The Most Memorable Moments of the 2016 Summer Olympics
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were so packed with iconic moments that it was a challenge to find only 10. Like rostering too many pitchers, it’s a good problem to have.
At every turn, the Games showed us the pure emotion of sport, how a lifetime committed to an athletic craft comes to a head in the pool, on the mat or around the track.
Nothing felt more unsatisfying than seeing a runner false-start in the blocks or a gymnast slip on the balance beam, thus ending their Olympics or ruining their chance at gold.
For every gut-punch like those, there were 10 realized moments, like Usain Bolt winning more gold or Katie Ledecky practically lapping the field in the 800-meter freestyle.
Read on to relive a prime sampling from these Summer Games.
Katie Ledecky Smashes 800-Meter World Record
One of the most iconic moments of the Rio Games was watching Katie Ledecky swim away from that yellow world-record line and touch that wall. Not only that, but you needed a wide-angle lens to see the rest of the competitors after she did. The best 800-meter swimmers on the planet effectively limped in like also-rans after her.
The 19-year-old covered the 800 meters in a time of eight minutes and 4.79 seconds, roughly 11 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin.
“Just kind of the end of a four-year journey,” Ledecky said in Dave Sheinin's Washington Post story. “I don’t know why I’m crying. There were nights I would go to bed and think about this day [and] how much fun I’ve had these past four years, and I’d start crying in bed. And I just wanted to make this meet count and have a lot of fun with it.”
And soon she enrolls at Stanford University as the school’s most famous student, let alone freshman. And to think, Ledecky is only 19.
It's hard to believe, but Ledecky's best may be ahead of her.
Monica Puig Shocks Women's Tennis, Wins Gold
Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig started making waves early in the women’s tennis tournament, and she kept gaining altitude throughout the event.
It came to a head in the semifinals when she toppled two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. Then Puig opened the throttle by defeating 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber of Germany with a blistering backhand that confounded the hard-to-attack German.
"It was an unforgettable experience. I'm still super excited about the whole thing, and I feel like it's still all a dream," Puig said on Telemundo's morning show Un Nuevo Dia (h/t Patricia Guadalupe of NBCNews.com).
The win buoyed the spirits of a struggling country. Always in Puig’s mind were the people in her native Puerto Rico.
"This is for Puerto Rico and also for all of the rest of Latin America," she said. "The win is an incredible moment because no one from Latin America had ever won a gold medal in tennis at the Olympics."
Now Puig will rejoin the WTA, still the 35th-ranked player in the world. But with that killer backhand she pinpoints deep into the corners of the ad and deuce court, the 22-year-old should march into the Top 10 within a year or two and then contend for Grand Slams.
Michelle Carter Becomes 1st American Woman to Win a Medal in Shot Put Since 1960
The year was 1960 and an American woman, Earlene Brown, won the Olympic bronze medal in the shot put.
Since then, 39 medals were awarded in the event without an American woman reaching the podium. That all changed when Michelle Carter, on her final throw, heaved the shot 20.63 meters to win the gold medal.
Carter supplanted New Zealand’s Valerie Adams—a woman entering the event with two gold medals. The Kiwi settled for silver with a top throw of 20.42 meters.
Carter comes from a family of big, athletic people. Her father, Michael Carter, won silver in the shot put at the 1984 Games (and three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers).
That final throw from Carter was textbook. When it landed, she won with perhaps the most dignity and grace that we saw from any athlete across all disciplines.
“Everybody wants to come out and win the gold, and sometimes it takes a personal best, sometimes it doesn’t,” she said, per Paul Myerberg of USA Today. “But to be able to have all those pieces come together, it’s a great feeling. I knew I had more in the tank. And to go out there and put the pieces together and pull it out … I’m just really excited.”
Carter’s win and her handling of it, is what you call grace under gold.
Abbey D'Agostino and Nikki Hamblin Finish Their Heat After Emotional Tumble
The standard-bearers for the moment of the Olympics will no doubt be Team USA’s Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin.
The pair of 5,000-meter runners got tangled in a spill. Hamblin crashed, and D’Agostino went over the top. Hamblin conceded her Olympic dreams were dashed while she lay face-down crying. Meanwhile, D’Agostino, hobbled but undaunted, urged Hamblin to rise up and finish the race.
