The Top 100 Olympic Athletes

Let’s say up front: This list is ridiculous. It is utterly absurd to compare Olympic athletes, different sports, different eras, and try to put them in a tidy list numbered from 1-100. We are comparing Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch track athlete known as “The Flying Housewife” because she dared compete after her children were born, to Naim Suleymanoglu, a powerful Turkish weightlifter to Misty May-Treanor, an American beach volleyball star, to Sir Steve Redgrave, a knighted rower who won five gold medals at five Olympics.

A list of the 100 greatest Olympians in order? Pointless. Of course.

So let’s get started.

* * *

100. Eric (the Eel) Moussambani, Swimming, Equatorial Guinea

He appeared to almost drown swimming 100-meters at the Sydney Games … but he finished. It took him twice as long as Michael Phelps, and he obviously didn’t win any medals. But he did win some hearts and reminded us that striving is what it’s all about.

99. Huberg Van Innis, Archery, Belgium

He won two gold medals at the 1900 Olympics and then returned to the Games in Antwerp 20 years later to capture four more golds at the age of 54.

98. Duke Kahanamoku, Swimming, United States

Though he gained more fame for popularizing surfing, he first won three golds and two silvers in the swimming competitions at the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Olympics.

97. Dorando Pietri, Marathon, Italy

Here is one of the great stories in Olympic history. Pietri was a pastry chef in Italy. He was a small man, barely 5-foot-3, but he loved to run. At the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens, he was leading the marathon by at least five minutes when he got sick and had to stop.

Two years later, at the 1908 Olympics in London, he again surged into the lead but with just over a mile to go he began to feel sick again. He ran into the stadium for the last 400 meters, and he did not even know where he was. He came in the wrong way and had to be redirected by officials. He then fell down. He got up ran a little longer and fell down again. And again. And again. And again. Five times in all, Pietri fell, though his lead was so big that nobody else entered the stadium.

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The umpires helped him up after he fell. It was written that several people basically pushed him over the finish line. Pietri crossed that line first and the crowd went crazy for him. And then, in came American Johnny Hayes. The Americans were particularly despised in Great Britain in 1908 because they had complained loudly after the British did not have an American flag for the Opening Ceremonies (officials said they couldn’t find one — those were different times). So, basically, NOBDOY wanted Hayes to win.

But after Hayes crossed the line, there was an immediate protest put up — umpires and fans are not allowed to help a marathon runner. There was much confusion (apparently, in the madness, someone lodged a complaint against Hayes because it was reported he too had received some help). When it finally cleared, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

Pietri received a silver cup from the Queen of England for his efforts, though, and he was a beloved Italian hero.

96. Ben Ainslie, Sailing, Great Britain

The first person to win medals in five different Olympic Games in sailing and a four-time Gold medalist.

95. Karnam Malleswari, Weightlifting, India

Was a two-time World Champion and then briefly retired from the sport, but she returned in 2000 to win bronze and become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

94. Andras Balczo, Modern Pentathlon, Hungary

The only three-time Olympic champion in the Modern Pentathlon, but he often turned down the acclaim he received back home because he was a staunch opponent of the ruling party. “The greatest gift a man can have,” he said, “is a strong will.”

93. Anastasia Davydova, Synchronized Swimming, Russia

Won five Olympic gold medals to go along with her 12 world championships. She now coaches.

92. Eric Liddell, Track, Great Britain

Was the favorite to win the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics but refused to compete because the heats were held on a Sunday. Chose instead to compete at 400-meters even though he had not been especially competitive in the event internationally. On the day of the race, however, he was handed a note which said “Those who honor me I will honor” (Samuel 2:30) and, inspired, set a world record and won Olympic gold. His story was retold in the Oscar winning movie “Chariots of Fire.”

91. Isabell Werth, Equestrian, Germany

She is a five-time gold medalist in dressage. In her post-Olympic career she has been twice suspended after her horse was found to have used an illegal substance.

90. Ivano Balic, Team Handball, Croatia

Widely viewed as the greatest team handball player ever, he led Croatia to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

89-88. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Beach Volleyball, United States

They won three gold medals together and, in addition to being the greatest beach volleyball team ever, they have helped bring legitimacy to their sport.

