(NEW YORK) — As athletes returned to the playing field and fans returned to the stands, there was some level of normalcy in the sports world in 2021.
Still, COVID-19 left its mark on athletics this year — from the empty venues at the delayed Tokyo Olympics to controversies over vaccination with players like Aaron Rodgers and Kyrie Irving.
COVID wasn’t the only way health was spotlighted in sports in 2021, though. Stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles brought renewed attention to mental health as well. While not a sports moment, the health of all-time golf great Tiger Woods made worldwide headlines after he was seriously injured in a car accident in February.
When it came to winning trophies, it was a very good year to be a Tampa sports fan.
Here’s a look at the top 10 moments in sports from 2021, in reverse order:
10. Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cups (July 7)
The first of two Tampa Bay championships on this list came from the Lightning, which won its second straight Stanley Cup and denied the Montreal Canadiens’ pursuit of the first Canadian championship since 1993. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the series MVP with a shutout in the Stanley Cup-clinching Game 5. Pat Maroon, who played for the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues in 2019, also became the first player to win three straight titles in almost 40 years.
9. Braves win the World Series (Nov. 2)
The Braves meandered through an unremarkable 2021 season, sitting at or below .500 into August. When Ronald Acuña Jr., the team’s superstar outfielder, blew out his knee on July 10 there were no expectations Atlanta would make the playoffs, let alone win the World Series. But the Braves snuck into the postseason by winning the lowly NL East with just 88 wins — the lowest of any team in the playoffs. And then the magic happened. They first knocked off the 95-win Brewers and shocked the juggernaut Dodgers in the NLCS. MVP Jorge Solar’s magic at the plate, including a homer leading off the World Series and a game-winning blast in Game 4, carried Atlanta to its first title since 1995.
8. US dream team wins women’s 4-x-400 meter relay gold (Aug. 7)
Track aficionados will tell you the 4-x-400 meter relay is the best event of any track meet. So when the U.S. women’s team strode to the track in Tokyo at the biggest meet in five years it was hard not to get giddy. The runners were a dream team across multiple disciplines — all of whom dominated in their own individual events. Sydney McLaughlin, who had already set a world record in the 400-meter hurdles, led off the relay. She handed the baton to the legendary Allyson Felix, who passed it off to former 400-meter hurdle world record holder and 2016 gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad. Muhammad made the final pass to 19-year-old sensation Athing Mu, who had torched the competition for gold in the 800 meters in Tokyo and brought home the relay win by 4 seconds. It was a breathtaking display of American dominance. The gold was also Felix’s 11th Olympic medal — the most by any U.S. track and field athlete.
7. Emma Raducanu wins battle of the teens at US Open (Sept. 11)
Britain’s Emma Raducanu came into the U.S. Open in the qualifier bracket, but she left as women’s tennis’ new teenage sensation. The 18-year-old wasn’t even born on 9/11 — the U.S. Open women’s final was played on the 20th anniversary of the attacks — but neither was her opponent for the title: 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez. It was a most unexpected final in the last major of the year, but that made for edge-of-your-seat drama throughout the three weeks in Queens. Fernandez first garnered headlines for upsetting Naomi Osaka, whose breakdown during and after the match sparked new discussion of mental health and sports, before beating two top-5 opponents in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Raducanu bounced back from a mid-match panic attack at Wimbledon to not drop a set the entire tournament.
6. Bryce Young rallies Alabama to beat Auburn in four OTs (Nov. 27)
The Iron Bowl wasn’t supposed to be close this year, but the Tigers’ stifling defense gave them a 10-3 lead with 1:35 left in the game and the Crimson Tide pinned at their own 3-yard line. It was just the type of Heisman moment sophomore quarterback Bryce Young needed. He led them 97 yards, spreading the ball around to Alabama’s arsenal of offensive weapons, culminating with a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks with 24 seconds left to play to tie the game. In the third and fourth overtimes, Young found star receiver John Metchie III for two-point conversions and a 24-22 win. We’ll have to wait until New Year’s Eve to see if Young can lead Alabama to the title game in 2022.
