This is a short list. Hundreds of athletes are truly spectacular at their sport and routinely blow our minds with feats of skill. But our goal this year was to highlight the very few who, through innovation, vision or just plain courage, actually changed how others in their sport viewed or played the game.
We have probably missed somebody, so please let us know who you think should be on this list and why. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
Patrick Mahomes: The Highlight Reel
By Ben Shpigel
On the second Monday in October, I walked down the basement steps of a house in Kansas City, Mo., to find Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes staring at me.
Not the corporeal version but rather his likeness in two dimensions, painted on a wall in Bob Green’s home that is reserved for Kansas City sporting luminaries. Green asked an artist friend to add Mahomes to the mural in mid-September.
It was three starts into Mahomes’s career.
“I assume he will make the Hall of Fame, you know,” Green said.
Mahomes, at 23, is the best player on the best offense on what could be the top-seeded team in the A.F.C., in a season in which teams are on pace to score the second-most points in N.F.L. history. He has thrown for the second-most yards in the league this season, 4,816, and the most touchdowns, 48, since 2013, when Peyton Manning set the single-season record with 55.
Mobile, strong-armed and touched with a remarkable capacity for completing throws others wouldn’t dare attempt, Mahomes does not represent the new prototype for the position so much as the ideal for how football is played in 2018 and perhaps beyond: directing a creative scheme rooted in college spread concepts with devastating efficiency.
His game film is crammed with highlights demonstrating an aptitude for improvising in the truest sense of the word. He employs his awareness and feel to create something new, different, better. Magic Johnson did it. Steph Curry does it. It’s what sublime athletes do. Mahomes is operating within the same confines that have governed football for decades — a 100-yard field, surrounded by 21 other players — but playing quarterback in a way that seems purely individualistic.
His no-look throws, his sidearm flips, his left-handed flicks — they all, at least to me, evoke the premise of “Chopped,” the reality show on the Food Network, in which contestants are given baskets of mystery ingredients and must prepare meals. Instead of, say, merging kohlrabi, baby octopus, black plums and animal crackers to create a sumptuous dinner, Mahomes processes all that is around him and of him — pass rushers, decaying protection, his own body positioning — and just reacts.
“He shows no fear,” the ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said in a recent interview. “That plays into our society right now. Be your own guy. Be an individual. Take risks, take chances — that’s him. But he doesn’t do it in a way that seems reckless. He just seems to do it in a way that, really, his teammates want him to do it, and it makes them better.”
The Chiefs, to a degree, anticipated all of this when they traded up to draft Mahomes in 2017. After sitting him for most of last season, the Chiefs unleashed Mahomes against the poor Chargers in Week 1. He threw for four touchdowns in a game that, with the benefit of hindsight, doesn’t even rank among his best.
He flummoxed the Steelers in Pittsburgh with six touchdowns. Facing a 10-point deficit in Denver with less than 7 minutes left, he orchestrated two late scoring drives. In a loss, he dinged the Rams for 478 yards and six touchdowns.
More recently, in Week 14, Mahomes deflated the Ravens with a pass that analysis does no justice.
It was fourth-and-9 at the Chiefs’ 40-yard line, 89 seconds remaining, with Kansas City trailing by 7. Flushed out of the pocket, Mahomes sprinted right, then a bit upfield while being trailed by two defenders. Near the sideline, he released a throw across his body that traveled, according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats, 43.6 yards in the air. The ball eluded two Ravens defenders and another converging on Tyreek Hill before nestling in his arms at the far hash mark, by Baltimore’s 28-yard line. On the CBS broadcast, Tony Romo about yelped.
Success breeds success, but it also breeds imitation. Desultory teams want The Next Mahomes, but what if there isn’t one? That’s not hyperbole, just reasonable conjecture.
In 2018, Mahomes is an outlier in a league hustling to adapt to him. And he’s here to stay.
The painting is on the wall.
Chloe Kim: The Trailblazer
By John Branch
The tweet came in the middle of the gold medal competition, a podium-worthy trick in itself. Chloe Kim, then 17 and considered the best female halfpipe snowboarder by those who pay attention to such things, was about to become a global star.
“Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I’m getting hangry,” she typed, then sent.