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87. Chris Hoy, Cycling, Great Britain

The most successful Olympic cyclist ever with seven medals, six of them gold. Hoy now writes children’s books about a cyclist named “Flying Fergus.”

86. Allyson Felix, Track, United States

She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the defending champion at 200-meters. In Rio, she will try to become only the the third woman to win the 200- and 400-meter double.

85. Lisa Fernandez, Softball, United States

Led the United States to three consecutive gold medals. She holds the Olympic record with 25 strikeouts in a game against overmatched Australia in 2000.

84. Omar Linares, Baseball, Cuba

A star on the 1992 and 1996 gold-medal winning teams for Cuba. Linares, many scouts believe, would have been Major League superstar had he been given the chance to play in his prime.

83. Ralf Schumann, Shooting, Germany

The only shooter to win the same event at three different Olympics (he won the 25-meter rapid fire pistol).

82. Kim Rhode, Shooting, United States

Winner of three golds in double trap and skeet — in her gold-medal winning skeet performance she tied the Olympic record with 99 hits out of 100.

81. Valentina Vezzali, Fencing, Italy

She won six Olympic gold medals in foil over three Olympics. Vezzali is now a member of the Italian parliament.

80. Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Boxing, United States

Ali was still called Cassius Clay and he breezed to gold with a knockout and three consecutive unanimous decisions in the light heavyweight division. He would later say he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he was refused service in a restaurant, but it’s likely that Ali created the story.

79. Joe Frazier, Boxing, United States

Frazier did not actually qualify for the Olympics in 1964 but got to go after Buster Mathis was injured. He knocked out his first two opponents but in his third fight — where opponent Vadim Yemelyanov’s corner threw in the towel — Frazier badly hurt his left hand. He was the only one who knew that he was fighting the gold medal match against Germany’s Hans Huber with a broken thumb. He won gold by a 3-2 decision.

78. Mary Peters, Pentathlon, Great Britain

She was a symbol of unity during the Troubles. After she won gold in 1972, she was warned not to return home to Northern Ireland because, as a Protestant who won a medal for Great Britain, her life would be in danger. But she insisted on returning and was greeted with a throng of supporters.

77. Bruce Jenner (Caitlyn Jenner), Decathlon, United States

Before she took on the name Caitlyn, before celebrity and reality TV and all the rest, Bruce Jenner amazed everyone by smashing the world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. Jenner then ran around waving a small American flag, something that John Belushi would mimic in a Saturday Night Live skit. Jenner quickly became one of the biggest celebrities in the country.

76. Manuel Estiarte, Water Polo, Spain

Played in a record six Olympics (leading the tournament in scoring five times), and led Spain to gold in 1996 after a heartbreaking loss to Italy four years earlier.

75. Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics, United States

Won the Olympic individual overall gold medal at the Soviet-boycotted Games of 1984 and inspired a whole new generation of Americans to become gymnasts.

74-72: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Basketball, United States

The three stars on the extraordinary 1960 Olympic basketball team which is almost certainly the greatest amateur team ever assembled. The U.S. easily took gold and won games by an average of 42 points.

71. Zhang Yining, Table Tennis, China

Won back-to-back gold medals in both singles and doubles at the 2004 and 2008 games. She retired at the top of her game and worked to popularize her sport worldwide.

70. Johnny Weismuller, Swimming, United States

He won five freestyle gold medals in 1924 and 1928, but is much better known for his jungle yell as Tarzan in six MGM movies.

69. David Hemery, Track, Great Britain

Hemery won the 400-meter hurdles in such dominating fashion — setting a world record and breezing to the line a second ahead of West Germany’s Gerhard Hennige — that the BBC’s David Coleman famously said at the finish: “Hennige second, and who cares who’s third, it doesn’t matter.”

68. Olga Korbut, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Captured the world’s heart by winning gold in the floor exercise and, particularly, on the balance beam at the 1972 Olympics.  

67. Cathy Freeman, Track, Australia

She was the first Australian Aboriginal to win Olympic gold in an individual event when she did it in the 400 meters in Sydney. The pressure on Freeman was beyond intense – she had lit the torch to launch the Olympics – and those who were there the night she won in front of 80,000 will never forget it.

