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2012 in Review: Ranking the Top 25 American Women in Sports

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterDecember 18, 2012

2012 in Review: Ranking the Top 25 American Women in Sports

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    It has been quite a year for women in sports. The Olympics will do that, particularly for the talented American women who thrive off the gaze of the entire world, becoming more than just national heroes—but legends in their respective sports.

    Here is a list of the greatest female athletes of the year.

    Undoubtedly, some women who were left off the list deserve to be mentioned. We decided to limit the list to just American athletes—sorry to Lauren Jackson, Christine Sinclair, the Jamaican sprinters and every Chinese diver on the planet. And we're limiting it to professional athletes and Olympians—Brittney Griner, as good as you are, you should have said yes to the Olympic team to make this list. 

    With those rules in mind, let's get to it.

Emeritus—Pat Summitt

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    On April 18, 2012, Pat Summitt stepped aside as the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball program after a continued battle with early-onset dementia. She was named Head Coach Emeritus this year.

    In her time at Tennessee, Summitt won 504 games…at home. Her 1,098 career wins are stuff of legend, really. She also boasts a record of 112-23 in the NCAA tournament, including eight national championships. 

    The entire sports world already misses Summitt patrolling the sidelines, but her spirit and dedication as a coach, mentor and leader continues on in her former players and the millions of fans whose lives she has touched.

Honorable Mention

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    A list of 25 players just wasn't enough. Here are a few others who deserve to be on the big list of great American female athletes in 2012:

    Danica Patrick, Auto Racing—While Danica didn't win a race this season, she did place 10th in the Nationwide Series and, most importantly, competed in 10 races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. In 2013, merely competing won't be good enough, but this year, it was a giant leap for the driver and, honestly, for the sport. 

    Destinee Hooker, Volleyball—Hooker is the only Olympian on this list who didn't win a gold medal, and while the silver may have been a disappointment for some, Hooker should hold her head high this year. She was second overall in scoring and spikes at the Olympics, fourth in blocks and tops in the Games in hitting efficiency.

    Too bad the gold wasn't her, ahem, destiny.

    Lindsey Vonn, Skiing—As my friend Maggie Hendricks of Yahoo! Sports put it, "Vonn won the World Cup this year by such a margin that the idea of her competing with men was not crazy." If this were a Winter Olympic year, not a year for the Summer Games, Vonn may be tops on this list. Alas, honorable mention in 2012.

    Angel McCoughtry, Basketball—The hardest players to place on the list are those who are part of team sports. McCoughtry probably deserves to be higher on the list, but there are five players from her team ahead of her. Why McCoughtry and not, say, Lindsay Whalen or Maya Moore? Well, in addition to being second on Team USA in scoring during the Olympics, McCoughtry also led the WNBA in scoring with 21.4 points per game.

    Jordyn Wieber, Gymnastics—Wieber came into the Olympics with all the pressure of defending her all-around World Championships title. While she helped win team gold, she missed out on competing in the all-around finals because she placed behind Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman during qualifying. The IOC has a rule prohibiting teams from sending more than two gymnasts to the finals, so despite the fact Wieber was fourth overall in points, she did not qualify for the medal rounds. She deserved better.

    Carmelita Jeter, Track and Field—Do you want to know how deep the field of the remaining 25 athletes is? Jeter won a gold, silver and bronze in London, and she still didn't make the list. Jeter won bronze in the 200 meters and missed out on 100-meter gold by .03 seconds, but got her redemption in the 4x100 meter relay, winning gold in world-record time. Jeter's split of 9.70 seconds was so fast, nobody was even in the photo as she crossed the finish line.

25. Christie Rampone—Soccer

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    Christie Rampone has been the captain of the U.S. women's soccer team since 2008, and at 36 years old, the most capped U.S. Olympian led the USWNT to its second straight gold medal this summer. While her teammates seem to make all the headlines, their heroics would not be possible without Rampone anchoring the back line. Rampone logged 2,595 minutes for the USWNT this season, leading a defense that allowed just 21 goals in 32 matches.

    If and when she decides to hang up her cleats, the United States will have a massive void to fill in both leadership and world-class defending.