The two did, and now they’re besties.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said, per Rick Maese of the Washington Post.
Officials granted them clearance into the final as a token of their sportsmanship. Hamblin took the ticket, but D’Agostino suffered a torn ACL and strained MCL in that heat and passed. Hamblin finished 17th.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Hamblin said, per Maese. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story.”
When NBC goes to its archives, it will see how one American and one Kiwi helped each other to the line, and embraced and embodied something more than sport.
“Everyone wants to win, and everyone wants a medal. But as disappointing as this experience is for myself and for Abbey, there’s so much more to this than a medal,” Hamblin said.
South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk Breaks 400-Meter World Record
South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk was one of the favorites to contend for a medal in the men's 400-meter race, but nobody saw that coming.
What was that?
That was a world-record performance, as he took down Michael Johnson’s longstanding mark from 1999.
Van Niekerk drew the far outside lane in the 400-meter final and thus the far stagger, which caused him to run without seeing his opponents. However, he exploded out of the blocks and ran like the hare in Aesop’s fable. Only in this tale, the hare kept going and won the race in 43.03 seconds.
Van Niekerk’s early speed took the other contenders—namely Team USA’s LaShawn Merritt and Grenada’s defending gold-medalist Kirani James—out of their game.
For track nerds, this race will be the race of the entire Olympics. The 400 is probably the hardest to run. It's too long to gun it (don’t tell van Niekerk), but too short to pace yourself. And this was a record that had only been broken twice since 1968.
Chris Chase of FoxSports.com wrote:
It was van Niekerk who went lowest and, perhaps most surprising of all, was that he held up a bit at the end, rightfully celebrating the race he'd just dominated. Could he have gone 42 if he ran through the tape? Could he have done the inconceivable? All we know is that there's now a full-fledged assault on 43-flat, a time that's held since Lyndon Johnson was president. And now a South African runner seems poised to fly on by.
What Usain Bolt has done to the 200 meters, van Niekerk could do to the 400. Sub-43 now seems possible after the South African’s incredible performance.
Lilly King's Finger Wave
Lilly King hates cheaters, or alleged cheaters—all of them.
When Russia's Yulia Efimova won her semifinal heat of the 100-meter breaststroke and put up the index finger, King wagged her finger right back at the television monitor.
Efimova was granted permission to compete in these Games after having served a 16-month drug suspension from 2013 to 2015 and testing positive for meldonium earlier this year with the result placed on hold.
King took issue with Efimova's inclusion and then set an Olympic record, winning the gold medal over her Russian counterpart in the 100-meter breaststroke final.
Per Martin Rogers of USA Today, King said:
Basically, what happened this morning was that I finished and then I waved my finger a little bit, because that’s kind of how I am. Then tonight just now Yulia got done with her swim and I am watching in the ready room — and there she is there shaking her finger. So then I got done and I beat her time so I waved my finger again. People probably think I am serving it up a little bit but that is just how I am.
That’s just my personality. I’m not this sweet little girl, that’s not who I am. If I do need to stir it up to put a little fire under my butt or anybody else then that’s what I’m going to do.
The finger wag was one thing, but then her going out and delivering on her swagger made this one of the iconic moments of the Olympics.
The Secret Meaning of the 'Final 5'
What’s in a nickname?
There’s the Bash Brothers (Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire), formerly of the Oakland Athletics, and the early-1990s Fab Five of the University of Michigan basketball team. As far as gymnastics go, Team USA's 2012 women's squad was the “Fierce Five.”
So when the United States' magnetic group of young women named their gold-medal quintet the “Final Five,” some thought it was about this being the final year team gymnastics would have five athletes. It makes sense and it’s kind of clever.
Turns out, it’s far more gooey.
The national team coach, the steadfast Romanian Martha Karolyi, is expected to retire, so Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian are presumed to be Karolyi’s final five.
“I’m very proud, and, yes, I cried,” Karolyi said, per NBCOlympics.com's Nick Ziccardi. “I’m not sentimental, but when Aly told me the name of the team is the Final Five, that is the moment.”
Though Raisman broke the news to the coach, the idea was Biles’.
