One of the most wonderful things about sport is that if you play most sports for long enough, your body will see the benefits. Even the doughiest of snot-bubbling kids will turn into a marble-hewn Greek god or goddess if they spend a decade or two performing at a high level, week-in-week-out on the field or court or wherever they play Ultimate Frisbee.
But there are many high-level sportspeople who simply do not end up looking like Muhammad Ali or Flo-Jo—some tippy-top-level sporting heroes and heroines just look…different. From an MMA bruiser who could strut her stuff on a catwalk in Paris to a Sumo wrestler who looked like he should be behind a desk at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company (or if you live on the other side of the Atlantic, Wernham Hogg), these amazing guys and gals prove that you don’t need to look like a gym bunny to set the sporting world alight.
Young or old, big or small, sport can be for all.
10 John Daly – Golf
He’s won accredited golf events all over the globe. He’s a PGA champion. He won the Open on the hallowed St. Andrews course, the spiritual home of golf. He’s nicknamed “Long John” due to his lengthy drives and never-ending backswing. John Daly is a legend. But wait, there’s more…
He’s also legendary for not looking like a bloke who could even give you directions to the nearest golf course. More Silver Bullet than Sand Hills Golf Club. And that’s the thing with John Daly—he doesn’t fit in. Golf has, for better or worse, a code of dress and conduct. It is a game associated with “the right sort.” Daly is not that sort—alcoholism, gambling, multiple marriages, conspiratorial politics, and legal issues are all a part of a laundry list of charges that any club committee would use to justify ejecting this loutish rube.
Thank goodness that none of that highfalutin’ crap matters when you’re as good at the game of golf as John Daly is. With a middle finger pointed at the “powers that be,” it’s fun to watch Long John smash a ball 300 yards down the fairway. What is viewed by some as loutishness is exactly what golf is often missing—entertainment.
9 Danny Craven – Australian Rules Football
Soccer (or football according to most of the planet) is often called “the beautiful game.” Australian football…well,. Considering the hard-hitting nature of the game, Danny Craven’s career is all the more amazing—you’d expect that only people who are 203 centimeters (6’8″), made of concrete with a titanium skeleton, and fueled by plutonium could play this game. Danny Craven, who played for the St. Kilda Saints in the late ’80s and early ’90s, proved that this was not a prerequisite. Danny, you see, was just shy of 160 centimeters (5’3″). For most Aussie Rules players, it must have been like playing against a child. A hard, fast child who’d break your jaw if you messed with him.
Having broken his leg in 1989, Craven fought back to play for a further five years, ending his pro career with the Brisbane Bears in 1995. He went on to have a coaching career and now commentates for NIRS (the National Indigenous Radio Service).
3 Pavel Bojar (Takanoyama Shuntarō) – Sumo
Quite a few non-Japanese men have pursued the ancient sport of Sumo. Many, especially those from Mongolia, have done so with great success. Currently, there are also rikishi from Brazil, Bulgaria, and Georgia (the former Soviet state, not where Rick Grimes is from). The first non-Japanese Yokozuna (the top ranking in the sport) was Akebono Tarō (aka Chadwick Haheo Rown), who hailed from Hawaii.
Most of these foreign fighters share one thing in common—they look like sumo wrestlers. One guy stands out…unless it’s next to an opponent, who would surely be taller and wider and thus obscure your view of him.
Pavel Bojar from the Czech Republic fought in the top competitions from 2004 to 2014, a decade that saw him climb the ranks. By 2011, he’d made it to the Makkuchi (highest level), pitting his skills against some of the greatest wrestlers ever to play this holy Japanese sport. Not that you’d expect any of this when you look at him. Pavel looked more like a civil servant from a Monty Python sketch than a sumo wrestler.
He wasn’t half bad, mind you, scoring a great many wins against much larger, more experienced opponents. The strength he held in his (comparatively) tiny frame must have been immense to be able to sling 25+ stones worth (350 pounds) of sweaty flesh into the air (or onto unlucky front-row punters). Pavel, we salute you. Please don’t salute back—we doubt you have any discs left in your back.
7 Diana Nyad
There are a few amazing things about this lady. First, she has raised a good deal of money for charity, notably over $100,000 for victims of Hurricane Sandy back in 2013. Secondly, and most obviously, her achievements in long-distance swimming are exceptional, all without ever being recognized by an official sporting body.
She swam all the way around Manhattan Island in 1975, swam 102 miles in open water in 1979 (a World Record at the time, both for women and men), and, in 2013, swam for 52 hours from Cuba to Key West, Florida. Thirdly, she completed this (as of the writing of this article) unratified but nevertheless incredible oceanic feat at the age of 64…without a shark cage. To see this spry and healthy granny conquer the ocean with very little aid or respite is truly inspiring. This is probably why she does TED Talks…
6 Johanna Quaas – Gymnastics
Diana Nyad has achieved an incredible set of feats at a relatively advanced age. But she’s got nothing on our next entrant. Johanna Quaas is known as “Turn-Oma” (Gymnastics Grandma) in her native German. Perhaps, though, “Gymnastics Great-Grandma” would be more apt—Johanna is a Guinness World record holder for the oldest competitive gymnast.
At the ripe old age of 86 in 2012, she gained the record by competing in the Senior Games in the state of Saxony.
In 2016, she completed a long-standing dream by skydiving, completing a 2,926-meter (9,600-foot) jump with her tandem partner, former German gymnast and Olympic silver-medallist Eberhard Gienger. She is 96-years-old as of the writing of this article, still alive and very much still kicking. Probably kicking higher than any 96-year-old ever.
