To reflect on sports history is to conjure up lasting images of winning moments. Whether these memories recall our favorite teams’ victories, Olympic and World Cup triumphs for our country, or career-defining plays for the athletes from posters on our walls, they’re often imprinted in both our minds and in famous photographs.
Visual markers in sports capture the rawest emotions of highly specific moments in sports history. Those images have the power to transport us back to our feelings at the time—even if, 20 years on, we can’t remember where we were. The United States women’s national team won the 1999 World Cup on home soil when, after 90 minutes of regulation and extra time, Brandi Chastain converted a game-winning penalty. Wherever we watched, the enduring memory is when Chastain tore off her jersey in victory, took to her knees, and raised both clenched fists to the sky. Her moment was so visually powerful that is has transcended soccer and come to represent patriotism.
Other winning moments in sports history are best emulated by one crucial play down the stretch, all at once showcasing will, talent, identity, and success; the time when the fragile line between the thrill of victory and agony of defeat hinged on a split-second choice despite a season’s investment. LeBron James’ example proved so significant, it earned a nickname in NBA Finals lore and Cleveland sports history: “The block.” His Game 7 chasedown stop of the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala inside two minutes stood for the Cavaliers team, the blue-collar nature of Cleveland, and the possibility of defeating the seemingly unbeatable.
And sometimes the best images are also the best way to honor the figures we’ve lost. When tragedy swiftly reminds us that sports are far from the most consequential thing in life, we can still look back on an athlete’s winning moment that felt larger than life, remaining grateful for their sacrifice on the court and bringing joy to millions.
Read on to explore the full collection of 50 images Stacker compiled showcasing various iconic winning moments in sports history. Covering achievements from a multitude of sports, these images represent stunning personal achievements, team championships, and athletic perseverance.
You may also like: 25 ways the NBA has changed in the last 50 years
At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Team USA men’s hockey—composed primarily of amateurs—were heavy underdogs in their matchup with the tournament favorite Soviet Union. The American men trailed 3-2 heading into the third period but scored twice to spring the upset and prompt broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous question: “Do you believe in miracles?” Team USA beat Finland in the gold-medal game.
The Seattle Seahawks trailed Super Bowl XLIX, 28-24, with 26 seconds remaining on the Patriots’ 1-yard line. In an infamous coaching decision, Russell Wilson was called on to pass in lieu of a handoff to workhorse back Marshawn Lynch. Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler read the slant and, in a bang-bang play, jumped the route and picked off Wilson to clinch Tom Brady and the Pats’ fifth Lombardi Trophy.
For the third straight season, head coach Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls reached the pinnacle of the NBA with Michael Jordan named Finals MVP. It was the duo’s sixth title together and second three-peat (1991–93), and they’d both depart following the conclusion: Jordan retired for the second time before joining the Wizards three years later, and Jackson went on to win five more titles with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
British middle-distance runner Roger Bannister became the first to break four minutes in the mile at Iffley Road track in Oxford in 1954. Though his record would be broken just over a month later, his 3:59.4 mark was a historical achievement.
After the 1999 Women’s World Cup championship match ended in a scoreless draw, the United States women’s national soccer team took down China in a penalty shootout, capped off by Brandi Chastain’s game-winner, and this celebration which is forever imprinted on the American sports conscience. At the time, the victory marked the USWNT’s second title, and it was made sweeter since they hosted on home soil at the Rose Bowl.
You may also like: Golfers who lost major money on a final stroke
The American men’s victory in the 4x100-meter medley relay delivered Michael Phelps his record-breaking eighth gold medal at a single games. In breaking fellow American Mark Spitz’s seven golds in 1972, Phelps was part of two other relays and won five individual events. All but one victory set world-record times.
Behind then-17-year-old Pele, Brazil men’s soccer beat hosts Finland in Stockholm, 5-2, in the championship game. The legendary Pele and his teammate Vava (pictured) each scored twice.
In the arena—and against the backdrop—of Hitler’s Germany, African American runner Jesse Owens shattered notions of Aryan supremacy. The Olympic icon won not only the 100 meters but also the 200, the 4x100 relay, and the long jump.
The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Super Bowl XLIII as favorites, but the five-time champions trailed 23-20 with 35 seconds left from the Cardinals’ 6-yard line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who won the title three years prior, found eventual MVP Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone for one of the most memorable victory-sealing plays in NFL history.
