1. Sumo Wrestling: Akebono Taro
(Image credit: Philbert Ono via Wikipedia)The only slim thing about sumo wrestling is the chance of becoming a yokozuna, or grand champion. Throughout the centuries, only 69 men have done it. Before Hawaii’s Chad Rowan stomped into the ring, no foreigner had ever held the honor. Of course, improbable things can happen when you stand 6’8” and weigh more than 500 lbs.—gigantic even by sumo standards. After abandoning a college basketball scholarship due to arguments with his coaches, Rowan threw himself into sumo.
In 1988, he went to Japan with only a single set of clothes and a limited knowledge of Japanese. But Rowan wasn’t there to chitchat. Within a year, the quick study had learned how to use his towering height to make devastating thrusts at opponents’ throats. That March, he made his professional debut as Akebono—“dawn” in Japanese—an ironic moniker for a man who could block out the sun.
As Rowan’s victories piled up and his Japanese improved, he won more and more fans. His jovial demeanor didn’t hurt, either. In January 1993, Akebono was promoted to yokozuna—a title he held until retirement. By the time he was ready to hang up his belt in 2001, he’d racked up 566 wins and 11 division championships.
2. Elephant Polo: Kimberly Zenz
When Kimberly Zenz, an experienced horse polo player, discovered elephant polo on the Internet, she knew she’d found her destiny. Intrigued by the prospect of simultaneously riding an elephant and wielding an oversize mallet, Zenz posted an ad on Craigslist looking for teammates in Washington, D.C. Amazingly, people responded.
Zenz’s four-person team, the Capital Pachyderms, didn’t have real elephants with which to practice. Luckily, that didn’t matter much. Four elephants—along with four experienced elephant drivers—are provided to each team before a tournament. Knowing that her squad could concentrate more on whacking the ball than handling the elephants (you leave that to the drivers), Kimberly and crew trained on top of old swing sets to approximate the pachyderms’ height.
As one might expect, there wasn’t quite enough jungle in their jungle gyms. The team’s training efforts were no substitute for experience, and the Capital Pachyderms finished second to last in Thailand’s 2006 King’s Cup Elephant Polo Championship. Undeterred, Zenz and her team kept practicing. In 2007, they placed second in a competition in Sri Lanka and fifth in the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal. Both victories have earned them bragging rights as “America’s No. 1 elephant polo team.”
3. Bullfighting: Sidney Franklin
In 1922, Sidney Franklin was just an artist from Brooklyn who’d moved to Mexico City after an argument with his father. One day, he decided to take a break from painting to see his first bullfight. Franklin immediately fell in love with the sport—particularly the crowd’s reverence for the fighters. When he told his Mexican friends that he was surprised by the absence of American matadors, they replied that Americans didn’t have the guts to step into the arena. The ribbing irritated Franklin so much that he embarked on a quixotic mission to become a legendary bullfighter.
In need of a trainer, Franklin brashly solicited the services of renowned Mexican matador Rodolfo Gaona. The request was basically the equivalent of asking Peyton Manning for free football lessons, but shockingly, Gaona accepted.
Franklin’s fearlessness didn’t translate into instant success. During his first fight in 1923, he fell down twice before killing the bull. Within five years, however, he was thrilling Mexican crowds. But the victories weren’t enough for Franklin. Looking for bigger challenges, he set out to conquer the motherland of toreadors—Spain. Franklin’s gutsy performances in Spanish arenas earned him throngs of fans, along with several gorings. They also earned him the friendship of bullfighting aficionado Ernest Hemingway. The author would later immortalize Franklin’s technique and bravery in Death in the Afternoon, saying Franklin’s life story was “better than any picaresque novel you ever read.”
4. Billiards: Willie Mosconi
It’s hard to believe that billiards world champion Willie Mosconi learned to play pool by hitting potatoes with a broomstick.
It’s even harder to believe that his parents, who ran a pool hall in Philadelphia, forbade him from playing because they wanted him to pursue a career in vaudeville. Luckily for them, the obstinate Mosconi taught himself late at night with the only implements at his disposal.In no time, Mosconi became a cue-wielding child prodigy. His talents supported his family during the Great Depression, and Mosconi went on to win 15 world championships during his career. Impressively, he still holds the world record for running balls without a miss, sinking 526 consecutive balls in a 1954 exhibition.
Of course, Paul Newman might argue that Willie Mosconi’s greatest accomplishment was teaching him to play pool. Allegedly, Newman had never played before filming The Hustler. After taking intense pool-shark lessons from Mosconi, however, Newman was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in 1962.
5. Polo: Sue Sally Hale
Women who disguise themselves as men seem to be successful in only two settings—the plays of William Shakespeare and the real-life drama of Sue Sally Hale. Hale, who received her first horse at the age of 3, was determined to play polo, even though Southern California’s thriving early 1950s polo scene forbade women from the field. So when she was old enough to play, Hale simply dressed as a man. Before each tournament, she would don a baggy shirt, stuff her hair under her helmet, and draw on a mustache with mascara. Playing under the name A. Jones, she competed with such ferocity that one commentator claimed Hale “could ride a horse like a Comanche and hit a ball like a Mack truck.”
