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Kevin Durant is 6'9", born and bred inside the Washington, D.C., beltway and, despite being one of the NBA's most incandescent young stars, so unassuming that he might stroll unrecognized through most malls in America. Kim Yu-na is 5'4", a native South Korean and a celebrity so revered in her homeland that in 2006 she moved to Toronto, where rock-star levels of adulation wouldn't interfere with her training. And that was four years before she won an Olympic figure skating gold medal at the Vancouver Games last February.
The towering Oklahoma City Thunder forward—Durant was the NBA's scoring leader last season and in September led Team USA to its first basketball world championship in 16 years—and the diminutive Winter Olympics champion would seem to have little in common, aside perhaps from their outsized leaping abilities and the fact that both gained international stardom in 2010. But longtime SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. recognized something else when he turned his lens on them. "There's a certain aura about all great athletes," Iooss says. "I don't know if it's because you know they're great or they know they're great. But there's something that you sense as soon as they walk in the room."
Iooss spent most of the past year capturing that something with his camera, creating a photographic scrapbook of the athletes who made the year memorable: his 10 for 2010. The project began with Durant in Oklahoma City in March and culminated earlier this month on Hawaii's North Shore, where Iooss shot surfer Kelly Slater. Iooss had taken his first pictures of Slater 20 years earlier, almost to the day, but this session was more than a reunion. In November, Slater, at age 38, won an unprecedented 10th world title in a sport he has dominated for as long as many of his competitors have been alive. "What he accomplished this year," says Iooss, "is simply amazing."
Like Durant and Kim, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV and SI's Sportsman of the Year, also evolved from a singular talent into a full-blown star in 2010. But 2010 was additionally a year when icons on Slater's plane deepened our respect for them. In November boxer Manny Pacquiao defeated Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to win the WBC light middleweight championship and become the only boxer to win 10 title belts in eight different weight classes. It was the second fight staged at Jerry Jones's football palace; in the first, held in March before a crowd of more than 40,000, Pacquiao defeated Joshua Clottey to retain his welterweight belt. Two months later Pacquiao took a different kind of palace by storm. The Filipino hero was elected in a landslide to a seat in Congress in his native country. A word of caution to his political adversaries on both sides of the aisle: Pacquiao can be lethal with his left and his right.
Were it not for Pacquiao's participation, that election might have gone unnoticed outside of the Phillippines. The same can't be said of the World Cup, which fixed everyone's gaze on South Africa for four summer weeks. Spain established itself as a soccer power by winning its first Cup, while the U.S. had to settle with advancing to the knockout round. But American fans did see Landon Donovan chase away the memories of a disastrous 2006 World Cup and reestablish himself as an elite international player. He scored three of his team's five goals in the tournament, including a last-minute strike in a 1--0 victory over Algeria that helped the U.S. win its World Cup group for the first time since 1930. Donovan has now scored more World Cup goals than any other male player in U.S. history.
What kind of delirium might a World Cup championship unleash in this country? Ask fans in San Francisco, where ace Tim Lincecum, already beloved for having won two Cy Young Awards, guaranteed he'll never have to pay for sushi in that town again by helping the Giants win their first World Series since the franchise relocated in 1958. Lincecum is known as the Freak, partly because he is frighteningly good, partly because his slight, 5'11" frame is entirely at odds with his prowess as a power pitcher. "I was shocked at how small he is," says Iooss, who met Lincecum for the first time at their December shoot.
With his long hair, soft features and counterculture street cred (LET TIM SMOKE T-shirts were ubiquitous in the Bay Area during the Series), Lincecum recalls another undersized and freakishly talented star of 2010: snowboarder Shaun White, who won his second Olympic gold. Just for kicks, White also nailed the most difficult and dangerous halfpipe move ever attempted, the Double McTwist 1260—an unnecessary reminder of how firmly this legend rules his sport. "I came all the way to Vancouver to do something amazing," White explained. Consider it done.
Who might enjoy such moments of triumph in 2011? Golfer Dustin Johnson came agonizingly close in 2010: He held final-round leads in both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship but lost them both, the latter when he incurred a controversial and heartbreaking two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker. Still, Johnson finished fourth on the PGA Tour's money list and ended the year as one of his sport's champions-in-waiting. That makes him golf's version of Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals megastar who has done everything in hockey except win the Stanley Cup—a trophy his team is expected to contend for next spring. "I wanted to shoot Ovechkin because of his face," says Iooss. "It's perfect for a photographer, one of those can't-miss faces." It's a fitting image to end the collection on the following pages: a perfect 10.