Not a deep thought, but a relatable one; news of her pangs zipped silently through the crisp, mountain air to her then-15,000 Twitter followers, a modest number for a teenager who is the best in the world at something as cool as snowboarding.
Kim then made serious noise by stomping the competition. She twisted and flipped and smiled her way to the bottom, upending and resetting the standard for her event, landing at the top of the sports world.
By the end of that sunny February day at the Pyeongchang Olympics, Kim had a gold medal, 150,000 Twitter followers and the type of crossover appeal that makes fans swoon and marketers salivate.
The Olympics usually make comets out of their best athletes, not stars. They are flares that burn out of sight quickly or, with luck and momentum, circle around and attract our attention every four years.
Kim is different. Fueled by her breakout performance, a day plus a lifetime in the making, she shows no sign of fading from sight.
In July, she was awarded the ESPY for best female athlete. Earlier this month, in Copper Mountain, Colo., she won the season’s first World Cup competition as emphatically as she won at the Winter Games. Then she did it again the next weekend at a major event in nearby Breckenridge.
Back in February, amid the hunger-game tweeting at the Olympic finals, Kim scored 93.75 points out of 100 on the first of her three runs. No one else in the competition approached the mark. When it came time for her last run, with all other gold medal hopefuls vanquished, she let loose to “one-up myself,” she said.
The run scored 98.25 and featured back-to-back 1080s, far more punctuation than she ever puts in a tweet. Kim was the first woman to pair three 360-degree spins off one wall, then the other, back in 2016. And the only one, at the 2018 Olympics, with the nerve to try it and the talent to do it.
She is a paradigm buster in a sport with few rules. A cross between Kelly Clark, the most-dominant female halfpipe rider for most of 20 years, and Shaun White, the charismatic crossover celebrity who found the halfpipe to be a launch point for fame and fortune.
Kim grew up watching, and competing against, the pioneers of the sport — people like Clark, Gretchen Bleiler and Torah Bright. She was raised on the cool conscience of the sport, but it became clear quite early that she was a rare talent. She would have made the Olympics in 2014, and been a favorite to win, when she was 13, but she was three years too young to qualify.
Now 18, she is an insider with outsized talent. She is compact — 5 feet 2 inches and 115 pounds, a bit like a gymnast or a sprinter or any other athlete that blends power and speed. She has style, snowboarding’s term for riding with understated flair and cool ease. But she flies higher than other women, twists more and comes up biggest in the biggest contests.
And she has the guts to tweet about hunger pains while doing it.
Kim is the Californian daughter of Korean immigrants. Her father, Jong Jin Kim, came from South Korea in 1982 with $800 and a Korean-English dictionary. He worked at fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, took some college classes and became an engineer.
Chloe was born in 2000, a child of a new century. Her father put her on a snowboard at age 4, and they learned how to ride together. People saw her potential every step of the way. She turned 11 in 2011, when the 2018 Winter Olympics were awarded to South Korea.
Her father did the math. Perfect.
That’s why the bottom of the Olympics halfpipe was a perfect mash of person and place. As Kim navigated the crowd to find her family, her eyes filled with tears. So did her father’s. So did a lot of people’s.
Just a bit earlier, at the time that Chloe Kim was tweeting about her breakfast sandwich from the top of the halfpipe, her father stood at the bottom in nervous anticipation. He held a crinkled, handwritten sign. Next to a big red heart, it read, “Go Chloe!”
Ryne Stanek: The Opener
By Tyler Kepner
The Tampa Bay Rays turned the pitcher’s mound into a laboratory in 2018. They had spent much of last winter trading expensive veterans, and their wealthy division rivals in Boston and the Bronx seemed destined to dominate the American League. Why not blow up tradition and see what happened?
“So many people tried to destroy us for doing it, which was kind of funny,” pitcher Ryne Stanek said this month in the bustling lobby of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, where he was attending baseball’s winter meetings. “A lot of fans just didn’t understand the logic behind it.”
Now they do. The Rays astonished the industry by surging to 90 victories, helped largely by “the opener,” a position they created in which the first pitcher of the game works only an inning or two. Before May 19 — when they unveiled the plan with the veteran reliever Sergio Romo — the Rays ranked 22nd in the majors in earned run average, at 4.43. From then on, they ranked third, at 3.50.