“She’s pushed us harder than anyone else, harder than our coaches,” said Biles. “Every day in practice, even if you’re so close to perfection, she still tells you that you can be better. … She does it because she loves us. She just wants the best for us.”
With that, the announcement and meaning of, the Final Five sobriquet became the key moment in a week loaded with medals for Team USA's women’s gymnastics team.
Trio in 100-Meter Hurdles Sweep the Medals
No country had ever swept the 100-meter hurdles. Never. No women’s event had ever been swept by a trio of countrywomen at an Olympics. Never.
That was until Team USA’s Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin took gold, silver and bronze, respectively. All three posed for pictures; all three sported the American flag like a superhero’s cape.
“I knew that I got the gold,” Rollins said, per Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. “But I just wanted to make sure that my other teammates medaled as well.”
The triumvirate huddled together and hugged it out.
“We’ve talked about it, but it’s not something that we focused on,” Rollins said. “We just wanted to focus on being our best, and being our best would get us on the podium.”
Team USA dominated track and field throughout the Games, and this particular moment showed just how powerful the team can be when primed and ready.
#PhelpsFace Gets Its Revenge
Many things trended across the internet throughout the Games, but perhaps it was #PhelpsFace that stole the show.
During the semifinal of the men’s 200-meter butterfly, South Africa’s Chad le Clos performed his pre-race ritual directly in front of a concentrating Michael Phelps. The American, the would-be 23-time gold medalist by the end of these Games, took umbrage to le Clos' actions and scowled.
Phelps would finish second in that heat, le Clos third. But when it was medal time, Phelps categorically destroyed the South African.
Phelps threw down a time of 1:53.36 to win the gold medal. Le Clos? He finished off the podium in fourth.
Phelps won win five gold medals and one silver during the meet, but it was #PhelpsFace that seemed to ignite him into 2008 mode.
Neymar's Golden PK
Neymar stands tall in the long line of Brazilian soccer stars.
In Saturday’s gold-medal match against Germany, the captain delivered what none of his predecessors had done before: an Olympic gold medal.
After Germany had missed, Neymar lined up for the fifth penalty kick for a chance to win Brazil’s first gold medal in soccer. With his home country watching, all eyes trained on him, the Barcelona man stutter-stepped, approached the ball and buried it in the upper-right 90.
Gold medal for Brazil.
“I can't begin to describe them [my feelings]," he told SporTV (h/t ESPN FC). "I have fulfilled my dream, and to have fulfilled it in my home country makes me very proud."
Neymar scored earlier off a free kick, and when he nailed the fifth and deciding penalty, the country lost its collective mind.
After winning the match—the one major international honor the storied soccer team had never won—Neymar stepped down as the team’s captain.
“Today I have become a champion, and I give up the captain's armband,” he added. “It was an honor to be captain, but from today I stop being captain. I will send a message to [senior coach] Tite that, from now, he can look for another captain."
Most scorers in soccer erupt into a flurry of dancing, sliding and disrobing after a goal. When Neymar scored, he took several steps to his right, his face breaking out in tears and dropped to his knees.
He was an icon before that goal, and that moment made him something else entirely: a legend.
Usain Bolt Completes the Triple-Triple
Usain Bolt did what he set out to do: complete the triple-triple. Three gold medals in three straight Olympics. Mission accomplished.
He took the baton in the men’s 4x100-meter relay a step behind Japan, but as he accelerated and lengthened that stride, he looked like a man among boys. He hit the wire first and won the race for Jamaica to take his ninth gold medal in as many tries.
"I would have never thought I could go back-to-back-to-back Olympics,” Bolt said, per ESPN.com's Jesse Washington. "The first one, I was just happy. The second one was a challenge, and the third one is just unbelievable."
This Bolt, relatively, pales in comparison to previous Bolts. It's amazing, then, that this older, “slower” Bolt was still impossibly better than his rivals.
Washington wrote: “In Rio, after his traditional championship run-up of slow times and semi-injuries, Bolt dominated the 100 and crushed the field in the 200. Nobody came within a figurative mile of beating him.”
And so the moment we and NBC were all waiting for—his third gold of these Games and ninth overall—was the crowning moment delivered on a golden platter.