After each match, she would transform back into Sue Sally Hale, then go carousing with her teammates, who were happy to play along. For the next two decades, Hale maintained the ruse while campaigning fiercely to get the United States Polo Association to changes its policies. The association relented in 1972, and Hale finally received a membership card, along with the freedom to play under her real name.
6. Cricket: John Barton King
Cricketers in the United States may be traditionally associated with wealthy men of leisure, but the top player ever produced this side of the pond was a middle-class baseball fan from Philly named Bart King. What made King so great was his ability to dominate as both a bowler and a batsman—the equivalent of being a top-notch pitcher and slugger in baseball. As a bowler, King created a pitch he called “the angler,” which dipped and swerved in a way that confounded batsmen. As a batter, he was one of the top scorers in North American history.
The gregarious King was also beloved for spreading tall tales about himself. Perhaps his most famous story came from a 1901 match against a team from Trenton, New Jersey. As the legend goes, King was about to bowl to the Trenton team captain when the batter started to talk trash. Remembering a stunt he’d seen in a baseball game, King ordered the rest of his team off the field. He reasoned that he wouldn’t need anyone around to catch the ball, because he was about to strike out the loud-mouthed batter. The cocky move proved effective. King fired off his angler, and the befuddled Trenton captain didn’t stand a chance.
7. Formula One Racing: Phil Hill
(Image credit: Lothar Spurzem via Wikipedia)Formula One, the elite international driving circuit characterized by curvy courses, is a sport dominated by Europeans. It’s also a sport that rewards aggressive driving. Both are reasons why Phil Hill, an American who’s petrified of racing, should not be one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time.
After a boyhood spent obsessing over cars, Hill began racing Jaguars in 1950 in Southern California’s burgeoning road-racing scene. Successful as he was, Hill remained terrified of racing’s dangers. Worried that he was going to kill himself on the track, Hill developed serious stomach ulcers that prevented him from keeping down solid foods before a race. To keep his energy up, he began a pre-race regimen that included feasting on jars of baby food.
In 1956, Hill made the jump to European racing as a member of the famed Ferrari team. With a few key wins, including France’s grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race, he established himself as a star. Then in 1961, Hill got behind the wheel of the legendary “shark-nose” Ferrari 156 and became the first American to win the coveted Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. The victory not only secured his place in racing history, it also assured that Phil Hill could afford the finest baby food for the rest of his career.
8. Tug of War: Milwaukee Athletic Club Team
At the beginning of the last century, tug of war was more than just a groan-inducing part of company picnics. From 1900 to 1920, it was an Olympic event. Traditionally, the best teams came from Scandinavia and Great Britain, where the sport still enjoys a strong niche following. But one American squad managed to grab gold in the 1904 St. Louis games—the pullers of the Milwaukee Athletic Club.The triumph of the club’s iron grips and sturdy ankles led to much rejoicing across Milwaukee. There was a slight snag, though. No one on the team was actually from Milwaukee, and they certainly weren’t members of the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Instead, the athletes were ringers that the club’s head, Walter Liginger, supposedly recruited from Chicago. Although the defeated teams filed a grievance, Olympic officials rejected the protests, and the so-called men from Milwaukee got to walk away with both their medals and their honor intact.
9. Soccer: John Harkes
If you’re ever asked a trivia question about Americans in English soccer, always guess John Harkes.
After a distinguished college career at the University of Virginia, Harkes headed to England in 1990 to join the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Although British fans were skeptical, he quickly earned their respect after smoking a 35-yard, game-winning goal in the last minute of a match against Derby County. Fans were so impressed they selected the shot as England’s “goal of the year.” Harkes continued to win over the English with his scrappy play, and he became the first American to compete in several major European tournaments. In 1996, he returned to the United States, but his legacy overseas remained. His feistiness proved to the British that Americans could excel at European football, and it paved the way for the influx of Americans playing in Europe today.
10. Fencing: Keeth Smart
Like lots of kids growing up in the 1980s, Brooklyn’s Keeth Smart adored the lightsaber battles in the Star Wars movies. But, unlike most of those kids, Smart parlayed that into the top saber fencing ranking in the world—a first for an American in a sport historically dominated by French and Hungarian swordsmen.
In 1990, Smart’s parents convinced him to sign up for lessons with fencer Peter Westbrook. Westbrook, who won the bronze at the 1984 Olympics, had recently opened a school to expose New York City’s youth to the sport. Turns out, Smart’s body was perfect for fencing. His long legs allowed him to quickly cover the field, and his long arms allowed him to attack from safe distances.
Smart went on to become a four-time All-American at St. John’s University in New York and a two-time Olympian. But, stunningly, he wasn’t even a professional fencer when he grabbed the world’s top saber ranking in 2003. While most of his European rivals spent their days training and living off sponsorships, Smart was working full-time as a financial analyst for Verizon and practicing just three nights a week.
________________________________This article by Ethan Trex is from the May-June 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!