24. Hope Solo—Soccer

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    Hope Solo grabs more headlines than any other U.S. Soccer player, but unfortunately, not all of it has been for her play on the field. Solo notoriously speaks her mind, but she has been able to consistently back up her mouth with her results.

    Solo had 11 clean sheets in 31 starts, ending the year with a 26-1-2 record. She was in net for every match of the USWNT's run to Olympic gold, registering three clean sheets and coming up with several key stops in the U.S. victory over Japan in the gold-medal match. As good as Solo is—she's probably the best keeper in the world—the team in front of her is so good that she's not often needed. Maybe that makes her saves even more important, if you think about it.

    Is Solo too low on the list?

23. Kim Rhode—Shooting

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    Kim Rhode competed in her first Olympics at age 17, winning gold in the Women's Double Trap in the 1996 Atlanta Games. This summer, some 16 years later, Rhode won her third gold and her fifth Olympic medal, coming in first in the Women's Skeet in London.

    Rhode became the first American to win a medal in five straight Olympics, doing so in almost-perfect fashion. Rhode scored a world-record-tying 99 in the medal round, missing on just one of her 100 shots. 

22. Kayla Harrison—Judo

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    Kayla Harrison won the gold medal in Judo, the first medal for the United States in the history of the event. She was so dominant, she not only won all four matches en route to the podium, but she surrendered just one point in the entire tournament. 

    With all that Harrison overcame to get to this level, her journey must have felt all the more vindicating on the top of that podium.

21. Maggie Steffens—Water Polo

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    Perhaps unfairly, Maggie Steffens is the only member of the gold-medal-winning women's water polo team to make the list, but she was so dominant in her performance at the Olympics, there is no doubt Steffens belongs in this elite company by herself.

    Steffens, just 19 years old, had 21 goals in six matches, converting a ridiculous 77.8 percent of the time. To put that in perspective, there was just one other player in the entire tournament that had over 46.2-percent efficiency. Steffens was an absolute star on a team that may have gotten overshadowed, but deserves all the accolades the more traditional sports receive. 

20. Claressa Shields—Boxing

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    At just 17 years old, Claressa Shields took the world by storm in winning women's middleweight gold, immediately becoming one of the breakout stars of the Olympic Games. Her smile is as bracing as her jab, as she showed equal amounts of exuberance and maturity in her post-match windfall of attention.

    Going back to my original point about a market for women's sports, can you tell me there isn't a market to watch Shields fight every few months? She is the type of athlete the country should—and would—get behind if women's sports were marketed properly. I know fans of traditional women's sports may not gravitate toward boxing, but Shields is the type of star who could bring in new audiences, just with her effusive smile. 

    These personalities are too good to be locked away, only to be uncovered every four years. I'm sure of it.

19. Rebecca Soni—Swimming

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    The first of several swimmers on the list, Rebecca Soni won three medals in London, including two world-record-breaking golds. She first won silver in the 100-meter breaststroke, losing out by .08 seconds, before coming back two days later to win the 200-meter race by 1.13 seconds over the field. Soni actually broke that world record twice, once in the semifinals and once in the finals, becoming the only woman to ever swim the 200-meter breaststroke in under 2:20.

    Soni also swam the breaststroke in the world-record-setting 4x100 meter medley relay with Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt, making the quartet four of the most decorated athletes in Olympics history.

18. Dana Vollmer—Swimming

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    Dana Vollmer left London with three gold medals around her neck, setting two world records and one Olympic record in the process.

    Vollmer won her individual gold in the 100-meter butterfly, winning by nearly a full second over the other medalists and becoming the first woman to swim faster than 56 seconds in history.

    Vollmer then swam the butterfly on both the 4x200 and 4x100 medley relay teams, adding gold to the United States' ridiculous medal count in the pool.

    Now, here may be the first place to really gripe about placement, as Vollmer is 18th on the list with three gold medals, the third-most of any American woman at the Olympics.

    This is where the debate between individual and team sports comes in and how the nature of swimming is more conducive to success in multiple events, far more so than a discipline like track and field. But I digress. Winning three gold medals is pretty damn amazing, and she deserves to be on the list, no matter where we put her.