66. Dan Gable, Wrestling, United States

He won the 1972 gold without allowing a point, this even though he suffered a knee injury and a separate head injury during the competition. Gable went on to become the greatest wrestling coach in NCAA history.

65. Yelena Isinbayeva, Pole Vault, Russia

Two-time gold medalist, she was one of the athletes to light the torch at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

64. Reiner Klimke, Equestrian, Germany

Competed in six Olympics from 1960 to 1988 and won six gold medals in dressage.

63. Kristin Otto, East Germany, Swimming

The first woman to win six gold medals in a single Olympics. She did it in 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down, and ever since then many of her teammates admitted to heavily doping with performance enhancing drugs. Otto is strongly believed to have used PEDs herself — the secret police files released in 1994 suggest as much — but she has always denied it. “I worked very hard for those medals … it was not all drugs,” she said.

62. Nomura Tadahiro, Judo, Japan

The only judoka to win three Olympic gold medals.

61. Guo Jingjing, Diving, China

Perhaps the greatest female springboard diver ever, she won four gold medals.

60. Regla Torres, Volleyball, Cuba

Led Cuba’s women’s volleyball team to three gold medals (1992, 1996 and 2000) and was named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB, the international volleyball federation.

59. Karch Kiraly, Volleyball, United States

Led the United States men’s volleyball team to two gold medals and was also named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB. Kiraly then returned at age 36 for beach volleyball, and he teamed up with Kent Steffes to win a third gold medal.

58. Jenny Thompson, Swimming, United States

Won 11 medals — eight of them gold. All eight were as part of U.S. relay teams.

57. Natalie Coughlin, Swimming, United States

The first woman to win back-to-back golds in the 100-meter backstroke. She won 12 medals in all.

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56. Dara Torres, Swimming, United States

Won 12 medals — four of each color — and in 2008 became the oldest swimmer (at 41) ever to compete at the Olympics.

55. Gert Fredriksson, Canoeing, Sweden

A canoeing legend, Fredriksson won six gold medals over four Olympics — 1948 in London, 1952 in Helsinki, 1956 in Melbourne and 1960 in Rome.

54-52. Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Diana Taurasi, Basketball, United States

Leslie and Edwards won four gold medals, Taurasi three so far, and together they formed the greatest women’s basketball teams ever assembled.

51. Naim Suleymanoglu, Weightlifting, Turkey

“The Pocket Hercules” won three consecutive gold medals, the last a stirring competition with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis.

50-40: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Basketball, United States

The often imitated but never to be duplicated “Dream Team.” Changed the Olympics forever.

39. Babe Didrikson, Track, United States

Her athletic career is so overpowering — Hall of Fame golfer, All-American basketball player — that it’s easy to forget that at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles she won gold in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin (setting Olympic records in both) and won silver in the high jump. She would have won gold in the high jump as well but judges ruled that she used an illegal technique in her final jump.

38. Ray Ewry, Track, United States

Won 10 gold medals from 1900-1908 in the standing long jump, the standing high jump and the standing triple jump. Ewry had contracted polio as a child and had spent some of his younger years in a wheelchair.

37. Elisabeta Lipa, Rowing, Romania

Won medals in six different Olympics and won eight medals overall, five of them gold.

36. Haile Gebrselassie, Track, Ethiopia

One of the greatest marathon runners of all time, he won back-to-back 10,000-meter gold at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

35. Ian Thorpe, Swimming, Australia

The Thorpedo won nine medals, five of them gold, at two Olympics.

34. Richard Fosbury, High Jump, United States

Invented a whole new way to high jump — now known as the Fosbury Flop — and won Olympic Gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

33. Matt Biondi, Swimming, United States

Biondi won 11 medals, eight of them gold. He broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1988 Games, but it was relay swimming that marked Biondi. He swam on six relay teams and the U.S. won all six races.

32. Fanny Blankers-Koen, Track, Netherlands

She was known as “The Flying Housewife” because she made the rare decision at the time to compete even after she got married and had children. She became the first Dutch athlete to win gold in track and field when she won the 100 meters on a muddy track at the 1948 Olympics. She proceeded to win the 200, the 80 meter hurdles and she anchored Netherland’s gold-medal winning 4×100 meter relay team, coming back from third place.

