Five Freakish Outliers in Sports

On the weekend I was watching an English Premier League match between Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers. Stoke City has an Irish midfielder named Rory Delap, and he has a particular talent. From Wikipedia:

Delap, a former schoolboy javelin champion, is renowned for having one of the longest and most-feared throw-ins in football; his throws, noted by Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill as equivalent to “a corner or a free kick”, often range 30–40 metres (98–130 ft) (averaging 38 m (120 ft)), and can reach the speed of 60 km/h (37 mph). They have served as an assist in more than one case before 2008. Numerous experts, including his manager Tony Pulis, have commented on the technique Delap employs, the length and flatness undoing many a defence.

Other players can execute long throw-ins, but clearly Delap is something special. In this video, he accidentally puts the ball over the crossbar:

That got me thinking about what I’ll call freakish outliers in sports. I’m not talking about the Gretzkys or Jordans or even the Fosburys. Rather, it’s those athletes who, by fluke of evolution or sudden insight, just do things differently. Sometimes the innovation is effective, sometimes it’s just weird.

Lucinda Ruh

Lucinda Ruh is, by any measure, a decent figure skater. She hasn’t won much beyond becoming Switzerland’s national champion a couple of times, but that still puts her among the top 1% in the world. She is, however, a ridiculously good spinner. Here she is apparently executing a world record spin, in which she rotates 115 times:

Chad Bradford

Chad Bradford is a relief pitcher with very unusual way of delivering the ball. The ball leaves his hand very close to the ground–something called a submarine delivery. He pitches so low, in fact, that sometimes his knuckles brush the pitching mound. I couldn’t find a decent embeddable video (the MLB has apparently been aggressive with the takedown notices), but here’s a clip. And here’s a nice photo, courtesy of Linda Thomas. Click for a much larger version:

On an unrelated note, there’s a charming non sequitur in the introduction to Bradford’s Wikipedia article: “Chadwick L Bradford (born in Mississippi) is also the name of a storied bioanalytical chemist.”. Storied, eh?

Mike Legg

Then there’s Mike Legg, who, during a US college hockey game, devises a very unorthodox way to score:

I don’t think anybody has ever scored this goal in the NHL, though several players have tried.

Björn Borg

Speaking of hockey, Björn Borg’s famous two-handed backhand was apparently adapted from ice hockey’s slapshot. I don’t know a lot about tennis, but he appears to have a very peculiar style:

Here’s some analysis of his backhand, with an explanation of “the immense topsin generated from his loose slap-shot style”. Thanks to James for suggesting Monsieur Borg.

Who else is there? Who played their game a little differently?


  1. Many examples, but one classic trope is where the player plays so differently, they get a rule named after them (cf. Sean Avery Rule which has nothing to do with saying mean things about Elisha Cuthbert).

    Wilt Chamberlain could dunk free throws, which caused an NBA rule change forbidding this.

    In cycling, a guy called Graeme Obree did so many things differently that several of his innovations (including two different on-bike positions that he invented) were banned. His story defies any easy summary.

    From baseball, there’s also Jim Mecir a pitcher with two club feet! It’s no coincidence that both he and Bradford ended up playing for Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, given his specialty of finding players who looked worse than their statistics.

    Of your examples, I think I like Rory Delap the best. Amazing throws.

    Not surprisingly given his career, Gretzky found some truly strange ways to score. I’ve found stories online of a couple: on one play the puck was deflected high into the air, but Gretzky tracked it, and with his stick about three feet off the ice, one-timed it into the top corner as it came down.

    On another, he apparently snapped a shot into the net from an offensive-zone face-off!

    And I can’t find the reference, but I believe that while working from behind the net, in at least one case he deliberately flipped a “shot” over the net, off the back of the goalie, and in.

    1. All good suggestions. I remember that instance of Gretzky flipping the show onto the back of the goalie and in. It’s surprising that we don’t see that more often.

  2. In golf; Moe Norman & Jim Furyk.

    Moe was somewhat of a savant, many consider him to be the best pure ball striker of all time.

    Jim Furyk does everything wrong (according to conventional wisdom) in his back swing, but delivers the club head to the ball in a perfect position.

    I think Graeme Obree is a great example.

  3. Gretzky would very often bank shots off the back of goalies, both in the air and along the ice. This is more of a “sudden insight” example, but one among many that put him in a class all his own.

    Great article, and great additions by Ryan too.

  4. Monica Seles put the double-handed forehand in the map. She was incredibly accurate and powerful. Many players followed her lead, including Fabrice Santoro and Jan-Michael Gambill.

  5. The book is great, but this review is not exactly spot-on. Being a Superhero is a lot more about selecting foods that heal your body, not just eating meat/dairy-free. Processed foods like those mentioned in this review aren’t what Alicia is trying to promote. If you aren’t open to sea vegetables (and yes, I’m talking sea weed), just stop at vegan.

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