5 Peter Crouch – Football
Perfectly sculpted, bronzed, and svelte: these are terms associated with the world’s top soccer players—Cristiano Ronaldo being the perfect example (at least that’s what they tell me).
These are certainly not words one would use to describe former England striker Peter Crouch. In his pomp, “Crouchy” would score goals for fun, netting a career total of 22 goals in 42 international appearances alone—an incredible feat, especially when you consider that he looks like a cross between Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant and a teenage extra from Channel 4 sitcom The Inbetweeners. Whenever he hoisted his lofty frame skyward to head an incoming ball, fans never knew if Crouch was about to score or snap along the weak spots on his lanky frame.
All kidding aside, common-or-garden football fans in Britain often focus more on the personality of Peter Crouch (he is funny, quick-witted, and the type of bloke that anybody would be glad to share a pint with) rather than his career highlights. He was an excellent footballer, very underrated, and undervalued as a goal-scorer.
4 Andrew Millward – Rugby Union
To look at the former COO of the Ospreys rugby team in South Wales, Andrew Millward, you may think: “Sure, I can believe that guy may have played a bit of rugby. Many years ago. For his village club.” And you’d be correct—he did. Then professionally for a bigger club. The problem is that Andrew Millward also looked like a “former” rugby player when he was an active rugby player. He’s always looked like a “former” rugby player. Maybe even from birth. This isn’t to say he wasn’t a good player; quite the contrary, he was excellent.
Joey Tribbiani from the sitcom Friends once explained to Ross Geller (who wanted to impress his English girlfriend by participating in a rugby match) that a “scrum is kind like a huddle.”
No. No, it is not.
A scrum in the sport of rugby is 16 extremely large men on two opposing sides interlocking and pushing against one another with all their might. It’s the closest we get to a medieval battle of shield walls in the modern era. The front row of players (two props and a hooker…stop giggling) is where all the “dark arts” occur. The different tactics, dirty tricks, and out-and-out violence that happens at the very front of a scrum are legendary, even outside the sport. Andrew was a warrior whose battlefield was this exact place, and he “kicked ass” at it. He was a tiny, nuggety rock, unmoved by larger, heavier opponents, leading to him becoming a folk legend at his former club, Neath RFC.
Oh, and just to answer the question that is bound to pop into your head: Rambo: First Blood is his favorite movie.
3 Donna Vano – Snowboarding
Extreme sports are among the most physically demanding and dangerous sports there are. From those nutbags who engage in free-climbing on sheer rockfaces or don wingsuits and fly through the air to 10-year-old kids on their razor scooters going up and down a halfpipe, there is a constant, far more acute threat of serious injury than in most other sports (excluding, arguably, combat sports). Snowboarding certainly hits the “Jesus wept; this is incredibly dangerous” mark on this continuum.
Donna Vano is right up there (both at the heights of her sport and, well, literally) at the ripe old age of 56! It’s like watching a “soccer mom” spin around on a plank of wood, a sight that usually requires at least three bottles of Chardonnay.
Donna has three Guinness World Records, and she has gathered the most gold medals in the U.S. America Snowboarding Association across all five disciplines. Extreme sport is a place where youth reigns supreme—except when your name is Donna Vano.
2 Bill Lee – Baseball
Hippies have kind of gotten a bad rap—lazy, pot-smoking, do-nothing dreamers—except when they choose to follow Charles Manson and want to hasten an apocalypse by murdering a bunch of people and trying to frame others, of course. But one guy who bucked both those trends was Bill Lee, the “Spaceman” of baseball. Bill Lee isn’t exactly the “All-American,” bubble-gum-chewing, square-jawed slugger. Instead, he was a left-handed “eephus” pitcher (which he dubbed the “Leephus pitch”) who praised Maoist China, advocated for population control, smoked his own body weight in weed, and once answered a question regarding mandatory drug testing with this corker:
“I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make it mandatory.”
So he was also a funny guy. His tenure as a pitcher for both the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos in the ’70s was legendary: a great pitcher, compensating for his lack of fastball with an eclectic array of clever pitches. But he was most entertaining when spatting with anyone he deemed as out-of-line—fans, game officials, fellow or opposition players, and even coaches. This laid-back hippie was like a loosed pit bull when it was game time. One of baseball’s great characters, Lee may have been more at home at a commune in the Nevada desert. Luckily for sports fans, he could throw. Weirdly.
1 Rose Namajunas – MMA
There is an undue assumption still held about women in society—the “prettier” a woman is, the less likely she is to work. This assumption, although not without rubrical merit to an extent, has largely been dismissed in modern society. Further, there is a more stubborn assumption that the prettier a woman is, the less likely she is to be able to attain sporting excellence (especially in the more traditionally masculine combat sports). Rose “Thug Rose” Namajunas has smashed this stereotype.
Being possessed of, according to MMA/podcasting legend and elk meat connoisseur Joe Rogan, a “supermodel face,” one could expect that she could have made her living by being scantily clad and standing in front of a camera. But boy, oh boy, she didn’t go that route. Rose Namajunas is one of the most stone-cold, hard-working, ass-kicking fighters in the history of mixed martial arts. With an incredible drive, heart, and enough skill at striking to knock a water buffalo out cold, Thug Rose is perhaps the most dangerous natural beauty in the world. But don’t drool over her in her presence; she could crush you like an ant.