SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year contenders
Have we ever seen a sporting year like 2015? From American Pharoah's run to the Triple Crown to Ronda Rousey's MMA dominance to Jordan Spieth's taking aim at golf's Grand Slam, it's been a remarkable year in athletic achievement, one of the best ever. Below are the leading contenders for 2015 Sportsman of the Year. Sports Illustrated's editors will make its (very tough) selection next month, but we want our readers to have their say. You can cast your vote here for who you think is the most worthy selection for Sportsman of the Year and below, you can find a series of essays from SI writers and peers of each contender that make the argument for each candidate. Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year will be announced on Dec. 14.
The case for Carli Lloyd for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
Carli Lloyd is a leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here. This story also appears in the Nov. 9, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
In the southeast corner of Portugal, in a tiny stadium wedged between the beach, a lighthouse and the river frontier with Spain, Carli Lloyd was wearing a smile and a shiner under her left eye. It was March 2015, months before Lloyd's hat trick against Japan in the Women's World Cup final would electrify a U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million, and yet the performance she had given against Norway that night in the town of Vila Real de Santo António was just as revealing, perhaps more so, considering how few people—just a couple hundred—were there to see it.
The U.S. had lost twice in recent games, 3–2 to Brazil and 2–0 to France, and had fallen behind Norway 1–0 at the half when Lloyd decided to take over the match. With a scowl as fearsome as the black eye she'd picked up in her previous game, Lloyd lashed home the equalizer from outside the box with her left (weaker) foot. Then a few minutes later she calmly struck the penalty that would become the game-winner. "I'm sick of losing," she said afterward. "I'm sick of all the naysayers saying, You're [only] second in the world—the U.S. is done. I'm a winner, and I want to go out there and win."
In 2003, at age 21, Lloyd considered quitting soccer after she was cut from the U.S. Under-21 team. But she listened when her new mentor and personal coach, James Galanis, told her about Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, who all trained when nobody was watching, by which he meant going above and beyond what others were doing while away from the national team. It resonated with her, and so she did the same. Since then Lloyd and Galanis have trained during the off-season twice a day, seven days a week, including on holidays—knowing full well that the competition is not.
If a player trains when nobody is watching, she might be able to do superhuman things when the entire world is watching. Like scoring a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of a World Cup final, an eventual 5–2 victory over Japan. Or topping off that hat trick with an astonishing 50-yard strike from midfield, the greatest goal in U.S. soccer history, a shot so audacious that it's surprising to learn that Lloyd had actually practiced it for years with Galanis on an empty field in New Jersey, far from any crowds. If the greats are measured by how they perform on the most important occasions, then Lloyd now deserves her place among them. That's what happens when you score six goals in the final four games of World Cup 2015, raising your level as the stakes get higher. That's what happens when you have scored the winning goals in two Olympic finals, in 2008 and '12. And that's what happens when you pull off one of the greatest individual performances ever in a World Cup final, men's or women's.
For those reasons Lloyd is a deserving choice as Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportswoman of the Year. She answered the call when nobody was watching. She answered the call when everyone was watching. In doing so, she and her World Cup champion teammates taught us a lesson about the paradigm of excellence, all while including an entire nation on the journey. Her Cup—their Cup—was indeed our Cup. When President Obama honored the team at the White House in October, he said, "Playing like a girl means you're a badass." Carli Lloyd fits the part.
Hope Solo: Why Carli Lloyd should be SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
Carli Lloyd is one of 12 leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
What makes an athlete great? We always talk about how it takes hard work when there is nobody watching. I'm sure we have all heard the many stories about Carli Lloyd and her dedication to her training with the help of her long term mentor and coach, James Galanis.
We saw her score three goals in the World Cup championship game against Japan this summer at Vancouver’s BC Place, marking the fastest hat trick in World Cup history and making her the lone player to ever score three goals in a World Cup championship game, male or female.