31. Daley Thompson, Decathlon, Great Britain

Just the second decathlete to win gold medals at back to back Olympics.

30. Boris Shakhlin, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Winner of 13 medals, seven of them gold, including the individual all-around competition in 1960.

29. Aladar Gerevich, Fencing, Hungary

Gerevich won six golds, his first in 1932 and his second an astonishing 28 years later in 1960. Had it not been for two Olympics canceled because of the war, Gerevich might have won medals and an unprecedented eight Olympics.

28. Abebe Bikila, Marathon, Ethiopia

Won back-to-back marathons in 1960 and 1964. He won the first one running barefoot.

27. Nikolay Adrianov, Gymnastics, Soviet Union 

He held the record for most medals won with 15 until it was broken by Michael Phelps. Of the 15 medals, seven were gold including the individual all-around competition in 1976. That year he also won gold in the vault, rings and floor exercise.

26. Al Oerter, Discus, United States

The first athlete to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics. Oerter won his first discus gold in 1956 when he was 20. He won his last in 1968 in Mexico City when he was the old man of the event at age 32. “Let’s put it this way,” he told me once. “You’ve got to love it.”

25. Brigit Fischer-Smith, Canoeing, Germany

Won an astounding eight gold medals over six Olympics — this even though she had to miss the 1984 Olympics because it was boycotted by East Germany. She was 18 when she won the K-1 500 meter race in Moscow in 1980. She was 42 when she was part of the K-4 team that won the 500-meter race in Athens. That’s one canoeing family — her niece Fanny won a gold medal in Beijing and her brother Frank won four World Championships.

24. Greg Louganis, Diving, United States

He’s the only man to sweep the springboard and platform event at consecutive Olympics. He won four gold medals in all, though it is the gold he won after cracking his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds in 1988 that everyone remembers most.

23. Sawao Kato, Gymnastics, Japan

Winner of 12 medals, eight of them gold, including back-to-back individual all-around titles in 1968 and 1972.

22. Bob Beamon, Long Jump, United States

He won just the one gold medal — in the 1968 long jump — so his place this high on the list is probably pretty dubious. But his one jump so shook the earth that you could argue he belongs even higher. People will forget he almost did not make the final that year; he fouled on his first two jumps and needed a sensible but pressure-packed jump on the third just to qualify. Then, in the final, he jumped 8.9 meters, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches. He broke the previous world record by almost two feet. It was a quantum leap forward in the history of Olympic competition, a space-age jump into the future. The women’s long jump record in 1968 has been beaten by two feet. The men’s triple jump record is three feet longer than in 1968. But in almost 50 years only one man — Mike Powell — has jumped longer than Bob Beamon did that day, and this year no one in the world has come within a foot and a half of Beamon’s jump. Beamon realized he had done something extraordinary and he almost collapsed in shock. “You have destroyed this event,” the great long jumper Lynn Davies told him.

21. Sir Steve Redgrave, Rowing, Great Britain

Went to five Olympics. Won golds at five Olympics. One of the most beloved athletes in the history of Great Britain.

20. Pyrros Dimas, Weightlifting, Greece

Emigrated to Greece from Albania just before the 1992 Olympics and promptly won the gold medal, shouting “For Greece!” as he made the winning lift. He set two world records at his second Olympics and won gold again. He won his third gold in Sydney in 2000. And then, though no weightlifter had ever won medals in four straight Olympics, he was compelled to compete in Athens for love of country. He was too old. He was hurt. But in the moment, he found a way to make the lift that won him the bronze medal. And as I wrote then: “He left his shoes on the stage — shoes for someone else to fill — while the Greek crowd cheered and cried and danced and hugged.”

19. Jim Thorpe, Track and Field, United States

Maybe my favorite fact about Jim Thorpe’s sweep of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics is that he won four of the five events in the pentathlon. The one event he did not win? The javelin throw. Why not? He had never thrown one before. He finished third in the javelin throw anyway.