Rafael Nadal had never won a grand slam outside of the French Open and faced five-time defending champion Roger Federer. The lefty outlasted the Swiss Maestro in a four-hour, 48-minute, five-set marathon—seven hours if you factor in two rain delays—that ended just as the sun disappeared. The duel remains inarguably one of the greatest tennis matches ever contested, and at that point was the longest in Wimbledon history.
You may also like: 25 athletes who came out of retirement
At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in history for her performance on the uneven bars. Comaneci won three golds at the games and went on to win an additional two in Moscow four years later.
As Michael Phelps owned the water in the 2008 Beijing Games, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was unbeatable on land. Not only did Bolt break his own record and beat the runner-up by a full two one-hundredths of a second, but he noticeably took his foot off the gas for the final 20 meters to celebrate his clear win. He won the double after setting another world record in the 200.
At the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the United States did not concede a single goal in the knockout stage en route to the final—and conceded just once in the group stage. The title game was never in doubt despite Japan’s two-goal tally: Behind Carli Lloyd’s (#10) hat-trick within 16 minutes and one from Lauren Holiday (#12), the U.S. led 4-0 and then 4-1 at the half. After Japan’s 52nd-minute goal pulled them within two, Tobin Heath salted the game away in the 54th for a 5-2 win.
The U.S. men’s hockey team represented the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid, but long-track speed skater Eric Heiden was the undisputed king of the surface at the same 1980 Games. He won gold in all five disciplines—500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 meters—and set Olympic records in four to go along with one world record. No athlete had ever won five individual golds in a winter Olympiad.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, African American sprinter Wilma Rudolph won gold in the 100 meters (pictured), 200 meters, and 4x100-meter relay. She became the first American woman to win three golds in a single Olympiad.
You may also like: Most lethal NBA duos of all time
In the quarterfinal of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, Argentina legend Diego Maradona scored both goals in the 2-1 victory over England. Not only did his controversial first earn a nickname—"Hand of God"—but this game-winner four minutes later spurred the label, "Goal of the Century," after the diminutive Maradona weaved through half the England defense and slotted home #2.
Eighteen-year-old gymnast Kerri Strug was a critical component of the U.S. women’s “Magnificent Seven” team at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Hoping to clinch the team competition over Russia, Strug came up short on her first vault landing and badly injured her ankle. Needing to land her second, Strug became an American icon when she stuck it virtually on one leg for the win before collapsing. Her coach famously carried her to the podium after.
Swede tennis great Bjorn Borg defeated American John McEnroe in an emotionally and physically draining five sets—which included an 18-16 McEnroe fourth-set tiebreaker and a 9-7 final set—then considered the greatest match of all time. Borg’s fifth consecutive Wimbledon title would be his last at the All England Club, and his battle with McEnroe would be rivalled only when Nadal and Federer engaged in a similar one in 2008.
Contested just outside of Boston, the “Battle of Brookline” marked the 33rd Ryder Cup between the U.S. and Europe. The Americans had trailed by four points before the final day yet clawed back to find themselves one half-point short of victory when the last match reached the 17th green all square. Justin Leonard faced down a lengthy 45-foot birdie attempt, only to sink it in front of opponent Jose Maria Olazabal, who then missed his 22-footer, clinching the U.S. win.
Canada women’s ice hockey were four-time defending champs at the Pyeongchang Games when they encountered the U.S. in the gold-medal game. On the 20-year anniversary of their only other Olympic title, the Americans took the game to overtime knotted at 2-2 and pulled off the shootout win.
You may also like: Oldest teams in Major League Baseball
Hall of Famer and WNBA legend Lisa Leslie (pictured center) won her first of four career Olympic gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta games. Team USA took down Brazil in the final, 111-87, behind their star’s 29 points, and they shot an American single-game record 66.2% from the field. Leslie averaged 19.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in the tournament.
The Canadian men’s hockey team faced substantial pressure at the 2010 Olympics hosted in their nation’s Vancouver. The gold-medal game against their neighbors to the south was tied 2-2 after regulation. Who better to clinch the title than Sid the Kid with an overtime game-winner in front of his country’s faithful?
The Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team owned the early ‘90s, when, after winning the program’s first NCAA championship in 1991, took home the title the following season. Led by Grant Hill (#33) and Christian Laettner, Duke earned eventual Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski his second of five titles; he’s now only second to the mythical John Wooden, who won 10 with UCLA.
