Survivors' Stories: The Laureus World Comeback of the Year

The true meaning of sporting success is not always written in gold leaf. It is the athlete’s journey as much as the destination which often defines their greatness. The nominations for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award rewrote the manual on overcoming adversity. These inspirational figures battled through broken bones, torn muscles, mental illness and, in some cases, more than one of each. In defying the odds, they reinforced certain core beliefs: that it is okay to not be okay; and that the reservoirs of human resilience can make even the deepest oceans look like puddles.
In gymnastics, Simone Biles claimed bronze in the beam final at the Tokyo Olympics but the battle she won to return to competition at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre was a victory of far greater significance. The American had travelled to Japan as the overwhelming favourite to add to her tally of 23 Olympic and World Championship gold medals. However, expectation and other mental pressures weighed heavily on her and she withdrew from five of six finals, citing a gymnastics phenomenon called ‘twisties’ which affects competitors’ spatial awareness. However, Biles mined her mental reserves to climb back onto the beam and perform a less difficult routine to claim bronze. Her reappearance brought roars from the crowd and an emotional climax to a remarkable personal journey.

Biles was not the only athlete to triumph over mental health issues. Mark Cavendish was diagnosed with clinical depression in August 2018 as he struggled to overcome the effects of Epstein-Barr virus. Having helped break down some of the stigmas attached to mental illness – utterly refuting his previous belief that “depression was an excuse” – Cavendish almost went on to bring down an icon in 2021. Eddy Merckx’s mark of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France was long deemed untouchable but, at the age of 36, the British cyclist won his second sprint green jersey to equal the Belgian’s 46-year-old record.


A little more than a year before the Tokyo Olympics, skateboarder Sky Brown lay unresponsive with a fractured skull and a broken left wrist after plummeting from a half-pipe ramp. It took painful rehabilitation and huge mental strength to jump back on the board. In the Olympic final she made mistakes in her first two runs. Undeterred, the 13-year-old composed herself before pulling off a kickflip indy – the trick that had proved her undoing in previous attempts – in her final run to claim bronze in daring fashion.

Brown’s fellow Briton, Tom Daley, showed similar powers of recovery. The diver could not walk weeks before the Olympics following surgery on torn knee cartilage. But the 27-year-old was on a mission to realise a dream he had held since his teenage years. He won gold for the first time at his fourth Games, partnering Matty Lee to the 10m synchronised title and adding to the bronze he won in the 10m individual platform. Daley’s success had been signposted earlier in the year when he won gold medals at the FINA World Cup, which was also held in Japan.
Marc Márquez’s fall at the Jerez Grand Prix in 2020 immediately ended his hopes of a fifth consecutive world MotoGP championship and placed him instead at the start of a long road back to fitness. The Spaniard missed the whole of the 2020 season and only made his return in April last year. It took him less than two months to signal his renaissance when he won the German Grand Prix in June, before following it up with victories at the Grand Prix of the Americas and at Emilia Romagna.
Another sickening crash – during the women's road race at the 2016 Rio Olympics – threatened Annemiek van Vleuten’s career. The Dutch cyclist suffered spinal fractures and severe concussion. The 39-year-old returned in Tokyo to ride in the same race – a triumph in itself – but there was further heartache to come. Van Vleuten celebrated as if she had won when she crossed the line only to discover that she had lost track of the winner, Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer. Unbroken, Van Vleuten got back in her saddle a few days later and set fire to the course in the time trial to win her first Olympic gold.
The nominations for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award prove that it is the character of the athlete as much as the colour of the medal which speaks to their greatness.


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