All comebacks are not as dramatic as Betty Robinson’s.
The first U.S. woman to win an Olympic track and field event – the 100-meter in 1928 – Robinson was presumed dead after a small plane crash three years later. A man placed her in the trunk of his car to take her to a mortician, who determined that she was simply unconscious, though severely injured.
Robinson, then 19 years old, spent 11 weeks in the hospital, leaving in a wheelchair and with one leg half an inch shorter than the other. A newspaper headline blared, “Girl Runner Will Never Race Again.”
That was the 1930s version of fake news. Robinson couldn’t bend her knees enough to get into the starting crouch, but still made the 1936 Olympic team in the 4x100-meter. Running the third leg, she handed off to 100-meter champ Helen Stephens. The Germans, who were favored to win, dropped the baton, and Robinson won her second Olympic gold medal.
While it’s impossible to match that “come back from the dead” story, here are eight of the greatest comebacks in the last three decades as part of Women of Team USA Week.
Cathy Turner, Short Track Speedskating, 1992
Short track speedskating was not an Olympic sport when Turner retired in 1980. The 17-year-old was fresh off the disappointment of failing to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980 in long track. She decided to become a singer-songwriter, using the name Nikki Newland in a Las Vegas lounge act. But after watching the next two Winter Games on television, Turner couldn’t resist a comeback in short track, the sport in which she was national champion in 1979. As short track made its Olympic debut in 1992 in Albertville, the scrappy Turner won the gold medal in the 500-meter. She retired again to join the Ice Capades. After a very short turnaround, Turner returned to competition and defended her title in 1994. She competed again in 1998 and retired for good with two golds, one silver and one bronze.
Nancy Kerrigan, Figure Skating, 1994
“The Whack Heard ‘Round the World” was a unique moment in sports history. It became part of pop culture and more than 20 years later inspired the recent movie “I, Tonya.” Kerrigan was assaulted with a retractable baton after a practice at the U.S. championships in Detroit with the intention of keeping her away from the Lillehammer Games. Associates of Tonya Harding’s husband were later implicated in the attack, but they not only missed Kerrigan’s kneecap, they also underestimated Kerrigan’s determination. Officials placed Kerrigan on the team alongside Harding, and Kerrigan assiduously trained and recovered from her injuries. At the 1994 Winter Games, Kerrigan won the Olympic silver medal – to go along with her bronze from 1992 – while Harding placed eighth.
Dara Torres, Swimming, 2000 and 2008
Torres won the first of her 12 Olympic medals in 1984, when she was just 17 years old – a gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle. She then followed the usual progression of competing in the 1988 and 1992 Games, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze. Torres retired from competitive swimming for seven years, returning in 1999 to make a bid for the 2000 team. At age 33 and as the oldest swimmer on Team USA, Torres won five more medals. She retired once again as the oldest and most prolific female swimmer in Olympic history. But Torres wasn’t finished. After giving birth to a daughter in 2006, she returned to the pool for training. Torres made her fifth Olympic team in 2008. At age 41 years and four months, she won a gold medal and two silvers on relays, as well as the silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle. Torres underwent reconstructive knee surgery in hopes of one more Games, but finished fourth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the 50 free, missing the team by two spots.
Serena Williams, Tennis, 2012
Days after winning the 2010 Wimbledon title, Williams stepped on broken glass outside a Munich restaurant, ending her season. Williams needed at least 18 stitches and surgery on a lacerated tendon in her foot. She said blood clots that later developed in her lungs left her "on her deathbed.” Williams missed almost 12 months in what she called her “disaster year.” By 2012, she was back and dominating the tour as she had in the past. She won Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and the US Open in quick succession. Williams achieved her “Career Golden Slam,” by winning the gold in singles at the London Games, as well as another doubles title to go along with her gold medals from 2008 and 2012. Among her Open-era record of 23 Grand Slam titles, 10 came after Williams’ comeback.
Noelle Pikus-Pace, Skeleton, 2014
As the 2005 world championships silver medalist in skeleton, Pikus-Pace was a medal favorite going into the 2006 Olympic season. But in October 2005, her dreams – and her right leg – were shattered. In one of the most horrific accidents at a track, Pikus-Pace was hit by a bobsled that failed to brake at the finish line in Calgary, Alberta. After undergoing surgery to repair her leg, Pikus-Pace found herself racing the clock. With a titanium rod in her leg, Pikus-Pace returned to competition seven weeks later. A U.S. petition to allow her to race at the Torino Games, however, was denied. Pikus-Pace had a baby and came back to compete in the 2010 Games, placing fourth. She retired and had a second child, but still yearned for an Olympic medal after coming so close. Pikus-Pace launched a comeback in 2012, which culminated in the Olympic silver medal in Sochi in 2014.
Dana Vollmer, Swimming, 2016
It’s not uncommon for female athletes to continue their Olympic careers after becoming mothers. But Vollmer, already a 2004 and 2012 Olympian with four gold medals, didn’t have any time to waste in coming back. She had 17 months between the birth of her son and the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Two months after Arlen was born, Vollmer decided to give it a try. She was what she called “A Momma on a Mission.” However, she had her priorities straight. She practiced only in the morning so she could spend the rest of the day with her son. As naysayers said she could never qualify for Team USA on a one-a-day practice schedule, Vollmer did just that. In Rio, Vollmer won the Olympic gold medal in the 4x100-meter medley, silver in the 4x100-meter freestyle and bronze in the 100-meter butterfly. She gave birth to her second son, Ryker, on July 4, 2017, and then set her sights on Tokyo 2020.
Lindsey Vonn, Alpine Skiing, 2018
The eight years between Vonn’s incandescent victory in the downhill at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 and her bronze in the same event in 2018 were fraught with multiple injuries, depression and an unrelenting media spotlight, especially while she was dating Tiger Woods. This was not so much a comeback as a “keep going.” After a severe knee injury prevented her from competing at the Sochi Games in 2014, Vonn continued to push herself. She knew that at age 33, the PyeongChang Games would be her last. While she didn’t capture another gold, making the podium one more time – and as the oldest woman to win an Olympic alpine skiing medal – was a huge accomplishment. “It’s all made me who I am. It’s made me a stronger person,” Vonn said of her struggles. “I’m really proud to have another medal and to be on the podium with the next generation of the sport. Yeah. I wish I could keep going. I wish this wasn’t my last Olympics. But it is. So I’m trying to accept that and deal with the emotions of that and enjoy the ride.”
Amanda Kessel, Ice Hockey, 2018
Kessel didn’t just wonder if she would get back on the ice after a concussion. She wondered if she would ever feel like herself again after the concussion gave her headaches, confusion and an inability to even have a conversation. “Sometimes still it’s hard for me to think I almost lost two years of my life because I really was doing nothing,” she said. “But that’s why I do feel so fortunate.” Kessel suffered the concussion in a scrimmage prior to the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, where she helped Team USA win the silver medal. Within a few months, symptoms returned that forced her off the ice. She didn’t get back on her skates until the fall of 2015. Kessel had to work her way back onto the U.S. Women’s National Team, and at the PyeongChang Games she helped Team USA win its first gold medal in ice hockey in 20 years.