17. Sue Bird—Basketball

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    If the U.S. women's basketball team were an orchestra, Sue Bird would be the conductor. Lucky for us, the team plays basketball and Bird is less a baton-wielding orchestrator and more a ball-distributing maestro. 

    Bird didn't have the stats of some of the other USA Basketball players, but she certainly led the team throughout the Olympic tournament with 4.5 assists to just 1.4 turnovers per game. Statistically speaking, there are better choices (and more to come), but none may have been as intangibly important to the cause as Bird.

16. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings—Beach Volleyball

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    Outside of the gymnasts, no American women seemed to garner more prime-time coverage than beach-volleyball legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won their third straight gold medal at the London Games. 

    The pair was so dominant in their historic run through a deep international field that it became breaking news when they lost a set, something that happened just once in the entire tournament. Let's not forget that Walsh Jennings had pinkeye during the event, something that's inherently irritating on a normal day but would be unimaginably annoying while diving around in sand.

    Recently, we've come to learn that May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings were not actually a duo on the court, but the makings of a trio. Walsh Jennings was pregnant while she was competing for Olympic gold. That's quite a story to tell the little tyke in a few months.

15. Megan Rapinoe—Soccer

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    On a team full of stars, Megan Rapinoe may be, at times, the best player on the field. Rapinoe had a bit of a slow start in the Olympics, scoring just one goal in the first four matches and being substituted out on a few occasions.

    And then the semifinals came. Down 1-0 in the 55th minute, Rapinoe bended a corner kick right into the Canadian net, tying the match at one on the most difficult shot on the field. After Canada scored to retake the lead, Rapinoe ripped a shot from distance that careened off the post and into the net to tie the match again. (We'll get to the rest of that match later in the list, for sure.)

    In 29 matches this calendar year, Rapinoe logged eight goals and 12 assists. Her teammates may overshadow her, but she is just as important to their success.

14. Aly Raisman—Gymnastics

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    Aly Raisman was an integral part of the U.S. gymnastics team all-around, which proved to be just the start of a whirlwind Olympic run for the young American. As much as Jordyn Wieber was screwed out of a chance to compete in the gymnastics all-around—thanks in part to Raisman's somewhat improbable qualification—it was Raisman who got screwed out of a bronze medal because of ridiculous rules in the gymnastics scoring. Raisman finished tied with Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina for third place, but because Mustafina had a slightly higher degree of difficulty, she won bronze over Raisman.

    In other sports like judo, the IOC awards two bronze medals without making the medal-losing competitors even fight each other. In gymnastics, an actual tie isn't good enough to be a tie.

    Alas, Raisman rebounded from that disappointment by placing third in the balance beam, winning bronze after, yes, a tie with another gymnast went her way based on difficulty.

    Then came the floor exercise, an event Raisman dominated en route to her second gold medal. Raisman started the Olympics as the one who kept Wieber out of the all-around, but with grace, fluidity and sheer determination to succeed, she managed to somersault her way into America's hearts.

13. Candace Parker—Basketball

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    For my money, Candace Parker is the most talented women's basketball player on the planet. Parker was one of the top American scorers in the Olympics, but also led the team in rebounds and blocked shots.

    In the gold-medal game, Parker put the Americans on her back, scoring 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field while grabbing 11 rebounds against France. On a team full of stars, Parker's shone brightest in the biggest possible moment.

12. Sanya Richards-Ross

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    Sanya Richards-Ross dominated the 400 meters at the Olympics, winning each of her races, up to and including the gold-medal run, with a time of 49.55. 

    Richards-Ross also anchored the 4x400 meter relay team that won gold while beating the rest of the field by nearly four full seconds.

    This is one of the rather debatable rankings, especially considering Richards-Ross is placed higher than the likes of Vollmer and Soni, who won more medals. The fact is, Richards-Ross had a chance to win three medals, but finished fifth in the 200 meters. Still, the 400-meter race is one of the truly marquee events at the Olympics, so winning that event puts Richards-Ross ahead of some of her compatriots.

    Are all gold medals equal? That's really sort of the point of this ranking, isn't it?

11. Tamika Catchings—Basketball

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    Tamika Catchings was tied for eighth on her own team in scoring at the Olympics and finished fourth on the team in rebounds per game. How in the world is she this high on the list?

