My Sportsman and Sportswoman: LeBron James and Serena Williams
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by a former Sportsman recipient.
When I won Sportswoman of the Year in 1984 (alongside Edwin Moses, who was that year's Sportsman of the Year ), it was such a surprising and unexpected honor. Edwin had been on top of the sport for so many Olympics and so many years. So when Sports Illustrated decided to bring me in as a co-recipient, it was incredibly humbling, because there were so many outstanding gold medalists who came out of those 1984 Olympic games. It was almost on the same level as being the first woman to be appear on the Wheaties box. It was just really, really special for me and it remains one of the most special awards I've ever received in my career.
Now, as I consider which athletes best embody the ideals of the Sportsman of the Year award for 2013, two athletes really stand out. In terms of a female athlete excelling in her sport, Serena Williams has just killed it on the tennis court and continues to stand at the top of her game despite such a competitive and constantly changing sports landscape. As for the male recipient, my choice is LeBron James, who of course led the Miami Heat to a second straight NBA title. With his extensive and substantial charity work, LeBron has established a standard of achievement that extends far beyond what he does on the court. I think that he would be an incredible honoree ... again.
At the end of the day, I think that it is consistency and the ability to remain on the top of one's sport for a long period that really sets an athlete apart from his or her peers. For a gymnast, it's usually just one Olympiad. We're young when we start, we peak in those four short years and then we're done. But the professional athletes who go on and on and on, not just competing, but continuing to stay at the top of their games, are the truly remarkable ones. Not only do such stars have to maintain their physical skills and conditioning, but they also have to retain that mental aspect, which I believe is infinitely more important. And that's what both Serena and LeBron continue to do year after year.
Though we come from vastly different sports backgrounds, I do see one notable similarity between Serena and myself: Our physical strength. I wasn't a typical gymnast and I broke a lot of barriers in the sport. Before me it was all about the pixie, with the little thinner-type gymnast body. And then I came onto the scene, with my "Earl Campbell" legs. The sport had never seen anybody like me -- strong and explosive, if not so graceful. And I still won. I believe that my success opened the door for a lot of other gymnasts who had been told, "You don't have the body structure for gymnastics." And I believe the same is true for Serena in tennis: Her incredible strength and ability has forever changed the landscape of the women's game and blazed a trail for players who wish to follow in her footsteps.
When I look back at my career, the pinnacle -- hands down -- was the Olympic Games and winning that all-around title. Largely because Americans had never done anything in Olympic gymnastics -- ever. Going into the Games, the media and the public had put their faith in me: Mary Lou Retton is America's best hope for at least some kind of medal. Maybe in the vault, maybe in the floor -- those were my two strongest events -- but no one ever really thought I could capture that Queen Bee title of all-around champion. So when that competition came down, the all-around final, and I was neck-and-neck with Ecaterina Szabo, that was the chance of a lifetime for me. And I just fought and fought and I knew that I had a chance and that I wasn't going to give up. That is the same sort of fighting spirit and incredible drive that I believe Serena and LeBron both embody and what, in my opinion, makes these two athletes truly deserving of being honored with Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year awards.