Stanek made 29 starts yet pitched only 40 innings in those games. At one point he set a major league record with nine consecutive scoreless starts, though he pitched just 13⅔ innings in that span. The former All-Star Orel Hershiser — who shared the previous record, with six — says the game itself has not changed, but game theory has changed quite a bit. Stanek, whose unusual rookie season symbolized that, wholeheartedly agrees.
“It’s about: How can you use your good players better to win more games?” Stanek said. “Every player, you just want to win games, and whatever way we can do that, that’s what we want to do.”
Before the season, the Rays had planned to build a bullpen day into their rotation, with several pitchers sharing the load once every five games. They began the year with four traditional starters, and one of them, Blake Snell, would go 21-5 and win the A.L. Cy Young Award. But when injuries and trades depleted the other reliable options, the Rays dove into data for something different.
Teams score more runs in the first inning than in any other inning, largely because they stack their best hitters at the top. The Rays tried to counteract that by starting a pitcher with dominant stuff, then using another — the “bulk guy,” they called it — for multiple innings. That bulk guy was typically young and could benefit from facing easier hitters at the start of his longer outing, and the opener would be fresh enough to do it again the next day, if needed.
“When I first heard it, I was like, ‘There’s no way that’s sustainable,’” Stanek said. “But then you start looking at the way the innings break down, and you’re like, ‘It doesn’t really change anything. If you’re going to have your starter go five, and I would throw the sixth, why does it matter if I throw the first and he throws the next five innings to get it through the sixth regardless?’”
Stanek, 27, was a starter at the University of Arkansas and in the minors. He liked to approach hitters with his best stuff right away; no conserving for later innings, a mind-set ideally suited to shorter stints. His fastball reached 100 miles an hour in his first try as the opener, on May 26, and he struck out 53 in those 40 innings, with a 3.38 earned run average in the role.
From his first start through the end of the season, Stanek made five more starts than any other pitcher in the majors. He wonders how truly bizarre his stat line would seem if he had gotten going earlier.
“I had times when I started three times in a week,” Stanek said. “I’m like, ‘I could have gotten 50, maybe.’”
No pitcher has made 50 starts since 1904, when the Yankees’ Jack Chesbro made 51 while throwing more than 400 innings. Those days are long gone. With so many strong arms available in relief — and stats showing a decrease in pitchers’ effectiveness the more times hitters face them — only 13 pitchers worked 200 innings in 2018, the fewest ever in a full season.
The opener idea is not going away. The Oakland Athletics and the Milwaukee Brewers used it in the playoffs. The Minnesota Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays hired managers from the Tampa Bay coaching staff. Stanek and the Rays have started — well, opened — a very logical trend.
“If it gives you a chance to win more games than you lose,” Stanek said, “there’s no reason why people wouldn’t do it.”
Rachael Denhollander: The Hero
By Juliet Macur
Do you know who stopped Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, the former United States gymnastics national team doctor who is now infamous as the face of sexual assault in sports?
Not U.S.A. Gymnastics. Not Michigan State, where Nassar saw patients at a clinic and molested them for decades under the guise of medical treatment.
Not even the F.B.I., which in the summer of 2015 learned of the accusations against Nassar and proceeded to plod along in an investigation — if it can be described as that, considering it didn’t contact the main witness for nearly 11 months.
So many people or entities had the chance to stop Nassar from hurting girls and women. But credit Rachael Denhollander, a former club gymnast turned lawyer, for finally making it happen and for subsequently making Olympic sports safer.
Denhollander, 33, was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault. Her powerful voice sparked real institutional action against him and has saved lives.
Without her, it is possible that U.S.A. Gymnastics would still be actively working to bury sexual misconduct accusations against its coaches. And it is likely Congress would not be demanding change in how the United States Olympic Committee and Olympic sports’ national governing bodies deal with sexual misconduct cases.
For years, in many Olympic sports, misconduct cases languished within the sports organizations that inexplicably did not automatically report all cases to law enforcement. Now, because of the Nassar case, it’s a federal crime to fail to report sexual assault in Olympic sports.
Without Denhollander, it is also possible that the hundreds of young girls and women Nassar molested over the years would still be suffering in silence.
