When the 2012 Olympics began on July 27, expectations were already in place for many of the Summer Games' premier performers. Countless other athletes entered the fray widely unknown.
As fate unfolded in London, we witnessed moments of redemption, heartache and history. Perhaps the greatest element of Olympic action is the emergence of stories we could have never anticipated.
That's what we examine here. The triumphs and tragedies that stunned onlookers and added a new chapter to the unpredictable nature of Olympic competition surely deserve a second look.
Certain Olympic sports always seem destined to end with ridiculously little space between first place and runner-up. We expect the race for gold in the 100-meter sprint and 50-meter freestyle swim to go down to the very last millisecond.
Because those events are over before you can tie one sneaker.
The triathlon is an absolutely grueling undertaking that approaches two hours of non-stop action. After a 1,500-meter swim, a 43-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run, you'd think there would be at least a little separation at the front of the pack.
Not this year.
Instead, Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden sprinted neck and neck toward the finish line. Sprig, of Switzerland, nipped Norden with a final effective lunge.
"Crossing the finish line, I had a feeling that I had won, but I wasn't sure," Spirig told The Associated Press. "I needed an official to tell me and it took a few minutes."
Technically, both women completed the course with a time of 1 hour, 59 minutes, 48 seconds. An epic conclusion provided one of the most dramatic moments at these Games and put the spirit of relentless competition on full display.
"We tried to put on a good show for you guys," Norden, a Swede, said after earning silver. "Nicola is an incredible sprinter, I've never been that close to her. I was surprised to find some energy still in my body and I pushed it all the way. I was close, but not quite."
The 25-year-old Cuban track star was viewed as a favorite in the 110-meter hurdles, an event he's owned throughout much of his competitive career. Robles is a two-time Indoor World Champion and earned a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games just a few weeks after setting a world record.
Although Robles' world record remains safe, his dreams of an Olympic repeat were dashed during 2012 event finals. He suffered a right leg injury while approaching his fifth hurdle and was unable to complete the course.
Injuries are always a surprise. When they happen to one of the world's premier athletes on his biggest stage, the scene is even more stunning.
Raisman may not have been the U.S. gymnastics star we expected to emerge in London, but Americans are likely to remember her 2012 Olympics performance for a long time.
The 18-year-old Massachusetts native served as captain of the U.S. women's gold medal-winning team and earned two individual medals.
Raisman won bronze on balance beam and secured gold with a phenomenal floor exercise. She is the first U.S. woman to win individual gold on floor.
"To have it be at the Olympic Games, in the finals, is just really amazing and just a dream come true," Raisman said, as quoted by USA Today. "That's what you work for your whole life."
Her medal haul could have been greater if she hadn't been on the short-end of a tiebreaker. At the conclusion of the all-around final, Raisman found herself locked in a third-place tie with Russian Aliya Mustafina, who was ultimately awarded bronze.
Raisman didn't arrive in London with the level of fanfare that U.S. teammates Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber received during pre-Olympic hype. However, she heads home as the most decorated gymnast of a memorable American team.
According to Forbes, Raisman should parlay a spectacular Summer Games into millions of dollars in sponsorships over the next few years.
The Dominican Republic has won just three gold medals in its Olympic history. Sanchez owns two of them.
The 34-year-old outran an elite field of younger athletes on his way to winning the 400-meter hurdles final in 47.63 seconds. Eight years after claiming gold in the event at the 2004 Athens Games, Sanchez reached the top of his sport once again.
Many considered him an afterthought, deeming youthful runners like American Michael Tinsley and Puerto Rico's Javier Culson as favorites. Though Sanchez may have lacked young legs, he was fueled by passionate motivation.
Sanchez ran with a photo of him and his late grandmother pinned to his top. The word "abuela", which means "grandmother" in Spanish, was inscribed on his shoes.
Sanchez was raised by his grandmother, who passed away four years ago while he competed at the 2008 Beijing Games.
"I've been really emotional all week, thinking about her," Sanchez told Fox News Latino. "All of us do it — you think about winning, you train so hard. You get to this moment and everything has to go right for you to pull it off."
After pulling off the gold medal upset, he took center stage on top of the award podium and provided one of the most heartwarming moments of the 2012 Summer Games. While Quisqueyanos Valientes — the national anthem of DR — echoed throughout Olympic Stadium, Sanchez sobbed unabashedly.
The scene was so sincere and raw that NBC actually ended its Olympic coverage on Aug. 7 (the day of his victory) with video of Sanchez drying his eyes on the podium, gold hanging from neck.
I don't mean to take anything away from Scottish tennis star Andy Murray, but who honestly predicted the whooping he laid on Federer in the men's singles final?
Murray swept the 17-time Grand Slam title winner in straight sets (6-2, 6-1, 6-4) at Wimbledon, the site where Federer defeated Murray in a Grand Slam final in July. Federer has reached the Wimbledon final eight times, winning the prestigious tournament on seven occasions.
However, the venue wasn't kind to him this time around. A hometown crowd supported Murray throughout the match and he responded by annihilating the world's top-ranked player.
"(Murray) never looked back," Federer told the Associated Press. "His credit for getting in the lead and using the crowd to come through. He did an unbelievable job."
Federer has never won an individual Olympic gold medal. He's defeated Murray in three Grand Slam finals, but this result shakes things up in their burgeoning rivalry.
