Most of them happened off the courts and playing fields, when the competitions were over and the athletes were at their most human.
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We asked our reporters to write about the most memorable sports moments of 2021 — not the grandest or most historic events, just the moments they think of first when they look back on the year.
You’ll see a theme emerging here.
At a time when sports are painstakingly packaged and sold and many athletes zealously guard their public images, our writers gravitated to the quiet moments when the competitions were over and the stars seemed a little more like the rest of us.
— Mike Wilson, deputy Sports editor
Winners of the Masters will tell you where they found fortitude or enlightenment or patience. Sometimes it was in a hallowed locker room, or from a roar-happy gallery around Amen Corner, or on the driving range where a tweak or two proved just enough for Sunday.
Hideki Matsuyama’s quiet ascendance into golf history bubbled up in a parking lot in Georgia, invisible to almost everyone. Rain had chased the Masters field inside during the third round, and Matsuyama, smarting from a tee shot on No. 11 that had landed behind some of the few spectators at Augusta National, had headed to his car.
One of the game’s shyest figures, but one who had long been lionized in Japan, he gripped his phone and started playing games.
“Right before the rain delay, I probably hit the worst shot I’ve hit this week,” he later said through an interpreter, adding, “I just figured, I can’t hit anything worse than that, and so maybe it relieved some pressure.”
He returned to the course and finished No. 11 with a birdie. Another birdie on No. 12. An eagle on No. 15. Two more holes, two more birdies. At day’s end, after a third-round 65, he had a four-stroke lead.
His advantage narrowed on Sunday. But as sunset neared, Matsuyama tapped in a putt to become the first Asian-born winner of the Masters — the rare green jacket, it seemed in retrospect, sewn up less in the spotlight than in solitude.
— Alan Blinder
The year in horse racing began in scandal when Medina Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, was stripped of a Kentucky Derby victory after a failed drug test. It ended in heartbreak, with the same horse collapsing and dying after a training run.
Beautiful moments in the sport do happen, however, when people put their horses first. Ask the owners, trainer and jockey who pulled into the Preakness Stakes in May with an overlooked colt named Rombauer.
John and Diane Fradkin were small-time breeders who took one or two horses a year to the auction ring. Rombauer was in Baltimore only because they had been unable to sell him.
The trainer, Michael McCarthy, kept his California stable small so he could work closely with the horses. He had won some big races, but nobody would confuse him with his mentor Todd Pletcher, who is in the Hall of Fame.
Flavien Prat, a Frenchman, was best known as the accidental winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby astride Country House after the apparent winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference.
And Rombauer? He had won twice in six starts but had skipped the Derby because John Fradkin did not believe the colt was ready for the challenge.
Spectators checked their programs to identify the No. 6 horse as he rolled down the stretch like a steamship, leaving Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit in his wake. It was Rombauer giving the Fradkins their first graded stakes victory and reducing McCarthy to tears.
“It just goes to show you that small players in the game can be successful as well,” McCarthy said.
After the season, the colt was turned out on a California farm for a well-earned vacation. He recently returned to McCarthy’s barn. What’s next?
McCarthy says he will let Rombauer tell him.
— Joe Drape
She didn’t have to say anything. That is usually the safest path, the one so many athletes choose.
After losing in the third round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament to Leylah Fernandez, an unseeded Canadian, Naomi Osaka could have arrived at her news conference, said it was not her day, tipped her visor to her opponent and slinked off.
It was late, nearing midnight. No one had even asked Osaka about her overall state of mind. But she felt she needed to say something, finally, after months of keeping it all inside.
Her handlers knew what was coming and tried to stop Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, with a $50 million endorsement portfolio, from speaking anymore. She waved them off.
“When I win I don’t feel happy,” she said. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
She teared up. The moderator declared the night over. She told him she wanted to finish.
“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” she said. Once more, the moderator offered her an out. She did not take it. “I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
Then she got up and left. She was done.
— Matthew Futterman
Novak Djokovic began Sept. 12 on the verge of tennis immortality, one win away from achieving a Grand Slam by winning the sport’s four major tournaments in a single year. A victory in the U.S. Open final over Daniil Medvedev, a rising Russian, would give him what he thought he wanted more than anything.
Djokovic had manhandled Medvedev in the Australian Open final in February. Since then, the Grand Slam had become his singular mission. This was going to happen.
