Year in review: The 2021 athletes of the year
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

Year in review: The 2021 athletes of the year

There are always too many special individual athletic moments to count on a yearly basis. But, of course, many that stand out beyond a single calendar year. Here's our look at those athletes who shined the brightest in 2021.

Listed in alphabetical order.

 
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Simply known as "Giannis." The 6-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks forward was already an NBA superstar, winning two league MVP awards, before the 2020-21 season began. However, he was still chasing that elusive world championship. That chase finally ended over the summer, when he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, and five assists to help his Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns in a highly entertaining six-game NBA Finals -- and win series MVP -- for their first title since 1971. 

 
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Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty
Peter van den Berg/USA TODAY Sports

The world's top women's tennis player at the moment, Barty's memorable 2021 season with highlighted with her second Grand Slam title. That came at Wimbledon, where she defeated Karolína Plíšková in three sets to become the first Australian woman to win the event's singles title since Evonne Goolagong did so in 1980. For good measure, Barty also took home the bronze medal in women's doubles (partnering with Storm Sanders) at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Oh yeah, she also got engaged to be married.

 
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Tom Brady

Tom Brady
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

The ageless wonder keeps plugging along. Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers' got hot down the stretch of the 2020 regular season, winning their final four games. In the Bucs' three playoff games, all on the road, Brady threw for 860 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions -- and beat Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers along the way. Then in Super Bowl LV, on his home field, the then-43-year-old Brady totaled 201 yards with three touchdowns to earn MVP honors (for the fifth time), as Tampa Bay routed favored Kansas City 31-9 to win his seventh title. Through 14 weeks of the 2021 NFL season, Brady led the NFL with 4,134 yards and 36 touchdowns. He set the league's all-time record for passing yards in Week 4 against his former New England club and threw his 700th career regular-season and playoff touchdown pass for the overtime winner against Buffalo on Dec. 12.

 
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Paige Bueckers

Paige Bueckers
David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

When the clock strikes midnight on 2021, the year might turn out to be bittersweet for Connecticut women's basketball star. During her freshman 2020-21 season, Bueckers averaged 20.0 points, while shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 46.4 beyond the 3-point arc, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 2.3 assists. She went on to win all four of the major national player of the year awards -- the first freshman to do so. However, her sophomore season hit a major roadblock when she suffered a left knee injury against Notre Dame on Dec. 5. She's likely out up to eight weeks, but that could be longer if she opts for surgery.

 
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Patrick Cantlay

Patrick Cantlay
Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

Cantlay is still searching for his first major championship. That might be a sore spot, we get it. However, Cantlay's 2021 season will be a major part of his legacy when all is said and done. He won three times on the PGA Tour, notably the BMW Championship and Tour Championship to claim the FedEx Cup title. Adding to the fun, the 2021 PGA Tour Player of the Year went 3-0-1 to help the United States win back the Ryder Cup. 

 
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Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic
Peter van den Berg/USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of Djokovic's thinking in regards to staying safe amid a global pandemic, the man can still play some tennis. That was certainly evident in 2021 when he came one victory away from a Grand Slam sweep. Djokovic opened the Grand Slam season by winning his ninth Australian Open title, then won the French Open for a second time. At Wimbledon, he topped Matteo Berrettini for his sixth title. Then, it all came down to the U.S. Open, where he matched his 2015 feat of playing in all four Grand Slam finals. However, Daniil Medvedev, whom Djokovic beat for the 2021 Australian crown, ended the chance of a sweep with a straight-set victory in New York.

 
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Caeleb Dressel

Caeleb Dressel
Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

With Michael Phelps retired, the United States was looking for a new Olympic swimming hero. Dressel was the undisputed favorite for the role, and he did not disappoint at this summer's Tokyo Games. He won five gold medals (50-meter freestyle, 100-meter free, 100-meter butterfly, 4x100-meter free relay, 4x100-meter medley relay), making him the fifth American swimmer to accomplish such a feat at the same games in 50 years. He set world records in the 100 fly and as part of the medley relay.

 
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Allyson Felix

Allyson Felix
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

At age 35, Felix was not going to be stopped in Tokyo this summer. By winning bronze in the 400 meters and gold as part of the U.S. 4X100 medley relay team at the Summer Games, Felix increased her Olympic medal total to 11 -- spread over five consecutive Olympiads. That not only makes her the most decorated women's track and field athlete in Olympic history, but she's also won the most medals among all American track and field performers, regardless of gender, in the history of the sport. 

 
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Luka Garza

Luka Garza
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Garza got better each season during the four he spent at Iowa. As a senior in 2020-21, there was no doubt he was the best individual college basketball player in America. The 6-foot-11 Hawkeye averaged a career-high 24.1 points, while shooting 55.3 percent, and 8.7 rebounds. All good enough for him to sweep the national player of the year hardware -- Wooden Award, Naismith Award, and Player of the Year by The Associated Press . Garza was picked in the second round, 52nd overall, by the Detroit Pistons.

 
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Jonquel Jones

Jonquel Jones
David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

After opting out of the 2020 WNBA season in the "Wubble," due to COVID-19 concerns, Jones returned to the Connecticut Sun in full force for 2021. She set a career-high with 19.4 points per game, while also averaging 11.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Those numbers were a major reason the Sun finished with a league-best 26-6 record and Jones being tabbed WNBA MVP. Now, Connecticut didn't win the WNBA title, but Jones' season was certainly something special.