What you may not know about Carli—and what I respect the most about her as a great athlete—is her mental game. Having a strong and continuously improving mentality is what separates great players from legends. True champions continue to excel and work at building their mental strength and focus throughout their careers. Life is similar to sport. There is always something to overcome, whether it’s injury, new coaches, being benched or personal struggles. Life goes on and doesn't stop, and it certainly isn't put on hold for the major tournaments.
What I admire about Carli—as someone who has cemented her legacy, and who is a true champion—is that she has been through more than people probably remember: fitness challenges, coaching changes, suddenly finding herself on the bench and her own personal life challenges. She manages it all with sheer commitment, passion and leadership. She makes me—and everyone around her—a better person and a better athlete by holding people as accountable as she holds herself.
I have seen Carli navigate through many shortcomings, disappointments and emotions to come back stronger and better. Oftentimes people don't talk about the mental quality of an athlete. They talk about skill and technique. They are bias towards the glitz and showmanship. They focus on the number of goals a player has scored.
A sport is a form entertainment. But Carli is more then an entertainer. She is world class and her dedication to fully focus no matter what life brings is a skill that few have. And that’s why I believe Carli Lloyd should be named Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsman of the Year.
The case for Lionel Messi for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
Lionel Messi is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
To understand just how good Lionel Messi was this year, you have to go back to his lowest point.
It was January 4, Messi started on substitutes' bench and Barcelona lost 1-0 at lowly Real Sociedad. The following day, Messi missed training with "a stomach bug," which is a euphemism in Spain for playing hooky. Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona's sporting director, was sacked. Luis Enrique, the coach, was said to have offered to resign. Sandro Rosell, the president, resigned soon after over transfer irregularities. English clubs were readying bids for Messi. In short, Barcelona was in crisis.
Messi stepped up. He called a truce with the coach, and one week later, he scored in a crucial 3-1 win over reigning Spanish champion Atletico Madrid. It was the first time that Messi and his two high-profile teammates, Neymar and Luis Suarez, had scored in the same game. A photograph of the three of them wheeling away in delight was to become a defining image of the season.
Messi did not stop scoring after that. He scored 35 goals in the next 34 games and assisted on 19 more. Not only that, he saved his best for the big games. In a Champions League knockout game against Manchester City, he nutmegged (passing the ball between an opponent's legs and running round the side to collect it) two City players in the first half hour and set up the winning goal. His former coach, Pep Guardiola, watched in the stands and covered his mouth with his hand in shock at some of Messi's moves.
During the month of May, he was unstoppable: nine goals in seven games, and the best performance of his career. It came against his former mentor, Guardiola, coach of Bayern Munich, in the Champions League semifinal. This was a huge game, and Messi delivered a huge performance. He scored two goals, the second a moment of aesthetic beauty that left two World Cup winners, Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer, flat on their backs, and another defender Rafinha, lying defeated in the goalmouth. It was the best Messi has ever been.
The purple patch continued, and Messi scored the goal that clinched La Liga for Barcelona. It came, significantly and symbolically, against Atletico, the previous season's champion and the opponent against whom Barcelona ended its January crisis. The following week, he scored twice in the Copa del Rey final win over Athletic Bilbao, one of his goals a dizzying run from inside his own half that is a contender for FIFA's Puskas Goal of the Year award.
The only surprise about Barcelona's Champions League final win over Juventus, which clinched a treble not seen since Guardiola's 2009 vintage, was that Messi did not score. Normal service resumed this season, though, when Barcelona stole a march on its title rivals with another narrow win at Atletico. Messi scored the matchwinner–no surprise there–but this game had a neat symmetry to it.
Messi had become a dad for the second time and just flown in from Argentina (the nation that he guided to within one win of a Copa America title this past summer, adding to his storied year). So he started the game on the bench. This time there was no fallout with Luis Enrique, only a half-hour cameo in which he did his job.
