Special Report

40 Most Successful Athletes of the 21st Century

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The goal of every professional athlete is to win championships. While many talented players have come up short, others have been able to excel, winning multiple titles, tournaments, or medals.

Since the turn of the century, a select few athletes have managed to dominate their competition year in and year out. Players like Tim Duncan and Tom Brady have taken their team to the top of their sport again and again. Others, like Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and Jimmie Johnson, have established their place as some of the most dominant individual athletes of all time.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed sources like the Sports Reference family of sites, as well as other athletics databases, to determine the most successful athletes of the 21st century. Athletes in team sports were only considered if they won multiple championships since the year 2000. Athletes in individual sports were considered if they won multiple major championships in top leagues, either as a professional or an Olympian.

Many of the most successful athletes of the 21st century seem to have been destined for greatness from a very young age. Players like LeBron James and Sidney Crosby were labeled once-in-a-generation talents even before they finished high school. They managed to live up to the hype, boosting their struggling franchises from the worst in the league to champions. These are the greatest #1 overall draft picks of all time.

Click here to see the 40 most successful athletes of the 21st century

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1. Abby Wambach
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 2x Olympic gold medal, 1x World Cup
> Team or country: United States Women’s National Team
> Career length: 2001-2015
> Other accomplishments: 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year

Abby Wambach helped turn the U.S. Women’s National Team to the powerhouse of the soccer world. Her goal scoring prowess helped the USWNT team win two Olympic gold medals and one FIFA World Cup. When she retired in 2015, no player — male or female — had ever scored more international goals, at 184. The record has since been broken by Canada’s Christine Sinclair.

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2. Adam Vinatieri
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 4x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts
> Career length: 1996-2021
> Other accomplishments: 3x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Kickers are often overlooked on the football field, but Adam Vinatieri has played a crucial role in four Super Bowl wins. He was the kicker for the first three New England Patriots Super Bowl championships, including in 2002, when he hit the game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired. He later helped Peyton Manning win his first Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

Source: Nick Laham / Getty Images

3. Annika Sorenstam
> Sport: Golf
> Championships: 10x Major champion
> Team or country: Sweden
> Career length: 1994-2008
> Other accomplishments: 72 tour wins

Annika Sorenstam dominated women’s golf for almost her entire career. She won 10 major championships and was named the LPGA Tour Player of the Year eight times. With over $22.5 million in career earnings, she is far and away the LPGA career leader. Sorenstam will make her first USGA championship appearance since retiring in 2008 when she tees off in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open in August 2021.

Source: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

4. Bob Burnquist
> Sport: Skateboarding
> Championships: 14x X Games gold medal
> Team or country: Brazil
> Career length: 1995-2017
> Other accomplishments: 30 total X Games medals

Bob Burnquist is a Brazilian-born pioneer who helped make skateboarding an international sensation. Burnquist, who competed at the first ever X Games, won 30 medals, including 14 golds.

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5. Buster Posey
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: San Francisco Giants
> Career length: 2009-2021
> Other accomplishments: 7x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 1x MVP

Buster Posey’s MLB career got off to a dream start. The San Francisco Giants catcher was named Rookie of the Year the same year he won his first World Series in 2010. Two years later, he won the National League MVP award and another championship. He added a third ring in 2014. Posey opted out of the 2020 season to care for his prematurely-born twin daughters, but came back strong in 2021, making his seventh All-Star team. Following the season, Posey announced his retirement.

Source: Michael Regan / Getty Images

6. Cristiano Ronaldo
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 5x UEFA Champions league, 7x domestic league
> Team or country: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus
> Career length: 2002-present
> Other accomplishments: 5x Ballon d’Or

Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly go down as one of the most prolific goal scorers in soccer history. The Portuguese striker has led Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus to numerous national and continental championships. Ronaldo also led Portugal to victory at the 2016 UEFA Euros and the 2019 UEFA Nations League.

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7. David Ortiz
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: Boston Red Sox
> Career length: 1997-2016
> Other accomplishments: 10x All-Star

David Ortiz helped break an 86-year-old curse on the Boston Red Sox and established himself as one of the most beloved athletes in Boston sports history. The powerful slugger won World Series with the Sox in 2004, 2007, and 2013. “Big Papi” was elected as the sole member of the 2022 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Source: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

8. Derek Fisher
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Championship
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 1996-2014
> Other accomplishments: n/a

Derek Fisher was a significant contributor to all five Los Angeles Lakers championships in the 21st century. He played point guard for the Lakers in 13 of his 18 NBA seasons.