18. Bob Mathias, Decathlon, United States

Maybe my favorite fact about Bob Mathias’ back-to-back decathlon victories is that in 1948, he was so unsure of the decathlon rules — he had competed in his first decathlon just two months earlier — that he almost fouled out of the shot put and he almost failed to clear any height in the high jump. He won anyway and, for a moment, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the United States. He promised to never go through all that again, but he returned four years later and won the decathlon by a staggering 900 points, the largest gap in Olympic decathlon history. That year he also played fullback for Stanford making him the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and play in the Rose Bowl in the same year.

17. Lasse Viren, Track, Finland

He was famous for his brutal workouts, which is what you might expect from an athlete who swept the 5,000- and 10,000-meters at consecutive Olympics. In 1972, Viren was bumped in the 12th lap of the 10,000-meter run and he fell to the ground. He got back up and won the gold medal. Seven days later he won the 5,000 meters. Seven days after that, he went to a track meet in Helsinki — and broke the 5,000-meter world record.

16. Michael Johnson, Track, United States

The only man to sweep the 200- and 400-meters at the same Olympics. How fast was he going when he hit the corner in the 200-meters? “My dad bought me a go-kart as a kid. There was a big hill at the end of the road. And I could make that go-kart go downhill so fast, it was like flying. … “It’s the only thing that really compares to running this fast.”

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15. Aleksandr Karelin, Greco Roman Wrestling, Russia

He won three consecutive gold medals — first for the Soviet Union, then for the Unified Team, then for Russia. When American Rulon Gardner upset him in 2000, it was one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history — and probably the most memorable thing I’ve ever seen in sports — but it does not detract from the career of the nearly-unbeatable Russian who used to train by carrying refrigerators up stairs.

14. Alexei Nemov, Gymnastics, Russia

Won 12 medals, four of them gold, including the individual all-around title in 2000. It should have been 13 medals. In 2004, when Nemov was 28 and viewed as the old man of gymnastics, he put together a staggeringly difficult routine on the high bar. It was, in many ways, the crescendo performance of Nemov’s career; his contribution to gymnastics was his determination to push the boundaries and do harder and harder routines than had ever been tried before. The crowd got it. The judges did not. they scored him 9.725, which put him out of medal contention.

Well, the crowd wouldn’t have it. They booed. And booed some more. And booed more more. For 15 minutes, they booed so loud that the competition was stopped and the judges hastily got together to talk it over. The judges then announced that, hey, what do you know, a couple of math errors, turns out Nemov’s score was actually 9.762. But even that score was too low for a medal, and the crowd’s boos grew darker until Nemov himself stepped out and held up his hand in both gratitude and a sense of decency. It was one of the most glorious Olympic moments, especially because it followed one of the worst.

13. Emil Zatopek, Track, Czechoslovakia

In 1952, he did something that will never be done again — he won the 5,000-meter, the 10,000-meter AND the marathon at the same Olympics. It’s hard to put that achievement into words, but perhaps the best way is to simply say that it was the first martathon Zatopek had ever run. He had won back-to-back 10,000 meters races, but that’s only six or so miles. He was so baffled about how to run a marathon that he apparently walked up to British world record older Jim Peters, thrust out his hand, and introduced himself: “I am Zatopek,” he said. Peters already knew. In 1948, Zatopek had beaten him in the 10,000-meters by a minute and a half, a beating so thorough that it is said Peters never ran the 10,000 meters again. Peters retreated to the safety of the marathon.

Now here was Zatopek again, though Peters did not see him as a serious contender in a marathon. An hour into the race, Zatopek pulled alongside Peters and asked if the pace was too fast. “No,” Peters said in an effort to get in Zatopek’s head a little bit, “It’s too slow.” “Oh,” Zatopek said, and so he took off, leaving Peters and the rest of the world in his wake, winning the marathon by two and a half minutes. The Guardian reported that he looked like “a man who had taken a brisk country walk.”

12. Wilma Rudolph, Track, United States

She contracted polio and scarlet fever as a child. She wore a brace until she was 9. She grew up in segregated Tennessee and was, in her younger days, painfully shy. So how did Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman in the world? How did she sweep the 100- and 200-meters at the 1960 Olympics and then anchor the world-record 4×100 meter relay team? She would say that she was inspired by Jesse Owens. But more: “I believe in me more than anything in this world.”

