Some of the best athletes walked away from their games, while others staged comebacks and improbable victories.
Our sportswriters had a front-row seat to some of the best events of the year. We asked them to share a moment that left an impression on them.
Rugby World Cup
The rugby captain’s role is almost mythical — with few parallels in sports. Hockey comes close, but having two or three alternate captains per team dilutes the impact. Two moments with two special captains at the Rugby World Cup in Japan stood out for me.
The first occurred after Japan lost to South Africa in the quarterfinals. After congratulating their opponents and saluting fans, Michael Leitch — Japan’s New Zealand-born, half-Fijian captain — solemnly led his team off the field in its “arrow” formation, each player with a hand on a teammate’s shoulder. Leitch, who speaks Japanese beautifully, is wildly popular and was the face of the host nation’s upstart team that had advanced to the knockout stage for the first time. The crowd went wild.
Then in the final, after South Africa defeated England, it was thrilling to watch South Africa’s first black captain, Siya Kolisi, lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Big moments for two captains who smashed cultural barriers to become exemplary leaders for their teams. JOE RITCHIE
The Astros obliterated the Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Aug. 10. The score was 23-2 — the most runs Houston has ever scored in a game — and the victory was part of the Astros’ total of 107 for the season, another team record.
The next day the Astros started Justin Verlander, one of the majors’ best pitchers, against Asher Wojciechowski, who had bounced through five other organizations since Houston let him go in 2016.
“I would have loved to have just stayed with the Astros and still be pitching for them,” Wojciechowski told me that weekend. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
The Astros became an American League power without him, and the Orioles are one of baseball’s worst teams. Yet on Aug. 11, Wojciechowski pitched better than Verlander and the Orioles won, 8-7, on a game-ending homer by Rio Ruiz, another former Houston prospect.
Las Vegas oddsmakers had cast the Orioles as +420 underdogs that afternoon, making this perhaps the biggest upset in baseball in at least 15 years. It was just one day of a long season, but it reaffirmed that anything can happen in this crazy sport — a lesson the Astros absorbed more painfully in October, when they became the first team ever to lose all four home games in the World Series as the Washington Nationals rallied past them for the championship. TYLER KEPNER
When Simone Biles performed her triple-double (two flips with three twists) on the floor exercise at the United States Gymnastics Championships in August, everyone was in awe. Except for Biles. Although she completed the skill, she did not stick the landing and was not happy with herself.
Biles was the first female gymnast to do the move in competition — it is still rare for male gymnasts to do it — and she called it the “hardest move in the world.” Later that same night, she debuted another groundbreaking skill on the balance beam: a double-double dismount (two flips with two twists). She stuck that landing with only a small hop backward.
Two days later, on the final night of competition, Biles nailed her triple-double and won her record-tying sixth national title. She ran off the mat after her last routine with her tongue out, bobbing her head back and forth, a huge smile on her face. The crowd of 12,000 people was on its feet, cheering. DANIELLE ALLENTUCK
Tennis served up all manner of thrills and oddities in 2019 including an A-list Wimbledon final won by Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer after he saved two match points and a Davis Cup match between Italy and the United States that ended at 4:04 a.m. in Madrid with hardly anyone in the stands.
But the moment that stayed with me came in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March. Bianca Andreescu, then an unseeded Canadian 18-year-old wild card, was facing Elina Svitolina, the No. 6 seed from Ukraine.
I had watched Andreescu through the week and had been impressed with her athleticism and spirit. Svitolina, a fleet counterpuncher, was pushing her hard. But somewhere in the middle of the second set it became apparent that Andreescu was the complete package.
She had touch. She had power. She had world-class footwork. She could slice or crush her backhand and, more unconventionally, her forehand. She could return serves ferociously and had an effective first and second serve of her own. She could come to net. Above all, she seemed unafraid to shift pace and tactics midrally.
There were no holes, seemingly no shot she could not hit. It was obvious that she had the potential to win the game’s biggest prizes, and she went on to upset Svitolina and then upset the former No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the final.
Six months later, Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title, defeating Serena Williams in the United States Open championship. CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Andrew Luck was an N.F.L. marketer’s dream, an overall No. 1 pick from Stanford who was smart, self-effacing and talented — the successor to quarterback Peyton Manning on the Indianapolis Colts.
Luck made news for another reason in August: Battered by injuries and unwilling to endure more rehabilitation and pain, he called it quits at age 29.
“I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road,” he said at a hastily arranged news conference after a preseason game, “and I made a vow to myself if I ever did again, I would choose me in a sense.”
By choosing his own welfare over the team, Luck was ditching football’s “win at all costs” culture. His fans, having read news of his retirement before he could announce it, reminded him of that when they booed him off the field.
In stepping down and speaking up about it, Luck showed those fans that there are humans under the helmets, and that their entertainment comes with consequences. KEN BELSON
I was based in the same city for nearly all of Dirk Nowitzki’s 21 seasons with the Dallas Mavericks. Sitting courtside for Nowitzki’s final home game stands out more than any other occasion I covered in 2019 — and that’s in a year better known for the major injuries and heavy doses of Kawhi Leonard that brought a halt to the Golden State Warriors’ five years of dominance along with the wild off-season of big-name player movement that followed.
Nowitzki, who was 40, delivered 30 points that April night to indulge fans who wanted one last show from him. Jamal Crawford of the Phoenix Suns, at 39, somehow countered with 51 points before legends like Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley paid tribute to Nowitzki in a postgame ceremony.