Source: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

9. Dwyane Wade
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 3x NBA Championship, 1x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Miami Heat
> Career length: 2003-2019
> Other accomplishments: 13x All-Star, 2x All-NBA

Dwyane Wade has cemented his legacy as the greatest player in Miami Heat history by helping the franchise win three championships. Wade is also the Heat’s all-time leader in scoring, minutes played, steals, and assists.

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Source: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

 

10. Evgeni Malkin
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup
> Team or country: Pittsburgh Penguins
> Career length: 2006-present
> Other accomplishments: 3x All-Star, 1x Hart Trophy, 2x Ross Trophy

Though Sidney Crosby gets most of the attention on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin is an outstanding player in his own right. Malkin helped the Pens win three Stanley Cups, and he picked up a Hart Trophy in 2012 as the most valuable player in the NHL. He has also scored over 100 points in three different seasons, winning the Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer twice.

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11. Floyd Mayweather
> Sport: Boxing
> Championships: 9x world champion, 22x world title defense
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1996-2017
> Other accomplishments: 50-0 record, 3x Fighter of the Year

Floyd Mayweather amassed an amazing 50-0 record as a professional boxer, claiming championships in five different weight classes. He defended his world titles 22 times. After his August 2017 fight with Conor McGregor, it is estimated that Mayweather has made over $1 billion in his career. Mayweather has since fought in several exhibition matches, taking on opponents like kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa and social media celeb Logan Paul.

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12. Jimmie Johnson
> Sport: NASCAR
> Championships: 7x NASCAR Cup Series
> Team or country: Hendrick Motorsports
> Career length: 2001-2020
> Other accomplishments: 83 races won

Jimmie Johnson had a streak of dominance unprecedented in NASCAR history. Johnson won seven championships in 11 years, including five straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2006-2010.

Source: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

13. Kevin Durant
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 2x NBA Champ, 3x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets
> Career length: 2007-present
> Other accomplishments: 1x MVP, 12x All-star

Kevin Durant’s rare blend of size and skill have made him one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. He has led the league in scoring four times. Durant left Oklahoma City to team up with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, winning two titles and consecutive Finals MVP awards. He now plays for the Brooklyn Nets. Durant also led Team USA to three consecutive gold medals in 2012, 2016, and 2020.

Source: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

14. Kobe Bryant
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Champion, 2x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 1996-2016
> Other accomplishments: 18x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 1x MVP

Kobe Bryant helped continue the Los Angeles Lakers’ victorious ways, winning three straight titles in the early 2000s and two more in 2009 and 2010. In his 20 year career, Bryant made 18 All Star Games, won an MVP, and led the league in scoring twice. He also won an Oscar for his animated short film “Dear Basketball”. Bryant tragically passed away in a helicopter accident in January of 2020.

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15. LeBron James
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 3x NBA Champion, 2x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 18x All-Star, 4x MVP

LeBron James won two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat before returning to his original team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and winning a championship there in 2016. James left the Cavs and moved to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 and guided the team to the NBA championship in the COVID-19–shortened 2019-2020 season. He also holds two Olympic gold medals and four NBA MVP awards.

Source: Alex Caparros / Getty Images

16. Lionel Messi
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 4x UEFA Champions league, 10x domestic league
> Team or country: Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 6x Ballon d’Or

Lionel Messi has dominated world soccer in the past two decades, winning six Ballon d’Or awards as the world’s best player. He’s guided Barcelona to 10 Spanish La Liga championships and four UEFA Champions League titles. Messi finally lifted his first trophy for his national team in 2021, when Argentina won the Copa America over Brazil.

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17. Madison Bumgarner
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks
> Career length: 2009-present
> Other accomplishments: 4x All-Star

Pitcher Madison Bumgarner takes his game to the next level in the World Series. Bumgarner has never lost a start in the World Series, going 4-0 in the three Fall Classics in which he pitched, posting an incredible 0.25 ERA. This pitching helped propel the San Francisco Giants to three MLB titles in five years from 2010 to 2014. Bumgarner was named the 2014 World Series MVP. He now pitches for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Source: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

18. Manu Ginobili
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion, 1x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 2002-2018
> Other accomplishments: 2x All-Star

Manu Ginobili helped the San Antonio Spurs win four of the franchise’s five titles. After playing professional basketball in Italy for three years, he joined the Spurs at age 25 in 2002. He would go on to play 16 years in the NBA, all with San Antonio. He provided great scoring off the bench, making two All Star Games and one Sixth Man of the Year award. He also won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004.

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19. Marit Bjørgen
> Sport: Olympic skiing
> Championships: 8x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Norway
> Career length: 2002-2018
> Other accomplishments: 15 total medals in five Olympics

Marit Bjørgen has established herself as one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever. The Norwegian cross-country skier has won 15 medals, eight of which are gold, during five Olympics. This is the highest medal count for any winter Olympian and the third most of any Olympian, behind only U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. Outside of the Olympics, Bjørgen has taken home 18 world championships and four World Cups.