11. Teofilo Stevenson, Boxing, Cuba 

He never turned professional so we will never know for certain where Stevenson would have ranked in the stratosphere of great heavyweights with Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and the like. He was offered $5 million to fight Ali, but he turned it down, famously saying, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Anyway, his three heavyweight gold medals will stand the test of time; that will never happen again. His greatest individual moment was when he upset American Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympics — up to that point, the U.S. viewed the heavyweight gold medal as an American birthright. Stevenson knocked out all five contenders at the 1976 Olympics. In 1980, with the U.S. boycotting, Stevenson knocked out his first two opponents and won the last two fights by easy decision.

10. Florence Griffith-Joyner, Track, United States

On July 16, 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 10.49 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. This remains the world record.

Two months later at the Olympics in Seoul, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 21.34 200-meter run. This remains the world record.

Not sure what else needs to be said.

9. Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics, Romania

She won five gold medals in total, but what Nadia is remembered for is perfection. Her 10.0 score on the uneven parallel bars (marked 1.0 because the scoring device did not have place for enough digits) broke open the possibility that an athlete could, in a small way, be perfect.

8. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track, United States

The heptathlon events include: The 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot-put, 200-meters, long jump, javelin throw and 800 meters. When Jackie Joyner Kersee won the heptathlon in 1988, she was by far the best female athlete in the world. She already had the five best heptathlon scores ever recorded. She was a star college basketball player. And six days after she put the heptathlon record up where no one has even come close, she went out and won the long jump. Four years later, she won the heptathlon again. Four years after that, she won another bronze in the long jump.

7. Paavo Nurmi, Track, Finland

It’s all but impossible to define the toughness of Nurmi, who won nine gold medals. He once won the 5,000-meter and the 1,500-meter on the same day. He set Olympic records in both. He was famously intense; my favorite Nurmi fact is that when Zatopek, who would win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon at the same Olympics, felt like he was spent he would shout to the heavens: “I am Nurmi! I am Nurmi!”

6. Mark Spitz, Swimming, United States

Spitz’s remarkable 1972 achievement — the first athlete to win seven gold medals at the same Olympics — was driven by disappointment. In 1968, he failed to win a single individual event, even though he was the prohibitive and world record-holder in the 100-meter butterfly and the best swimmer coming into the 100-meter freestyle. He came in claiming he would win six golds, he left Mexico City with two golds, both relays. He was then determined to do something unprecedented, and he did that in Munich, winning the 100- and 200-meter freestyles and the 100- and 200-meter butterflies in world record time, and then leading three U.S. relay teams to gold medals and world records. Seven golds. Seven world records.

5. Carl Lewis, Track, United States

Ten medals. Nine gold. Back-to-back wins in the 100-meter dash.

Oh, and I’m convinced he once jumped 30 feet.

4. Usain Bolt, Track, Jamaica

What is left to say about Bolt? Winner of six golds. Swept the 100-, 200- and 4×100-meter relays at each of the last two Olympics. World-record holder at 100- and 200-meters. The greatest sprinter of all time. What’s left to say about Bolt? We might find out in Rio.

3. Larisa Latynina, Gymnastics, Soviet Union

Still the record-holder for most individual medals won at the Olympics with 14. She won the individual all-around twice, in 1956 and 1960, and won silver in 1964. She won three medals in vault, three medals in the floor exercise, three on the uneven bars and two on the balance beam, When you consider that all-time medal winner Michael Phelps won 11 individual events, you can appreciate Latynina’s greatness.

2. Michael Phelps, Swimming, United States

Twenty-two medals. Eighteen golds.

1. Jesse Owens, Track, United States

When I did a similar list four years ago, I had the order different — had Phelps at No. 1 and Owens at No. 4. The reasoning, I guess, was that while Owens’ performance in 1936 was singular — he won four gold medals and set two world records in the most heated environment imaginable — it was still one Olympics compared to lifetime achievements of Latynina and Phelps and Nurmi and so on.

But what Owens did in 1936, with Nazism on the rise, with Hitler himself in the crowd, is the most remarkable achievement in the history of the Olympics. He won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the long jump and was part of the gold-medal winning 4×100-meter relay team. In the moment, he overcame the racism of his own country and the rising hatred in another. He’s the greatest Olympian of them all.

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    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
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    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?