It seemed as though nothing could top last year’s athletic achievements—from American Pharoah's run to the Triple Crown to Ronda Rousey's MMA dominance to Serena Williams’ three incredible Grand Slam titles. But 2016 proved to be an equally remarkable year, with gold medal-winning performances at the Rio Olympics, drought-breaking championships in two cities and spectacular individual efforts. Below are the 12 leading contenders for 2016 Sportsperson of the Year. Sports Illustrated's editors will make its (very tough) selection next month, but we want our readers to have their say. Cast your vote for the person or team you think is the most worthy selection for Sportsperson of the Year. (Editor's note: The reader vote does not determine the winner.)
2016 Sportsperson of the Year Contenders
The most decorated athlete in Olympic history added to his incomprehensible haul at the Rio Games. Phelps’s six medals this summer increased his overall medal total to 28, including 23 gold. No other athlete in any sport has more than nine gold medals at the Olympics. In his final race before retirement—we think—Phelps led the U.S. to victory in the 400-meter medley relay. Hollywood finish.
This was finally the year. After finishing the regular season with 103 wins—the most in baseball—and a division title, the Cubs downed the Dodgers for the franchise's first pennant since 1945, then rallied from a 3–1 deficit in the best-of-seven World Series against the Indians to end a championship drought that stretched back to 1908. Featuring NL MVP Kris Bryant, slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, dynamic young infielder Javier Baez and baseball's best rotation—fronted by veteran ace Jon Lester—the Cubs became heroes to Chicago, making history with their dominant run to a title.
Already a legend in the making, the 19-year-old gymnast entered the 2016 season as the reigning national champion, but it was at the Rio Olympics where she really shined. Biles took home five medals from the Summer Games—including four golds, the most won by an American female gymnast in a single Olympics—and led the Final Five to their second consecutive team all-around gold medal, further cementing her position a one of the best ever.
Arguably the greatest sprinter of all time went out on top in his final Olympics at the Rio Games, winning his ninth Olympic gold medal. With his three golds in Rio, Bolt completed an unprecedented feat, winning the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100-meter relay at three consecutive Olympic Games, dating back to Beijing 2008. Bolt also became the second most successful Olympian of all time, across all sports, second to only Michael Phelps.
If coming home wasn’t enough, LeBron James gave the city of Cleveland something it hadn’t experienced in 52 years: a championship. In improbable fashion, LeBron and the Cavs rallied from a 3–1 deficit to dethrone Steph Curry and the Warriors in the NBA Finals. The victory marked the third title and Finals MVP of LeBron’s storied career, taking his legacy to even further heights.
Is she the greatest women’s college basketball player of alltime? Well, that’s open for debate. What is not open for the debate is Stewart is her sport’s greatest winner. The 6'4" forward, who now places for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, led the University of Connecticut to four consecutive NCAA titles. She was part of 151 victories and only five losses and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four an unprecedented four times.
The 19-year-old U.S. swimmer made more than a splash in her second Olympics in Rio. She crushed her own world records, won five medals and became the first woman to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events in 48 years, and only the third U.S. woman in history to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. Ledecky is now at Stanford University—shattering NCAA records there, too—and as the current world record holder in three events, she is on the list of most dominant athletes alive.
The bard of baseball put down his microphone after 67 years in the booth, a career that saw the 88-year-old Scully interact with Connie Mack and Corey Seager. We will never see another like him. Scully worked alone for much of his time as a commentator and was rightfully feted for his years as a poet-philosopher, the most beloved person in baseball, now and forever.
Steph Curry turned in a hell of an encore on the heels of the Warriors’ 2015 title. Curry led Golden State to an NBA-record 73 wins, breaking Michael Jordan’s 1996 Bulls record and forever etching his name in the history books. He also led the league in scoring (30.1 points per game), shattered the season three-point record (402), won MVP, carried the Warriors back to the Finals and made every game must-see television with his array of highlight threes and dimes.
Leicester City F.C.
At now-famous 5,000-1 preseason odds, Leicester City's 2015-16 English Premier League title should have been impossible. During an era when the EPL elite is confined to a select few, Leicester's fearless Foxes relied on the perfect combination of overlooked stars, a consistent rotation and a carefree manager to stun the soccer world and become the sixth team to win a title in the EPL era. But no championship, anywhere, has ever been less likely.
By winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, 41-year-old Johnson captured his seventh NASCAR Cup championship, equaling the career record held by the sport’s two biggest legends, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson has now won 80 races over the course of his career and he’s earned those victories in perhaps the most competitive era in the sport, further solidifying his place among NASCAR’s best.
The 27-year-old was the center of Denver’s defense in Super Bowl 50, after 2.5 sacks of Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton, including two game-changing strip sacks in the first and fourth quarters that sealed the Broncos’ 24-10 victory. His performance earned him Super Bowl MVP, only the third linebacker to win the award, and he quickly rose to stardom. This season, he’s racked up 9.5 sacks through Week 11.