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20. Martin Brodeur
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup, 2x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: New Jersey Devils
> Career length: 1991-2015
> Other accomplishments: 7x All-Star, 4x Vezina Trophy

Martin Brodeur was the centerpiece of the New Jersey Devils dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Brodeur played goalie for three Stanley Cup championship teams, won four Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goalie, and took home two Olympic gold medals for team Canada.

Source: Adam Pretty / Getty Images

21. Michael Phelps
> Sport: Olympic swimming
> Championships: 23x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2000-2016
> Other accomplishments: 28 total medals in five Olympics

American swimmer Michael Phelps is by far the most decorated Olympian of all time. He’s won 28 medals, 23 of them gold, at five different Olympic games. Phelps began his Olympic career at just 15 years old in 2000.

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22. Novak Djokovic
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 20x Grand slam
> Team or country: Serbia
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 362 weeks as #1

Novak Djokovic is staking his claim as the most accomplished men’s tennis player of all time. After winning Wimbledon 2021, he now holds 20 Grand Slam titles. As of March 2022, he has spent 362 weeks as the world’s top-ranked tennis player — the most of any men’s tennis player in history.

Source: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

23. Patrick Kane
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup
> Team or country: Chicago Blackhawks
> Career length: 2007-present
> Other accomplishments: 4x All-star, 1x Hart, 1x Conn Smythe

Patrick Kane has more than lived up to expectations as the first overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. By the time he was 26, Kane had three Stanley Cups and a Ross Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Even as the Blackhawks have struggled in recent seasons, Kane has continued to perform well.

Source: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

24. Peyton Manning
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 2x Super Bowl
> Team or country: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos
> Career length: 1998-2015
> Other accomplishments: 14x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 5x MVP

Peyton Manning more than lived up to the hype of being a top overall pick in the NFL Draft. Manning won five MVP awards and two Super Bowls, one with the Indianapolis Colts and the other with the Denver Broncos.

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25. Rafael Nadal
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 21x Grand Slam, 2x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Spain
> Career length: 2001-present
> Other accomplishments: 209 weeks as #1

Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay, winning 13 French Open championships, which are played on a clay surface. Despite facing stiff competition from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nadal holds 21 Grand Slam titles — the most of all time. Nadal broke the tie when he won the 2022 Australian Open. Nadal has won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments at least once. He has also represented his home country of Spain at the Olympics, taking home gold in both singles tennis in 2008 and in doubles in 2016.

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26. Ray Lewis
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 2x Super Bowl
> Team or country: Baltimore Ravens
> Career length: 1996-2012
> Other accomplishments: 13x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 2x Defensive Player of the Year

Ray Lewis established himself as one of the most fearsome defensive players in NFL history, winning two Super Bowls and two Defensive Player of the Year awards as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

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27. Richard Seymour
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 3x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders
> Career length: 2001-2012
> Other accomplishments: 7x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Richard Seymour became a linchpin of the New England Patriots defense as the team won three titles in four years. He was an All-Pro pass rusher during two of those years. He later played for the Oakland Raiders, making two Pro Bowl teams with the team.

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28. Robert Horry
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 7x NBA Champion
> Team or country: Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 1992-2008
> Other accomplishments: All-Rookie team

Robert Horry is one of just nine players in NBA history with at least seven championships — and the only one who was not a member of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. Horry won two titles with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995, three straight with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000 to 2002, and two more with the San Antonio Spurs in 2005 and 2007. Known as “Big Shot Bob,” Horry made his name by hitting clutch shots late in close playoff games to help his team win.

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29. Roger Federer
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 20x Grand Slam, 1x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Switzerland
> Career length: 1998-present
> Other accomplishments: 310 weeks as #1

Roger Federer is one of the greatest male tennis players of all time. He has won 20 Grand Slam titles, tied with Novak Djokovic  and one behind Rafael Nadal for the most of all time. He has also spent 310 weeks as the world’s top ranked men’s tennis player, second only to Djokovic. Federer teamed up with fellow Swiss tennis star Stanislas Wawrinka to win gold at doubles tennis during the 2008 Olympics.

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30. Serena Williams
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 23x Grand Slam, 4x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1995-present
> Other accomplishments: 319 weeks as #1

Serena Williams has 23 Grand Slam titles, just one behind Margaret Court for the most singles Grand Slam titles in tennis history, winning all four major tournaments at least three times. She is one of just three women who have been the world’s top ranked tennis player for over 300 weeks. Williams has also won four Olympic gold medals — three for doubles alongside her sister Venus, and one singles gold in 2012.