The tables were turned at the 2012 Olympics and it was astounding to see Federer fall in such fashion.
Cassius Clay. Joe Frazier. Oscar De La Hoya. Sugar Ray Leonard. Andre Ward.
These are just a few American fighters who have fought their way to Olympic glory over the course of the country's proud boxing history.
Unfortunately, the key word here appears to be history.
For the first time ever, U.S. fighters failed to earn a single medal at an Olympics in which they participated.
Between 1984 and 1996, the U.S. collected 14 gold medals. American supremacy in the international boxing ring was unquestioned, highlighted by a dominant 11-medal performance at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Since the 1996 Atlanta Games, this squad has suffered through a downward spiral.
During the past four Olympics, American fighters have won five total medals. Ward's title at the 2004 Athens Games is the team's solitary gold throughout the 12-year span.
"I think the foundation is kind of crumbling a little bit, but we’re going to rebuild it," said U.S. assistant coach Charles Leverette as quoted by the Associated Press. "The support is there, but we have to figure out the best way to help these athletes get back to the top."
A program that owns an Olympic record 108 overall medals just reached rock bottom. It came crashing down completely in London, as the team lost nine of its final 10 fights.
U.S. boxing has plenty of work to do if it hopes to pick itself up off the canvas.
A nation that earned titles in the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro Championships hardly looked prepared to make an equally impressive run at the Olympics. Spain saw any opportunity to advance beyond group play go out the window when it started off the 2012 Games with consecutive shutout defeats.
Spain lost to Japan 1-0 in its opener before falling 1-0 against Hondorus. Those embarrassing results ensured that one of the tournament's true favorites wouldn't even qualify for quarterfinal action.
"The coaching staff has to analyze what led to the elimination," Spain coach Luis Milla told the Associated Press. "We have to find out what happened."
The shame continued to pile on when Spain wrapped up action with a scoreless draw against Morocco and exited the Olympic tournament devoid of a goal in three total games. Shockingly, Spain was the only Olympic soccer squad not to register a single score.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Katie Ledecky, the youngest member of Team USA, stunned the global swimming community with a start-to-finish victory in the arduous 800-meter freestyle final. The 15-year-old native of Bethesda, Md. surged to the second-fastest Olympic finish ever with a time of 8:14.63.
She finished nearly four seconds ahead of Spain's Belmonte Garcia (8:18.26), who took silver. Defending Olympic champion and Great Britain Golden Girl Rebecca Adlington settled for bronze.
Ledecky completed the upset with authority.
"It's all a blur," she told People Magazine."I felt I could be in the thick of things. I wasn't sure what the tactics were going to be in the race, and what anybody else was going to do. I just focused on my own race."
Ledecky, who was just three years old when Michael Phelps participated in his first Olympics, began the race at a torrid pace and had onlookers questioning whether she could maintain the effort. Remarkably, she never once relinquished the lead and dominated a field of respected veteran swimmers.
"I knew I was winning," she told USA Today, "but I just didn't put it out of the question that someone could come from behind and touch me out."
So what's next for America's new swimming phenom?
Well for starters, sophomore year of high school.
Wieber, an individual all-around gold medal favorite, failed to qualify for the event final because of a controversial Olympic rule that doesn't allow more than two representatives from one nation to advance. Despite the fact that Wieber finished fourth overall in all-around standings after preliminary action, she was trumped by U.S. teammates Gabby Douglas (third) and Aly Raisman (second).
The 17-year-old Michigan native won the 2011 all-around world title and brought high hopes into the 2012 Olympics. Ultimately, she had to settle for watching Douglas secure an individual gold medal.
“It was tough sitting in the stands watching because 100 percent of me wanted to be out there competing. But you know, I’ve just got to follow the rules,” she told the Associated Press. “It stinks but that’s the way it turned out.”
Wieber wrapped up her first Summer Games experience with a seventh-pace finish in the floor exercise final and did not win an individual medal. Reports are now surfacing that she may have suffered a stress fracture during Olympic competition.
Although Wieber will always be viewed as an instrumental piece of the Americans' thrilling journey to team gold, she was unable to emerge as an iconic Olympic star as some predicted beforehand.
Don't feel too bad though. Weiber's gent Tasha Schwikert seems confident in the young gymnast's ability to capitalize on the highs and lows of London.
“The team won gold and that’s the most important thing,” Schwikert told The Detroit Free Press. “And her story is the comeback story, the overcoming adversity story. Who doesn’t love that?"
Two gold medals. Two Olympic records. One world record.
That's what this 16-year-old prodigy accomplished in the pool during a riveting Olympic odyssey. Ye was an absolute force in the 200- and 400-individual medleys.
She surged to victory in both races, establishing new Olympic records in each event. Her time of 4:28.43 in the 400 IM set a new world record.
Australian swimming star Stephanie Rice previously held the mark, which stood since 2008. Ye's dazzling performance also set the stage for a bit of controversy, largely based on the Chinese swimming program's checkered past with performance-enhancing drugs (particularly in the 1990s).
Those assumptions are highly unfair when you consider U.S. youngsters Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin were also dominant in their respective events despite being several years younger than the primary competition.
A factoid that pundits are fond of pointing to is that Ye's final leg of her 400 IM victory was actually faster than the final leg of American Ryan Lochte's gold medal performance in the same event.
You can be sure Ye won't sneak up on anyone at the 2016 Olympics, when she would still be just 20 years old.