By Kyle Kirschbaum
When athletes perform triumphant feats of the body, they impress us. But when they also demonstrate amazing feats of will and character, they inspire us. They become analogies of the amazing tenacity and capacity of the human spirit to withstand hardship, and excel, even when against the odds. Inspiring athletes become champions of the people, and their courage is contagious.
These following inspiring athletes will stir your emotions and motivate your actions. They will challenge you to aim a little higher, strive a little longer, and work a little harder to conquer your challenges and become a champion over your circumstances.
Billy Miske was a professional boxer during the 1920s. He went toe to toe against boxing greats such as Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, Jack Dillon, Battling Levinsky, and Tommy Gibbons, to name a few. Miske, whose record stood at 48-2-2, is considered by sport’s historians as one of the most under-appreciated boxers of the early 20th century. Although he traded punches with boxing’s most prized fighters, Miske’s inspiring legacy isn’t founded on who he fought, or even how he fought, but why he fought.
At the height of his boxing career, Miske was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease. His doctors projected he had less than 5 years to live, and demanded he retire from boxing immediately. Miske was hesitant to retire, but finally took his doctor’s advice after suffering a first round knockout against Jack Dempsey. After 11 months of retirement, unfortunate circumstances hit Miske’s family with financial hardship. With the holidays approaching Miske wanted to provide his family with one last Christmas. So Miske convinced promoters to give him another fight. By this time, Miske’s physical condition had deteriorated so much that he could barely walk. Obviously training for the fight was out of the question. Despite all this, Miske laced back up and jumped in the ring to fight a much younger, more favored fighter, Bill Brennan.
Despite being untrained, older, and near death from Kidney failure, Miske exchanged punches with his younger, more favored component, winning the fight by knocking Brennan out in the 4th round. With the 2,400$ purse, Miske bought back the furniture his family had pawned and bought his children toys and his wife a piano for Christmas.
Miske would die weeks later, in 1924, at the age of 29.
Jim Abbott was the pitcher for the New York Yankees. Prior to being a first round draft pick, he led the USA to a gold medal in a demonstration game against the South Korean baseball team during the 1988 Summer Olympics. He was also awarded the AAU’s James E. Sulliavan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete.
As a pitcher for the NY Yankees, Jim Abbott’s stats alone distinguish him as MLB elite, but what makes Abbott an inspiring athlete is not just his performance of athletic superiority, it’s his ability to perform such athletic feats, despite being born with only one hand. If there is ever a game that sums up Abbott’s struggle to be the best, despite the odds, it is the no-hitter he threw against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Watching his teammates reactions show it wasn’t just his fans and spectators Abbott inspired, but the athletes he played beside as well.
Jackie Mitchell is a female athlete who overcame the stiff gender roles of the 1930’s by becoming a professional baseball pitcher, at the age of 17. Signing with the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, Mitchell’s mastery of the mound was put up to the test within her first week as a professional player. During an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Mitchell went up against two kings of American Baseball: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Simply being a female athlete who pitched against such baseball royalty is inspirational enough. But pitching against these greats wasn’t enough for Mitchell. So she struck both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig out, back to back. That’s right. A 17 year old girl struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Babe Ruth, who taunted Mitchell for throwing like a girl when he stepped up to the plate, was furious when he swung and missed his third strike. As reported in the New York Times the Sultan of Swat “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench, registering disgust with his shoulders and chin.”
Anthony Robles is a modern day athlete who reached international fame as an amateur wrestler, being a 3-time Pac-10 champion and a 3-time All American.
A celebrity in the wrestling world, Anthony Robles inspires spectators and fellow athletes alike, not just because he is such a decorated champion, but because he is a decorated champion despite being born with only one leg. During his childhood, Anthony Robles waded through the well-meaning naysayers who encouraged him to invest in non-physical activities. Determined that a physical handicap wasn’t a disqualifier, but simply a challenge to overcome in his athletic endeavors, Robles discarded his prosthetic limb at the age of three, set his schools push-up record in the 6th grade, and began wrestling 2 years later.
Glen Cunningham was a world class distance runner who set numerous world records. Cunningham attained celebrity status in the 1930s after a spectacular, medal-winning performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Besides being one of the fastest runners in the world, during his time, Glen Cunningham defied the odds by simply being able to run at all. At the age of 8 Glen Cunningham survived a school house explosion that claimed the life of his brother and many other students.
Cunningham did not walk away unscathed, he did not walk away at all. His legs suffered catastrophic injuries. The flesh was blown away from the knees down, his transverse arch was shredded, and he lost all the toes on his left foot. Doctors wanted to amputate both his legs, saying that there was no way Cunningham would ever walk again. But Cunningham resisted, and his parents rejected the medical advice of the doctors. After years of effort and against all odds Cunningham gradually began to walk again, and then gradually began to run again, and then run faster than anybody else.
When asked how he overcame the fateful circumstances of his childhood, Cunningham would quote scripture saying: “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
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