Messi has won World Player of the Year honors four times in the last six years and is a favorite to make it five in seven, scoring more than 40 goals in each of those seasons (including an outrageous 73 in 2011-12). But what's really astonishing about his 2015 performances is that they topped anything that has done before. It's hard to believe, but Messi's level of play reached a new dimension while leading his team back to the top of three mountains, and that's why he should be SI's Sportsman of the Year.
As Jorge Valdano, who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, put it: "In my opinion, Messi is the best player in the world. And the second-best player in the world is Messi injured."
The case for American Pharoah for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
American Pharoah is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here. This story also appears in the Nov. 16, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
It didn’t have to end this way. American Pharoah could have stopped racing after he won the Belmont Stakes on June 6, and he still would have been on the short list to be the first horse ever to win Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award. The 3-year-old thoroughbred colt had just won the first Triple Crown in 37 years—having swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont over five magical weeks in the spring—and in so doing had captivated a nation and ended decades of frustration in a sport that had begun to think it might never see his like again. He could have begun his lucrative career as a stallion on the highest of notes, with the roar of 90,000 fans still echoing around the rafters at Belmont Park. Out of racing and into history.
But thanks to his owner, Ahmed Zayat, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, American Pharoah kept running—and winning. On Aug. 2 he romped in the Haskell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. On Aug. 29, in Saratoga, N.Y., he lost by three quarters of a length in the Travers, after getting cooked in a speed duel that left him empty in the final furlong. He returned on Oct. 31 and rolled to a 6½-length victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (the main event of racing's world championships and the last major race of the year), at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. He is the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown and also win the Breeders' Cup Classic. He went out in style, having done something no other racehorse ever had.
In the Classic, American Pharoah earned the winner's share of $2,750,00, bringing his career earnings to $8,650,300, the seventh-highest in history. His winnings, however, pale in comparison to what he is worth in the breeding shed. Last week Ashford Stud announced that it had set American Pharoah's stallion fee at a princely $200,000 for a guaranteed live foal. (If the breeding fails to produce a baby, the stallion and the mare breed again for no fee.) The leading sire of 2014 was Tapit, who stands at Gainesway Farm in Lexington for $300,000. According to The Jockey Club, Tapit was bred to 164 mares last year. If American Pharoah covers that many in '16, he will bring in a very cool $32,800,000. The lifespan of the average thoroughbred is 25 to 30 years. That's a lot of hay.
There was no other display of sportsmanship in 2015 that came close to what Zayat and Baffert did with American Pharoah. Horse racing is a dangerous sport, and all it would have taken was one bad step to turn his story into a tragedy—an unimaginably expensive tragedy. Zayat, who had sold Pharoah's breeding rights last winter for a reported $9.8 million, plus an extra $4 million for winning the Triple Crown, to Ireland-based Coolmore Stud, but who shrewdly retained control of the colt's racing career through the end of the year, insisted that he keep running because "our sport needs stars."
It fell to Baffert to not only keep American Pharoah racing, but also to keep him winning. The Triple Crown went unclaimed for 37 years in large part because it is a relic of another time. Horses today are bred to sprint, not to race the classic distances of the Triple Crown series. They also aren't trained to run so far three times in five weeks. Just as there is no precedent for what Pharoah accomplished in 2015, there is also no price that can be put on what Zayat and Baffert gave to sports fans.
American Pharoah wasn't perfect in 2015. But he won seven of his eight starts, including the most important races, and he won them with grit and joy and élan. And he was still running at the end.
Victor Espinoza: American Pharoah deserves Sportsman of the Year
American Pharoah is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here. This story also appears in the Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
American Pharoah should be Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsman of the Year for the simple reason that there may never be another Triple Crown winner. It had been such a long time since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978—I was only six years old then, just a kid on a farm in Mexico—and I never thought I’d see another. I was so lucky to ride this horse.
After American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, he went on to do something that no other Triple Crown winner ever had. Last month at Keeneland, in the final race of his career, he won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic—the toughest race in the world—beating older horses and international rivals. And he made it look easy, crossing the finish 6.5 lengths in front. How many other athletes made history twice in the last year? Only American Pharoah.
