Top 5 Underdog Stories in American Athletics History

Whether an athlete is acting alone, or a team of players is fearlessly charging forward, getting behind an important match, race or game brings people together. What is it about athletes that can unite a high school, a home town or even an entire country? Perhaps it is the reminder that we are capable of so much more than many of us set out for in our everyday lives that brings us together. Or, the visceral appreciation for the prowess of the human body. Maybe we’re all imagining ourselves pushing ever-onward in the struggle of the impossible game we’re watching, and cheering ourselves on. Maybe it’s realizing, if only for a moment, that the impossible is possible – that with great risk comes great reward – if we just have the courage to take it.
The other wonderful thing about sports is we have a natural affinity for the underdog. We want to believe that the little guy can make it happen. We want to believe that against the odds, the person who wants it the most, who worked the hardest for it, will win it. Sometimes our unanimous wish comes true, the underdog does win. The whole world seems so much better when this happens, as if winning at sports reminds us all that there is a reason to keep plugging along. In honor of The Fourth of July, (a celebration of the ultimate underdog) we bring you the Top 5 Underdog Stories in American Athletics History.

Anthony Robles began wrestling in 8th grade, despite having just one leg. Robles was born without one leg, and, since the age of three, refused to wear a prosthesis. Though Robles had an impressive high school wrestling career (winning a national championship in his senior year) he was not recruited by any of his top college choices. He was taken on by Arizona State University where he went on to finish his college career with a record of 122-23, a three-time All-America and a three-time Pac-10 wrestling champion. Robles won the 2010-2011 NCAA individual wrestling championships.He was voted the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler and was awarded 2011 most courageous athlete by Philadelphia sports writers.


Amid political tension between The Soviet Union and United States, the two men’s hockey teams met at Lake Placid, New York to play a medal-round game during the 1980 Winter Olympics, later dubbed The Miracle on Ice. The Soviet Team was made up of seasoned veterans, having taken the gold medal in 6 of the 7 previous Olympic games. The American team was made up of ameture and collegiate players, only one of whom was returning from the previous (1976) Olympic roster. The average age of the Americans was 21, making this team the youngest to play in the Olympics. Despite the lack of experience compared to the Soviets, the American team played with surprising cohesion, eventually winning 4 to 3 against the Soviets and going on to win Olympic gold. The game was coined The Miracle on Ice and was Sports Illustrated’s top sports moment of the 20th century.

Billy Miske was a German-born American boxer from St. Paul Minnesota. He competed successfully from 1913-1923 and won notable matches against the stars of the day. Miske’s career was cut excruciatingly short by Bright’s disease, which affected his kidneys and eventually killed him. Though Miske was a successful fighter, he had a large amount of debt due to a soft-hearted business venture. Miske remained in the ring well past his doctor’s orders – knowing full well that continuing to fight would speed his decline. Miske fought his last bout right before Christmas in 1923 – knowing he needed the money from the fight to make his family’s Christmas a memorable one. He wasn’t healthy enough to train, and had been out of the ring for some time. Miske defeated his opponent, Bill Brennan in the fourth round, and spent a final, happy Christmas with his wife and children.

The 1936 Olympics, held in Germany, featured rowing events dominated by the host country’s teams. The American team was made up of working class boys from the University of Washington – unlikely suspects for an outrageous upset. The American team was comprised of college students, most of whom worked long hours to pay their own tuition to the University of Washington. After qualifying for the Olympics, the boys had the amazing opportunity to travel (by boat) to Germany to represent the United States in the Olympics. Allegedly, a few of the athletes fell sick on the journey, most troublingly, John Hume, on whom the team relied to set the pace of the boat. Though Hume was basically unresponsive during warm-ups on the day of the race, he pulled out all the stops when the boat got moving. In the signature style of the Husky rowing team, the boat started out slow (in fifth place) and leaped into motion at the end. In front of thousands of screaming German fans, and Adolf Hitler, the young rowing team amazed the world by pulling ahead in the last moments of the race – they won gold by just a second.

Jackie Robinson’s baseball career marked the beginning of the end of approximately 60 years of segregation in major league baseball. Not only was Robinson an outstanding player – MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, an All-Star for six consecutive seasons and winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 – he is said to have drastically influenced the Civil Rights Movement by impacting the culture of the time. Robinson grew up the youngest of five children – his family was relatively poor, and he didn’t have much access to recreational opportunities outside of school. Robinson excelled in various sports throughout his junior and high school days, and attended UCLA where he was the school’s first athlete to earn varsity letters in four different sports. Robinson served time in the military and suffered the racist policies and barriers of the day. Even after Robinson became involved in the major leagues, logistics of housing him (especially in racially charged localities) became yet another impediment to the player. Despite the overwhelming challenges, on April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first player since 1880 to openly break the color line in major league baseball. He has since been honored with a ‘universally’ retired uniform number (42), the only athlete in any sport who has recived this. Major League Baseball also celebrates “Jackie Robinson Day,” on April 15 – every player on every team wears No. 42.