There’s no denying it: all athletes’ bodies are built to meet the unique demands of each sport and withstand the rigors of the game. At the elite level, physical fitness and conditioning is ever present. But what happens when you level the playing field and compare athletes of all shapes and sizes in disparate sports?
Each year Sports Illustrated accepts the challenge and ranks the best-conditioned athletes in the world, consulting the expertise of trainers, exercise physiologists and performance experts with experience across the college, pro and Olympic levels of sports. The panel evaluates athletes on the following criteria: performances over the last 12+ months; demands and risks of their respective sports; durability; training regimens; and other physical benchmarks including power, speed, strength, agility, endurance, flexibility and more.
So who’s the fittest of them all? Count down to see the 2022 Fittest 50 list of the best-conditioned athletes in the world right now.
Written by Kristen Nelson, Tess DeMeyer, Kate Yanchulis and Jamie Lisanti.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Maggie Steffens, Water Polo
The 28-year-old Steffens made her presence known early at the 2020 Olympics by scoring her first goal of the Tokyo Games just 21 seconds into Team USA’s opening preliminary match. She’d go on to net 13 more goals, which brought her Olympic career total to 56 and shattered the previous record of 47. As team captain, the Stanford graduate led the Americans to their third consecutive gold medal. Outside of the pool, she lifts weights and mixes in cardio exercises that help build endurance, speed and explosive power.
Erin Jackson, Speedskating
A former inline skating champion, Jackson made the jump to speedskating on ice just months before she competed at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. Now, the 29-year-old Florida native is the top-ranked woman in the 500-meter event and the first Black woman to win a World Cup race after her blazing-fast finish in November 2021. Jackson’s routine incorporates both on- and off-ice training, including cycling workouts, weightlifting (with a focus on explosiveness) and interval exercises on the ice to test speed. A slip at Olympic trials in early January nearly cost her a trip to Beijing, but her teammate Brittany Bowe gave up her spot to allow Jackson the opportunity to make history at the 2022 Olympics.
Lynn Williams, Kansas City Current
In 2021, Williams won an Olympic bronze medal with the U.S. women’s national team and became the NWSL’s career assists leader. This year, the 28-year-old forward will blaze new trails. She was traded to the Current on Jan. 10 after a seven-year tenure with the North Carolina Courage that included two NWSL championships, a Golden Boot and an MVP award. The 5'7" speedster has said she regularly reaches sprint speeds over 20 miles per hour in games. She shared a snapshot of her speed data in 2020, tweeting, “I’ll just be over here running like a girl.”
Jennifer Valente, Track Cycling
No U.S. woman had ever won a gold medal in track cycling—that is, until Jennifer Valente took to the track at the Tokyo Olympics in August. The 27-year-old already had won a bronze medal in team pursuit (on top of a silver medal in the same event at the 2016 Games) by the time the omnium event came around. The omnium, which includes four races crammed into three hours, is designed to test both speed and endurance. Valente took the lead in the first race and held on for the victory, putting her incredible fitness versatility on display.
Molly Seidel, Marathon
After running her first-ever marathon at the U.S. Olympic trials, Molly Seidel took bronze at the Tokyo Games in her third marathon and became the first American woman to medal in the event since 2004. Originally focused on the 10,000 meters, the 27-year-old and her coach reevaluated her training and removed the speed workouts that had previously caused injuries.
Naomi Osaka, WTA Tennis
Osaka won her second Australian Open title to start 2021. Yet while physical gifts—her booming serve, her blazing forehand—remain intact, her regard for her mental well-being received the most attention last year. The 24-year-old withdrew from the French Open in June to take care of her mental health, and she opened up about her struggles with depression and anxiety. “I hope I was able to help some people and for them to see that even athletes are still humans like the rest of us,” she told Women’s Health in an email.