 
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Nelly Korda

Nelly Korda
Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

It really couldn't get much better for Korda in 2021. She was already one of the best women's golfers in the world, but truly shined this season. Korda won four times during the 2021 calendar year, highlighted by her first major title at June's Women's PGA Championship. She also finished second on the LPGA Tour's money list with nearly $2.4 million in earnings. As if that wasn't enough, Korda, who vaulted to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, was one of the special stories out of the Tokyo Games by winning the women's individual gold medal.

 
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Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky
Grace Hollars/USA TODAY Sports

There are people who want to dwell on Ledecky's disappointing fifth-place finish in the 200 meters at the Tokyo Summer Games. Yet, that should be considered a blip for Ledekcy, who won gold in the 800 free and in the first-ever 1,500 free competition at the Olympics. She also won silver in the 400 free and as a member of the American 4x200 free relay. That all raised her Olympic medal total to 10 -- seven of which are of the gold variety.

 
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Suni Lee

Suni Lee
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

While American superstar gymnast Simone Biles was making headlines for mental health awareness at the Tokyo Games, her teammate Sunisa "Suni" Lee made a name herself in the moment. With Biles withdrawing from the floor exercise, Lee stepped in to deliver a strong performance, plus stellar efforts on the uneven bars and balance beam, to help the American women win silver in the team final. However, it was Lee's performance in winning the individual Olympic all-around final that etched her name with fellow American Olympic champions legends like Biles and Mary Lou Retton. 

 
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Lydia Jacoby

Lydia Jacoby
Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky's continued Olympic swimming success gained plenty of headlines, but one the darlings of the Tokyo Games was the 17-year Jacoby. The first swimmer hailing from the state of Alaska to qualify for the Olympics, Jacoby certainly made the most of her historic Summer Games debut by winning gold in the 100-meter breaststroke. Her joy, and somewhat shock, on her face was one of the great visual moments of the Games. Jacoby also earned a silver as part of the U.S. women's 4x100 medley relay.

 
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Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

McDavid is the NHL's best player, and the 2020-21 season proved that once again. After registering 105 points, the Edmonton Oilers' superstar won the Art Ross Trophy, as the league's top scorer, for the third time in five seasons. He also claimed the Hart Trophy, as the NHL's Most Valuable Player, for a second time. And, when the 2021-22 campaign got underway, McDavid picked up where he left off, recording at least one point in each of his first 17 games of the season.

 
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Sydney McLaughlin

Sydney McLaughlin
Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY Sports

It was a spectacular summer for the star American hurdler. At the Tokyo Games, McLaughlin not only beat teammate and reigning Olympic gold medalist, Dalilah Muhammad in the 400-meter hurdles. It wasn't a complete surprise, but the feat solidified McLaughlin as more than just a rising track star. Maybe because McLaughlin set a world record with her time of 51.46 seconds. She also teamed with Muhammad to win gold as members of the American 4x400-meter relay team in Tokyo.

 
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Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi
Sipa USA/USA TODAY Sports

Messi made plenty of news in 2021, notably leaving Barcelona and signing with French giant Paris Saint-Germain in August. While it was not all wine and croissants for Messi at MSG, he put forth another stellar overall body of work. For the 2021 calendar year, Messi recorded 40 goals for both club and country and led Argentina to the Copa America title. With that, Messi was honored with his seventh Ballon d'Or as the world's top footballer.

 
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Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

There wasn't much expected from "Lefty" in 2021. He was 50-years old, looking to dominate the PGA Tour Champions, but not expected to seriously contend at any of the season's major tournaments. But after he tied for 21st at the Masters, Mickelson truly reverted back to his elite form during the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. He led after three rounds, and ultimately topped Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen by 2 strokes with a final-round 73, to become the oldest champion in major history.

 
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Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

Was Ohtani's 2021 season the greatest individual performance in Major League Baseball history? It would not be a stretch to believe that's the case. The 27-year-old was completely dominant in 2021, ranking among the major-league leaders with 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 26 steals. Oh not to mention, he went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts over 23 starts for the Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani, an easy choice for AL Most Valuable Player, became the first player in big-league history with 10 or more homers at the plate and 20 or more stolen bases, while also striking out at least 100 batters over 10-plus appearances on the mound.

 
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Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer
Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

Scherzer didn't win the Cy Young and his Los Angeles Dodgers didn't even reach the World Series in 2021. However, what the veteran right-hander did for the club after being shipped from Washington at the trade deadline was truly remarkable. After going 8-4 with a 2.76 ER in 19 starts for the Nationals, Scherzer was downright dominant with the Dodgers, posting a 7-0 mark, 1.98 ERA, and struck out 89 while walking just eight batters over 11 regular-season starts. It will go down as one of the best pennant-race performances in baseball history.

 
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Bryce Young

Bryce Young
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

It's really no surprise that Young won the 2021 Heisman Trophy. He was among the preseason favorites for the award and has been college football's most consistent, high-profile player all season. In his first full-time stint as a starter for defending national champion Alabama, Young ended the regular season ranked fourth nationally in passing yards (4,322) and second in touchdowns (43) -- with just four interceptions. He also has the Crimson Tide back in the College Football Playoff.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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