And then it didn’t. Not even close, though most of the 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium that day desperately wanted it to.
For years, Djokovic had been widely considered the villain who crashed the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal tennis lovefest. But that afternoon, the fans screamed for Djokovic as they never had, growing louder as he fell further behind in his bid to claim unmatched greatness, his legs dead, his brain exhausted from trying to do something Federer and Nadal couldn’t.
One game from defeat, Djokovic sat in his chair on a changeover as the screams grew deafening. His chest began to heave. He covered his face in a towel and sobbed.
When it was over, a man certain that only one outcome could fulfill him said something few ever expected him to say in defeat.
“I am the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel that way on the court,” he said. “I never felt like this.”
— Matthew Futterman
One of the beautiful things about sports is the raw emotion. Perhaps more than in any other walk of life, athletes in the heat of the moment, endorphins flowing, let loose.
After the wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock won the women’s freestyle 150 pounds competition at the Tokyo Olympics, she formed a heart sign with her hands and showed it to both sides of the arena. Then she cried.
Afterward, Mensah-Stock explained that the gesture was a tribute to her loved ones: her father, who died in a car crash after leaving one of her high school tournaments, which nearly made her quit wrestling; an uncle who died of cancer; a grandfather who also died of cancer; a late friend who also wrestled; her husband; her mother; her aunt; her sister; and her country.
“I’m trying to send love to everyone,” she said.
Mensah-Stock, the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, spoke with an earnestness and a thoughtfulness that were hard to forget. She name-checked the Black female wrestlers who came before her. She detailed how she was going to use most of her $37,500 bonus to fulfill her mother’s dream of starting a food truck business. She said young women could be strong, silly, tough and fun, and could wrestle.
“Look at this natural hair,” she said. “Come on, man! I made sure I brought my puffballs out so they could know that you can do it, too.”
And Mensah-Stock was gracious to her opponent, Blessing Oborududu of Nigeria.
“Oh my gosh, look at us representing,” she said. “And I’m like, if one of us wins, we’re making history.”
She added later: “It’s fantastic. It meant a lot. I’m so proud of Blessing. I was looking at her, ‘Dang, she’s killing it.’ But I can kill it, too.”
— James Wagner
Not long after Sunisa Lee won the Olympic gold medal for the individual all-around gymnastics competition, I saw lawn signs popping up all around Minneapolis and St. Paul with her image on them. There were no words on the signs, just her image, adapted from a photo of her competing in her Olympic leotard.
Cities love to celebrate when one of their own wins Olympic glory, but Lee didn’t just represent an American city. She represented a population that was being recognized in a new way because of her.
Historically, the Hmong people have been displaced and marginalized by wars and imperialism. Many members of the Hmong community moved to the Twin Cities as refugees from Southeast Asia, mostly from Laos. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, more than 66,000 Hmong people live in the area, the largest concentration in the United States.
Living in Minneapolis means seeing the community’s influence in every professional space. I’ve often seen people gather in a local park wearing ornate Hmong clothing for picnics or photos. Throughout the summer, I bought my farmers’ market vegetables from Hmong farmers. When my favorite local dumpling pop-up, the Saturday Dumpling Club, collaborated with another pandemic pop-up called Union Hmong Kitchen, their Hmong sausage dumplings sold out in minutes.
Lee was the first Hmong American to even compete in the Olympics, much less win a gold medal. The day she won, her family hosted a watch party nearby. It was broadcast on a local Hmong television channel and covered by Sahan Journal, a newspaper dedicated to local immigrant communities. Lee returned home after the Olympics to a parade in St. Paul, and to gratitude.
— Tania Ganguli
Caeleb Dressel stood shirtless in front of a pack of reporters just moments after swimming in his final race at the Tokyo Olympics. The gold medal draped over his shoulders — his fifth of the Games — gleamed upon a massif of muscle and a dark tangle of tattoos.
Still, somehow, he seemed feeble. It was the way he rocked on his heels, looked at the ground and leaned on his teammate’s shoulder. It was his subdued tone in the presumed afterglow of victory, and the remarkable things he went on to say:
“I wouldn’t ever tell myself this during a meet, but after, looking back, it’s terrifying.”
“Some parts were extremely enjoyable, but I would say a majority of them were not.”
“You can’t sleep right. You can’t nap. You’re shaking all the time. You don’t eat.”
“I’m really glad to be done.”
