They’re ba-ack. These Team USA athletes proved that with enough hard work, resiliency and talent, they could come back from retirement, injury, pregnancy, suspension or even just a bad year on the field of play. Here are 15 comeback stories for 2015.
Kristin Armstrong, Cycling
At age 42 and after two retirements, Kristin Armstrong is back in the saddle as a candidate to make the U.S. road cycling team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic time trial gold medalist and two-time world champion, Armstrong retired after the London Games to raise her son (who was born in 2010) and recover from several hip surgeries and procedures. “People ask me all the time, ‘Why are you coming back? What’s your story?’” Armstrong told VeloNews.com. “At the end of the day, you want to know why? Because I can. I love cycling.” Noting that “Every story I tell is not about the race, it’s about how I got there,” Armstrong had her last hip procedure in December 2014. She started training in February 2015 and placed third in May in the Tour of California time trial. Armstrong then won the time trial at nationals and was eighth in the road race. Although she was in tears after placing fifth in the time trial at the world championships, two spots shy of automatic qualification for Rio, Armstrong still has a shot at the Games via the selection committee.
Natalie Bieule, Paralympic Track and Field
A dancer in high school, Natalie Bieule lost her right leg at age 18 in 2001 when she was hit by a drunk driver. When Bieule met April Holmes in 2013, the three-time Paralympian urged her to try track and field. Bieule was a natural at the discus, winning the 2014 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships and setting a new American record. Bieule gave birth to her second child, daughter Valentina Marie, in March 2015, but was determined to resume her athletic career as quickly as possible. She was back in competition in May, clinched her second national title in June and finished sixth at the Parapan American Games in August in a combined class event. Bieule capped her season with a bronze medal at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships. “I think about Rio every day; it gives me goose bumps,” she said. “You tell me I can’t, and I’m not going to stop. You tell me that it’s impossible, and I’m going to prove you wrong.”
KC Boutiette, Long Track Speedskating
A new Olympic event made KC Boutiette serious about speedskating again. In 2015, the four-time Olympian made the US Speedskating world cup team at age 44 and competed in his first world cup since 2006. “It’s all about the mass start for me,” said Boutiette, whose best Olympic finishes from 1994-2006 were fifth in the 1,500-meter in 1998 and fifth in the 5,000 in 2002. “That’s the one reason I came back to skating.” Mass start was approved for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games in June 2015 and Boutiette qualified four months later to represent Team USA for the 2015-16 long track fall season. If Boutiette, known as a pioneer who came over from inline skating, makes the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, he would be the oldest Olympic speedskater since Albert Tebbit of Great Britain competed in the first Winter Games in 1924 at age 52. The oldest speedskating medalist is 38-year-old Julius Skutnabb of Finland in 1928.
Jordan Burroughs, Wrestling
The 2012 Olympic gold medalist whose Twitter handle is @alliseeisgold, Jordan Burroughs suffered his first loss at an Olympic Games or world championships in 2014. He sprained his MCL in his first-round match in Uzbekistan and wrestled the rest of the way with a wrapped left leg, losing 9-2 in the semifinal to Russian Denis Tsargush, the eventual champ. Burroughs took away a bronze medal. “A lot of people forgot about what I was capable of,” Burroughs said. “But I always knew that I still had it within me.” Finding balance as a new husband, father and college coach, Burroughs regained the top of the podium in Las Vegas at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships, winning his third world title in the 74 kg. freestyle division. Only Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith have won more combined world and Olympic titles, so Burroughs said, “when I think of the Mount Rushmore of wrestling, I definitely can say I’m on it.”
Jimmy Butler, Table Tennis
A table tennis player at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games who once ranked as high as No. 70 in the world, Jimmy Butler suffered from a muscular condition that he said “felt like a snake was wrapped around me.” Eventually, he not only couldn’t play, he was bedridden. “My muscles were as hard as concrete,” Butler said. “And there was no human being that could fix me.” He and his father and a muscular specialist came up with a machine to massage Butler’s muscles for up to 16 hours a day. “I’ve gone from not being able to walk, with my whole body roasting in pain, to feeling like a teenager,” said Butler, who now uses a non-motorized tool to push into his muscles. After not touching a racket for eight and a half years, Butler came back the sport in 2012. By 2014, at age 44, he won the national title 21 years after the last of his three previous crowns (1990, 1992 and 1993). Butler won the bronze medal at the North American Cup in 2014 and the gold medal in 2015. At the Pan American Games in Toronto, he was forced to withdraw from the singles competition with a strained left Achilles, but remains a top contender to make his third Olympic team.
Shani Davis, Long Track Speedskating
Going into his fourth Olympic Winter Games, Shani Davis was the popular elder statesman on the Team USA long track speedskating squad. But he and his teammates took home no medals, and Davis was despondent after placing eighth in the 1,000-meter, where he was two-time defending champion, and 11th in the 1,500, a race in which he has two silver medals. “It was really hard trying to move forward at first and not let what happened in Sochi bring me down or possibly even halt my skating career,” Davis wrote on his website. In February 2015, Davis won his first major title in four years, edging Pavel Kulizhnikov of Russia by 0.04 seconds to win the 1,000-meter at the world championships. The 1,000 title was the fourth for Davis, then 32, the world-record holder. "I needed something to show me I still have what it takes," said Davis. "I was crying I was so happy." In November, Davis returned to the world cup podium in Salt Lake City with a bronze medal in the 1,500, the other event in which he holds the world record.
Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, Gymnastics
At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman helped the “Fierce Five” clinch the gold medal in the women’s team gymnastics competition while also winning individual medals. Douglas was the all-around champion while Raisman won floor exercise (a first for a U.S. woman) and took the bronze on balance beam. After the Games, Douglas released an autobiography, did all the of the gymnastics stunts in a television movie about her life and went through several coaching changes. Raisman was injured on tour in September and the next spring competed on “Dancing with the Stars.” Although new gymnastics stars such as world champion Simone Biles emerged, neither Douglas nor Raisman was ready to give up competitive gymnastics. Both attended camps in 2014 and made the U.S. national team. At the 2015 U.S. championships, Raisman was first on floor exercise and third in the all-around while Douglas was fifth in all-around. Both helped the U.S. win the team gold medal at the world championships in Glasgow, Scotland. Raisman was fifth in all-around qualification, but did not advance due to the two-per-country rule. In the all-around final, Biles won her third straight world title, with Douglas the silver medalist. She was the first Olympic champion to to reach the medal stand at worlds since 1981. “I’ll take it,” Douglas said. “I really wanted to prove to everyone that my comeback was real.” And she and Raisman are far from finished as both are strong contenders to be the first repeat U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympians since 2000.
Bill May, Synchronized Swimming
Opportunities have been limited for male synchronized swimmers. Bill May took part in his first international competition, the 1998 Goodwill Games, with partner Kristina Lum in “ordinary” duets, where they won the silver, but he was barred from the 1999 Pan American Games because he was a man. When mixed duet was not added to the program for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, May retired in frustration in 2005. He joined Cirque du Soleil’s water-based show, “O.” At age 36, May came out of retirement because FINA, the international swimming federation, finally added mixed duet for the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia. May and Christina Jones, a 2008 Olympian, won the historic gold for technical routine, while he paired once again with Lum Underwood to win the free routine silver. May said he “never thought this would happen,” adding that the sport is “finally recognizing men and it feels great. I have been stubborn and it has paid off. Allowing men to the program will add athleticism to the sport and today truly showcased that men have their place in synchro swimming.” However, men are still not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games in synchro.
Aries Merritt, Track and Field
Few people knew Aries Merritt was sick, and that was the way he wanted it. The 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles noticed a lack of energy, shortness of breath and difficulty recovering following his sixth-place finish at the 2013 world championships in Moscow. Two months later, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, due to a rare genetic disorder and a virus. Merritt was in the hospital from October 2013 until late April 2014, his kidney function as low as 15 percent. He began to recover and on minimal training began competing again. Merritt did not win any races on the 2014 international circuit, but was satisfied. “After being told that I would never be able to run again,” he told the IAAF website, “I was simply happy to be able to do what I love.” While his kidney function was still less than 20 percent in 2015, Merritt posted a time of 13.12 at a Diamond League meet in Eugene, then placed third at the U.S. championships to qualify for the world championships in Beijing. Days before his race, he revealed his condition to the world, then surpassed all expectations to win the bronze medal. Four days later, Merritt was back in the hospital to receive a transplanted kidney donated by his sister and start planning his comeback for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. “I really feel in my heart of hearts that I'm going to be able to run something crazy now that I have a new kidney," he told the Associated Press. "I'm going to shock a lot of people."
Michael Phelps, Swimming
After becoming the most-decorated Olympian of all time – with 18 gold medals and 22 overall – swimmer Michael Phelps retired. He couldn’t stay out of the pool for long, launching a comeback in April 2014. Phelps performed well enough that summer at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships to make the 2015 world championships team. On Sept. 30, 2014, Phelps’ comeback came to a sudden halt when he was arrested for DUI for the second time. USA Swimming suspended him for six months and barred him from worlds. Phelps told Sports Illustrated that after the arrest he spent days in a fetal position “not wanting to be alive anymore.” He went into rehab and returned to swimming with a new attitude. While his teammates were at worlds in Kazan, Russia, Phelps swam at the U.S. nationals in August 2015 and practiced some one-upmanship. He won the 100 and 200 butterfly with the world’s fastest times of the year and also captured the 200 individual medley, also with a faster time in San Antonio, Texas, than was posted in Kazan. To make a good year even better, Phelps, who is engaged to Nicole Johnson, also revealed in 2015 that he is going to become a father.
