Lauda won his first Formula One world championship in 1975.
In 1976, he nearly died from the horrific burns he suffered in a crash at the German Grand Prix that left him scarred for life. A year later he won a second world title before quitting the sport in 1979. Three years later, the Austrian was persuaded to make a comeback and in 1984 he won a third world championship.
Foreman was one of the most fearsome heavyweight boxers of all time. The American won his first world title in 1973 when he stopped Joe Frazier in two rounds. Foreman held the belt for two years before losing to Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle” before calling it quits in 1977 to become a preacher. A decade later, Foreman came out of retirement and in 1994 he knocked out Michael Moorer to reclaim the world heavyweight title at age 45, the oldest champion ever.
Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA titles between 1991 and 1993 before shocking the basketball world by announcing he was quitting to try his hand at baseball. After two fruitless seasons in the minor league, the American announced his return to the NBA in a two-word statement: “I’m back.” He led Chicago to another three straight titles between 1996 and 1998.
Having retired after Wimbledon in 1966, Court returned to tennis in 1968. Over the next nine years, despite taking time off to have three children, the Australian proceeded to add 11 grand slam singles and 17 grand slam doubles titles to her already considerable tally. In 1970, she won the singles titles at all four majors, one of only three women to have completed a calendar year grand slam.
Lemieux was already one of Canada’s greatest ice hockey players before he was forced to retire in 1997 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992 and been named the National Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player three times. In 2000, he made a comeback, and two years later captained Canada to their first Olympic gold in men’s ice hockey in 50 years.
With his long hair and wooden racket, Borg was a tennis icon in the 1970s and 1980s. He won six French Open titles and five straight Wimbledon titles before stunning the sports world by quitting in 1983 at the age of 26. After eight years, the charismatic Swede announced a comeback, returning with the same hairstyle and equipment even though the new breed were sporting cropped hair and using graphite rackets. Borg played in a dozen tournaments but failed to win a single match before conceding defeat in 1993 and joining the senior tour.
Johnson seemed to have the world at his feet when he broke his own world record for the 100 metre sprint to win the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics before his world came crashing down. The Canadian sprinter tested positive for steroids, was banned for two years and stripped of his medal. In 1991, Johnson made a comeback. He qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but failed to make the final after finishing last in his semi. In 1993, he failed a second drugs test and was banned for life.
Ali won his first heavyweight world title in 1964, aged 22, when he defeated Sonny Liston. In 1967, Ali was stripped of his belt after refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military for the Vietnam war. In 1974, he regained the heavyweight title when he beat Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” then won the championship for a third time in 1978, after avenging a loss to Leon Spinks, before retiring. In 1980, Ali made a comeback at age 38 but was not the same fighter as before. He lost successive fights to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick before quitting for good.
The German won his first two Formula One drivers’ championships with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before switching to Ferrari. Between 2000 and 2004, Schumacher won five successive championships and set numerous records, including most overall titles (7), most race wins (91) and most pole positions (68). He retired after the 2006 season but made a comeback with Mercedes in 2010. In three seasons with Mercedes, he failed to win a single race and his best finish was eighth in the championship.
Before Phelps shattered all his records, Spitz was the benchmark for Olympic success. The American swimmer won two relay gold medals at Mexico City in 1968 before scooping an incredible seven more golds – all in world record time – at Munich in 1972. He retired at the peak of his powers but decided to make a comeback in 1992, at age 41, to try and make the Barcelona Olympics. But despite swimming close to his best times, the sport had evolved so much that he was two seconds behind the qualifying times and didn’t make the team so he quit a second time.
(Reporting by Julian Linden in Phoenix; Editing by Frank Pingue)