched any notion he had passed his prime. That idea—laughable in retrospect—gained traction as Pittsburgh's captain endured an enormous (by his standards) slump at the beginning of last season. He scored just nine goals and 27 points through Dec. 31, 2015, but as the year turned, so did Crosby's game.
In calendar year 2016, no NHLer has scored more goals (45, through week's end) or had more points (87), despite his missing the first six games of the '16--17 season with a concussion. As captain of Team Canada at September's World Cup of Hockey, Crosby led the tournament with 10 points, including a pair of assists in Canada's 3--1 victory over Team Europe in the final. And, of course, he also won the Stanley Cup—the second of his career. Crosby scored three game-winners in the Penguins' seven-game Eastern Conference finals victory over Tampa Bay and then assisted on the Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 against San Jose, adding a Conn Smythe Trophy to his already crowded mantle.
The day may come (and soon) when Edmonton's Connor McDavid or Toronto's Auston Matthews—the game's next Crosbys—assume the title, but in 2016, Sidney Crosby was without question the best player in the game.
IF ANY doubt about the matter existed before 2016, now there can be none: Mike Trout is a baseball legend. According to research by August Fagerstrom, formerly of FanGraphs.com, the first half-decade of Trout's career is the ninth-best five-year stretch, based on Wins Above Replacement, for any hitter since 1921. Every one of the top 27 players on the list who is not active (or who is not named Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez) is in the Hall of Fame. Trout is the youngest member of the list by two years, so while he is already better than almost anyone ever, his best may be yet to come. After a season in which the centerfielder batted .315 with 29 homers, 100 RBIs, 30 steals and an MLB-high .441 on-base percentage, baseball writers couldn't resist voting Trout the AL MVP over the Red Sox' Mookie Betts and other candidates who had the traditional advantage of having played for winning clubs.
Indeed: Trout's club! The Angels—who generally operate in the Dodgers' shadow and finished 74--88 last season—have yet to win a playoff game with the game's best player aboard. With an otherwise creaky roster and a historically moribund farm system, Anaheim might not see the postseason through 2020, when Trout's contract expires. The slugger would be 29, and the prospect of his missing out on every October until then is tragic for a league in search of its next transcendent star. It already has one.
WE'VE KNOWN for 11 years that Andy Murray is a peerless tennis tactician, an exceptional returner, a powerful and consistent ball striker. But now we know this too: He is also a ruthless opportunist.
In 2016, Roger Federer finally succumbed to an undefeated opponent: time. Rafael Nadal was often injured. Novak Djokovic? At the French Open—the halfway turn of the season—the Serb won his fourth straight major and was dominating the field. Then, with little warning or reason, he fell off his game.
Murray took these favorable circumstances and made the most of them. In the second half of the year, Murray, 29, played the most elevated tennis of his career. After winning Wimbledon for the second time, he became the first back-to-back singles champion in Olympic history, defeating Juan Martin del Potro in four sets in Rio. He closed out the year with a 26-match winning streak, claiming five titles in five countries. That he thumped Djokovic in his last match of 2016—winning the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals in London and the accompanying $2.4 million prize—was a fitting coda.
Cynics will point out that Murray has made his ascent to No. 1 largely in the absence of the Big Three. But that's not fair. You can beat only the players you're pitted against, and Murray did just that.
—L. Jon Wertheim
IS BREANNA Stewart the greatest women's college basketball player of all time? Well, that's open for debate. What is not, however, is her legacy—she is the greatest winner in college basketball history. The 6'4" forward was a member of a UConn team that won 151 games and lost only five, leading the Huskies to four consecutive NCAA titles while being named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four an unprecedented four times. During her college career, UConn ran the table in the NCAA tournament with 24 consecutive wins, a record that can be matched but never topped. Stewart punctuated an amazing 2016 college season by winning a gold medal in Rio as the youngest player on the U.S. women's basketball team, at 22. Future Olympic teams will surely be built around her skill set. For the WNBA's Seattle Storm, which drafted Stewart No. 1 last April, she led all first-year players in scoring (18.3 points), rebounding (9.3) and blocks (1.9) and was named Rookie of the Year. She then headed to Shanghai to play in the Women's Chinese Basketball Association, where she has—naturally—emerged as one of the league's top players, averaging more than 30 points per game. With her pro career just beginning, Stewart's journey has only just begun.
IT'S AS if Von Miller were gunning for this recognition. The Broncos' 27-year-old outside linebacker had a good but not great 2015 regular season—his 11 sacks were tied for eighth in the league. But since New Year's, he has been a one-man wrecking crew. In games against two of the league's top three scoring offenses—the Patriots in the AFC championship game and the Panthers in the Super Bowl—Miller had 2½ sacks in each. He made a game-changing interception against Tom Brady and forced two fumbles against league MVP Cam Newton that set up two Denver touchdowns. He was named MVP of Super Bowl 50. He even won the off-season, staring down Broncos GM John Elway in contract negotiations to become the highest-paid defensive player in history (six years, $114.5 million, of which $70 million is guaranteed). Miller has even improved this season, leading the league with 13½ sacks (three more than second-place Vic Beasley Jr., in Atlanta) despite not having injured bookend pass rusher DeMarcus Ware on the field for much of the season. In a league that prizes offense, Miller is the ultimate defender.