    Well, the WNBA is really the only professional league for any of the players on this list right now, and frankly, Catchings gets ranked higher because her team won the title there, too. It's great to have a gold medal, but it has to be even better to couple that with a league championship as well. 

    Catchings was eighth in the WNBA in scoring with 17.4 points per game. She upped her average to 19 points per game during the playoffs as the 2012 Finals MVP led the Indiana Fever to the WNBA crown.

10. Diana Taurasi—Basketball

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    Diana Taurasi may have played the best of any player on the best team at the Olympics, leading Team USA in scoring with 12.4 points per game over the eight contests. Taurasi was 15-of-35 from beyond the arc and missed just one free throw the entire tournament. Her best scoring game came in a total annihilation of China, as she put up 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-5 from long range.

    The most telling stat of all for Taurasi may have come in the finals, when she took a back seat to Parker's hot hand, scoring just nine points but adding a team-high six assists

    Like Bird, Taurasi served as somewhat of an extension of head coach Geno Auriemma out on the court, providing a level of tenaciousness the rest of the world simply cannot match.

9. Tina Charles—Basketball

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    The run of basketball players ends with Tina Charles, who was third on the team in scoring during the Olympics, adding 7.4 rebounds to her 10.5 points per game during the tournament. Charles was an integral part of Team USA's success, but her numbers in the Olympics aren't what got her on the list as the most impressive American on the hardwood.

    Charles was named WNBA MVP in 2012, which gave her the nod over her worthy teammates as the top basketball player on the list. Who am I to go against the WNBA voters?

    Now, the question remains as to why five women's basketball players made the final 25 names (and six on the list altogether), but none are ranked higher than ninth when there are clearly more team players to come.

    Call it unfair, but the women's basketball team was just too good for its own good. The women's soccer team captured America's heart with its run to the gold medal. Heck, even the water polo team got more attention than women's basketball did during the Olympics. Blame NBC. Blame the fans.

    Unlike the men's basketball team that was full of superstars whom we expected to win, the women were so dominant during their run to gold that people almost felt, well, bored by it. It really isn't much fun to watch a team consistently destroy everyone in its way, so maybe people didn't seem to pay as much attention to Team USA as the players deserved.  

8. Gabby Douglas

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    Gabby Douglas was one of the two breakout stars of the entire Olympic Games. Winning the gymnastics all-around title at the Olympics put Douglas in an elite class of bona fide American athletic legends. She will be remembered forever, and she should be after her thrilling performances on vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercise.

    Mostly, people will remember Douglas' energetic smile and uncanny ability to handle the world's biggest stage at such a young age. She personified the Olympic spirit.  

    Now, I'll admit I took some flack for not putting Douglas higher on this list, and maybe she should be with two gold medals, one of which is perhaps the most prestigious award at the entire Olympic Games. Having said that, Douglas faltered greatly in her individual events, placing seventh and eighth in the balance beam and uneven-bar finals, respectively.

    The other issue keeping Douglas no higher than this place in the rankings—as addressed both with Wieber and Raisman—is that the scoring in gymnastics is beyond controversial. Scoring in the sport, even with all the structure of including difficulty levels and basic skill completion, is completely subjective.

    Douglas won gold—heck, the Americans won the team gold—because a panel of judges awarded them the result. That's unlike other sports, where the results of a race or a game are determined by those competing, not by a judge telling us who he or she thought performed the best.

    Still, given the uniqueness of the sport in comparison to the others on this list, Douglas was certainly one of the biggest stars of 2012.

7. Carli Lloyd—Soccer

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    For the second straight Olympic Games, Carli Lloyd played the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal to bring home gold for the United States. Her tournament in 2012 was a real American success story, something you could write a book on. (Note: Carli, if you want to write a book about your 2012 American success story, you have my contact info on file.)

    Lloyd struggled with confidence in the matches leading up to the Olympics, forcing head coach Pia Sundhage to shuffle the lineup and start Lloyd on the bench. When Shannon Boxx got injured early in the first match of pool play, Lloyd was asked to step into a rather unfamiliar role at holding midfielder, a far more defensive position than she was accustomed to patrolling.