5. Gonzaga beats UCLA at the buzzer in the Final Four (April 3)
In one of the greatest basketball games in Final Four history, Gonzaga and UCLA traded blows for a chance to head to the national championship game. The undefeated Bulldogs were a big favorite against No. 11 seed UCLA, but the Bruins answered every score. Bruins guard Johnny Juzang had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but was called for an offensive foul. The game went to overtime tied 81-81 when All-American Drew Timme took over. He scored three quick baskets in the post for the Zags who pulled ahead to 87-83. But UCLA stuck with it. Down two with 3 seconds left, Juzang missed a floater in the lane but got his own rebound and put it back in to tie the game. Off the make, Jalen Suggs, a freshman phenom and eventual top-5 NBA draft pick, took the inbound pass for Gonzaga, crossed midcourt and threw up a prayer that he banked in for the walk-off win. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the Baylor Bears ruined their dream season two days later with a dominant, upset title win.
4. Suni Lee steps up to win gold in all-around (July 29)
The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to be Simone Biles’ time to cement herself as the greatest gymnast of all-time. Her struggles to perform still stole the headlines, but an 18-year-old from Minnesota stole the competition. When Biles dropped out of the individual all-around, despite being the No. 1 qualifier, the hopes of the U.S. fell on Suni Lee’s shoulders. The U.S. had won the individual all-around at the last four Olympics, so there was no small amount of pressure on Lee. Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, the highest qualifier remaining, took first in her best discipline: the vault. Lee took first in her best discipline: the uneven bars. The gold medal came down to the fourth rotation: the floor. Lee performed admirably, but Andrade was the last to go. After stepping out twice on tumbling passes, Lee knew she had become the fifth straight American gold medalist.
3. Giannis goes for 50 as Bucks win the NBA title (July 20)
Giannis Antetokounmpo already had a league MVP, multiple All-Star appearances and a killer nickname (“The Greek Freak”), but he simultaneously became an NBA champion and a worldwide superstar when he dropped 50 points on the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the Finals. Antetokounmpo became just the seventh player in NBA history to score 50 in an NBA Finals game and that was after a pair of 40-point games earlier in the series. He also became the first person to score 50 in a clinching Finals game. The same series saw the ascension to stardom for the Suns’ Devin Booker — who had 40-point performances in Games 4 and 5 — but it was Giannis’ Game 6 performance that will live in history.
2. Simone Biles overcomes obstacles to compete on beam (Aug. 3)
Simone Biles is used to winning gold, but it was a bronze medal that captured the attention of the world in Tokyo. After getting a case of “the twisties” — a term gymnasts use to explain getting lost in midair — and struggling with her mental health, it appeared as though Biles’ Olympics were slipping away with each event she dropped. She dropped out of the team all-around midway through and then removed herself from the individual all-around and event finals in the vault and floor. Heading into Tokyo, she was expected to win gold in all of them with relative ease. She dropped the uneven bars as well, not her strongest apparatus, but announced she would compete in the last event of the Olympics: the balance beam. She wasn’t at her competitive best, but she called the bronze her proudest accomplishment nonetheless.
1. Brady goes it alone, leads Bucs to Super Bowl win (Feb. 7)
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” Tom Brady surely would’ve helped him change his mind. The future Hall of Famer shocked the NFL — and countless Patriots fans — by exiting New England to sign with Tampa Bay prior to the 2020-2021 season. It was a gamble to leave Bill Belichick in the dust, but one that paid off. Brady’s first season was an up-and-down affair, but the team secured a wild card berth and hit its stride in the playoffs. The Super Bowl itself, played in Tampa, turned into a one-sided affair thanks to a porous Kansas City offensive line and, of course, a commanding performance by Brady (21-for-29, 201 yards, three touchdowns) and his former Patriot running mate Rob Gronkowski (two touchdowns). Away from Belichick and the New England machine, Brady’s seventh title was one of a kind.
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