Over the decades, sports enthusiasts across the world have often been inspired by remarkable comebacks after a spell away from an athlete’s chosen sport, either through injury or a return from temporary retirement. The ability to rally in the face of adversity and turn despair into triumph reflects the fighting spirit of these athletes who have managed to overcome debilitating setbacks to reach new heights in their careers.  

Comebacks in South African sporting history include:

Schalk Burger’s fight back to Springbok glory

Schalk Burger overcame a life-threatening illness to lead the Boks against the All Blacks in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. PHOTO: Reuters

IRB World Player of the Year in 2004, Schalk Burger fought his way back to the game he loves after a life-threatening illness. Schalk was an integral part of the 2007 World Cup winning Springboks and the best player he ever coached, according to coach, Jake White. 

While preparing for the 2013 Super Rugby season, Schalk suffered a calf strain. A scan revealed a cyst next to the spinal cord, impacting the nerve. After surgery, the 33-year-old developed bacterial meningitis which left him fighting for his life in hospital. Against all odds, he not only pulled through, but 18 months later, Schalk was back. 

At the time of his illness, Schalk had played 68 games for the Springboks. He went on to represent his country another 18 times, including winning a bronze medal at the 2015 RWC. Schalk made the most heroic comeback in rugby history and won the Laureus award for Comeback of the Year in 2015.  

Disabled swimmer achieves Paralympics Gold 

Natalie du Toit after winning her 5th Gold Medal in the 50m Freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. PHOTO: Getty Images

Natalie du Toit began competing internationally in swimming at the age of 14. In February 2001, at the age of 17, her left leg had to be amputated at the knee after she was hit by a car, while riding her scooter back to school after swimming training. 

Three months later, before she had started walking again, she was back in the pool. Natalie swims without the aid of a prosthetic limb and went on to compete in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Paralympics, winning 13 gold medals. She was only the third amputee in history to qualify for the able-bodied Summer Olympics. She took 16th place in the 10 km marathon swim at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. 

In 2010, Natalie received the Laureus World Sports Person of the Year with a Disability for “breaking the barriers between disabled and able-bodied sport”.

Some of the international athletes who have made comebacks in their chosen sport include:  

Tiger Woods winning the 2019 Masters Golf 

Fallen hero, Tiger Woods winning the 2019 Masters in Augusta, Georgia in 2019. PHOTO: Getty Images

Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters title in Augusta with a jaw-dropping performance, 11 years after his last major triumph. Considered by many as the greatest comeback in sport, this success came after back surgeries, knee surgeries and personal scandals. There were concerns that he would never play golf again. His recipe for success? “Well, you never give up. Giving up is not in the equation.”

Niki Lauda wins Formula 1 after horrific crash

Niki Lauda went on to win two more F1 championships after a horrific crash in 1976. PHOTO: piston.my

Niki Lauda won the Formula 1 World Championships in 1975, before being seriously injured in a crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. He came close to death after inhaling hot toxic fumes and suffering severe burns. 

Miraculously, he was back behind the wheel only six weeks later. He went on to win two more World Championships in 1977 and 1984. He founded and ran three airlines, Lauda Air, Niki and Lauda. He died in 2019, while still holding the portfolio of Chairman of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team.

Djokovic goes from “I’m done with tennis” to No.1

Novak Djokovic won his fourth Wimbledon crown in 2018. PHOTO: espn.com

Novak Djokovic was ranked No.1 in the World in 2016 when he suffered an injury to his right elbow. Despite advice from coach André Agassi, he did not want to have surgery, as one of his core values was healing naturally and holistically. But in 2017 he relented and underwent an operation on his elbow. As his wife, Jelena put it, ”He buried one part of him with that decision.” 

Djokovic was struggling with his recovery, saying “it was difficult to remain positive”. There were obstacles along the way, which at times he found too challenging. At one point he stated, “I’m done, I’m not playing tennis anymore.” 

He credits his wife for her support in overcoming these challenges. Ranked No.22 in the world at the start of 2018, Wimbledon that year ended a two-year major title drought as Djokovic beat Kevin Anderson in the final to take the crown. The US and Australian Open titles followed and Djokovic was back at the top of the world rankings.  

In times of illness or serious injury, this never-say-die attitude is arguably the most desirable trait for any sportsman or sportswoman. All these athletes have admirably demonstrated this characteristic and proved that they have the fortitude to overcome adversity.

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