—Greg A. Bedard
IF YOU'RE the best player on the team that wins the world's most important club tournament and the best player on the national team that wins the most important international competition of the year, chances are you're the planet's preeminent soccer player. Such is the case for Cristiano Ronaldo, the imperious, strutting striker who raised the trophies for both Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League and for Portugal at Euro 2016.
At 31, Ronaldo is not the whooshing supernova of his youth but rather a more traditional center-forward. That is not to say he is a typical player. He has scored 51 goals in 2016 for club and country, the most by any player not named Lionel Messi (who has 56). But Messi's Spanish League title was not enough to surpass Ronaldo's haul and heart. In the Champions League final he converted on the decisive penalty kick that led Real Madrid past crosstown rival Atlético Madrid. In the Euro 2016 final, however, Ronaldo exited the game after 25 minutes due to a knee injury. He returned to become Portugal's second coach, barking commands from the sideline in a stunning 1--0 victory over host France.
After the game, a camera caught Ronaldo delivering a long, emotional thank you to Portugal's players and coaches in the locker room. He said it was the happiest day of his life, and it looked like he meant it.
SIMONE BILES, KATIE LEDECKY & USAIN BOLT
THEY ARE Olympians. One is a tall man from Jamaica who sprints across the dry land of a running track with such speed and joy that his races become performance art. The others are both 19-year-old women from the United States who have accelerated the evolution of their sports—a swimmer who moves powerfully through still water and crushes world records by impossible margins and a gymnast who seems untethered by gravity, dancing not on the ground but in her own air, unreachable.
Among them, Usain Bolt (right, bottom), Katie Ledecky (right, top) and Simone Biles (left) won 11 gold medals—along with a silver and a bronze—at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. They were not just athletes and not just performers; they were ambassadors for all that still inspires in a worldwide sports institution that remains troubled by bloat and corruption.
Bolt won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the Jamaican 4 × 100-meter relay to victory, all for the third time. No other sprinter in history has done that even twice. No one is likely to replicate that feat for decades. Ledecky won the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races, breaking her own world records in the latter two. If there were an Olympic women's 1,500 meters (as there is for men), she would surely have won that as well. Biles became the first female U.S. gymnast—and just the fifth woman ever—to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. Her movements tested not just the laws of physics but also the limits of our imagination.
Collectively, they lifted their sports, lifted their countries and lifted the Games. They are the very best of the Olympics in this, or any, year.
THE DEFINING moment of the 2016 WNBA finals came with 1:14 left in the decisive Game 5, when the Sparks pulled ahead of the defending-champion Lynx on a turnaround baseline jumper. The bucket, which league officials later admitted came on a shot clock violation, was controversial, but the value of the player who hit it—L.A. forward Nneka Ogwumike—is not in dispute.
The first pick of the 2012 draft, out of Stanford, Ogwumike slipped into the WNBA as a classic pivot who works quietly down low—less flash and more fundamentals. But in her first three years in L.A., she frequently had to readjust her game, as the Sparks burned through coach after coach. And on defense, changes in strategy and retooled rosters often left the 6'2" Ogwumike scrambling to guard smaller, quicker players.
Ogwumike emerged, however, a more versatile player under current coach Brian Agler. In 2016, aided by a record streak of 23 straight field goals over three games, she led the league in shooting accuracy (66.5%), finished third in scoring (19.7 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg), and was named league MVP. In the dying seconds of Game 5, Ogwumike sank another baseline jumper to clinch her first pro title, and hoops aficionados rejoiced. Inconspicuous play, it seems, had finally been rewarded.
SINCE ARRIVING on the PGA Tour in 2008, with a jock swagger and a swing of almost cartoonish ferocity, Dustin Johnson has seemed destined for stardom. But instead he became merely a very good player, winning consistently, though not tournaments that really matter. This year Johnson turned 32, and his titanium-denting game finally matured. The result: an awesome unleashing of talent and will. His signature win came at the U.S. Open, at Oakmont, where he clubbed golf's scariest course into submission. But Johnson was sublime throughout 2016, piling up 14 other top 10 finishes including big-time victories at Firestone and the BMW Championship. Johnson's driver is now the game's most feared weapon, but the key to his breakthrough year was steadier putting and a markedly improved wedge game, to say nothing of a renewed focus that has led him to drink less and hit the gym more. Johnson should have won the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize, but a slight stumble in the season's final event allowed Rory McIlroy to steal the lucre. Afterward the new and improved DJ expressed relief. "My bank account would have enjoyed it, but I don't want to win anything because someone hands it to me," he said. "I want to earn what's mine." If Johnson can maintain that hunger, this won't be the last time he's player of the year.