Somebody always wins the World Series. Somebody always wins the Super Bowl. Somebody always wins the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals. But only 12 horses in history have won the Triple Crown. I know that Serena Williams lost in the semis at the U.S. Open and just missed a chance to complete the Grand Slam in women’s tennis. In men’s golf, Jordan Spieth won the first two major tournaments of the year before coming up just short in the British Open. American Pharoah won seven of his eight starts, including all the biggest races, won the first Triple Crown in 37 years and capped off his campaign by winning a world championship at the Breeders’ Cup. In terms of accomplishment, nobody else came close to him in 2015.
In terms of athleticism, I can’t think of a purer example than American Pharoah. His stride was so beautiful and smooth. The rest of my life, I’ll never forget how it felt to ride him. It never felt like he was running fast, more like he was moving in slow motion. I’ve ridden a lot of great horses. Two of them, War Emblem in 2002, and California Chrome in ’14, won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before coming up short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. But you could always tell—like with most horses—when they were running all out. But with American Pharoah, we’d be out there galloping around the track as easy as could be, and I’d look back and be five or six lengths in front of everybody. He was a champion.
The decision of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to keep American Pharoah running after he won the Triple Crown was a real gift to the sport, and the year’s greatest display of sportsmanship. The colt could have been retired to a very good career as a stallion in June, and there was a large element of risk in bringing him back to the racetrack. Horse racing can be dangerous. But Ahmed and Bob kept him running, and kept him winning. For fans—for everyone, really—to be able to see him run some more races was the gift of a lifetime. Like I said, we may never see another Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was a star that made our whole sport look good.
I know he’s not human, but SI has always treated racing as a serious sport. And he deserves serious consideration. If there were ever a time for a horse to win Sportsman of the Year, it is now. In winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharoah gave racing a new story line. In winning the Breeders’ Cup he did something no horse had ever done before. And he did it all with style. I’ll never ride another horse like him. And you’ll probably never see one like him either.
The case for the Kansas City Royals for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
The Kansas City Royals are one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
Before we talk about belief and faith and magic, about miracle eighth inning comebacks and mad dashes, let’s make one thing clear: They may have defied every projection system—human and non-human—on their way to a championship no one saw coming, but the story of the 2015 Kansas City Royals is not a parable of grit overcoming talent, of a plucky little team that could. They were simply the best team in baseball in 2015, as talented and brilliantly constructed as any on the planet, a good old fashioned baseball tale of spectacular defense, brilliant base-running, an indestructible bullpen and a relentless offense. They were in first place in the AL Central from June 8 on and finished with the league’s best record. Theirs is a collection of stars—Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez—who would be stars anywhere, on any team, in any year.
Yes, they transformed a city. In Kansas City, after that storybook 2014 run, the Royals became everything. The old ball team became what they talked about at September Chiefs games, on weekends mornings at the River Market, or while waiting for seats at Oklahoma Joe’s. But 2014 was just the beginning. At some point—it's impossible to say exactly when—Kansas City became a baseball town. During the 2015 regular season, the fans shattered the record for the highest attendance in franchise history. Fox Sports Kansas City announced not only its highest ratings ever, but the highest local rating by any regional sports network in the majors, and the highest for any market in 13 years.
But the baseball awakening in Kansas City is just part of why the Royals should be the 2015 Sportsmen of the Year. This Royals team did things impossible in this day and age in which everything in baseball is measured with NASA-levels of precision, at a time where there are no more mysteries. They refused to give in to convention, in everything they do, from Dayton Moore’s Process to Ned Yost’s lineup construction to Alcides Escobar’s insane first pitch approach. They made us rethink the game, to reconsider what we thought about the value of dominant 60-inning relievers, of aggressive base-running and the power of just putting the damn ball in play. They made us rethink the power of the immeasurable. Of mysteries like faith and belief, the importance of character, the effect of clubhouse guys: All those things that Moore and Yost have been talking about all these years, through all the losing seasons, all those things that were met with eye rolling and ridicule. After watching the Royals in October—night after night of slicing up pitchers and running wild on the bases and winning with late-inning drama that felt pre-scripted, and doing so with such intensity and joy—you had to acknowledge that those things, all those things, could maybe, possibly, mean something. That maybe all those things do play a small part in winning a one-run game in October, in coming back time and time again, in creating a culture where a team plays with such energy and hunger.