Taylor Phinney, Cycling
Two days after winning the 2014 U.S. individual time trial title, Taylor Phinney crashed on a descent at the national road race championships and suffered career-threatening injuries: compound fractures to his tibia and patella on his left leg and a ruptured patellar tendon on his left knee. Phinney, who was fourth in both the time trial and road race at the London 2012 Olympic Games, wasn’t sure he would be able to compete again. Following 14 months of rehabilitation, he began racing in early August 2015 and found immediate success. Phinney was third in the first stage of the Tour of Utah and won a stage of the U.S. Pro Tour in Colorado. In September, Phinney finished 12th at worlds. Although that was two places shy of a quota spot for Rio, Italy and Poland had two riders in the top 10 and each country is allowed only one quota spot. That meant Phinney earned a berth for the United States and he hopes to fill it himself next year.
Dana Vollmer, Swimming
Reports of Dana Vollmer’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated. The Olympic champion in the 100-meter butterfly at the London 2012 Olympic Games told Universal Sports that she “hated when I saw the rumors that I actually retired.” However, when she resurfaced at the Los Angeles Invitational in July 2015, finishing sixth in the 100 fly, Vollmer had not competed in a major meet since the 2013 world championships, where she won the bronze in the 100 fly, was on the winning 4x100-meter medley and had struggled with a shoulder injury. Vollmer never formally retired, though, and within weeks of giving birth to a baby boy in March 2015 she had a hankering to swim again. Two months after delivering son Arlen, she was training again, with the support of her husband and a nanny helping out. She was fourth at the U.S. championships in San Antonio, where her pre-race ritual included breastfeeding her baby boy. “I want that (Olympic) goal, and I want to make it there, and I want to see how fast I can go,” Vollmer told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, noting that she also had to find “a really good balance” in taking care of her family and managing her comeback. At the winter nationals in December, Vollmer returned to the top of the podium in her signature event.
Lindsey Vonn, Alpine Skiing
Sensational races as well as sensational crashes have characterized Lindsey Vonn’s career. The 2010 Olympic downhill champion, Vonn tore her ACL and MCL and broke the upper part of a right leg bone in a crash at the 2013 world championships. Determined to regain her form in time for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games, Vonn fell in December 2013 in a world cup race, forcing her to undergo major reconstructive knee surgery again and dashing her Olympic dreams. Vonn’s rehab was featured in the documentary “Lindsey Vonn: The Climb.” She returned to the world cup podium in December 2014 in Lake Louise, Alberta, en route to becoming the winningest women’s alpine skier of all time. Vonn’s victory in the super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy — one day after winning the downhill — gave her 63 world cup wins, erasing the 35-year-old record held by Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proell. “The last two years have been pretty tough and a lot of people counted me out and thought I would never reach this record,” Vonn said after the race. “A lot of people thought that I would never win again. I never stopped believing in myself and I think I proved everyone wrong.” She finished the 2014-15 season with 67 world cup wins and her 19th world cup crystal globe, tying Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark. She also won super-G bronze at worlds, making her the most-decorated U.S. woman in alpine worlds history. Vonn then started the 2015-16 campaign with four straight victories to bring her current tally to 71 world cup wins. Stenmark has the overall record with 86, but don't count Vonn out.
Mallory Weggemann, Paralympic Swimming
On the eve of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Mallory Weggemann was reclassified. With no function from the belly button down – the result of a routine epidural injection gone wrong in 2008 – Weggemann had to swim against more able-bodied competitors, including single-arm amputees. Weggemann still won the gold in the 50-meter freestyle, earned bronze on the 4x100-meter medley, was fourth in the 100 free, sixth in the 100 breast and 200 IM and seventh in the 100 back. Alas, Weggemann faced another physical crisis in March 2014, sustaining a severe injury to her left arm when the shower bench she was using collapsed. She did not return to competition for a year. Despite training with a brace on her left arm, Weggemann earned a spot on the 2015 ParaPan American Games roster based on her performance at the Can Am Championships. “I learned how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Weggemann told swimswam.com. “I knew that I was going to see it (Parapan American Games) through. Every day I would give what I had to give. I made a pact with myself that I would give it my all.” Forced to change her start because of her arm, injury, Weggemann won the bronze medal in her first event, the 100 back, silvers in the 400 free and 50 free, and, finally, golds in the 200 IM and the 100 free, in the final event posting a ParaPan American record time. She tied fellow U.S. swimmer Haley Beranbaum for the most medals at the Games.
Shaun White, Snowboarding
Going into the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Shaun White had two goals: win two gold medals and become the first Team USA male athlete to win the same winter event in three consecutive Games. Nothing, however, went smoothly for White. First he bowed out of the inaugural Olympic slopestyle contest, fearing he might injure himself and miss his historic bid on the halfpipe. Then White didn’t have the goods and finished fourth in halfpipe. In his return to the X Games in January 2015, White posted the top score in the elimination round of the men’s snowboard superpipe competition, raising hopes for a top podium finish. However, he dropped to fourth in the final, marking the first time since 2008 that White had failed to win the gold in a superpipe event in which he participated. In December 2015, though, White came roaring back. In the snowboard superpipe final at Dew Tour Breckenridge, he prevailed despite heavy snow with a score of 92.60 points, holding off Olympic gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov, “I-Pod,” of Russia. “It was super impressive what Shaun did and how he handled the conditions," said Podladtchikov, who was third. “You could again see Shaun's got the most experience out of all of us, and that really gave him a huge advantage today."