French middle-distance runner Colette Besson literally and figuratively came out of nowhere in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She’d failed to qualify for Team France in the 1966 European Championships, made the team for the Olympics, then came from fifth place with 100 meters left to overtake the heavy favorite, Britain’s Lillian Board, for gold in the 400.
Rulon Gardner faced off against undefeated Russian great Aleksandr Karelin in the Sydney Olympics gold-medal match for the 130 kg class. Karelin had neither conceded a point in six years nor been defeated in 13 years until the American pulled off the international upset—one of the most notable in Olympic history. In this image, he is carried through his hometown of Afton, Wyoming, upon his return.
You may also like: Late bloomers of the NBA
LeBron James and his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers famously trailed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 3-1 in a rematch of the previous year’s Finals. But the Cavs won the final four games, which featured LeBron’s game-saving play known as “The Block”—a chasedown stop of Andre Iguodala’s layup in a tie game under two minutes. It was the Cavs’ first franchise title and first for the city of Cleveland since 1964.
Behind the newly formed Big Three of Paul Pierce (pictured), Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics went from 24-58 in the previous season to NBA champions—the franchise’s record 17th NBA title and first since 1986. After all, according to Garnett, “Anything is possible.”
After the final championship of the late Kobe Bryant’s career, it was only fitting that its lasting image is L.A.’s favorite son celebrating with fans as the confetti fell at Staples Center. The Lakers faced a 3-2 series deficit before taking the remaining two home games to go back-to-back and seal MVP Bryant’s fifth ring. Making it sweeter was the redemptive nature given the Lakers’ defeat at the hands of the same Celtics two years prior.
MVP George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Justin Verlander led the Houston Astros to their first World Series title in seven-game fashion over the Dodgers. The result had seemed unthinkable only four years prior, when the Astros had gone 51-111—the team’s worst ever regular-season record. Though many feel Houston should be stripped of the title in the fallout from their cheating scandal, the championship remains in the record books.
Not only had the St. Louis Blues never won the Stanley Cup prior to June 2019, but they were dead-last in the NHL standings in January. If those odds weren’t enough, they then went into Boston’s TD Garden for a Game 7 against the six-time Cup champs. Behind goals from MVP Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden Schenn, and Zach Sanford—plus near-impeccable goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington—St. Louis won 4-1 to lift the Cup.
Every dynasty needs its start somewhere, and Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning kick in 2002 ignited Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ 21st-century success. The Super Bowl win over the St. Louis Rams was not just the first for the famous QB-coach tandem, but also the seminal title in team history.
Only Kobe could’ve authored this storybook ending to one of the best NBA careers of all time. Despite a totally irrelevant regular-season game against Utah—in which the second-worst Western Conference Lakers had already missed out on the playoffs—Kobe dropped 60, including outscoring the Jazz 23-21 by himself in the four quarter. The Laker legend, who grew up dreaming of donning the purple and gold, then took center-court and addressed the fans in a final farewell and thank you that ended in two words: “Mamba out.”
Two years following LeBron James’ free-agent “Decision” to join the Miami Heat, his Big Three—along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals. For the first time, the Kid from Akron lifted the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy (pictured) and his first Larry O’Brien championship trophy.
You may also like: Best golf course in every state
Alabama head coach Nick Saban called on true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to start the second half in place of Jalen Hurts. The Crimson Tide trailed Georgia 13-0 at the midway point, but Tua led them to a 20-7 final 30 minutes into overtime. After a Bulldogs field goal, the lefty signal-caller had a chance to tie or win; on the second play, Tua dropped back and threw a 41-yard walk-off dime to DeVonta Smith.
The Mets hosted their rival Braves for the first post-9/11 game in New York, just 10 days after the attacks. With the city in desperate need of an emotional boost and catharsis, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza hit a go-ahead—and eventual game-winning—two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth in one of the most iconic New York sports moments in history.
You may also like: Famous baseball players from every state
Perhaps the play that best defines the Yankees career of newly inducted Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, this fearless running catch and subsequent face-first dive into the stands is nothing short of fabled. Although the 2004 game vs. Boston was in July and the Yanks held a significant lead in the standings, the shortstop’s bloodied, battered face epitomized that no matchup with the Sox was insignificant. The catch prevented two runs from scoring in a tie game in the 12th inning, and the Yankees won in the 13th.
