Great Moments in Sports: Add Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to a List of Dramatic Thrillers

The Olympics are guaranteed to produce memorable moments in sports that etch themselves forever into fans’ memories.  The current Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver have already produced two such moments:  Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn each won gold medals in their events with dramatic, courageous performances. 

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge their determination and skill.  Below are links to videos of their victories.  And I’ve included more videos of some of my favorite moments ever in a variety of sports, from track to gymnastics to football.

Every so often in sports there’s a convergence of occasion, athlete, and execution that makes for unforgettable drama, where all the elements  — suspense, pressure, and a great competitor determined to win in the face of long odds — come together to create a moment of triumph that will be remembered as long as athletic competition endures.

We had two such moments last night at the Winter Olympics, when Americans Sean White and Lindsey Vonn earned victories with masterful efforts.  On the biggest stages, the best performers rise to the occasion.  Even when an athlete is favored — and sometimes especially when favored — that is quite a difficult feat to accomplish.

Lindsey Vonn won gold in the woman’s downhill, fighting not only her competitors but an injured right shin and a brutal course.  The hill was steep, icy, and choppy and there were a number of spectacular crashes, some by women considered to be medal contenders.  Vonn skied on the edge of control, at times almost entirely on her left leg, and won the event by over half a second, a huge margin in ski racing.

Click for a print of Shaun White's Rolling Stone cover

Click to get a print of Shaun White's Rolling Stone cover

Shaun White, the world’s foremost artist of the snowboard half-pipe, performed his best at the moment of truth, winning his second consecutive gold medal.  Despite tremendous pressure and expectations, and against a deep field, White’s performance was head and shoulders above the rest.  He rode almost flawlessly in his first run, posting the highest score.  When all his competitors had finished their second runs, no one had bested White’s score, so he knew he had the gold medal sewn up.  For his second run, he could have slid down the center of the pipe blowing kisses to the crowd and still won.  Instead, he let it go, landing tricks never before seen in competition.  He actually made a higher score on what was essentially a “victory lap.”  His joy and love for his sport and his creative flair are inspiring and infectious.

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As a sports fan, you treasure these rare, unforgettable achievements.  Don’t we all have a few we like to recall?  Thanks to the data-preserving resources of the Internet, we can actually relive most of them whenever we like.  Following are my lifetime favorites.  (True, it’s never quite the same unless you are “there” in the moment — the build-up of tension, rooting for a team or individual, the uncertainty, etc. — but this is the next best thing.)  If I introduce something here you haven’t seen before, good.  Please feel free to mention your own favorites in the comments section below.


The Catch

In the 1982 NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, the Niners were down 27 – 21 in the fourth quarter.  With time running low, they got the ball on their own 11 yard line.  Joe Montana, the greatest clutch quarterback of all time, marched the team down the field, converting on at least a couple of third downs.  With less than a minute left, the Niners had third down on Dallas’s 6 yard line.  That set the stage for The Catch, Montana to Dwight Clark.  The victory by the 49ers signaled a change in the balance of power in the NFL and launched their dynasty.


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Franz Klammer

Franz Klammer’s downhill run in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics is the single most exciting moment I’ve seen in sports.  Apparently many others feel the same way — see the comments on Youtube about this video.  They will give you a sense of the moment.  The tension was unbelievable as the competition built up to Klammer’s run.  Could he do it?  He almost wiped out several times in the attempt.  I was reminded of Klammer when watching Lindsey Vonn yesterday.


Kerri Strug

Kerri Strug lands her final try at the vault in the 1996 Olympics, scoring high enough to assure the USA the team gold.  She had severely sprained her left ankle and damaged tendons on a previous attempt, so she essentially performed this vault on one leg.  Visa made a commercial about it.



The Look

Lance Armstrong was trying to win his third consecutive Tour de France.  His chief rival was Germany’s Jan Ullrich.  On one of cycling’s most grueling stages, the climb up L’Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong gave Ullrich The Look before breaking away in a move no one could match.  (Never mind that Lance later said he didn’t stare into Ullrich’s eyes — with legends, it’s the perception that counts.)  There’s a longer version of the coverage here, with commentary by Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen. for Cycling


Corey Pavin’s 4 Wood

In the 1995 US Open, Corey Pavin came to the par four 18th hole leading the tournament by one stroke over Greg Norman and Tom Lehman.  He had never won a major tournament.  He selected a 4 wood for his second shot and made one for the history books.  If the video here is deleted, click here to see the shot at the USGA Museum video archives.



Michael Johnson’s 200

In the finals of the 200 meters at the 1996 Olympics, Michael Johnson runs 19.32.  No one had ever gone below 19.60.  Johnson’s record in the 200 stood for 12 years, and he still holds the world record for the 400.


Robert Horry’s clutch 3

In game 4 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, the L.A. Lakers faced the Sacramento Kings, with the Lakers trailing in the series 2 games to 1.  The Lakers went down by 20 in the first quarter.  No team had ever come back from such a big deficit to win a playoff game.  In effect, Horry’s shot kept alive the Lakers’ run to another championship.



Michael Jordan versus the Jazz

Down 86 – 85 to the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, 17 seconds left in the game, Michael Jordan steals the ball from Karl Malone, dribbles down, puts a move on Byron Russell, and hits nothing but net to win Chicago’s 6th championship.  It was the last shot he ever took as a Bull.   Here’s a great call of the same play in Italian.


Tiger Woods chips in at the 16th

In the 2005 Masters, Tiger Woods was leading the tournament by one stroke over Chris DiMarco in the last round when he came to the par three 16th hole.  His drive was off the green.  Then he  hit what is probably the most dramatic golf shot ever.  (Woods went on to win the Green Jacket in a playoff.)


Miruts Yifter doubles in the 5,000 and 10,000

Miruts Yifter is a small, balding Ethiopian guy.  Nobody really knew how old he was when he ran both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  (He was probably at least 37.)  His speed and heart were anything but small, however.  After many Olympic disappointments, he got one last chance and made the most of it.  See Yifter unleash one of the most amazing finishing kicks ever (he could run a 48-second 400).

The 10,000 (a race that also included the great Lasse Viren):


The 5,000 (which included 1,500 meter and indoor mile world record holder Eamon Coghlan):


Dave Wottle

Relatively unknown American Dave Wottle stuns the world in the 800 meter final of the 1972 Munich Olympics.


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Forrest Griffin versus Stephan Bonnar

This was the final fight of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter TV show.  These two light heavyweights were competing for a six-figure contract and a shot at making it in the UFC.  The legend goes that as this fight began, about 2 million people were watching on Spike TV.  As the fight went on, people began calling each other, telling their friends to watch.  By the conclusion of the 15-minute bout, the audience had grown to 10 million.  You can see a number of mixed martial arts techniques in this fight but the most important thing on display is that factor that all champions have — heart.

Something that Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn know all about.



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