Some of the best athletes in the world became great because they could dedicate their childhoods and adolescence to training in the best gyms with the best coaches. Their parents invested in their careers and they succeeded.
But other stories are far more inspiring, showing that talent, determination, and maybe a bit of luck can take you farther than a fat bank account can. These athletes may have started out with nothing, but now they’re raking in the cash, being honored by their countries, and providing motivation for kids out there with big dreams.
You know you've got an inspiring come-from-behind story when Hollywood makes a movie out of it. The film about football and family, The Blind Side earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar and Michael Oher a lot of deserved respect. Oher, who was a star offensive lineman for the University of Mississippi and now for the Baltimore Ravens, grew up as one of 13 children in his family, ending up in foster care and occasionally on the streets. Then he met the Tuohys, a family who ended up adopting him and helping turn his life around. Now with his story on the big screen and his career pushing forward in the NFL, Oher is inspiring people across the country.
It may be no surprise that one of the fastest men in the world could skyrocket to success by the age of 22, but Usain Bolt's upbringing is far away from the fame he's achieved. He grew up in a village, Trelawny Parish, in Jamaica where they still don't have street lights and running water service is spotty. Villagers say it was only brought to the village because of Bolt's three Olympic gold medals. Bolt used to play cricket in the street with an orange and a banana tree stump because athletic supplies weren't readily available. But obviously none of this stopped Bolt from reaching his potential, as he has won five World gold medals on top of his Olympic honors, and holds the records in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 meters relay.
Another Baltimore Raven, Jameel McClain's story is just as inspiring as that of Michael Oher. McClain grew up in Philadelphia with barely enough to get by. He was lucky to get meals and sometimes shelter from his local Salvation Army. His best pair of shoes growing up was a pair he found hanging from a telephone wire. But his skills in football helped pull him out of poverty. He played for Syracuse, and even though he was undrafted, was picked up by the Ravens as a free agent in 2008. He now doesn't have to worry about food, shelter, or shoes and gives back to local Salvation Armys when he has the chance.
It takes a lot of determination to be able to run a marathon, and even more to become one of the top long-distance runners in the world. But Tsegaye Kebede had faced tougher obstacles in his life than 26.2 miles. The Ethiopian runner's family had 15 children, and there was very little money to be had. Kebede used to eat just one meal a day and collect firewood, earning about a dollar a day, just to help his family survive. Now, he has earned medals in the Beijing Olympics and World Championships, victories in major marathons, and, maybe more importantly, prize money that has helped his family back home build a house, buy cattle, and become self-sufficient.
You don't have to like King James to be inspired by his story. Lebron James now makes tens of millions of dollars each year playing for whatever team he feels like blessing with his presence, but his early life was less than ideal. His mom was just 16 years old when he was born and he spent a few of his early school years in a foster home. His father figure was in and out of prison for selling drugs and committing fraud. But James has obviously made a name for himself. After appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school basketball player, an 18-year-old James became the No. 1 draft pick right out of high school. His success is undeniable and is surely motivating young people around the country to work hard for what they want and maybe be a little more humble once they get it.
Growing up black in 1930s America wasn't easy, and Rafer Johnson's family were not well off. They lived in a poor, segregated Dallas neighborhood until they moved to California, where they spent time living in a train boxcar with a curtain acting as a room divider. But after the family's luck started picking up, Johnson took the opportunity to excel in almost every sport in high school, and go on to compete in decathlons, the toughest track event. He became Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1958, set world records in 1958 and 1960, and won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. Besides being a great athlete, he's also a great philanthropist, serving briefly in the Peace Corps and helping to found the Special Olympics in Southern California.
Boxing great Manny Pacquiao has really had to fight his way up from the bottom. His home country, the Philippines, is relatively poor, and Pacquiao's dad once got so desperate that he even ate the family dog. After this obviously disturbing event, Pacquiao ran away from home and lived on the streets, selling doughnuts to make money to survive. Boxing became a way for him to turn his life around, and there's no doubt that it worked. Pacquiao has become something of a national legend, even becoming the first athlete to appear on a Philippines postage stamp. He has the distinction of being the only boxer to ever win world titles in eight different weight divisions and is considered one of the best boxers of his generation.
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