Sport’s Greatest Injury Comebacks
With the news of Tiger Woods’ potentially career-ending car crash in recent weeks, Floris de Bruin takes a look at some of the most famous sporting comebacks of all time.
The sporting world was brought to a standstill when Tiger Woods was pulled from the wreckage of a brutal car crash last month. Relief soon followed as news came through that he had fortunately avoided sustaining any life-threatening injuries.
Though, many fans were left questioning whether the 15-time major champion will ever play the game again. Knowing Tiger, nothing can be ruled out.
His sensational 2019 win at Augusta – firmly ingrained in the minds of sporting fans from around the world – is testament to his ability to push his body past its physical limit. In what is described as one of the greatest sport comebacks in history, Tiger defied all odds by clinching golf’s most coveted prize off the back of four debilitating back surgeries and four knee operations.
Commentators had written him off after these injuries began to plague his career. It was miraculous enough that he managed to return to play golf at all – battered and bruised, his body comprises of metallic additions such as rods, screws, and pins, earning himself the nickname “The Bionic Man.” Playing through the pain, people lauded his perseverance but thought it in vain for surely, he could never go up against the younger and healthier generation of golfers.
What should have spelled the end of an illustrious career ended up paving the way for an even greater one. The significance of his 2019 win naturally stretched farther than the confines of the game. It was a demonstration of what the body and mind could do if the will is there.
However, Tiger Woods is not in a class of his own in this regard.
Serena Williams has also had to overcome persistent medical issues to reinstate her place as one of the greatest tennis players to ever grace the game. Having won the most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era, it is hard to imagine that she ever struggled with fitness throughout her career.
Williams’ trailblazing career was continually interrupted by injuries sustained on Tour, forcing her absence from games to seasons at a time. Recurring knee issues and ensuing operations have been her primary source of torment, culminating in the years 2004 to 2006 when she was resultingly ranked outside the top 10 and eventually top 100 tennis players altogether.
While most would admit defeat, Serena Williams never gave up and continued to fight like the champion she is. Not even a pulmonary embolism could have forced her off the court and she still remains at force to be reckoned with at the pinnacle of the game.
Nikki Lauda, in turn, has played his own part in provoking the world’s bewilderment when he returned to Formula 1 just six weeks after a terrifyingly near-death experience.
The Ferrari race car driver narrowly survived a horrific crash in 1976 at the Nürburgring. Trapped in a burning cockpit for an excruciating 55 seconds, he had to be dragged out by his fellow drivers. Heroically, he returned to continue to challenge James Hunt for the 1976 World Championship, falling just short by one solitary point. Upon seeing himself in the mirror after the accident, Lauda remarked: “I looked like some grotesque animal because my whole head and neck was swollen to three times the normal size . . . my wife could only recognise my feet.”
Despite rudimental safety provisions, Lauda continued to win two more world championships after that. Looking back, he reflects: “When I climbed into the cockpit at Monza, fear hit me so hard that all my self-motivation theories flew out the window. Diarrhoea. Heart pounding. Throwing up.” The amount of will power and mental fortitude it must have taken to conquer this anxiety is lost to many.
Similarly, skier Lindsey Vonn’s die-hard outlook has reaped significant rewards in the dangerous profession of alpine skiing.
Whether it was getting back on the slopes 48 hours after a bruising crash at the 2006 Turin Olympics, or her remarkable record-breaking comeback 2014/15 season after a two year injury lay-off, Vonn epitomises the famous quip: when you fall, get back up again.
Vonn now has 82 World Cup race victories to her name. As she puts it, “In the end, it’s a mental maturity to let your best come out.”
These athlete’s newfound resilience borne out of hardship forced them to make the decision of going on or giving up. Facing adversity developed them in ways they could not anticipate.
However, it is going to take a lot more than mindset this time round for Tiger Woods to bounce back. His already injury-ravaged body has taken another painful beating and might finally merit some much-needed rest. We may have to accept the fact that we will forever be robbed of the pleasure of seeing him pump his fist and roar as he drills in a monster putt to win.
But since it is Tiger, nothing can be ruled out.