The remarkable story of David Ortiz’s incredible final season has gotten me thinking about other athletes who are excelling at an age far past what is normally considered an athlete’s prime. Ortiz deserved the attention he got this year in every way, because what he was able to accomplish in his final season was nothing short of historic. You are probably well aware of Big Papi’s accomplishments by now, and I will be writing another piece dedicated to Ortiz in the near future. For now, here are some other athletes who have been able to sustain a high level of performance in the latter stages of their careers.
“Big Sexy” is the oldest active player in the major leagues, but that didn’t stop him from being named to his fourth all-star team in 2016. Despite winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, it can be argued that the last five seasons have constituted the best stretch of Colon’s career. The former power pitcher has reinvented himself by relying almost solely on his sub-90 MPH fastball, but with as good of command as any pitcher in baseball. And despite the Mets enviable collection of young starting pitchers, it was Colon who ended up being their most durable arm last year.
He’s not close to the player he once was, but at age 42, it’s remarkable that Ichiro was able to hit .291 and provide solid value to the Marlins in a part-time role. Only Pete Rose had more hits in baseball history from age 27 onward.
It may be lost because the Colts do not emphasize running the football much, or maybe because he has been so good for so long, but Frank Gore is still one of the more reliable ball carriers in the NFL. He is currently on pace to become just the fifth running back in NFL history to run for 1,00 yards at age 33 or older, and the first since 1984, when John Riggins ran for 1,239 yards with the Redskins. In fact, there have only been 47 instances where a 30 year-old player has rushed for 1,000 yards (Gore has already done it twice).
Yes, it’s much more common for kickers and punters to stick around a long time, but Vinatieri is truly in a class of his own. Not only is he the oldest and longest tenured player in the NFL, he is the best kicker in football, and maybe the greatest of all-time. This season, Vinatieri broke Mike Vanderjagt’s NFL record by connecting on his 43rd consecutive field goal attempt. Hopefully, being a kicker won’t stop the Hall of Fame voters from giving him the honor he is due. That might be a long ways away, since Vinatieri could probably play another 10 years if he wanted to.
You wouldn’t know it from watching him play, but Brady is 39. Since coming back from his suspension, he has been as good as ever, already eclipsing 1,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games. His passer rating is an otherworldly 133.9. He is showing no signs of slowing down, and should still be among the NFL’s best quarterbacks for years to come.
At age 38, Newman is still a starting cornerback in the NFL, which is extremely rare considering corners need to be among the fastest players on the field. Not only that, but he starts for the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Minnesota Vikings.
The future Basketball Hall of Famer really has nothing left to prove, but he’s still going strong. Although he was not selected for the All-Star Game last year for just the second time since 2001, Dirk still dropped 18.3 points per game while grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game. With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all retired, Nowitzki is one of the last remaining players from the group of greats who debuted in the late 90s.
No list like this would be complete without Jagr, who will turn 45 this NHL season. When Jagr debuted in the NHL in 1990, many of the current active players weren’t born yet. Last season, he scored 66 points for the Panthers, and two weeks ago, joined Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky as the third NHL player to score 750 career goals in a career.
Kerri Walsh Jennings
As one of the greatest volleyball players of all-time, Walsh Jennings was able to capture another Olympic medal in Rio, this time with April Ross as her partner. Although it wasn’t the gold she is accustomed to, Walsh Jennings is still as good a player as any in beach volleyball, and she remains a dominant blocker and hitter nobody wants to go up against.
We’ve become used to Phelps winning nearly every swimming gold medal at the Olympics, so a lot of people may not have realized that before Phelps won five gold medals and one silver in Rio this summer, no swimmer as old as 31 had ever won an individual swimming gold. Phelps won two individual gold medals (although fellow American Anthony Ervin also won gold at age 35, making him now the oldest). While most simmers are done competing in their 30s, nobody really doubts that Phelps could return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and win some more if he wanted to.
You may not know her name, but if you watched gymnastics in the Olympics, you’ll remember her as the 41 year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan competing against athletes less than half her age. Chusovitina has won two Olympic medals – including a silver in 2008 at age 33. In a sport where most athletes begin to decline in their early 20s, what Chusovitina is doing is truly incredible.