In the storied rivalry of service academies Army and Navy, the Black Knights had suffered 14 consecutive defeats to the Midshipmen, last winning in 2001. Army scored the go-ahead touchdown with six minutes remaining and ultimately ran out the final four minutes of the clock before the cadets spilled onto the field of Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
In the two-leg aggregate Champions League Semifinal, Liverpool trailed Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 3-0 after the first match in Spain. The Premier League greats needed at minimum a 3-0 home win to force extra time, but miraculously won 4-0—the winner coming from Divock Origi (pictured, right) with 11 minutes to play. In one of the greatest comebacks in soccer history, Liverpool advanced to the final and took down Tottenham.
Damian Lillard is known for the long three and the frequent clutch bucket in “Dame Time,” but no moment was more iconic for the Portland guard than his 37-foot series-winning shot in the 2018-19 Western Conference first round. With the game tied 115-115 and the series at 2-2 in a best-of-five format, Lillard hit his 10th three-pointer—giving him 50 points—to send a trash-talking Oklahoma City team packing.
No discussion of comebacks is complete without the Patriots’ Super Bowl-record 25-point turnaround. Infamously trailing 28-3, Tom Brady and New England scored 25 unanswered, including a 19-0 fourth quarter, to force overtime. On the opening drive, running back James White (pictured) took the toss from Brady on the Falcons’ 2-yard line, scampered right, and bullied his way in for the walk-off.
You may also like: Highest-paid players in the NBA
After 11 years without a major, Tiger Woods was still sitting on 14 total—four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18. After endless setbacks and a string of failed comebacks attempts, a return to winning majors seemed out of reach for more than a decade. But 43-year-old Woods entered Augusta National in 2019 healthy and motivated. On the same course where he won his first major in 1997, he came from behind in the final round, winning his fifth green jacket by one stroke, and pulling him within three majors of Nicklaus.
Danica Patrick became the first female winner in IndyCar racing when she took home the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Then 26, Patrick was just three years removed from her Indy racing debut, and she held off two-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves by over two seconds.
Reaching the tennis grand slam mountaintop is a career-defining feat all its own; but taking down 23-time major champion Serena Williams in straight sets is on another level. Then-20-year-old Naomi Osaka beat Serena 6-2, 6-4 in the 2018 season’s last major, becoming the first Japanese player to win a grand slam singles title.
American sprinter Dana Vollmer had already set an Olympic record in the 100-meter butterfly qualifier at the 2012 London Games. In the final, she won gold and set a new world record; she added two more golds as a member of the 4x100-meter medley and 4x200-meter freestyle relays.
Tim Tebow, despite being a Heisman winner and first-round pick, had a very short-lived pro career—though his defining moment was an iconic playoff walk-off touchdown. Hosting the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card Game, the Broncos blew a 20-6 halftime lead and went to overtime. The much-doubted signal-caller hit Demaryius Thomas in stride on the opening play, and the wideout took it 80 yards to the house.
You may also like: Highest-paid players in the NFL
Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran the 1960 Rome marathon barefoot, beat the runner-up by 25 seconds, and set a new world record of 2:15:41.6. Wearing shoes in Tokyo four years later, Bikila became the first to defend an Olympic marathon—this time in 2:12:11.2, over four minutes better than the silver medalist.
British Formula 1 racing star Lewis Hamilton won the British Grand Prix for the sixth time, a new record. He is mobbed and lifted by his native fans in this iconic image following the victory. Hamilton totaled a record 413 single-season points for the 2019 World Drivers’ Championship, his sixth.
When 17-year-old American Claressa Shields defeated Russian Nadezhda Torlopova in the middleweight final at the 2012 London Games, she became the youngest gold-medalist boxer since John Fields in 1924. Before turning pro, Shields added a second gold in 2016 in Rio, defending her title against the Netherlands’ Nouchka Fontijn.
The United States played host to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, and in the women’s 200-meter final, compatriots Valerie Brisco-Hooks (left) and Florence Griffith Joyner took home gold and silver. The former also won the 400 meters, while Flo-Jo would win her first gold—and two more—at the 1998 Seoul Games.
Though the much-maligned Lance Armstrong would be stripped of this title and six others in 2012 following the United States Anti-Doping Administration’s investigation, the image of the cancer survivor crossing the Stage 17 line first—arms outstretched, Livestrong bracelet visible—remains an iconic image of victory and overcoming insurmountable obstacles.
You may also like: Iconic sports moments that defined the '80s