“I’m pretty over swimming at the moment.”
Vulnerability had already been a motif at the Games. Superstars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka had spoken candidly about the way mental health issues could contribute to subpar performances.
Yet here, in Dressel, was an athlete who had just exceeded every expectation, fulfilled his childhood dreams and become an American hero, essentially, by claiming more gold medals than any other athlete at the Tokyo Games.
The ambivalence of his departing message, then, was almost exhilaratingly humanizing: Success was draining. Pressure could be crippling. Sports are work, and how many people truly always love their work?
— Andrew Keh
Never has an Olympic flame been seen by so few. Never has it meant more.
It was near dusk a week into the fan-deprived Tokyo Games. A colleague and I walked the mile or two between the media headquarters and the sport-climbing competition venue.
The direct route was a pedestrian promenade raised above city streets. It cut through a sprawl of malls, museums and cruise-ship terminals rendered lifeless by the pandemic.
The 2020 Olympics — still called that, in 2021, because time and space no longer mattered — were detached from reality and disconnected from the Japanese. Venues allowed no spectators. Streets were drained of atmosphere. The Olympics, sequestered from their hosts, had no soul or spontaneity. So I thought.
Ahead on the promenade, in the day’s faded light, appeared a small orange glow and a tangle of humanity. Like desert wanderers spotting an oasis, we could not make sense of it at first.
Beyond the scrum was a shrunken replica of the Olympic cauldron, a dinky thing propped on the promenade without majesty, maybe not even a sign, behind cheap sidewalk barriers. It held an auxiliary version of the official Olympic flame, which burned at an empty stadium a few miles away.
People circled the glow, like moths. Older couples, off-duty Olympic volunteers in their uniforms, parents with children hoisted on their shoulders — they nudged as close as they could, turned their backs to the flame and leaned into one another.
They held cameras in front of them. Some pulled down their masks to free their selfie smiles.
They shared a moment that almost felt like a secret.
— John Branch
The day Simone Biles testified to Congress about the F.B.I.’s failure to properly investigate the serial molester Lawrence G. Nassar, who abused Biles and hundreds of other girls and women, I was sitting about 10 feet behind her in the hearing room. I couldn’t see her face. But I could hear her.
It was Biles’s first time addressing Congress about Nassar, the former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor. Her voice cracking, she insisted that a broken system that leaves athletes vulnerable must be fixed.
She lashed out at F.B.I. and sports officials who did not protect children. She criticized the F.B.I.’s mismanagement of the case, mentioning horrific details included in a Justice Department inspector general report.
The timing of that report was cruel.
The Justice Department had made it public in July, just as Biles — the sole Nassar survivor competing at the Tokyo Games — was flying to Japan as the headliner for the U.S. Olympic team. I often wonder how it affected her performance.
Biles withdrew from the team competition while in Tokyo, citing mental health challenges that made it unsafe for her to perform her dangerous gymnastics moves. In doing so, she trained a spotlight on the importance of mental health.
Testifying in September, she showed, yet again, the strength of a champion who changed and even transcended her sport.
I will remember her words.
“I am a strong individual and I will persevere,” she said.
— Juliet Macur
Hurricane Ida pummeled Grand Isle, La., but Londyn Resweber, 14, continued to train for the state cross-country championships. At dusk one day in late October, a man stood on his deck as she ran below, pointed to the sky and said, “Aliens are coming down tonight to make everything normal again.”
It was unclear whether he was joking or offering eccentric inspiration. But, in truth, the ravaged barrier island could hardly have seemed more otherworldly if a spacecraft landed on Highway 1, the only road in and out of town.
Resweber’s grandfather Scooter Resweber, 72, is Grand Isle’s police chief. Sometimes he glimpsed his granddaughter training outside his office window. Elected in 2020, he joked that he thought he would attend a few parties, write a few tickets, put a few people in jail. He never imagined anything as terrible as Ida. In his office, he kept what little he salvaged from the storm, plastic bins of photographs and clothes. Sometimes, he said, he felt like crying.
But people are accustomed to storms on the island as they wrestle with climate change. Community resilience was evident in the Grand Isle School cross-country team. Windblown across the South, a handful of runners returned home for the state meet. Resweber did not win a medal as she had hoped, but team effort seemed to matter more this year than the result.
“Something like this has never been done before,” Coach Denny Wright said. “I’m so proud of them.”
— Jeré Longman