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31. Shaquille O’Neal
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion, 1x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat
> Career length: 1992-2011
> Other accomplishments: 15x All-Star, 8x All-NBA, 1x MVP

As one of the most dominant centers in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal has won four NBA championships — he won three titles in a row with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-2002 before winning his fourth in 2006. O’Neal won NBA MVP in 2000.

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32. Shaun White
> Sport: Skateboarding, snowboarding
> Championships: 15x X Games gold medal, 3x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2000-present
> Other accomplishments: 23 total X Games medals

Shaun White is one of the most successful two-sport athletes of all time. White is a skateboarding and snowboarding legend, having won 23 X Games medals, 15 of them gold, as well as three Olympic golds for halfpipe snowboarding. After finishing fourth in the 2022 Winter Olympics halfpipe competition, White announced he would retire.

Source: Christian Petersen / Getty Images

33. Sidney Crosby
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup, 2x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Pittsburgh Penguins
> Career length: 2005-present
> Other accomplishments: 8x All-Star, 2x Hart Trophy

After entering the NHL as one of the most exciting prospects ever, Sidney Crosby has managed to live up to the hype. Crosby won three Stanley Cups before his 30th birthday and his Pittsburgh Penguins seem poised to keep winning. Crosby has also led the NHL in points and goals twice, assists once, and won two Hart Trophies as NHL MVP.

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34. Simone Biles
> Sport: Gymnastics
> Championships: 4x gold medal, 1x silver medal, 2x bronze medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2016-present
> Other accomplishments: 25 total world medals

Simone Biles had one of the most impressive Olympic debuts in 2016, when she took home four gold medals and one bronze. She finished first in the individual all-around, vault, and floor events, and third in the beam. She also propelled her “Final Five” teammates to gold in the team gymnastics event. Biles has taken home an unprecedented 25 medals in world championships, 19 of them gold, to make her the most decorated gymnast of all time. Though Biles struggled with a mental block known as “the twisties” in the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021 due to COVID-19), she took home silver in the team all-around and a bronze on balance beam.

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35. Stephen Curry
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 3x NBA Champ
> Team or country: Golden State Warriors
> Career length: 2009-present
> Other accomplishments: 2x MVP, 8x All-star

Steph Curry is one of the greatest pure shooters of all time, shattering multiple NBA 3-pointer records on his way to consecutive NBA MVPs in 2015 and 2016. Curry is the leader of the Warriors dynasty, which won four titles and made it to four consecutive NBA Finals. He has led the league in scoring twice and steals once.

Source: Andrew Redington / Getty Images

36. Tiger Woods
> Sport: Golf
> Championships: 15x Major champion
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1996-present
> Other accomplishments: 81 career tour wins

Tiger Woods enjoyed a decade of pro golf dominance starting in 1997, winning 14 majors. Facing injuries and personal struggles, his golf game suffered for a decade. But Woods was recently able to earn redemption, winning the 2019 Masters tournament — his 81st tournament win and 15th major championship. In February 2021, however, Woods’ golf future was again thrown into question after he injured his right leg in a car accident.

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37. Tim Duncan
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Champion
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 1997-2016
> Other accomplishments: 15x All-Star, 10x All-NBA, 2x MVP

After being drafted first overall in 1997, Tim Duncan proved his worth almost immediately, winning his first of five NBA championships in 1999. Nicknamed the Big Fundamental, Duncan was a model of consistency, making 15 All Star teams in 19 seasons. He won two MVPs and propelled the Spurs to five titles in his career.

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38. Tom Brady
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 7x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
> Career length: 2000-present
> Other accomplishments: 15x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 3x MVP

Tom Brady is unquestionably the most successful quarterback in NFL history, winning seven Super Bowls. No other player has more than five. Brady took the New England Patriots to nine Super Bowls, winning six of them. Following the 2019 season, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led the team to a Super Bowl title in his first year. Brady has made 15 Pro Bowls and won three MVPs. Brady announced his retirement following the 2021 season, but decided to come back to the Bucs shortly thereafter.

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39. Tony Parker
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets
> Career length: 2001-2019
> Other accomplishments: 6x All-Star

After starting in the NBA as a teenager, Tony Parker became one of the league’s top point guards, winning four championships and one finals MVP award. Parker was a member of six All Star teams. He played for 17 seasons with the Spurs and had one final season with the Charlotte Hornets before retiring.

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40. Usain Bolt
> Sport: Track
> Championships: 8x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: Jamaica
> Career length: 2004-2016
> Other accomplishments: 8 total medals in four Olympics

Usain Bolt has proven time and time again that he is the fastest man on earth. The Jamaican sprinter competed in four Olympics and won gold in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay three times. One of his relay gold medals was stripped after a teammate was caught doping.

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