Sportsmen and women are heroes just for the diligence, discipline and fitness they exude by partaking in professional sports. However there are some sporting heroes that have the most incredible stories of fighting life-threatening illnesses and accidents only to be spurred on to further greatness in their sporting careers:
1. Niki Lauda
Niki Lauda is arguably one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. The Austrian former Formula One driver was three times F1 World Champion, winning in 1975, 1977 and 1984. He is currently the only driver to have been champion for both Ferrari and McLaren, the sport’s two most successful constructors. On the 1st August 1976 however during the second lap of the German Grand Prix in Nürburgring, Nicki Lauda’s Ferrari swerved off the track and burst into flames. Lauda was trapped in the burning car and most of his face was burnt. He slipped into a coma and required intense treatment and rehabilitation to survive.
Miraculously just 6 weeks later he finished 4th in the Italian Grand Prix. An F1 journalist remembers seeing Lauda in the pits, peeling the blood-soaked bandages off his scarred scalp after the race.
Niki Lauda 6 weeks after his crash in 1976
2. Yuvraj Singh
One of the strongest Indian all-round cricketers, Yuvraj Singh holds the record for the fastest fifty in Twenty20 Internationals and in all Twenty20 matches, scoring 50 runs in 12 balls against England in 2007. He was the vice-captain of the Indian ODI team between 2007-2008. He was the Man of the Tournament in the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, and one of the top performers at the 2007 ICC World Twenty20, both of which India won.
In a devastating blow Singh was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his left lung in 2011 and underwent chemotherapy in the USA. He completed his final round of chemotherapy on March of 2012 and made his comeback that same year in September in a Twenty20 match against New Zealand where he scored 34 off 26 balls. He ended up being the highest wicket taker for India in the 2012 World Twenty20.
In 2012 Yuvraj was awarded the Arjuna Award, India’s second highest sporting award by the President of India Pranab Mukherjee. In 2014, he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. In 2014, Royal Challengers Bangalore bought Yuvraj for an all-time high price of 14 crore rupees at the IPL Auction 2014 and in 2015, Delhi Daredevils bought him for 16 crore rupees at the IPL Auction 2015 making him the most expensive player to be sold in the IPL. A true testament to this man’s incredible comeback.
Yuvraj Singh just weeks after Chemotherapy
3. Fernando Fernandes
Although not a typical sporting comeback story, the story of Fernando Fernandes is remarkable in its own way. Fernandes was one of the top catwalk models in Brazil. In 2009 he was invited to star in a Dolce & Gabanna perfume campaign with the top models Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova. He was always a passionate sportsman but never competed professionally.
In 2009 however after falling asleep at the wheel of his car, he had a major car accident and was in ICU for 5 days. He was left paralysed from the waist down. With all the spirit and determination he could muster, Fernandes completed the São Silvestre Marathon in his home city, racing for more than 15km in a wheelchair a mere 6 months after surgery. That was just the start of Fernandes’s career in Paralympic sport. Four years after his accident, he is now a two-time Pan American champion, three-time South American champion and four-time world champion in paracanoe. This man is an absolute sporting hero to look up to.
Fernandes winning one of his many gold medals
4. Monica Seles
One of the most bizarre and truly warped tennis stories of all time is the on-court stabbing of Monica Seles. 1991 was the first of two years in which Seles dominated the women’s tennis tour. She started out by winning the Australian Open in January by beating Jana Novotná in the final. She ended the year with being the Number 1 ranked tennis player in the world.
With eight Grand Slam singles titles before her 20th birthday on December 2, 1993, Seles holds the record for most Grand Slam singles titles won as a teenager in the Open Era. This however came to an abrupt end when during a quarterfinal match with Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf, ran to the edge of the court during a break between games and stabbed Seles with a boning knife between her shoulder blades.
After only a few months of recovery Seles came back to win the Canadian Open and in 1996 won her 4th Australian Open. Although Seles never fully reached her previous successes, her determination to play again was admirable and her triumphs achieved greatly respected.
Monica Seles a few minutes after the stabbing in Hamburg
5. Schalk Burger
South African Rugby hero and flank for the Springboks, Schalk Burger is known for his strength, work ethic and robust style of play. In 2013, whilst in hospital to remove a cyst, Burger contracted bacterial meningitis. His condition became so bad that there were fears for his life. He spent 6 weeks in hospital and a further 8 weeks recovering.
In September of the same year Schalk miraculously returned to compete on the Rugby field, only to suffer from a neck injury in 2014 which set him back again. However with tenacity and perseverance Burger re-emerged and showed the Rugby world what he was made of. Due to his success in returning to the Springboks after meningitis, he was awarded the Comeback of the Year Award at the Laureus World Sports Awards. He was then selected as part of the Springbok squad at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The Springboks reached the semi-finals, defeated by ultimate champions New Zealand (18-20), before securing the Bronze against Argentina (24-13). Burger scored tries against Samoa and Scotland in the pool stages, and assisted Fourie du Preez’s try in their victory against Wales.
Schalk ended the tournament as the player with the equal second most RWC tournament participations, equal third most RWC matches won, as well as being the player with the equal second highest number of RWC matches contested. The “Incredible Schalk” most certainly made his comeback.
Schalk Burger at the Laureus Awards
6. Natalie du Toit
South African Paralympic swimmer, Natalie du Toit has been named as one of the worlds most inspiring athletes. At the age of 17, just as she was entering the cusp of her swimming career, du Toit was involved in a scooter accident and had to have her left leg amputated. This incredible lady was back in the pool, swimming just 3 months after the accident. She couldn’t even walk yet.
She went on to qualify for the finals of the 800m freestyle at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. This was the first time in history that an amputee raced in the finals of an international able-bodied swimming competition. She was then awarded the first David Dixon Award for Outstanding Athlete of the Games. In the 2008 Summer Beijing Olympics, Natalie was one of only two Paralympian’s who competed. She qualified after finishing fourth in the 10km open-water race at the Open Water World Championships in Spain.
Natalie won gold in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Paralympics Games (a total tally of 13 Olympic medals). She also won gold at the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games. This lady is a true inspiration.
Natalie du Toit taking off