“You made this happen,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told Denhollander in January at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings, where Denhollander was the 156th, and final, one of Nassar’s victims to provide a witness statement. “You are the bravest person I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
In the summer of 2016, Denhollander read an Indianapolis Star story detailing how U.S.A. Gymnastics, for years, had mishandled sexual assault reports. It was her cue to finally come forward with her painful secret.
“It wasn’t something I wanted to do because of the fear and the risk behind it, but it was something I knew I had to do,” she told The New York Times in February. “I didn’t want Larry Nassar to hurt one more child. I felt a responsibility to at least try to stop him.”
Denhollander contacted the Indianapolis Star and said Nassar had molested her when she was 15. The newspaper published her story in September 2016, when Nassar was still working at Michigan State. He had been let go from U.S.A. Gymnastics more than a year earlier.
She also filed a complaint against Nassar with the Michigan State police and a Title IX complaint with the university.
Michigan State relieved Nassar of his clinical duties a day after Denhollander filed her police complaint. About a week after her story ran in the Indianapolis Star, Michigan State fired him.
By the end of 2016, Nassar was in jail on federal child pornography charges.
Since then, Michigan State has settled with Nassar’s victims — more than 300 of them and counting — for $500 million. U.S.A. Gymnastics has entirely new leadership, and it, along with the U.S.O.C., is instituting reforms to keep athletes safer. Congress, the Indiana attorney general’s office, the Justice Department and other entities are trying to figure out who enabled Nassar and his crimes and attempting to make them accountable.
Nassar is in prison, serving a 40-to-175-year sentence for a multitude of sex crimes.
At his sentencing hearing in January, Denhollander faced her molester. The judge described her as “a five-star general” of an army of abuse survivors. The public remained rapt as Denhollander spoke and asked the court, again and again, “How much is a little girl worth?”
For the sports world, that answer wasn’t clear until Denhollander reminded them that a little girl is worth everything.
At the very least, as she pointed out, that little girl is worth protecting.
Eliud Kipchoge: The Record Breaker
By Scott Cacciola
After Eliud Kipchoge ran the Berlin Marathon in 2 hours 1 minute 39 seconds to obliterate the world record in September, a lot of people tried really hard to comprehend what he had done.
It wasn’t easy, but perhaps the best example of this came a few weeks later at the Chicago Marathon, where attendees of the pre-race exposition were invited to hop on an enormous treadmill and somehow stay aboard while running at a speed of 13 miles an hour — which is really fast. It is also roughly the pace that Kipchoge maintained for the entirety of his record run in Berlin. The people at the marathon expo were being asked to do it for just 200 meters, which worked out to about 35 seconds.
Easy, right? Wrong.
The results were hilarious. Most of the people who attempted the treadmill experiment tumbled in spectacular fashion, often after just seconds of sprinting all out. And their post-wipeout reactions went something like this: Kipchoge did this for 26.2 miles? Impossible.
But sure enough, he did — and the running community is still buzzing about it.
It was a cool fall morning in Berlin when Kipchoge, a Kenyan who is now 34, set such a blistering pace — covering the opening 10 kilometers in just over 29 minutes — that two of his three pacesetters had to drop out about 15 minutes later. The third peeled off halfway through the race, leaving Kipchoge to fend for himself for the final 13-plus miles. He made it look effortless.
At 5 feet 6 inches and about 115 pounds, Kipchoge skimmed along the pavement with smooth, metronomic strides, breaking the previous record held by Dennis Kimetto, a fellow Kenyan, by 78 seconds — and defeating the second-place finisher by nearly 5 minutes.
But most remarkable was that his performance was almost expected. In 2017, at a nonsanctioned event sponsored by Nike, Kipchoge attempted to break two hours with the aid of pacesetters on a race car track in Italy, only to miss by 25 seconds. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would smash the world record on a sanctioned course given ideal conditions, and he delivered in Berlin, averaging 4:38.4 per mile. His average 5-kilometer pace was 14:24.9, and process this: He did more than eight of those consecutively.
Adding to his growing status as a living legend, Kipchoge is something of a philosopher. He reads biographies and keeps a journal. He runs with monastic self-discipline in the hills not far from his hometown in Kenya, but he told me when I met with him in Berlin the week before his record run that he never overextends himself in training. Instead, he said, he reserves his full effort — all 100 percent of himself — for race day, which is a strategy that runs counter to the no-pain, no-gain attitude of so many distance runners.