    Lloyd came in and immediately made an impact, scoring in the first match. And the second. As the tournament went on, Lloyd became more and more comfortable in the holding midfield role. When Boxx was deemed healthy enough to play, Sundhage had to decide whom to sit. She elected to keep Lloyd in the lineup, putting Lauren Cheney on the bench instead. Lloyd paid back that vote of confidence by scoring both American goals in the finals.

    Lloyd's first goal came in a flash, screaming through the box to net a cross originally intended for Abby Wambach, who was fighting off a defender. Lloyd saw the opportunity to score and made no mistake, giving the USWNT an early lead. Her second goal was one of the great shots of the year, dribbling from just inside the halfway line through the Japanese defense before unleashing a strike from 20 yards out that beat the keeper for the eventual game-winning tally. 

    Oh, and not to be outdone this calendar year, Lloyd almost broke my arm as well. A great year (for her) all around.

6. Abby Wambach—Soccer

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    The United States would not have even made it to the gold-medal match had it not been for Amy Wambach, perhaps the greatest American soccer player of all time and a 2012 World Player of the Year candidate. If Wambach isn't the best ever, she is certainly deserved of being in the conversation.

    She finished 2012 with 27 goals and eight assists in 32 matches, perhaps none more important than a penalty kick in the 80th minute of the semifinal win over Canada, setting the stage for the last-second victory to put the USWNT in the finals. Wambach scored five goals in the six matches at the Olympics and netted another nine in the 10-match victory tour after returning home with the gold.

    Wambach has been an inspiration to a new generation of soccer stars, most notably her striking partner, Alex Morgan, who just so happens to be next on the list.

5. Alex Morgan—Soccer

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    It's impossible to overstate just how good Alex Morgan's 2012 has been. Morgan scored 28 goals and had 21 assists in 31 matches with the USWNT. 

    Think about those numbers for a minute...

    Morgan played in all but one match for U.S. Soccer in 2012, starting 27, and scored or assisted on 49 of the 120 goals. That's downright Messi-like. (Note: To be fair to Messi, he was involved in 56.4 percent of all goals for club and country. Morgan's 41 percent is amazing, but perhaps not Messi-like amazing.) 

    Morgan, like Wambach, is up for FIFA World Player of the Year (Brazil's Marta is the other finalist), and it would be a shock if she didn't win.

    The great joke in 2012 was that people thought Morgan was struggling during the Olympics. After netting two goals in the first match—a 4-2 come-from-behind victory over France—Morgan went (gasp) three matches without scoring before netting perhaps the goal of the year with seconds remaining in the 123rd minute of the semifinal win over Canada. 

    That drought people seemed so concerned about, when the USWNT scored six goals in three Olympic victories, saw Morgan assist on three of those tallies, adding another assist in the gold-medal match to boot.

    If not for the fact Morgan earned just one gold medal at the Olympics, she would be higher on the list, because there really was no finer player on the planet this year.

4. Allison Schmitt—Swimming

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    The United States has a history of dominating at the Olympics in the pool, and while so much was made about Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin (more on her in a minute) this summer, Allison Schmitt left London with a seemingly quiet haul of five medals, including three gold, a silver and a bronze.

    Schmitt became one of just 61 people in the history of the world to win five Olympic medals at the same Games, incredibly accomplished by five different swimmers this summer, including four Americans.

    Schmitt won her bronze in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, winning silver in the 400-meter freestyle after losing by .32 seconds to Camille Muffat of France. She avenged that loss by beating Muffat in the 200-meter freestyle with an Olympic-record time, winning by nearly two seconds over the rest of the field. She finished her Olympics by swimming the final leg of the 4x100 meter medley relay that set a new world record.

    She may not have left the Olympics with as much fervor as some of the other American athletes, but she certainly left with more hardware than most.

3. Allyson Felix—Track and Field

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    Allyson Felix won silver in the 200 meters in both Athens and Beijing, but came back for a third try in London and finally brought home gold, doing so with a level of gratitude and class that embodied the Olympic spirit.

    Felix left London with three gold medals in four events, falling short in the 100 meters (finishing fifth with a personal-best time) before capturing the 200-meter crown and both the 4x100 and 4x400 meter relay golds.

