The year before the Olympics is traditionally when athletes emerge into the spotlight that will follow them through the next Summer or Winter Games.
Performances at world championships in the pre-Olympic year reveal new faces or make us more familiar with those who have been building to stardom since the previous Olympics.
So it was in 2011, as the international sports world began to focus on the 2012 London Summer Games.
We saw revelations in 16-year-olds Missy Franklin (swimming) and gymnast Jordyn Wieber (gymnastics) of the United States. A new distance running giant in 5-foot, 1-inch, 88-pound Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya. An affirmation of greatness by gymnast Kohei Uchimura of Japan.
All those athletes will be after their first Olympic gold medal next summer. All are also among the medalists in my 25th annual international sports awards, for which the key eligibility criterion is playing a sport in which an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize.
The silver anniversary envelope, please:
World Athletes of the Year: Men
Gold – Ryan Lochte, swimming, United States. The world’s top swimmer for the second straight year, Lochte won five gold medals (four in individual events) at the 2011 worlds and set the only long-course world record since the sport banned hi-tech suits after 2009.
Silver – Kohei Uchimura, gymnastics, Japan. The 2008 Olympic silver medalist became the first man to win three all-around titles at the worlds.
Bronze – Mo Farah, Great Britain, track and field. The native of Somalia, who moved to England at age 8, won the world title at 5,000 meters and became the first world medalist (silver) at 10,000 meters not representing an African country since 1987.
World Athlete of the Year: Women
Gold – Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya, track and field. Established herself as the leading women’s track distance runner by winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the worlds.
Silver – Federica Pellegrini, Italy, swimming. Won second straight world titles in both the 200- and 400-meter freestyles, becoming first woman with back-to-back 200 golds.
Bronze – Japanese women’s soccer team. After taking a 3-11-2 World Cup record into the tourney and never previously advancing past the quarterfinals, they upset the United States in the final, bringing joy to their earthquake-and-tsunami battered nation.
U.S. Athletes of the Year: Men
Gold – Ryan Lochte, swimming.
Silver – Dwight Phillips, track and field. At 33, the 2004 Olympic champion ended an injury-wracked season by winning a fourth world title in the long jump.
Bronze – Ted Ligety, alpine skiing. Embellished an impressive career record with his first world title, in giant slalom, and his second straight (third overall) World Cup season title in that discipline.
U.S. Athletes of the Year: Women
Gold – Carmelita Jeter, track and field. Her world title ended a six-year major championship gold drought at 100 meters for U.S. women. Also won silver at 200 and gold in 4 x 100 relay to claim unofficial crown as world’s leading female sprinter.
Silver – Jordyn Wieber, gymnastics. Opened the season by taking all-around gold from then reigning world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia at the American Cup, followed it with the U.S. and world all-around titles and helped U.S. win the world team gold.
Bronze – Missy Franklin, swimming. In her first long-course worlds, she won women’s meet-high five medals, including three golds. Three days later, having flown from China to California, she won her first two U.S. titles. In October, she became the first woman to set a world record (short course) since the hi-tech suit ban.
World Performances of the Year: Men
Gold – Patrick Makau, Kenya, track and field. Lowered the marathon world record by 21 seconds with a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 38 seconds at Berlin.
Silver – Patrick Chan, Canada, figure skating. Established world best scores for both the short and long programs while winning the world title after two straight silvers.
Bronze – Jamaica sprint relay, track and field. Led by 100-meter champ Yohan Blake and 200 champ Usain Bolt, they set the only track world record of 2011 with a 37.04 at the world meet, taking .06 off their old record from 2008.
World Performances of the Year: Women
Gold - Liliya Shobukhova, Russia, marathon. In 2 hours, 18 minutes, 20 seconds, she became the second fastest women’s marathoner ever, fastest since 2005 and first of either gender to win three straight Chicago Marathon titles.
Silver – Valentina Vezzali, Italy, fencing. Ended a personal two-year world title drought, longest since her first title in 1999, by winning a sixth foil championship, adding to her three Olympic golds.
Bronze – Homare Sawa, Japan, soccer. Led the women’s World Cup in scoring, with her fifth goal leading to the penalty shootout that gave her team the title over the U.S. Voted best player in tournament.
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