How else to explain that miracle eighth inning rally in Houston, Lorenzo Cain scoring from first on a single, Alex Gordon homering off Jeurys Familia, Eric Hosmer’s mad dash home? How else to explain that this team came back to win eight times in the postseason? (No team in history had ever done that.) How else to explain the seven times they came back from multiple runs? (No one had ever done that, either.) How else to explain that they outscored teams 51–11 in the seventh inning or later, or that three times they trailed in the eighth inning in the World Series only to come back and win?
They were one of the best stories of the year in 2014, then undid the underdog narrative and somehow turned out to be an even better story in 2015. We’ve never seen a team like this before. We will never see a team like this again.
Art Stewart: Why the Kansas City Royals deserve to be SI's Sportsman
The Kansas City Royals are one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
When you're someone who's seen the organization since the beginning, it's easy to think you've seen it all. The peaks, the valleys, championships seasons, 100 loss seasons, heartbreaking trades, incredible wins, hope and disappointment. I've been in baseball for 63 years. I'm in my fourth decade with the Royals. Since, 1985, my first year as scouting director, I've sat in the front row behind home plate for virtually every Royal game in Kansas City. I was there in 1985, when we won the championship. That was an unforgettable.
But I’ve never seen a team like the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
I’ll always remember sitting with Dayton Moore, George Brett, and Donnie Williams for all those October games, through all the drama. George always says, “It’s so much harder being up watching these guys than it ever was down there playing!” That afternoon in Houston, Game 4 of the ALDS, the first seven innings did not look good. Then the top of the hit, a string of hits, and George was saying, “I think they’re going to do it. They’re going to do it.” You know what happened next: six outs from being eliminated, they came back to win, and a few weeks later, we were holding the trophy in New York.
They stand for so many things. They are a testament to building from within, to being patient with your young players. They are a testament to the faith of GM Dayton Moore, who never got off track, despite criticism from the media, stayed on course and stayed with it, and proved that it could be done that way—the way he wanted to do it. That to me was the greatest feeling after the World Series, to win it, and do it the way he wanted to do it—Dayton’s way. To watch these players grow up and develop together has been unbelievable. I saw Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer in high school. I saw Alex Gordon in college. I saw Salvador Perez when he was just a baby. Had we’d gone off course, what we’d given up on any single one of them, they wouldn't be where they are today. Of course, now, all these kids will live on forever in Kansas City.
The one thing Dayton talked about since the day he got here in 2006 was that makeup was a premier thing with him, along with talent. And I think in the end that what’s most special about these guys is the character. The character. There’s no selfishness. Even the players who’ve joined the team through the years, all the way to Ben Zobrist. Chris Young said it best: I’m so happy to be a part of this group, I’ve never seen a group with this kind of togetherness.
You saw that in the way they came back in games day after day. You saw how this team connected to this city, creating a new generation of fans. To start a new tradition. All around you now, in Kansas City, is blue. At the parade they said there was close to a million people there. I rode in trolley car with the Glass family. We got to Union Station and walked out to the stage, and looking out on that mass of people took my breath away. Ryan Lefebvre, the Royals broadcaster and the emcee of the event, said it best when he said to me, “Art, when I walked out on that stage with the microphone, 100s of thousands of people, up on the hill that went up so far, when I walked I thought I was seeing people up as far as I could see, all the way up in the clouds.”
And that’s what I’ll remember. Royals fans as far as you could see, all the way up in the clouds.