    Just the fact that Felix ran in both relays is nothing short of remarkable. The United States won the 4x400 by nearly four seconds, with Felix—a short-distance sprinter by trade—recording the fastest split of the group. Felix also ran the second leg of the 4x100 meter team that broke the world record, clocking 9.97 on the back stretch.

    Felix was the first U.S. woman to win three medals on the track in the same Olympics since Florence Griffith-Joyner did it in 1988. That is rather incredible company.

2. Missy Franklin—Swimming

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    What can be said about Missy Franklin that hasn't already been said? In her first Olympic Games, the 17-year-old sensation won five medals, including four gold and a bronze. In her defense, when Franklin left the pool in the 4x100 meter relay, the U.S. was in first. Alas, bronze isn't so bad when your other four are gold. 

    Franklin won the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter backstroke in London, setting a world record in the latter. She was also part of the gold-medal-winning 4x200 meter freestyle relay that set an Olympic record and led off the world-record-setting 4x100 meter medley relay team with Soni, Vollmer and Schmitt that may, truly, go down as the greatest relay team of all time. They're certainly in the conversation. 

    Franklin will undoubtedly be back in four years to rewrite the history books again. Still, as good as she was, there was one American woman who had a better year than her.

1. Serena Williams

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    When Serena Williams wants to play, there is not another woman on the planet who can beat her. She will go down in history as one of the four or five greatest female athletes to ever walk the face of the earth, and still, somehow, she could have been better.

    It must be so hard to stay focused when you are so clearly better than your competition. Williams eventually got herself focused enough this year to win gold medals in singles and with her sister, Venus, in doubles. 

    In doubles, the Williams sisters didn't drop a set en route to gold. In singles, Serena proved to be the most dominant force a tennis court has possibly ever seen.

    She won her first match, 6-3, 6-1, her second, 6-2, 6-3, her third over Vera Zvonareva, 6-1, 6-0, her quarterfinal over Caroline Wozniacki, 6-0, 6-3, her semifinal over Victoria Azarenka—the No. 1 player in the world—6-1, 6-2, before winning the finals over Maria Sharapova—the world's No. 2—6-0, 6-1.

    Williams didn't just dominate at the Olympics, either. In one of the few women's sports where the average fan cares more than just two weeks every four years, Williams won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the 14th and 15th majors of her career. Just for the hell of it, Williams also won the Wimbledon doubles title.

    Oh, and for good measure, Williams also won the WTA Championships in Istanbul, beating Sharapova again in the finals.

    After losing in the first round of the French Open in May, Williams lost just one more match all year, winning 31, including five titles.

    When she wakes up and wants to play, keeps all the nonsense and distractions at a minimum and stops acting with a petulance unbefitting of a champion on the court, she is a talent unlike anything American sports has quite possibly ever seen. Certainly in 2012, Serena was the best.

What Will Come Next Year?

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    Will it be possible to make a list like this next year? Will there be enough nationally-televised events for us to even take notice?

    It's unfortunate that no television outlet has managed to capitalize on the Olympic popularity of women's sports to make any game other than tennis—and for a few years a decade or so ago, golf—remotely popular in America. 

    There is a growing sports audience for women's sports, something upon which the newly-formedwomen's soccer league in America hopes to capitalize while avoiding the mistakes that befell the leagues that preceded them. 

    I had an idea some months ago for a sports network looking to grow their programming to create a Ladies Night, where one weekday night the network highlighted women's sports around the world. From soccer to gymnastics to swimming to basketball to track and field and everything in between, a network should dedicate two or three hours each week just to women's sports, showing events, interviews and even how-to videos for a younger audience to learn from the very superstars they watch perform. 

    Would it work? Probably not in the ratings, no. But creating and heavily marketing such a block of programming would show that network is serious about catering to a growing generation of viewers, and our next generation of Olympians and female superstars.

    Sometimes things don’t have to get ratings to be the right thing to do. Of course, I say that here, not as the head of programming for a national sports network.

    To be fair, if there was truly such a market for women's sports, the WNBA or LPGA would be far more popular. Alas, while women's professional leagues may not have had the best year in America, there may not have been a better year for the American women in sports for quite some time.

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