No one in the N.B.A. has ever played for one franchise as long as Nowitzki, who revolutionized his position by becoming the first power forward with a game built around long-distance shooting. His farewell, fittingly, was also one of a kind. MARC STEIN
Formula One has an unwritten rule: Do not crash into your teammate.
In Brazil, the penultimate grand prix of the 21-race motorsport series, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, of Ferrari, broke that rule. The incident had been coming.
The rivalry between Vettel, a four-time champion, and Leclerc, a young driver in only his second season in Formula One, and his first with Ferrari, grew more heated over the year.
Vettel started the season as the team’s lead driver. But Leclerc’s performances changed the thinking of Mattia Binotto, the team principal, who allowed them to race.
At Ferrari’s home event in Italy, in September, and in subsequent grands prix in Singapore and Russia, incidents led to a falling out of the drivers.
In Brazil, as they fought over fourth place late in the race, the two crashed out after colliding. It led to clear-the-air talks a few days later at the team’s headquarters in Maranello.
The 2020 season should be interesting. IAN PARKES
After Tiger Woods two-putted from 10 feet to secure his 15th major championship at the Masters in April, “Ti-ger” chants rumbled like thunder through the Augusta National grounds.
But Woods had not battled back from four back surgeries, and a decade-long major drought, to revive the roars. Never mind the scores of fans ringing the 18th green and the millions watching at home — Woods’s comeback, it soon became clear, was aimed at an audience of two.
As Woods walked off the green, he scooped his 10-year-old son, Charlie, in his arms for a hug that lasted nine seconds. He swept his daughter, Sam, then 11, into his arms for another embrace.
In 1997, Woods came off the same green after winning his first green jacket and fell into the arms of his father, Earl, who had shepherded his career. His fifth Masters victory, secured 14 years after his fourth, was a father’s lesson to his children on the power of passion and perseverance. KAREN CROUSE
The game had seemed too easy for Jalen Hurts, the new Oklahoma quarterback who had logged 508 total yards in his debut for the Sooners in September, looking like another prodigy passing through Norman.
But to track college football lately has also been to follow the up-and-down career of Hurts, to know that the prodigy has a story. At Alabama, he was benched at halftime of the 2018 national title game and, for the 2018 season he was demoted from starter to backup — only to save his team in the SEC championship.
Oklahoma was another shot at glory.
He found it that September night as he morphed from one storied program’s starter to the leading man for another. But the most memorable notes came afterward, as Hurts showed poise that the game’s most fabled coaches would do well to emulate. There was reflection and assessment, talk of teamwork and improvement, a seemingly sincere appraisal of his past and future.
“The story isn’t over,” he said.
Yes, his path had been made possible by plentiful grit and by college football’s graduate transfer trend. But there was also a self-assured grace that is rare beneath any spotlight.
The slow-emerging reward: He led Oklahoma into the College Football Playoff. Alabama missed the cut. ALAN BLINDER
Soccer World Cup
Arms raised. Palms spread. Heels together. Serene smile.
Megan Rapinoe held the pose for only a second, but that was enough to create an image that would define her summer.
It was late June, and the United States women’s soccer team was having an eventful World Cup. The Americans were winning, of course. But some wondered whether their dominance was fading. Others criticized them for seeming like poor winners on the field after beating Thailand, 13-0. And, later, they were targeted by President Trump for Rapinoe’s pre-emptive dismissal of any invitation to the White House.
This was, to be clear, just what they wanted — all of it. The more eyeballs, the more conversation, the better, the stronger their case would be for receiving the same pay as their male counterparts.
Rapinoe’s pose, charged with all this meaning, was unleashed as she celebrated her goal early in the Americans’ semifinal win against France, the tournament’s biggest game.
The pose was a nonchalant boast, a fiery challenge, a defiant declaration. It was a question: Are you not entertained?
And indeed we were. ANDREW KEH
The most indelible moment for me in college basketball this year did not happen during a game, but before one.
In February, Devontae Shuler, then a sophomore guard at the University of Mississippi, dropped to a knee during the national anthem. It was his way of protesting the white supremacists who marched through the school’s campus that day. It was a one-time gesture, he said when I interviewed him several days later.
Once Shuler closed his eyes and took a knee, several teammates joined him, and then some more — eight in all.
It was no small act. Not at a school — and in a state — with such a deep history of racial intolerance, where the bullets that were fired over the integration of James Meredith left still-visible pock marks on the columns in front of the Lyceum, a campus building constructed by slaves before the Civil War.
“I felt like I needed to stand up for my rights for righteousness’ sake,” Shuler told me, having taken what might have been the most important shot of his career. BILLY WITZ
Champions League Soccer
It is cheating, just a little, to pick out two moments, but it would be impossible to choose between them.
Was the wonder of watching Liverpool complete a remarkable comeback against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona more breathtaking than seeing Tottenham Hotspur, a day later, stir itself at the very last second to break Ajax’s hearts in Amsterdam?
How can you say? What would be your measure of choice?
Besides, the memory of both games — the second legs of the Champions League semifinals — is almost the same.
What I remember is the silence: the heartbeat in which those in Anfield tried to work out whether Liverpool’s final goal would be allowed to stand; the moment in which Ajax’s players slumped to the ground, knowing their dream was over, as Spurs fans rubbed their eyes in disbelief, the prelude to joy.
Those two moments, those 24 hours, come as a set: the conclusive proof that the latter stages of the Champions League are not just soccer’s highest stage, but unrivaled by anything, not a World Series, not a Super Bowl, in sports. RORY SMITH