“I want to run with a relaxed mind,” he said.
The reigning Olympic marathon champion, Kipchoge has now won 10 of the 11 marathons he has entered, and he told me that he would love to run the New York City Marathon someday. (Race organizers would love to have him, of course.)
It is a sign of the times that doping suspicions tend to trail the best athletes — especially when that athlete is a true outlier like Kipchoge, and also when several other Kenyan runners have been caught — but he has steadfastly denied using performance-enhancing drugs, and he has never failed a test for banned substances.
So we are left with his body of work, which is unlike anything the marathon world has ever seen. We can only imagine what he will do next.
Ester Ledecka: The Crossover
By Christopher Clarey
Before she changed the sense of what was possible in winter sports, Ester Ledecka had to make it clear that no one could change her mind.
From an early age, she was intent on being an alpine skier and snowboarder. By the time she reached her teens, she knew she wanted to be an Olympic skier and snowboarder, too.
That plan met with plenty of resistance and skepticism from coaches and other experts, who were convinced that she would only be able to excel in one sport at the highest level.
But there she was in Pyeongchang in February, winning gold medals in both for the Czech Republic — although not live on NBC, which was under the mistaken impression that the suspense was over and cut away from the super-G competition to other coverage before she could schuss down the mountain and shush the premature celebrations for another skier.
Her victory in the women’s super-G was one of the biggest surprises in Olympic history — she had never finished on the podium in a World Cup ski race — but what came next was deeply impressive in a different register.
Rather than get rattled by the fallout from her upset, she kept her focus and balance and won the gold medal she was expected to win in Pyeongchang: the parallel giant slalom in snowboarding.
Skiers and snowboarders, so often divided into different tribes, were united in admiration. So what will it take for another polymath to follow in her tracks?
“Courage, because a lot of people will tell them not to do it,” Ledecka said in a recent telephone interview from Val Gardena, Italy. “I hope after what I’ve achieved, it will be less people, because they will realize it’s possible to do two sports at an elite level. And it doesn’t need to be sports. It could be art or whatever.
“But this is the most crucial thing: A lot of people will push you away from your way, your way to the top. And this is what I never had in my mind. I never cared about these people, because I always went for my dreams. And if someone loves these two sports as much as me and is able to start from a young age and work hard for it, then it is possible for sure.”
Ledecka, now 23, had undeniable advantages, including an affluent family that could support dual-track training in her youth. Her father, Janek Ledecky, is a prominent Czech musician. But she also had exceptional commitment and talent, and for now she remains a unicorn as she shuttles between World Cup events in alpine skiing and snowboarding.
“What she did was amazing, and if you saw our coverage, then you know we did not properly deliver on her story or accomplishment,” said Steve Porino, a former ski racer and longtime NBC skiing reporter. “She did not just show up and borrow a pair of Mikaela Shiffrin’s skis, as we made it sound in our short TV window. She busted her tail as both an alpine skier and snowboarder her entire life. As her dad told me, ‘The only thing we ever had to tell her to do was sleep.’”
But even Ledecka faces logistics she cannot conquer. She intended to compete at the world championships in both snowboarding and alpine skiing in 2019. But the final rounds of the parallel giant slalom in snowboarding are on Feb. 4 in Park City, Utah, and the super-G race in alpine skiing is on Feb. 5 in Are, Sweden.
“I’m quite sad about that,” she said. “Because I would for sure like to race both, and I was kind of hoping that after what I achieved last year — and after the feedback I’m getting from people where they tell me, ‘Oh, you made the snowboarding sport so much more popular’ — that they might put the snowboarding event like two days earlier. But with this schedule, it’s not possible to do both.”
Tom Webb, U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s director of marketing and communications, confirmed that discussions had taken place with the International Ski Federation about changing the schedule to help Ledecka. But Webb said the conclusion was that it could not be done “without causing significant disruption” to both championships.
She might have changed the perception of her sports, but her sports are not yet ready to change for her.
“With the jetlag and everything, to do both championships I would need to be Superwoman,” she said. “Which I am, a little bit.”